#DGTrends: Women’s Political Participation Beyond Clapping And Dancing

“Youth Participation and Leadership in Political Parties in Africa: Special Focus on Young Women” was the theme of a national youth dialogue hosted by the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia on Saturday 24th November, 2015. . The event, held at the American Corner Comium, was organized as part of a series in various African countries, leading to the fourth High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa, initiated by the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission.

Think Young Women/2015

Think Young Women/2015

The Gambia dialogue brought together about 50 youth from the different political parties, youth organisations working on issues related to the theme, the local media and representatives of partner organisations. The dialogue kicked off with a short opening ceremony, where these latter gave brief statements, before participants were placed into four working groups, each with a specific focus topic for discussion and consequent presentation.

An effort to live-tweet the discussions, and contribute to the growing online documentation of the dialogues across Africa, led me to float over the four groups, trying to capture the most pertinent points, while gaining a better understanding of The Gambia’s political environment.

Participants deliberated on the theme, with specific discussions on women’s political participation, youth political participation, women’s wings, and youth wings of political parties in The Gambia. One could easily feel the energy in the room as the youth, especially representing the different political parties, shared their experiences and debated various issues in response to the questions tabled before them.

There were moments, when one of the groups got distracted by party politics, as each party sought to highlight its work, but their unity of purpose and the agreement that more needed to be done for youth in politics, eventually drew them back to the task at hand. I was naturally drawn to the two groups discussing questions specific to women’s political participation, and couldn’t help noting a familiar refrain.

Participation, Not Representation

‘Women are not interested in politics or political leadership’ is a statement often heard, when the status quo, where men hold dominance at the helm of affairs, is challenged. The veracity of this statement, I believe, is relative to where we find ourselves, even if passed on as a global truth. One of the women present gave a succinct distinction between participation and representation, noting that women in The Gambia are the largest group of participants in the country’s politics. An observation that was unanimously affirmed by the youth at the dialogue.

However, it is important to note that their participation does not necessarily translate to the effective creation and implementation of policies relevant to the cause of women. Even when women do participate in politics, it is usually on the sidelines, as cheerleaders for men occupying positions of power and making the decisions on all issues. Women are still greatly limited to fulfilling tasks that fit the traditional gender roles which, I daresay, have led us to this point of attempting to diagnose the reasons behind the low political participation of women.

Wielding the power of mobilization and coördination, women are greatly involved in all preparations leading to the moments that truly matter, handling the cooking and feeding of the masses, the cheering and dancing for prospective male leaders, and forming the bulk of the people dressed in ashobee to show support and solidarity. Yet, they remain on the fringes, sometimes never knowing or understanding the proceedings of political meetings and gatherings, where key decisions are made.

At an event in Uganda this summer, attendees raised the issue of women participating in conferences as singers and dancers, and never having the chance to get into the conference halls to use these same voices to their benefit. As a result, their contributions are not reflected in the final resolutions and decisions made, thereby placing a dampener on their hopes to have their voices represented, and their problems addressed at these gatherings.

The exception to this norm is seen in the few women who rise to secure and maintain a place at the decision-making table. We refer to them as having broken the glass ceiling, and keeping hope alive that more women will make it to those positions, leading to more impactful change in the lives of the majority of women who do not have that opportunity. Representation matters, but how well-represented are women and girls in political spaces, even by the women who have a seat at ‘the table’?

It is worthy of note that not all of these women are elected to these positions, the majority making that ascent through nominations. This begs the question: who do they really represent? A lot of talk has emerged on increasing the number of women in political leadership spaces, and promoting its longevity through a quota system. This is done, of course, with the assumption that the more women we have in these spaces, the better chances we will have of addressing issues related to women at the policy level. The reality shows us different, with tokenism being the order and many women in these positions subscribing to the views and voices of their male counterparts, who are still in the majority. Otherwise, they are ‘yes women’ to the views of the political parties they represented, as opposed to the many people who placed them in those positions, if they were elected.

