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Sunyu Yaye Compin Yi

Remembering Gambia’s founding mothers

Our founding mothers! No, not just the wives of the men that demanded and gained the Gambia’s independence from the colonial masters, but their mothers and grandmothers. These women were shadows not by choice but by circumstance and colonialism. They became traders in the capital Banjul, then Bathurst during colonial time because women were not allowed in the workplaces outside the home.  But beyond that they were mothers, teachers, politicians, advisers and councilors.

Before the start of colonialism, our women were the custodians of the family as dictated by tradition. They decided how every aspect of the home was run; from who did what chores and who raised the kids to how food would be rationed out. The women were also responsible for the farm and the management of the farm to feed the family.

“Women in Banjul were voting since the 1940’s and owned land. Gambian women’s roles and responsibilities were more than those of western women. They also won their rights to land and political offices before a lot of western countries,” says prominent historian, Hassoum Ceesay.

Colonialism brought about a new standards and expectations for women. Then colonial perception was that women should be in the homes and raise the kids and especially the girls to be ‘good wives’.  ” We were meant not to be heard, so the women were in the shadows and that made it hard for the next generation to really be able to point them out. . Most of the women were raised and sent to school not for job, but to be a graceful, gentle and loving women and mothers. In some cases they would do business or work before having kids, but for the most part they were just expected to be mothers. What we had was women in the primary schools who were loving and motherly but we didn’t see them achieve more than that. However, they inspired us and pushed us to achieve more,” says Anne-Therese Ndong-Jatta, a veteran educationist and former education minister.

This restrictions on women pushed many of them to turn to trade and education for socio-economic freedom, political prominence and greater role in the society. Among them was Hanna Foster, the first woman activist to be elected in the 30’s to the Banjul Governor’s Advisory Council. This gave Mrs. Foster a unique opportunity to be able to not only help set up, but also fund the Gambia Democratic Party under Rev. J.C Faye. She was also a women mobilizer and mentor in the Anglican Church and across her community.  

Another woman whose story stood out is  Amie Rosamond Fowlis. Born in 1910, she was the first qualified female Gambian teacher after winning scholarship to Sierra Leone. She introduced Home Economics in the Gambian School system. She’s credited for introducing garri to Gambians during the World War 2 hunger crises.

Lady Augusta Hanna Jawara, the first spouse of Gambia’s first Prime Minister and then President, Sir Dawda Jawara, is one of the many women unsung heroes of independence. Her role as a financier of Jawara’s political career and campaign has often not been told.

Lady Jawara set up organizations like the Women’s Federation in the 60’s to help women become socially conscious and fight for their rights. This new generation of educated and ‘woke’ Gambian women championed the Dissolution of Marriages Act.

Hassoum Ceesay has written extensively about the role of women in the Gambian politics.

“All the early political parties depended on women because we had women traders who made a lot of money from the Albert market (in Banjul) and were the doors to the economy. Concept of Yaye Compin (women political mobilizers) started in the 50’s when the political parties started because they needed the female vote because it was more dependable and their turnout was higher in Banjul. They also needed women with money and influence. They mobilized people, sponsored campaign events and did the cooking.”

Stories like this, According to Anne-Therese Ndong-jatta, must be told to inspire the current generation of women. “We have to raise the expectations of young girls and inspire them to excel. When the standards are raised especially for young women, you see young men and women excel. Let’s have those quiet moments alone when we advise and inspire the next generation. The future is in creating the jobs we want.”

Many decades after the efforts of Hannah Forster, Lady Jawara, Amie Rosamond Fowlis and many others to give women the voice and choice, Gambian women are today excelling in their chosen both domestically and internationally.  

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