Refugee students who fled from Gambia wish to return to rebuild their country

Kemo Bojang is a second year political science student of the University of The Gambia in the capital, Banjul. He believes that the regime change has opened the space for political discussion.FREETOWN, Sierra Leone and BANJUL, Gambia – It’s been more than a year since President Yahya Jammeh left office after 23 years in power.

His fall has given higher education in the tiny West African nation a new lease on life.

Kemo Bojang, a second-year political science student at the University of the Gambia, said he now feels like he can really learn about politics because the academic environment is open to free discussions.

“I am now proud to pursue my career as a political scientist,” said Bojang. “Before now it was impossible because several opposition politicians and students were pursued, arrested, killed and imprisoned. Their crimes were for expressing their political rights. Gambians can now express themselves freely without being harassed. Even our teachers can now channel their grievances to the government with frank deliberations.”

The University of the Gambia in Banjul is the only higher education institution in the country of 2 million people. Today, it’s halls and walkways are bustling with young people.

But thousands of the university’s students fled between 2016 and 2017 when Jammeh began cracking down on demonstrations against his regime. The crisis came to a head when Jammeh said he would resign in December 2016. But then he changed his mind. Under pressure from Gambia’s neighbors – including the Economic Community of West African States’ threat of military intervention – he left office in January 2017.

Police regularly arrested and harassed students who dared to protest the regime. An untold number of students and other protesters and dissents disappeared. Most are presumed dead.

Current President Adama Barrow has pledged to investigate their fates. He’s also promised to probe the April 2000 killing of 14 students by riot police after they protested the killing of a colleague and rape of female student.

Students are now returning to the university now, however.

Bakary Jadama, 29, a graduate student in business at the university while also operating a cleaning business in Serakunda, a coastal district near Banjul, returned to the Gambia last year after fleeing to neighboring Senegal to avoid violence.

“I now have confidence in the Government to invest because the circulation of cash is visible and there is freedom,” he said. “Before now, cash was just concentrated in the hands of Jammeh and his close allies. Businesses were forcefully closed without any explanation.”

Jadama was among many Gambians who returned after Barrow said he would ensure their safety if they would come home to rebuild their nation.

That appeal motivated Lamin Drammeh, 34, to return home to pursue a management course at a private business school in Banjul.

“When I was in Senegal, I never felt comfortable. Other Gambians there were not either,” said Drammeh. “But since I returned home, I am now fulfilled and determined that the Gambia is now open and free for all to explore.”

The international community is also stepping in.

In late February, the Chinese government provided 23 scholarships for Gambian undergraduate and graduate students to study in China.

But some Gambians think the country needs to focus on developing its domestic educational capacity.

Janet Bajang Young runs a theatre in Banjul. She believes the change in regime is an opportunity to use theatre to promote civil rights and girl’s education. The government previously banned theatre performances that raised critical issues in society. Officials either refused to issue a permit for performances or arrested actors and producers.

“My desire is to train a group of young girls to use theatre and raise people’s awareness levels on girls’ education and gender-based violence,” she said. “We will do this through personal interaction in schools, markets, community centres to ensure it filters right down. We still see men battering their kids and wives. Some men still think girls should not be sent to school. This is a key challenge we will try to reduce.”

Ibrahim Ceesay, 40, is an English teacher at a Catholic school in Banjul. He was hopeful that teachers would be empowered to improve Gambian schools under current President Barrow.

“Under the former regime, even though we were dissatisfied with the conditions of service, we were not allowed to voice our concerns,” said Ceesat. “Our union meetings were dispersed several times by the police and we were always afraid to raise issues around our welfare. Now we can advocate and discuss with Government on what’s best for the development of the sector. That in itself is a step forward.”

Echoing Ceesay’s thoughts, Bojang noted that most professors at the University of the Gambia were foreign. He also felt that the country needed to develop its native potential more.

“That tells you the education sector in this country was not open for all to participate freely,” he said. “Now my hope is after graduation, I will be able to influence society positively and involve in governance discuss without persecution.”

Some students are already thinking about expanding higher education in the Gambia.

Ousman Diatta, 28, a second-year communications student, wants a broader selection of courses. That might mean the country needs another university or at least new programs, he said.

“One university for the whole Gambia is not enough,” said Diatta. “There has to be competition with specialized and modern courses in development and information technology. If that happens, we will see more youth potentials coming from the Gambia.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar. 
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