A solution was suggested: more women should rise to the occasion and contest elections, starting at local government and moving up to the presidential race. Though ideal, this suggestion ignores a multitude of factors and conditions, especially social, which could be a limitation to realizing this idea.

Social Factors Need To Be Taken Into Consideration

Much hope is placed on the youth to create a new generation of leaders that challenge and close the gender disparities in politics, especially with effective and impactful representation. Encouragement is doled out in generous amounts to young women, reminding them that the past is gone and the future is theirs to shape.

This is a positive step towards closing the gaps, but it should be proffered on realistic grounds, taking into consideration the social set-up of our various societies, and how this affects the leadership aspirations of girls and young women. Gender inequality in all spheres hinders progress and has a consequent effect on the issue at hand.

We live in societies where the role of a girl is defined even before birth, and her life is set to follow the path created without her contributions, and with little regard to her preferences and ambitions. It begins with the provision of quality education for the girl child, which has, for a long time, been trashed in favour of teaching girls to handle domestic responsibilities in preparation for marriage and child-bearing.

Progress has been recorded in this regard, but there is still a gap in the figures for enrolment and those for completion. This is due to several reasons, ranging from financial inability to the intentional decision to pull girls out of school and marry them off. For those who do complete secondary school, many are still denied the opportunity to access higher education, based on the belief that too many professional qualifications may render them undesirable to men, for marriage.

From a very early age, our societies teach girls to be followers, to embrace their place as secondary citizens in most spaces, and to submit to the will and desires of the men in their lives, including fathers, brothers, husbands etc. Girls are taught to be seen and not heard, to use their voices only in ‘women’s spaces’, and to accept their conditions and struggles without much objection. The few who dare to break these laws are referred to as rebels, disrupting the natural order and attempting to get rid of our traditional values.

We cannot expect girls who grow up in communities where leadership has a male face, to suddenly understand that they can be leaders too. The long-term social conditioning has a lasting effect on how far girls go and how much they can achieve, both in personal and public circles. There is an urgent need for change in the messages we send to our children, taking into consideration the effects it will have on their lives. When girls are empowered and raised to believe they are as equally human as men, and have the right to equal opportunities, we create a generation of socially aware, independent-minded young women who will no longer be limited by society’s dictates.

And Still We Hope…

Achieving gender equality in politics is not impossible. There is a growing will to make this a reality, backed by numerous initiatives to facilitate the process. The world can be witness to a transition that opens a path for more women to assume positions of power, and fully participate in decision-making, to advance the cause of women. The necessary structures – social, economic, political- need to be put in place to ensure that these visions are realized.

The involvement of young people will contribute a lot to this process, bringing in new realities where a conscious population is the norm, and everyone is aware of their role in the political leadership of their communities. Social constructs that hinder the progress of women in leadership should be reviewed and revised to ensure access to equal opportunities. Access to data should be improved and conditions made favorable to ease meaningful participation.

The initiatives to involve youth and women in political leadership are commendable, but if these basic challenges are not addressed, we may be hanging on to rhetoric for a while longer, without a chance at progressive change. At best, we will continue to see a minimal number of women ascending to power, with little impact felt in the lives of the majority of women.

The support has been immense, the voting power is evident and the contributions of women in politics, as it stands, are appreciated. However, it is time to move away from the politics of clapping and dancing, to contesting elections and taking our rightful places as leaders beside men. In concert, more progress and development will be registered for our different communities and States, as evidenced in places where women are increasingly active in politics.

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Beauty is In The Mind of The Owner

I am seated in a large classroom in Wellingara, surrounded by a group of young Gambians who recently started a new organisation for kids and youth. I was invited by a friend and a Starfish International  alum, to give a motivational talk based on my experiences as a child activist, youth leader and young Gambian feminist.

