#Article (Archive)

Tribute to Aunty Louise Antoinette Njie: Educationist, Feminist, Pioneer

May 20, 2014, 9:25 AM

When I learnt of the passing away of Mrs. Louise Njie, a big chunk of my life fell. Aunty Lou, as she was fondly known, was my Aunty Lou and the least I could do is to put on paper, inadequate as it may be within the confines of a few pages, an apercu of the life and work of this wonderful woman whom I knew and had the good fortune to work with, and who has enriched my own life from the day I knew her to her last day.

But, I know also that Aunty Lou was everybody’s Aunty and anybody who comes across her cannot help being left with a lasting impression of the epitome of vivacity and verve. I wish, therefore, to share this tribute with all Gambians, particularly with the younger generation who may not be aware of things long gone and past.

Aunty Lou was born Louise Antoinette to John and Hannah Mahoney at Leman Street in Banjul (then Bathurst) on 23 January, 1922 ina family of three girls and two boys, Louise Mahoney was third in age. Sir John, as her father was called after receiving a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, was the first Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Under him, the tradition of the Westminster form of parliamentary democracy was implanted and nurtured. Her parents made sure that the children obtained a good education, and it was no wonder the family became a family of intellectuals and achievers. John, the eldest, became a medical doctor and rose to be Director of Medical and Health Services.

Her elder sister was a qualified teacher and headmistress at Stanley Street School, and was married to The Gambia’s first High Commissioner in the United Kingdom. The last brother was a lawyer, and practiced in the UK and Sierra Leone. The youngest sister, Augusta, was a qualified nurse midwife and was married to Dr Dawda K Jawara, the first Gambian veterinarian, first prime minister and first president of The Gambia.

Enrolled at Wesley School, Louise passed to go to Methodist Girls High School (MGHS), but on reaching the upper level of the school, there being alack of appropriately qualified teachers, she, along, with a few other classmates, had to join the male counterparts in Methodist Boys High School, just across the road, on Dobson Street. She obtained a good Cambridge School Certificate after which she won a three-year scholarship to do a teacher training course at Achimota College in Accra, Ghana.

After obtaining a Certificate in Teacher Training, Louise returned to The Gambia and was posted to her alma mater, MGHS, where she taught Maths among other subjects. She was promoted as head-teacher Leman Street School and her administration of the school was so outstanding that the colonial administrators found her to be the obvious choice to open and head the new experimental school of Malfa, the largest infant school in the country with a record 400 pupils!

This school opened up the possibility for a lot of girls in the Banjul area to go to school, and I know a lot of women holding high offices who went to that school.

After a brilliant job at Malfa, She was granted a scholarship in 1962 to do a Diploma in Education in the United Kingdom. While in the UK, she got married to Dentist Njie, the first Gambian dental surgeon. When she returned to The Gambia, she was promoted to Education Officer, the first woman to occupy that post.With Sam Jones as Director, her colleagues in the Education Department were Coleridge Cole, Albert Andrews, Gabriel Roberts and James Ndow.

Up to then, working with school children was no big sweat for Aunty Lou, but working and rubbing shoulders with colleagues in an absolutely male-dominated office was no child’s play!She had to go on trek under grueling conditions, bad or non-existent roads, visiting schools in remote areas of the Provinces.

Some of the mishaps and hair-raising incidents that she once narrated to me could easily make a thriller movie. She survived it all with her fearlessness and determination to succeed, and in time earned the awe and admiration of her colleagues

Though I was also born in Banjul and worked in various departments and ministries, I had not met Aunty Lou until October 1988, when after the dissolution of the Senegalo-Gambian Permanent Secretariat, where I had served for almost seven years, I was to take over from Bernard Baldeh as permanent secretary.

My first impression on entering her office, on my first day in my new Ministry, was of a well-organized, decent, orderly and urbane person. Every item on her desk was neatly put in its right place, and a box of tissue papers neatly tucked between the file tray and the pen holder.

