#Article (Archive)

Gambian Women: An Introductory History

Apr 18, 2008, 7:14 AM | Article By: Author: Hassoum Ceesay

Publishers: Fulladu Publishers, Kanifing

ISNB: 9983 - 8800 - 58 Paperback; 128 pages

In the preface to the book Gambian Women: An Introductory History, the author Hassoum Ceesay justifies his selection of the women whose stories are told in the book. He writes: "The women profiled in this book lived in different times; yet, most of them were outstanding because they were able to succeed in their callings amidst a hostile environment of patriarchy, colonialism and other deprivations. Succeeding in such circumstances is what made them worthy of historical mention." So the book is an account of women who went beyond the ordinary call of duty to leave their footprints in the sand of time.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is about women in pre-colonial Gambia, the second section is about women in colonial Gambia, and the third section is about women in post-colonial Gambia. But all the three sections are unified by the theme of tenacity. All the women in this book were convinced that something was not right in their society and were committed to making a change in society. Each section begins with background details about the social milieu in which the women lived. This is meant to familiarise the reader with the daunting odds the women had to overcome. With that, the reader appreciates much better the courage of these women who refused to be consigned to the footnote of history.

In the first section of the book, the stories of Fenda Lawrence and Phillis Wheatley illustrate the determination of Gambian women to succeed against all odds. Born circa 1742 to a Serahule family, Fenda left for the United aboard a slave ship called New Britannia in 1792 and "arrived in Georgia, [as] an exile determined to succeed". Due to her diligence and prudence, "she built a huge trading concern in Georgia and other southern states". Unlike Fenda who succeeded in business, Phillis Wheatley took to literature where she made her mark. Described as the "first (African-American) woman poet in America", her first poem 'An elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield' was published in 1770. And three years later, she published her first anthology 'Poems'.

The desire to achieve a just and better life for women did not stop with these women. Others who came after them carried on with the struggle. These included Fatou Khan, Hannah Forster, Rosamond Fowlis, Lucretia St Claire Joof, Marion Foon, Lilian Johnson, Hannah Augusta Jawara and Rachel Palmer. Each of them in her own way fought for emancipation from the shackles of culture, chauvinism or patriarchy.  Fatou Khan, for instance, was said to be so powerful that she had the people of Saloum called her 'Queen Victoria'. Married to the travelling commissioner of the North Bank Province, as it was known at the time, she taught her husband J K Mc Callum the Wollof language and ran the district with the aid of official interpreters. She so overshadowed her husband that he was reduced to simply signing letters that she had drafted. Even after a while, he taught her how to forge his signature, thus leaving Fatou Khan firmly in control of the district.

For her part, Marion Foon stood out as the female editor-in-chief the Vanguard, which she edited for eight months in 1960. Under her editorship, she used the pages of the paper to campaign without fear for political independence.

And the struggle continues right up until the present time, with the exploits of women like Florence Mahoney, Louise Antoinette Njie, Sally Njie, Fanta Singhateh, Fatoumata Camara, Nyimasata Sanneh-Bojang, Vicky Blain and Isatou Njie-Saidy. Florence Mahoney is the first Gambian woman to have a doctorate degree and has over the years worked as a teacher, author, church worker and " a promoter of Gambian material culture". She credited with coordinating the establishment of the Gambia National Archives in the 1970s.

Gambian Women: An Introductory History is a gripping account of some of the great women who have struggled through adversity. Exquisitely written and spiced with anecdotes, the book is brimful of intellectual riches and promises to be a classic.

It is highly recommended by The Point. It is available at TIMBOOKTOO Bookshop.