IMG_6054The night before, while organising my talking points, I tweeted about the positive irony of going out to give inspirational talks, but leaving with perhaps more inspiration than I had been able to give. When I spoke to this group, I kept this thought in mind, considering each person present at the gathering as someone I could learn something from. I was familiar with situations where there is an abundance of potential, yet very few opportunities to match, and it has become one of my guidelines to interacting with young people, both at individual and group levels.

I came. I talked. I answered questions. Then, I sat in one corner and quietly watched the next activity which included a fun question and answer session. The questions somehow morphed into requests and by the time I was set to leave, I had seen much dancing, singing and animal sound imitations to use up my daily ration of laughter. Yet, two cases stayed with me and months later, have prompted me to write this blog.

Describe yourself. This was the request for two of the girls, when their turn came to answer questions from their peers. They stood in the middle of the room, fumbling with their clothes, thinking hard and going through the various stages of shyness that I knew too well . I waited, eager to hear their responses, while silently hoping they would be well-rounded -don’t ask by what standards. The responses came and left me with more questions than I was probably allowed to ask.

Fat. Big Head. Big nose. Black. Slim. Tall. These were the adjectives I still remember from the girls. On my way home, a few questions lingered in my mind. Why did they concentrate solely on their physical features? Is self-description limited to the parts of us that are already very visible? How has this become the default route, especially for young girls? How did we get here, and more importantly, how do we move away from this place, to teach and encourage girls to see, appreciate and be eager and confident to represent their wholeness?

As someone who struggled with body image issues while growing up, I understand how it can become the yardstick by which we measure our worth, regardless of all the amazing things we are, do, embody and represent.

For many years, my skinny frame was the butt of endless jokes and taunting from my schoolmates, most of whom saw it as the only way to get back at me for coming out top of my year each term. I had a range of nicknames to choose from, each one chipping at the bones that had become too visible, too threatening, too abnormal for the people around me. Add to that my work in HIV/AIDS sensitisation, and you’d get a full mix of the ugliest form of bullying and body-shaming I could ever receive, especially at that young age. I was only eleven.

When I finally grew strong and confident enough to reclaim my body as the vessel that carried my soul, and recognised the importance of keeping it clean and filled with positive vibes, attitudes towards me gradually changed. What was regarded as an ugly skeletal frame suddenly became a supermodel to-die-for body goal, and had me dealing with the sometimes annoying requests for samples of my diet. The most frequent question upon meeting someone for the first time has been ‘are you a model’, followed by the incredulous ‘why not’. I understood the significance of my increasing self-love and the confidence in the body I had decided to rediscover and appreciate, and how it helped to shape people’s attitude towards me.

My open identity as a feminist means I now have to deal with less remarks about my body from people who know me and are familiar with the work that I do. More significantly, it has guided me to an understanding of what truly matters in my life. I grew increasingly aware of the difference in my choices regarding beauty and fashion, disregarding trends and choosing comfort in line with my own tastes. This is not as easy as it sounds, what with the ridiculous beauty standards set by society and promoted by the media, but it has been a journey worth taking.

For many women -especially young- however, this is not a given. The pressure to fit it and conform to these standards weighs heavy and therefore, influences the greater part of what we do and how we view ourselves. We are quick to set aside our great potential and even minimise our achievements simply because we do not meet these standards. It doesn’t matter how much we have accomplished as long as we are not moving around in a slim-thick, light-skinned frame that has probably had little bearing on those achievements. Our whole existence is reduced to how we look, what we wear and how appealing we appear to society.

In that room, I saw a group of young ladies with a strong passion for positive change in their communities. Some of them had already set out on this journey, mentoring and tutoring younger ones, while contributing to the design of new action plans for their organisation. I recognised the immense leadership potential and the ability that these young ladies had to lead change and transform their lives and those of others who are lucky to benefit from their acts of service.

However, in their responses, I saw an affirmation of the expectation from women to be seen and not heard. I saw a measure of their value and worth attached to their appearances, not their goals, dreams, aspirations and accomplishments. I recognised the younger me in them and knew they were not to blame for the socialisation they have undergone, which limited their self perception to the trivial and the superficial. And I wished society had dealt them -us all- a fairer card.