Her Yves Saint Laurent prescription glasses and the smell of what I came to appreciate as her favorite perfume – Magie Noire – exuded a lady of distinction and taste. This was a boss I was going to enjoy working with. We ended up working for over threewonderfulyears during which time, with a formidableteam of technicians in the Ministry, we achieved a lotin the various arms of the Ministry – Medical and Health, Labour, Environment and Social Welfare and Women’s Affairs.

Aunty Lou was intricately attached to the Ministry of Health. She was first of all, Parliamentary Secretary under the late M. C. Jallow whom she replaced two years as Minister, when he was transferred to another Ministry.

Under her dynamic leadership, most of the infrastructure that we now take for granted presently, particularly in the health sector, were realized and stand as a living testimony of her hardwork and initiative.

With The Gambia’s adoption of the primary health care approach to health delivery, as enunciated by the Alma Ata Declaration (1978), The Gambia was one of the first countries to start working towards implementing of this system of “health for all”. Accordingly, health facilities were built throughout the country – health posts, minor health centres, major health centres and the two referral hospitals of Bansang and Royal Victoria Hospital were expanded and improved.

When Aunty Lou came to the Ministry, the implementation was under way with major funding from the World Bank and the British Government, and her personality and pushfulness was a catalyst to success achieved.

Apart from the health facilities built with British government assistance – Nursing School in Banjul, Community Nurses School in Mansa Konko, the health centres at Basse, Bakau, Essau, Chamen, Kuntair, Serekunda, Fara feni, Soma, Yoro Bawol, and the maternity Wing of the RVH, and those built by the Mainland Chinese in Fara feni, Sami Karantaba, and Kaur, all the other facilities we use today were built by the Italians and were completed when Aunty Lou was Minister.

These include the Banjul Polyclinic, the RVH Children’s Wing, the dental unit at Bansang, the Enrolled Nurses School in Bansang, the health centres at Gunjur, Kuntaur, Faji Kunda, Sukuta and Brikama. She travelled to Italy and China to consolidate assistance in this regard. She was infatigable and would travel regularly to visit the facilities up to Fatoto, and enjoyed discussing with all levels of the population from Alkalos to the village traditional Birth Attendants.

We the officials who accompanied her hardly could keep up with her extraordinary energy. All these facilities now form the backbone of our present health delivery system, and Aunty Lou’s contribution cannot be overstated.

The flagship of Aunty Lou’s tenure is arguably the implementation of the cost recovery programme, in accordance with the Bamako Initiative, adopted by African Health Ministers in Bamako in 1987 to accelerate primary health care. With the Drug Revolving Fund, as it came to be called in The Gambia, government procured medicines and other medical supplies, with initial seed money from the World Bank and the British Government through the specially-created National Health Development Project.

Patients were given attention and medicines on the payment of five dalasis. The amounts thus collected were plowed back for subsequent orders. This programme was so successful that some countries in the sub region sent officials on study tour, and to date many African countries have still not been successful in implementing it.

It was through her tenacity and sometimes overbearing insistence that we finalized the Act creating the deontological framework for the medical and dental profession, and paving the way for the formation of the Medical and Dental Council and Association subsequently. These were followed later by the Nurses Act and the Nurses Council.

As for Social Welfare, she visited Holland to negotiate for assistance in the area of orthopedic rehabilitation. As a result, the construction of the present rehabilitation centre and the offices of the Department of Social Welfare on Marina Parade were realized.

Aunty Lou had always had an aura of personal attraction about her. This was particularly manifested in the multifarious international meetings she participates in. I recall after she delivered her speech at an Environment meeting in London, a lot of delegates come to meet her.

The late UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who opened the meeting, spoke to her during the recess and Aunty Lou told her that she was also called Iron Lady in The Gambia.

At the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in Melbourne, Australia, she was given pride of place as the then Chairman of the West African Health Community Ministers present at the conference.She was befriended by an Aborigine participant at the conference.

Our official visit to China was equally momentous, and wherever we went she received the highest of honours. The same is true of her presence at meetings of the ILO in Geneva or UNEP meetings in Nairobi and many others.

