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THE GAMBIA: JAMA JACK

A Word From “African Queens Project” Founder:

Jama Jack is one of those people who you do a double take when you see her. She has such refined features, beautiful dark skin, and a body that models literally kill themselves for and she carries herself with grace and class and a quiet strength that makes you realize there is more than meets the eye. I got to know Jama when we were together in Ghana for the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa, but didn't really notice her until I heard her share her story during one of our sessions and I was blown away by how articulate and smart she was.  The more I heard from her the more impressed I became and I knew that her story is a story that must be told. It is my pleasure to introduce to you Miss Jama Jack:

BACKGROUND

 

I was born in Banjul, The Gambia on May 4th 1990; the first of two children for my mother and the fifth of seven children for my father. I did my basic and secondary schooling in The Gambia, starting off at Lena’s Nursery, moving through Pipeline Nursery, St Joseph’s Ex-Pupils’ Primary, The Reverend J.C. Faye Memorial High, The Gambia Methodist Academy to the West African International School before winning a scholarship to study in Morocco. There, I spent one year studying French in preparation for admission into the Institute of Journalism (Institut Superieur de l’Information et de la Communication), where I just completed my third year. I hope to graduate in June 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Communication Studies.

I've been involved in advocacy and activism since the age of 10 and most of my experience is based on this. Last year, I was selected as one of Africa’s Top 25 Most Outstanding Young Women Leaders by the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa. I also served as Vice-President, then President of the Gambian Students’ Association in Morocco. These are just a few of the things I've achieved in my 23 years on Earth...yet.

I have a passion for being a change-maker in my community, country, continent and the world, by extension. This has been a crucial part of my life and I feel empty when I have nothing going on. I’m also a big fan of books... they provide peace and calm away from the crazy episodes in the real world. I also love writing and am working hard at improving my expressions, with the hope of authoring many books in the future.

In a nutshell, I am a young, educated and determined Gambian woman with a lot of potential, willing to discover the world and leave my footsteps everywhere I go, in the service of humanity.

  • Why did you pick the career path that you did?

 

I have always been fascinated by everything that has to do with communication, education and increasing the awareness levels of people everywhere. I was a very shy kid and only got over this timidity after joining the Lend A Hand Society, where I was challenged to face large crowds in advocacy campaigns for the various causes we were working on. The radio was one of the platforms we used to spread our messages and I found myself in the studios every Saturday. We were also responsible for organizing activities to mark the International Children’s Day of Broadcasting every year and this got me on television too. I also wrote very often for the two magazines we produced. These experiences laid the foundation for my career choice.

I realized the power that the mass media holds as a tool for disseminating information and influencing public opinion, which could be both positive and negative. I felt that specializing in media studies would give me a better chance of reaching out to more people, as I advocate for the causes that I hold dear to my heart. I also saw it as an avenue to bring to light things that are usually hidden from the public’s knowledge for various reasons, creating an environment with a free flow of information, where everyone is aware of what is going on in the immediate communities as well as the outside world. I concluded that I needed to get professional in the field to understand how it works and equip myself with the requisite tools to ensure great results. I was also motivated by what I saw in the national media. I felt we could do better as a country in that field,and it would take people with a passion for the profession to practice it in the best way possible.

  • Who and what are some of your influences?

I am much rather inspired than influenced. I have learnt to make my own choices with the belief that I am responsible if things do not go as planned. Inspiration comes to me from the most basic of things, like a walk out in the streets. It also comes from people around me, from the things I read, from the things I watch and hear about. I believe the world is a pot-pourri of good and bad, so I try to look for the good and be inspired by it. I believe nothing is ever too small to trigger great ambitions in me.

  • Do you wish you could have done things differently if given the chance? Please explain.

Growing up, I have learnt not to dwell on regretting things that have gone wrong in my life. It may be a difficult feat, especially when one has set goals and ambitions and is working hard to achieve them at whatever cost. However, I strongly believe in fate and man’s lack of control over his/her destiny. This has helped me to live life without regrets, choosing instead to learn from my mistakes and rise from my failures and setbacks. If there’s one thing I could have done differently, it would be dedicating more time to the service of humanity and setting up more projects in my youth. I would also have loved to be more enlightened in political issues in my country, continent and world at large to ensure a better participation in issues that affect me and the people around me. However, it’s never too late to learn so I’d rather focus on the present and the future than on things I couldn't do in the past.

  • What and who inspires and motivates you?

My biggest inspiration is my mother. She taught me what it means to be a strong, whole woman rising against the stereotypes and patriarchal beliefs of our society and succeeding against all odds. She single-handedly raised and still raises her kids and other people in her care, making sure all needs are provided for. I grew up watching her dedicate her life to serving other people and working hard to improve the living conditions of women in The Gambia, travelling to the most rural areas just to ensure her work is done. Through her, I learnt to give and got interested in the many causes I’m involved in. Her hard work and dedication serves as a reminder to me, that being female does not limit my possibilities and that with focus and determination, I can achieve whatever I want in this world.