As with most of my experiences, I left with a mind full of thoughts on how to reverse this trend and teach girls that we are worth more than our bodies and the clothes we wear. We have power to transform the world and ensure that our daughters do not have to go through the same troubles. We are capable of taking ownership of our bodies and defining what beauty means to each of us.

We are responsible for rewriting the narrative about who we are and what we represent in this world that has chosen to relegate us to the backseat. We should no longer be afraid to break through the barriers set for us and pop out of the boxes we have been placed in, to claim our true destiny and work for what we want. It is certainly easier said than done, but it is not impossible.

While wishing these girls grow up to discover their true worth and essence like I had the chance to do, I hope we can be and create enough role models, who are willing to share their experiences and highlight what truly matters. I hope we can make the shift to celebrating women for their achievements and not chiding them for not measuring up to our visual expectations.

And to the women, the change begins with us. You are only as beautiful as you think and see yourself to be. Your beauty is yours to define and it certainly doesn’t have to be linked to your physical appearance. Reclaim your identity and redefine your stories, such that your idea of who you are reigns supreme over any external definitions. This is another manifestation of your power. Do not give it up.

Illusions of Strength in Times of Grief

It rained on my way to work today. I’d noticed the clouds when I left home and prayed the showers would hold on till I got to the office and away from the possibilities of spending the rest of the day with itchy skin. The heavens opened suddenly, half-way through my long commute and my dress bore the marks of the large drops I tried to avoid, with little success.

It was enough to dampen my mood, but as I progressed, I was blessed with visions of the most beautiful green sprouts on land that had, until last week, been brown and bare. I took it all in, grateful for the ability to see the light within the storm. My thoughts were loud enough to drown the conversation among my colleagues, as I got lost in dreamy appreciation. This got me thinking about the past month and how similar this new growth from bare land was, to life and living on this Earth.

It’s been exactly a month since my father passed, and I’ve gone through the whole whirlwind of emotions from shock and denial to reluctant acceptance. The image of my aunt coming out of the hospital ward where he’d drawn in his last breath, tears flowing down her cheeks while she broke the news, remains stuck in my head. The details of what I did and said after that moment are still foggy, but I still remember the piercing scream from my sister when she got wind of our new reality, and that was enough to send me down on my knees. Papa was gone… this time, never to return.

Within the blank, I could hear the voices urging us to ‘be strong’, to ‘accept God’s will’, to ‘have more faith and pray’. I had said the same words on countless occasions to bereaved friends and even strangers, and it was quite sobering for me to be on the receiving end of these attempts to comfort, to encourage, even through the gloom and loss. From within, a tiny voice stayed in my mind reminding me to ‘stay strong for my younger siblings’. It is a voice I know too well, one that has helped me build up defenses and muster strength when weakness threatened to overpower me. It is the voice that had guided me through many difficult situations, even when  I wanted nothing more than to ignore it, give in and up.

Messages of condolence began to pour in as the news spread,  and the one recurring trend was strength. For some, I am the strongest person they know and so I could get through this, too. For others, there was an understanding of how it felt to live in that moment, but I still needed to be strong and eventually it would get easier. I was comforted by the outpouring of love, prayers and goodwill messages. I also had my escape blocked by the expectation to stay composed, to grieve but not so much that it would show a lack of faith, to be the strong woman everyone knew.

Through it all, I remembered the words of my sister Yassin who bent over me and told me to ‘take time out, be selfish with my grieving and let my emotions run their course’. I held on to that new-found freedom for a fleeting moment, but I found myself dragged back into living up to the expectations as usual, and getting through the days ahead with a straight head.

