FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, and BANJUL, Gambia—It’s been just over a year since Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, left office after 23 years in power.
His fall has given students who had fled the regime to neighboring countries a new lease on their educational careers.
For the first time, young people who for years were stuck in a cycle of repression and poverty as refugees now see a chance for their future. Some plan to return to school in Gambia, finish degrees and get jobs, while others who were educated in neighboring Senegal, where many fled, hope employers will accept their degrees or that new opportunities will open for them.
Bakary Jadama, 29, fled to Senegal in 2015 after witnessing government crackdowns on youth protests.
“I saw security men treating students like animals, firing live bullets and beating protesters with sticks,” said Jadama, who returned to Gambia last year. “I fled for my life with a few friends across the border to Senegal. I thought that was the end of my schooling because at that time, life was more important. I wanted to be educated. But it was just a dream because life was difficult living as a refugee. I did several odd jobs to survive and make a living.”
Today, Jadama is a graduate student in business at the University of the Gambia while also operating a cleaning business in Serekunda, a coastal district near Banjul. He hopes his studies will help him expand his business.
Jadama is among many Gambians banking on higher education as they return after the current government said it would ensure their safety if they would come home to rebuild their nation.
The University of the Gambia, in Banjul, is the only higher-education institution in the country of two million people. Today, its halls and walkways are bustling with young people.
That’s a marked change from the past few years: Thousands of students fled in the last few years of Jammeh’s rule as he began cracking down on demonstrations against his regime.
The nation’s political crisis came to a head when Jammeh said he would resign in December 2016, but then changed his mind. Under pressure from Gambia’s neighbors—including a threat of military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States—he finally left office in January 2017.
In those days, police officers regularly arrested and harassed students and others who dared to protest the regime. An unknown number of protesters and dissidents disappeared. Most are presumed dead.
Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, has pledged to investigate their fates. He’s also promised to order an investigation of the April 2000 killing of 14 students by riot police officers after they protested the killing of a fellow student and the reported rape of female student.
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 education capacity.
Ibrahim Ceesay, 40, an English teacher at a Catholic school in Banjul, said he was hopeful that teachers would be empowered to improve Gambian schools under President Barrow.
Ceesay also left the country briefly with his wife in 2015 after authorities disrupted a meeting at his school. He returned last year.
“Under the former regime, even though we were dissatisfied with the conditions of service, we were not allowed to voice our concerns,” he said. “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, Kemo Bojang, a second-year political-science student at the University of the Gambia, noted that most professors at the university were foreign.
“Most of Gambia’s teachers and lecturers are from Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. This is largely because over two decades the Jammeh regime never paid attention to education,” said Bojang, who briefly fled to Guinea to escape violence at home. “The persecution of several other professionals forced most of them to flee to other countries. Hence the standards fell and foreign teachers from neighboring English-speaking countries were recruited.”
Bojang wants to help improve the university’s potential with Gambian know-how. “My hope is, after graduation, I will be able to influence society positively and be involved in governance discussions without persecution,” he said.
Others want to expand higher education in Gambia.
Ousman Diatta, 28, a second-year communications student, wants a broader selection of courses. He was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he did some English courses during his stay there in 2014.
“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 potential coming from the Gambia.”
Alpha Kamara reported from Freetown. Kadijjatou Jawo reported from Banjul.