How Isatou Ceesay created an umbrella of environmental solutions in The Gambia.
Twenty-five years ago, it took an entire day, from sunrise to sunset, to travel from The Gambia’s capital region, Banjul, to a tiny village called Njau. Though the distance between the two points on the map is only 248km (154 miles), the journey involved a local taxi, a ferry crossing over a river with no bridges, nearly a dozen police checkpoints, the transfer of cargo (and people) into another local transport and (almost inevitably) a breakdown or other delay, such as when a driver passing his ancestral village needed to stop to greet his home people.
Today, the journey to Njau can take as little as three to four hours. It’s just one sign of the rapid changes in Gambian life. Private cars and vehicles are everywhere. The main highways are paved over almost their entire length. Halfway up the country, a beautiful bridge, completed in 2019, arcs over the Gambia River. The signs of development are everywhere, including one of the most obvious and (to outsiders’ eyes) distasteful: rubbish.
Along the roads, plastic bags, bottles and other discarded packaging are rampant. Traffic jams form at intersections in busier towns and villages. Unfinished buildings line the roads, abandoned by builders and families who dreamed of a modern house, but did not have the funds to see the project through.
And yet, as one approaches the village of Njau, there is a feeling of travelling back in time. Unlike neighbouring villages, it is not connected to the national grid. (The generally held belief is that a previous administration withheld the village’s electrification because its residents refused to vote for the now-ousted dictator). As in many of the rural provincial areas, residents rely on well water, and many houses are made of traditional mud brick and clay. Most noticeable, however, is how all that litter disappears almost entirely as you enter the village; Njau’s sandy streets provide a welcome, rubbish-free invitation to explore.
Njau’s hidden progress
Why is this village so different? Ask anyone, and they’ll give you a name rather than a reason – Isatou Ceesay. But if you find her, prepare for a humble reply. “I am not thinking about myself within any situation,” Isatou says. “I am living within the situation, but I want to make sure the next generation has a better life. What I did was use the recycling of plastic bags as my umbrella, to be able to gain access to the community and discuss issues that are affecting women and young people in general.”
A closer look into Njau’s traditional landscape reveals some of the town’s solutions to those issues. Solar panels line several roofs and children use solar chargers to keep their tablets and phones charged and running. The clay bricks on the women’s skills centre buildings are newly engineered to keep interiors cool. Just across the street are sustainably irrigated gardens, run in partnership with the US’s Ohio State University. There, hundreds of carefully grafted saplings are growing in a nursery, waiting to join the thousands of trees already planted over the previous years. And every week or so, visitors from around the world arrive to visit or volunteer with of one of The Gambia’s longest-running grassroots organisations, the Women’s Initiative Gambia (WIG).
Just a few days’ stay in Njau also offers any visitor a chance to observe some of the invisible aspects of progress, such as an inspirational mindset, can-do attitude, and an environment where men and women work together. These are just some of the intangible impacts created by WIG, the organisation that put Njau on the international radar. What started with a simple plastic bag clean-up has evolved into a giant umbrella for fighting climate change, reforesting parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, supporting women’s empowerment, promoting disability advocacy, and preserving traditional knowledge and culture.
The story of how this village became a beacon for both progress and preservation starts after plastic bags invaded the country, wreaking havoc. Plastic bags killed livestock (when ingested), provided mosquito breeding grounds and strangled gardens. While many ignored the problem or merely complained about its catastrophic effects, in 1997, Isatou Ceesay joined US Peace Corps Volunteer Peggy Sedlak and five other Gambian women to perform the first organised plastic bag clean-up. Isatou remembers, “I began working with five women who definitely trusted me and believed that my concept could be a concept that would support the next generation.”
That trust and partnership led them to ultimately settle on an idea to wash and dry the bags, then cut them into strips of ‘plarn’ to be woven into recycled coin purses. Their first attempts were rough but, as time went on, they improved their product and peddled it to locals, volunteers and tourists. It was a humble beginning; the town’s residents and even Isatou’s own family pleaded with her to stop cleaning up waste, which was considered embarrassing, shameful and dirty work.
As a young, female, high school dropout from a refugee family, Isatou Ceesay was seen in Njau as the least capable person to lead an organisation. “[My father’s family] are refugees from Mali who settled in The Gambia,” Isatou recalls. “Because of the culture, the community treated us as the minority and some even said, “a slave should be a slave”. It was something that I definitely worked so hard and climbed so hard to make a change for.” At the time, women were also not allowed to be leaders on any local or wider government council; even in their own homes they were discouraged from handling money or making decisions.
And yet, Isatou persisted. Twenty-five years later, her photo is on display at the national museum in Kachikally and in popular city restaurants such as Smile Lounge in the touristy area known as Senegambia. Her story has been told in books and documentaries. Above all, WIG is not only still active, but it has also expanded into nearly every corner of Gambian society and is inspiring countless individuals and groups to find solutions to problems other than plastic waste.
Initiatives spurred and supported by WIG include Young Environmental Change clubs at nearly three dozen schools in four regions of The Gambia; a tree nursery called Reforest the Future; an educational and nutritional programme for young mothers; school sponsorships; skills training; campaigns against female genital mutilation; alternative charcoal briquette making; savings and bank training; solar panel installation… the list goes on.
If you have a few people who believe what you believe, you can make a big impact.
Today, a shift is happening. Five women now sit on the Njau village council. Isatou and WIG have directly trained more than 11,000 people in sustainable practices. The young children who grew up with Isatou Ceesay – and the children of the other founding women of WIG – are taking charge of the organisation’s future. Since a country-wide plastic bag ban went into effect in 2015, WIG’s focus has shifted to reforestation, climate change and climate justice. Although The Gambia is often called out in the media for its poverty and low literacy rates, there is an awareness and sense of urgency within the country’s youth when it comes to environmental issues and responsibility.
“Today, from the five [original] women, we are supporting 75 communities, and more than 5,000 women and youths directly who benefit from our organisation,” Isatou proudly states. “If you have a few people who believe what you believe, you can make a big impact. So, we are calling the whole world to come, and we join together to build the next generation.”
Whether the issue of the hour is native vs invasive species, the interconnectedness of trees, or the ever-changing language surrounding identity and disability, the Gambians involved in any offshoot of or partnership with WIG are talking – and TikToking – about all of it.
It may still take several hours to travel from Banjul to Njau by car these days, but you don’t even have to set foot in The Gambia to come across Isatou’s wide-reaching (and fast expanding) impact. From a school named after her in Dubai to the children’s book about how her journey started with just ‘one plastic bag’, now published in six languages, Isatou’s story is out there, and it’s making a difference.
Miranda Paul is the award-winning children’s author of more than 20 books including One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia. She lives in the US with her family and spends her time teaching, travelling and volunteering around the world.
Photos by Luke Duggleby. Luke is an award-winning British photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand.
This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.