This meant numbing my feelings and attempting to shut out the images in my head that would remind me of my father. It meant smiling at the sight of his freshly ironed haftaan when I walked into his house that night, instead of crying from the reminder of his permanent absence. It meant riding home with his shroud beside me and shutting out the thoughts that they would be his last garments on Earth. It meant smiling too, at the many people who filed in to pay their condolences to the family, and thanking them for coming. It also meant narrating the story of how it all happened, in answer to the many questions, while fighting tears through muffled breath. I was supposed to be strong; I was being strong. Perhaps a little too strong.

After the flurry of activities and an eventual descent of calm, I searched for those feelings I’d tucked away, to no avail. Some days, they would rear their heads for a swift moment and return to their safe place behind my wall of strength. Twice, they’ve come to me in full force and opened the floodgates before I could stop them. However, with each day, there is always a reminder -even if subtle- about living with our new truth. The sight of my eldest brother, a call from my youngest, a chat with my sisters… it all keeps coming back and I realised that we can only be so strong for only a short while. After all the comforting voices die out, we are left alone to face the reality of what had happened and getting used to no longer having our father here with us. After all the attempts  to show strength die out, we are left with one another, to be perhaps more united in his absence than we could be while he was still here.

A visit to his grave brought me some closure, even as I pondered on so many questions that might never get answers. Yesterday, my sister shared a dream of him, and we realised he was probably closer to us now than he’d ever been. In these moments, our vulnerabilities shine forth, our grief becomes clearer and the need for strength is overpowered by the true feeling of loss and our right to own our process of mourning him.

This experience has been one of learning and acknowledging what really matters, what needs our attention and the futility of life as we know it. It has also been my chance to reconnect with the most human parts of my being, accepting my vulnerability as necessary and my feelings as valid, even if they do not meet outside expectations. Today, all that really matters for me is how I feel, how I’m dealing with it and what I can do to make sure I do not shut out parts of my wholeness, just to avoid disappointing. I appreciate the goodwill and the great intentions behind all the messages and encouragements for strength. I also hope that when my cover falls and my smiles are replaced by tears, it will be understood as necessary in the process to accepting life as we know it now.

A month ago, at around this time, I was lost in prayer for my father’s health. Today, I pray for our ability to accept and go through all the necessary phases it will take to get used to. I pray too, that wherever he is, his soul is at rest, his burden lifted and peace be his.

 

Till we meet again. R.I.P Alhaji Momodou Mactar Gambi Jack.

Writings On The Walls

The pain that reminds us that we are women is not limited to the one that fiercely arrives every beautiful full moon.

In the centre of nature’s most precious four corners, the one that embodies the strongest walls ever known to mankind also originated a different pain we have come to love. One we treasured, one we fed from the closest point that our heart beats, one we carried on our tired backs.

We fanned their egos at a very tender age, allowed them to believe that they were the alpha and omega. The bane of our existence.

This pain turned into one we can’t live with and can’t live without either.
Or so we believe.

We have lived side by side with them, in four-cornered walls. We have let them live within our sacred walls as well.

We have taken long rides with them, climbed the tallest and shortest mountains. Mastered every rock and conquered every obstacle along the blissful journeys we have taken together.

Spirit, mind and body we have shared with them. And in return they hide their true spirits, share a very calculated part of their mind but share all of their body with us.. With any of us that is willing or unwilling.

For centuries we have lived in this truth, a truth that falls in the ears of the deaf, seen by the eyes of the blind and spoken by the tongue of the dumb it would seem.

Because in this moment, as you read these words, we are still living in this truth as it continues to fall in the ears of the deaf, seen by the eyes of the blind and spoken by the tongue of the dumb.

The body we had shared sacred moments with, the one created strong and mighty to protect us is now being used as a tool of weapon against us.

Willing or unwilling.

This pain that knocks all four walls of mine every full blessed moon.. The one that  takes my mind back to my choices, back to my dreams, back to my regrets, reminds me that I am a woman who only existed to procreate with those who have been brought upon this earth through us; as I hold my stomach and close my teary eyes to sleep laying next to the body that was meant to give me pleasure and protect me.