I’m also inspired by the many people I've had the chance to meet and work with since my childhood. The many lessons, the passion, the resolve and desire to change the world and leave positive marks have all been a source of inspiration for me. With them, I realized just how much I can do and how much change I can create in the world, no matter how small.

Finally, I am motivated by what I see around me. The living conditions, the struggles, the challenges, the stories of people I interact with and observe all serve as eye-openers for me and remind me of the role I have to play in making things better. It also serves as a source of humility for me when I assess people’s problems and realize that mine are probably just a drop in the ocean. That alone is enough motivation for me.

  • What do you count as your greatest achievement?

 

Looking back at my 23 years on Earth and the challenges I faced growing up, it’s difficult to identify one thing as my greatest achievement. From excelling in school to benefiting from a scholarship for University education; from starting my blog to being recognized as one of The Gambia’s upcoming writers; from the many projects I've helped implement to being selected as one of Africa’s Top 25 Emerging Young Women Leaders in 2012, it’s very difficult to choose. Thus, I would say my greatest achievement is yet to come, but for now, I’ll peg it at being a young woman leader striving against all odds to make life better for herself and for others... and succeeding in most of these aspects.

  • What are some struggles you faced in your life that came about because of your gender?

I think I face the same challenges most girls and women face in the African society, which is highly patriarchal. The idea that females are inferior to males has always been a problem, I've found myself in situations where the males in my family/community are attended to first. Growing up, I had more chores than my male cousins and was expected to always help out around the house, even though we all went to school together and had the same workload. I have also encountered situations where I was expected to keep silent because I am female and have no say in certain issues. All of these are just a few examples of the struggles faced growing up as a female in the African context.

  • How have you overcome these struggles and/or insecurities?

I count myself lucky to have a mother who knew her rights and values and instilled them into her kids and those around her. Thus, I was able to defend myself in most cases, demanding to be treated as an equal and be awarded the same opportunities as the males around me. I believe my education and involvement with child and youth advocacy groups and exposure to the basic human rights instruments also helped me in overcoming these challenges.

  • How important is family especially in light of your career and professional life?

Having the support of one’s family might be very crucial to one’s success. However, I don’t think it is quite indispensable to one’s road to achieving dreams and goals. I’m grateful to have always had the support of my (extended) family through the many phases of my growth. I have also come to appreciate the concept of having a family by chance and a family by choice. We meet people who become very important and constant factors in our lives, providing support and always being there. These people become a family to you because the bonds you share are so strong and in each other, you find support systems. So for me, my family by chance and choice are important.

  • Do you believe it is important to share your story with other women?

Absolutely! It is sometimes difficult to open up about one’s struggles but I’ve found that sharing is a form of healing and growing from the experiences. I also think it’s crucial to understanding each other as women and will help in charting solutions to the problems we face. It could also serve as motivation for someone. On the other hand, it could also be a learning process for me because I can never tell how much impact it might have on other people who will also share their stories and open my eyes to even better or worse experiences.

  • In your experience, what do you think are some prevalent issues women face in everyday life? Professionally?

I think the biggest problem women face is the discrimination based on their gender and this cuts across the board, going from the social to the professional setting. Women are considered inferior to men and this has greatly hindered our development and advancement for far too long. In the past decade, however, we've seen a growth in the promotion of gender equality and equity and an advancement of the feminist movement. One would assume that this would change things greatly. Despite the improvements, we've seen ‘feminists’ and gender equality advocates be on the receiving end of insulting and condescending labels, as a result of their commitment to the cause of women.

These words and actions are enough to cripple most, if not all, efforts being made to empower women and ensure our rights are respected and that everyone has equal opportunities.

Sticking to the African context,  traditional beliefs and practices are still placed at a high pedestal. All things traditional are deemed good in this part of the world. As such, certain harmful practices are still in existence, despite the sensitization campaigns aimed towards eradicating them. I'll take the example of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Much progress has been made in this regard, with many villages committing to drop the knife. However, the act is still practiced in the privacy of the homes and bushes. It goes without saying that this practice leaves physical and psychological effects on the 'victims', that heal slowly or never at all. Some lose their lives as a result of excess bleeding and contamination for the crude and unsterilized instruments used. Where the person survives, she is usually faced with various health complications especially during sexual intercourse and childbirth. Early marriage and wife inheritance are also examples of traditional practices that hinder the development of women. Doing away with them and protecting the women is a responsibility that should be assumed by both the States and individuals all over the world.

Another issue that affects women is the continued belief that our place is in the home to care for men, give birth to and raise kids and depend entirely on our husbands for survival. As a result, girls’ education has been a problem, especially in the rural areas. A lot of potential is lost and girls are left with no option but to perpetuate the cycle of uneducated women on Earth. Poverty also has a big role to play in this matter, as it is the excuse used most times by families that decide to keep their daughters and home and send their sons to school.

