By Omar Badji, ActionAid Gambia
Dear President Barrow,
Welcome. It’s your first day behind the desk and you have an enormous job on your hands. Former President Yahya Jammeh has finally left the country after a tense stand-off; many of the people who fled in fear of violence last week are returning; businesses reopening; and the whole nation is preparing to listen to what your first moves will be.
Your Excellency, I’d like you to take a moment to think about that. I’d like you to imagine a little girl standing alongside her parents in the crowd listening to you address the public. This little girl’s future is now in your hands.
For the past 22 years, her parents, like all of our citizens, have been forced into silence. They were unable to complain when they could not access basic services such as healthcare or education and saw their rights being derailed by a dictator. If they did have the courage to speak out they may well have faced arrest, disappearance or torture. This silencing, this fear, this terrible way of operating must stop. Now.
We need to build a new civil society. And create the space for that civil society to operate. You must ensure that the Gambian people have an unequivocal, protected space to voice their concerns about your administration and how it is dealing with the massive problems of violence against women and girls, food shortages, economic migration and corruption.
But to create a truly democratic nation you need to urgently tackle our education crisis. For too long our children and young people have been denied access to a good education, denying them the opportunity to fulfil their potential or find a way out of poverty.
I hope you will promise that little girl staring up at you that you know she has the right to grow up as an educated and politically engaged young woman, free from violence and fear. I want you to reassure her you will do all you can within your power to make a better future for her and others like her a genuine reality.
But that isn’t going to be easy. Currently half of your 1.8 million citizens are illiterate and only two thirds of primary age children are enrolled in school. Most schools across the Gambia lack qualified teachers or basics like textbooks, paper and pens. Girls in the Gambia are less likely to complete their education than boys and if they do manage to break the stereotype, they can suffer stigma and even sexual violence on their journeys to and from class.
This isn’t acceptable in 2017. Not if we aspire to be a modern forward facing African nation. The power to help change this, and the hopes of a young generation, now rests with you.
In your first budget as president, you must reposition greater funds for education and teacher training, and build feedback systems so that children — our country’s future — can play a real role in shaping their local schools and claiming their right to learn. For the brave girls who go to school only to be raped or assaulted on the way home, you need to make sure improved government services, from the police through to health centres through to the judiciary, know how to both support victims and punish offenders.
And let’s not forget that our children need to eat.
Currently 60 per cent of your country doesn’t have enough to eat. Food production in the Gambia you have inherited relies on small subsistence farming, powered by women who do the majority of the work but are still not able to own the land on which they farm, which means they are less able to control whether they have enough of the right kinds of food to eat. Uncertain rains and the growing impact of climate change make their lives even harder. Right now 94 per cent of land in the Gambia has no irrigation. Measures to improve water supply will increase harvests and create a stronger supply of food.
Improving agricultural production will help to create new jobs, something which is urgently needed to help stem the flow of young men leaving our shores and taking dangerous journeys to uncertain futures in North Africa, Europe and beyond.
People from your country, mainly young men, represent the fifth largest group of asylum seekers to land on Italy’s shores. They are people who have been failed by the education system, have few skills and cannot find employment in the Gambia’s towns and villages.
To keep this lost potential in our country, you must show our youth that you are listening to them, really listening. Through education, sport, apprenticeships and freedom of speech you have to convince them that home is a better alternative.
Only when these tasks are done will that the old Gambia be no more and a new Gambia — a better, happier nation — can emerge.
If that little girl watching you in the crowd grows up in this vision of a nation that she deserves, you will have passed your test and served us well.
At ActionAid we look forward to working with you and helping girls, boys, women and men across the Gambia to voice their concerns and to work with you to build a better country. We might not always agree with you. But through continued dialogue and mutual respect we will be with you every step of the way.
Omar Badji is available for interview. Please contact Grace Cahill on +44 7734 131 626.