Willingly or unwillingly.

Mariam Dainty

When Dreams Drown And Die

We were seven, in the hundreds
Perhaps closer to thousands
But none will ever know
For our numbers have turned into food
For the fish in the sea and
The minds of reporters reaching for headlines
We have become breaking news.

 This is not the news that follows through
From the headlines that never were
Of the stories of our frustrations, our struggles
Not the stories of the big break…down that brought us here
The breaks in the system, in our hearts, in our hopes
In the looks of disappointment from parents and siblings
We were meant to succeed, to provide, to cater for
Pay forward what we never benefited from
But these stories don’t make it to the news
Because the images of our floating dreams always sell faster.

 This is the story of drowning dreams
Crafted from young skulls looking for a lifeline
Of dreams that will be suffocated by life jackets
With punch holes mirroring the gaps in society’s fabric
Whose threads should hold us together
But have been stringed into the loop that will draw our last breaths
Leaving an empty vessel, where hopes for success used to reside.

 They tell us to stay back, to try our hands at something…anything
They tell us we can make it here if we work harder
They tell us we are foolish, pursuing dreams across an ocean
Where the sounds of desperate screams haunt us
And they come from our brothers, our sisters, our children
Their ghosts coming up for single breaths in a pool of loss
Of lives, of money, of hopes, of dreams
They tell us we don’t deserve to walk off this stage that way
But they hardly listen to our stories, to what we have to say. 

So people hardly understand the reasons that push us
That dreams of being dinner for sea creatures haunt us even as we plot
Save up our pennies and track out our route to the promised land
That we look at photos of those who have made it across
And are convinced the odds will be in our favour
That we cross with hope of surviving, not capsizing
Bound by our unity in vision, our comfort in fear, our prayers when the sun sets
Nobody listens to our stories of trying, failing, trying once more and failing yet again
The frustrations of failure and the desperation from dismissals of our plight
These are the oars with which we row our boats.

When the headlines hit again, with stories of failed rescue efforts
Remember this is not a decision born from a place of privilege and comfort
For many of us, the chances at trial and error have run out
And we took the way with brighter promises through a tunnel littered with lost souls
You will scream and write us long eulogies, but we will be gone
You will sympathise with our families, but they can never heal from the loss
You will heap blame on us, while stifling the loud calls to action
For the many who can be saved from reaching the peak that pushes one on this path
And within a few days, you’ll move on with your lives… waiting for a new set of breaking news.

As we take our last breath of oxygen, the light in our eyes dimming, water filling our lungs
Our brains registering the loss in this battle and the uncertainty of what lies ahead
We remind you to stop cursing the fruits, to take hold of the roots
For when these are decayed, even the branches wouldn’t hold
And then, we wouldn’t even hope for dug-out canoes to take us across to our graves
We hoped and perished, lost the battle to our frustrations
But for many more, hope still lives and their fate still unknown
Listen to our voices this one time and maybe, just maybe
We can throw our dreams a lifeline
And cancel this sentence to death by drowning.

Jama Jack April 2015

#GambiaAt50 : A Tribute To The Sheros Of Our Journey To Independence

I celebrate a force that is too often forgotten
When we share the stories of our journey
Our struggles, our negotiations, the final agreement
That brought us freedom on that fateful day, 1965.

This force… she was a Mother
To the founding fathers and their brothers
In the struggle
She raised, nurtured, and cared for
Groomed the leaders we cheered for
In the history books, she might not really be catered for
But her mark remains indelible in the hero she bore and guided
Blessed and prayed for.

This force… she was a Wife
The proverbial woman behind our successful man
The quiet engine driving the vehicle of change, our change
She was the one, his biggest supporter, his comfort when the days were gloomy
She saw our hero at his weakest and most vulnerable
Yet cloaked him with her sutura
Filling him with the strength he needed when the sun rose again
She waited through the long nights of late meetings
Then soothed aching feet and filled a growling stomach
She would eventually stand beside him, celebrating their victory
Thanking God for the wise counsel she gave when he was doubtful of his plans
To us, she was Mrs. Founding Father
To him, she was Bilqis… of love, hope, strength and loyalty.