She was an adroit administrator and good listener. The reason why she was successful in all jobs and responsibilities given to her is that she dealt with issues without ostentation or dogmatism.

Her name will be indelibly written in the annals of Gambia’s pre and post independence history as a pioneer in the promotion of women’s welfare and education and, indeed, education in general.

As for her role in the Peoples Progressive Party, the ruling party of which she was a dedicated member, she brought her own block in the building of the party.As one of the few female members of the Central Committee, she was the voice of reason and moderation in a male-dominated arena.

With her wisdom and keen sense of purpose, she was an inspiration to both the younger members of the party leadership and the grassroots at large. She commanded a lot of respect from her peers in the party and, indeed, the opposition.

Aunty Lou had a rich professional and political career. She is emblematic of a small group of educated women in The Gambia who, before independence and after, worked tirelessly to promote the education of the girl-child. Being an early protagonist of the rights of women, she spearheaded the creation of the Women’s Bureau which was placed under her tutelage in the Ministry of Health. It is in this regard that she led a delegation to the World Conference on Women held in Havana, Cuba, in 1989.

She founded and was the guiding light of the Soroptimist Society of which a lot of top female civil servants and professionals were members. For over a decade, she was the President of the Gambia Red Cross Society in the early years of its existence, and it was during her term that the society made great strides in The Gambia.

Above all these activities, Aunty Lou was an ardent Christian and a true believer in the will of God in all matters fortunate or unfortunate that came her way. Behind the matter of principle and no nonsense façade, which usually was the first impression one got of her, was a decent, kind-hearted, generous and helpful person.

During the many travels we undertook together, her little Bible and Book of Psalms were always in her bag or next to her bed. The people I know she helped financially, paid school fees for or got jobs for are legion.

At any time in her office, she would have a wad of new bank notes all to be given away as all sorts of people, even from the Provinces, throng the corridors and Ministry’s sitting room to be received by her. We used to call it her “clinic”. She leaves behind her a rich legacy of self-less service, honesty, hard work, dedication and genuine love of country.

I share this great loss with the team of senior technocrats who worked under Aunty Lou in the Ministry of Health – Saihou Njie, Bernard Baldeh, Ralphina Almeida, Modou Jagne, Galandou Gorre Ndiaye, Dr. Oldfield, Dr. Hatib Njie, Dr Omolabi George, Dr. Kabir Cham, Berta Mboge, Matron Shyngle, Dr Ulrich Jones, Dr Pap John Williams, Dr Ablie Jack, and Yaya Sanyang.

These and many other collaborators worked tirelessly in building a health service which was the envy of our neighbours in the sub region.

Over the years that I have had the privilege of working with Aunty Lou, I came to admire her humanity. Our relationship became one of mother and son. I remember when, devastated by the untimely death of her only son, Kobina, she said to me in Wolof, “You are now my son,” to which I replied, “I have always been your son.”

Long after I left the Ministry and after we both left the Service, our relationship continued to flourish. She was not my Minister; She was not my Aunty. She was my mother. My family, my friends, everybody knew that!

My sympathy goes to Aunty Lou’s family - her granddaughter Hanna, her nieces and nephews, particularly Dawda Jawara Junior, Omotunde and Shola Mahoney, whom I know have been very supportive to their Aunty these past years. And her devoted domestic staff - Paul, Abou, Mariama, Teneng and Musa who looked after her to the end.God bless them all.

Above all, I am cognisant of the wonderful long lasting relationship that Aunty Lou has had with Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara all these years as his sister-in-law, his collaborator, party colleague and friend. He has lost a confidante, a political colleague and an unflinching supporter whose admiration and deference for him was beyond measure. Let me, therefore, extend my heartfelt condolences to him.

May Allah the Almighty give him good health and grant us peace in our great country.

May the Almighty God grant Aunty Lou eternal repose in heaven. We will sorely miss her.

Ebraima Manneh, former permanent secretary ministry of Health