She was sitting amongst a group of women, supervising the cooking of a big pot of ‘Jollof’ rice at a naming ceremony. I sat watching how they admired the attire of the guests and the griot sang praises to the women linking them to their linage. Then I observed that she was less busy and it was time to have a break and settled down for a bowl of chakiri - locally made couscous with fermented milk under the veranda.
Haja Ngundo Koita lives in an old settlement near the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by tourist attractions. She is amongst many in her community affected by high illiteracy, amongst women and girls in particular. Haja is married but she is a matriarch in her household where she lives with her sons, in-laws and grandchildren.
Haja sells iceblock to the fishmongers to preserve their fish for sale in the local market and some sell it to the nearby towns. She is also engaged in other businesses by buying dried fish and selling them in rural communities three hundred miles away to farming communities in exchange for coos and groundnuts needed in the urban areas. She is aware that if she had financial support, she could expand her business to a larger scale.
Haja is a leader of over fifty women vegetable gardeners in her neighbourhood and they give moral and financial support to each other. Their weekly contributions of D50 (less than $2) accumulates to D125,000 (about $4,464) which circulates amongst them in a year. They support their families and this was how Haja was able to buy her fridge and explore the need for iceblock amongst the fishmongers in her community. Even though several women groups have approached her group with the hope of giving them support, they are yet to succeed.
Haja is alert about the current debates about women’s rights issues regarding harmful traditional practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation. “Early marriage takes women backward. If the marriage is not successful, they suffer, that’s the situation of many women,” She opined. As she explained the consequences of early marriage one of the young girls from the village approached us and she commented, “Look! She is an example of how early marriage can make girls suffer. She married young, lost her baby and her husband left her and traveled.” Haja is equally following the debates on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and is aware that it is not good for women’s health. She noted, “Now that we know it is not good for health, we do discuss it amongst our group and I have decided that my grand daughters who have not been circumcised will not go through it, because the doctors know health issues better than us.”
There is perception that political commentary is equated to having personal interest to be a politician. This tends to inhibit a lot of educated women in particular to discuss politics openly. On the other hand, illiterate or semi literate women tend to openly show their political affiliation without fear. This unassuming 60 year old is one such woman. Haja did not go to school because being the first and only girl at the time, helping her mother with household chores was seen as more important than going to school at the time. Lack of education stole her dream of becoming a career politician. She laughed when I asked how she got into politics. “ I’ve been in politics for a longtime, since Sherrif Dibba’s time but earlier than that I used to listen to Pierre Njie and Jawara. I supported Pierre Njie because of his plans for the country. Even though he led for a short period, his demonstrated leadership .” As a teenage Haja attended political rallies of early politicians and at an early age she decided to give her support to the United Party- UP against the Peoples Progressive Party - PPP. Since then she has supported main opposition parties like the National Convention Party and now the United Democratic Party. What is amazing about Haja is her strong believe in having an alternative. She observes the political situation with regards to women and asserts “ Gambian women in politics is one sided, if you do not support the ruling party, you’re not considered as a patriotic citizen and not contributing to national development. We are equal citizens.”
Haja beliefs that women can be politicians because they are equally educated like men. She further justifies that why women should engage in politics from a gender perspective. “Men help men, when women become politicians they will take women’s concerns more seriously; women don’t want to see their fellow women suffer,” she asserts. Haja argues that there is spiritual guidance for women and when they hold leadership position they will be blessed.
When I asked if she would have been a politician if she was educated, Haja sighed and said “if I was educated, I would stand for elections. My only regret is not being educated. If I was educated like my brother Muhammed, I would definitely be a politician.” She realizes the importance of education for women to take leadership in national politics that is why she supports her granddaughters to be educated because it is lack of education that have stolen her dream to be a career politician.
She suggests that politicians should give priority to providing employment opportunities for educated women as well as support the women who are not educated to ensure that the future of women’s political leadership is guaranteed by educating the girls today. “We should send our girl children to school so that they would not end up regretting like we do.” In her final comments she reiterates women’s concern and asserts “first let’s stop mutilating girls, second let’s educate our girls and finally let’s support the women who are not educated to ensure that the girls are educated, these are our important concerns.”