This force… she was a Guewel, too
Singing the many praises of our hero,
Lifting his spirits when they were downcast and trodden
Reminding him of the glory of his ancestors who’d taken similar paths, in years past
She glorified him, Faye biram penda waagan, Njie kuli jatta njie, Cham baabel demba cham
He was Jawara…diko, Jahumpa, Dibba Chaaku,  John Massar
He was Small… yet of neither small feats, nor little accomplishments
This force, she exalted the royalty in their blood, celebrated their greatness
And propelled our nation to visions of the glory of Jollof and Sine, Kaabu and Manding
Remember her… this force.

Sometimes she would manifest her prowess in groups
Of mothers, sisters, aunties and nieces… in compins rallying support
She was the voice that rang across districts and constituencies
Carrying her message over the hills at Hella and the fields at Pachaar
She built trust and confidence among the people
And when the time came to cast votes, she echoed the great stories of the struggle
And linked the threads, weaving the fabric of our history.

Our force, she was a philantropist
Caring for many, her actions a reflection of the beauty in her heart
She was a teacher… beyond the home and neighbourhood
She shared her wisdom with hundreds in the classrooms
From Banjul to Fatoto, Serekunda to Kristi Kunda
Building the minds of generations
And shaping the future of our country.

We wonder if she just stayed in the background, bidding her time
But our force, she was at the forefront too
Mutating from follower and supporter to an active participant
In the politics of our baby nation
Setting the pace for many women that will come after her
Making them believe in the power of their thoughts, the validity of their dreams
Dispelling the myth that we were only made to be seen and not heard.

But this couldn’t, shouldn’t be a surprise
For she descended from the unrivaled Linguere, queen of Jollof
Leader, Mother, Giver of Care
Leadership, thus a genetic trait
Passed down through kingdoms, nations and republics
Clearing the path for my generation of young leaders.

So when we share the stories of our journey to independence
Let us remember this force
Whose mark still shines in all we do
I pay tribute to the many women who stood tall
And took their rightful places in shaping the history of this country
The giants on whose shoulders we now stand
The Lingueres whose place in history should never, can never be replaced.
This is a tribute to the Gambian woman.

Lost in Religious Translation

At around the age of twelve, I made the conscious decision to become a Muslim. Maybe, what I should say is that I made the conscious decision to become a practising Muslim. Let me explain.

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I come from a society where, when children are born, they generally follow their father’s religion. This is easy to handle when both parents are of the same faith and the kids are naturally brought up to believe in the same things. It seems even easier when the parents are married and live together, as the religious beliefs of the child are not just theoretical then, but also learned and nurtured from watching these parents, if they practise. There are these cases, considered normal, and then there is my case.

I was born to a Christian mother from a family of staunch Catholics, and a Muslim father from a family with strong blood and social ties to one of the sects in the Senegambia region. On the eighth day after my birth, I was named, had all the rituals for a new baby performed and welcomed as one of the Muslim ummah. My parents unmarried, I was raised by my mother and her family who held on to their Catholic faith while making me understand that I could practise my Islam freely.

However, I (and my sister who would be born three years after me), spent our early years in church, following what we saw around us and practically living as Catholics. We became so absorbed in the faith that on days when our Catholic cousins would decide to skip church, we would dress up and join my mother and uncle for Mass. This was the life we knew and had become a part of. We were taught very little about Islam, though my grandmother would always encourage us to perform the five daily prayers. On Muslim feasts, we would also celebrate with my father’s family. We enjoyed the best of both worlds… until I was about twelve years old.