These are just a few of the problems women face, but I believe if they are tackled, we will be well on our way towards finding solutions to the other problems and challenges.

  • What do you think needs to be done to address these issues?

I believe the first step towards addressing these issues is recognizing women as human beings with equal rights and responsibilities as any other person(men). A good number of international charters and conventions have been signed and ratified by states around the world to this effect. However, the responsibility of upholding the principles indicated in these documents is often ignored. As such,certain members of the society, mainly women and children, have their rights buried and their privileges dismissed. Respecting and safeguarding these rights could be the gateway towards ending most of the things that impede the development of the woman at any level.

Education, for me, is the most important tool anyone can use to empower a woman. It is a right for all, but a great number of females still see it as a privilege. Statistics usually show literacy levels varying from men to women, with the latter occupying the lower steps of the ladder. The importance of education can never be emphasized enough. With it, the woman is guaranteed of the knowledge and understanding of basic things and happenings around her. She becomes aware of her rights and those of the people under her care at present or in the future. It opens up a gateway to opportunities in the professional field and she is encouraged to dig deep into her talents and contribute her bit towards socio-economic development. It is without doubt that women are the backbone of most households. The responsibility of child bearing and upbringing is often linked to her. An educated woman would ensure that her children also get educated... the girls inclusive. Here, we see an empowerment chain where each female recognizes the importance of education and strives to provide it for all. With the required education at varying levels, women are now able to contest for positions in the corporate world. This provides a sense of independence and serves as a great tool for empowerment too.

In the same vein, there is limited or very little participation of women in the political field,which is consequently another way through which women's empowerment is stunted. The decision-making corridors are filled with men, usually exhibiting masochistic characters, to the detriment of the women. Laws and propositions on women's issues are formulated and adopted by people who know very little about them. Having more women being actively involved in this field would ensure a more realistic and practical approach to finding solutions to the problems their counterparts face. It would also guarantee a level ground for both men and women in the running of state affairs. I

There are many ways to skin a cat, of course,but for me these are the main things that should be addressed in order to address the problems and challenges women face in their daily lives. Respect of basic human rights, access to basic and secondary education at the least, an end to gender discrimination in the corporate world and in other domains, protection from harmful traditional practices etc would bring us one step closer towards achieving the goal.

  • What would you tell another young woman who wants to go down the same path that you have chosen?

Your life is yours to live, your decisions are yours to make and the consequences are yours to deal with. Take advice, be inspired by others, seek help from others but always remember that whatever happens in the end should be of your own accord. Opposition and resistance are bound to rear their heads as you head on towards realizing your dreams, but staying and fueled with determination and faith will help keep your head above the waters. The path I've chosen is not an easy one to walk through, but my passion has kept me going and I've found a support system in people who believe so much in me and my potential. So make your decision and work hard for success. Most importantly, chart your own path and make it yours in a bid to inspire others to do the same.

  • What do you do to give back to your community?

 

Teaching A Public Relations class at Starfish International

I've been volunteering with non-profit organisations since the age of 10 and it has become my way of life. I started with the Lend A Hand Society, where I was actively involved in advocating for the cause of children and youth as well as raising awareness on HIV/AIDS and other STIs. I also went through various training's on Public Speaking etc and, in turn, helped train more young people.

I’m also a member of the Group of Gambians Against Rape and Molestation (GARM) created to combat sexual violence in The Gambia.

Together with friends and colleagues, we started the Tuta Pack Action Group in 2011 in response to the discovery of the indiscriminate sale of alcohol to minors at cheap prices. Through our efforts at sensitization and meeting with the relevant stakeholders, we were able to influence the banning of the product in The Gambia and its producer’s licence got revoked.

I’m also a volunteer with the Nda Mariam Jagne Family Foundation, created to help improve maternal health in The Gambia, as well as promote the idea of scholar athletes.

I was recently appointed as the Outreach Coordinator for Starfish International, a non-profit Community based organisation with a mission to empower Gambian girls by providing them with an advanced education that is focused on service to humanity while at the same time providing international service-learning opportunities for volunteers.’

I’ve held various leadership positions in my affiliations with these and other organisations. I’m also a writer and spoken word performer for Balafong Magazine. Our events help us to voice out our problems using poetry.

My love for writing got me to start a blog (linguerebi.wordpress.com). My blog is a mix of all things I love and am passionate about. My blogs range from commentary on current issues, journals of my work, issues related to the cause of women and children, to an infusion of literary fiction. My readership is growing and so I try to send important messages through my posts, as my own contribution towards creating a positive change in our communities.

  • If you could tell young women 1 thing, what would it be?

You are everything you think you are; therefore think big, think positive, think success!