My decision was mainly triggered by a series of embarrassing sessions in Islamic Studies class at my primary school where, looking back now, I was never given the option to choose what religious class I wanted to attend. By virtue of being a Muslim, I found myself in this class that would always reflect my lowest grade, throwing shade at my position as the top student and giving my classmates a chance to throw jibes at my little- almost nonexistent – knowledge of the chapters and verses of the Quran. Even at that young age, there was only so much humiliation I could take among my peers, and I decided to act. With my sister on my side, I found a teacher who would come to our home several times during the week, to teach us Quranic lessons and Arabic. These classes went on for about a year and ended, but by that time, we had learnt enough to perform the mandatory prayers and build up enough confidence to call ourselves Muslims.

For me, it was also a chance at self-discovery. Being curious and an avid reader meant I would go beyond the lessons taught at home and school. I found books I could gain more knowledge from and taught myself new chapters of the Quran and their meanings. I gradually stopped going to church, though I grew up being very tolerant and respectful of all other religions, thanks to my background. In my little research, I did not just become convinced of the religion I wished to practise. I found love and peace in messages that I wasn’t even taught. I discovered the beauty of Islam, devoid of the many interpretations from men, that would sometimes distort the messages in their favour. I was content with learning at my pace and embracing the beauty of the religion in its simplest forms.

Last week, I was on a flight back to Nairobi from Eldoret, where I had been invited to attend the launching of The Girl Generation  Africa Project. The discussion with one of my hosts turned to religion and I shared the story of my mixed background and how it has influenced my world view, especially in these times. She paid much attention to the parts about my early life in church, then turned to look at me and ask ‘how could you choose to be Muslim after that?‘ Usually, I would have the perfect answer, ready to defend my religion. This time, I just sat there and thought about the question. In the end, my response was simply ‘I learnt about the religion and fell in love with its message of peace and tolerance‘. When she invited me to Christ, we talked about my love for, and belief in him as a Prophet of God. By the time we landed in Nairobi, we both agreed on the need for respect and tolerance, and explored the possibility of simply believing in a Supreme Being without the conventional attachment to a religion.

This is something I have thought about on several occasions, especially when my faith hits the dust and I’m searching for excuses to justify the dip. Yet, it makes a lot of sense to simply believe and pray to God, without having to subscribe to the many emerging schools of thought with different interpretations on how to worship God. If anything, it could shatter the stereotypes that abound on things that seem foreign to us. When my friend asked about my choice, there were subtle references to the killings and injustices being carried out by Muslims around the world. These exist, just as they exist among people of other faiths, but we rarely use the same brush to paint everyone in the same way as we do Muslims.

I think about Boko Haram, the Taliban, Al Shabab, ISIS and other groups using religion as a justification for their heinous acts and I understand how easy it can be to draw conclusions based on them. However, it would be unfair to the greater majority of Muslims to be seen and treated in the same way, even when they join in the condemnation of these acts that target innocent people. I do not wish to defend anyone today, especially after the recent shootings at the Pakistani school, that claimed the lives of 132 children and 9 teachers.

What I wish for, instead, is healing for this world that has become too chaotic. I look back on my earlier years and even hope that people would take the time to learn more about the different faiths, if only to do away with the misconceptions. In my readings, I have found that we are more alike than different and our beliefs are generally founded on the same principles of good, peace, love, mercy and tolerance. It is sad that the structures intended to guide and keep humanity together are being used to draw us apart.

The truth is that I am tired and drained out by everything happening in the world around us. When I pause and draw myself away, I can’t help wondering what it would mean to have a world where we’re not bound by any structures, but guided only by the desire and will to be and do good. Maybe, it will bring back the essence of humanity and promote peaceful co-existence. Or maybe, I should get down from my cloud and face the harsh reality we live with.

I believe we are one, regardless of what religion we choose to practise. Our relationship with God is sacred, but our relationships with our fellow humans say a lot about the former. After all, we were created in his image… or so I have read.

I don’t know why I wrote this post, but I was at a place where the written word was the only way to express what I truly felt. I hope we can simply endeavour to be and do all the good we can in this world, for humanity and for the love of the God we all share.