MEET ISATOU CEESAY AND CAROL CUNNINGHAM
WOMEN’S INITIATIVE GAMBIA CO-FOUNDERS
Carol Cunningham is a cross-cultural communications expert and the president of Cunningham Consulting. Her work focuses on supporting global growth through understanding the intricacies and impact of culture and cultural differences. For over 20 years and across five continents, she had provided consulting, training, and coaching services to 100’s of managers and executives in multinational and global companies.
Carol is not just a business expert and consultant. She has also been active in global development projects. She and her daughter, Kathryn, created a non-profit, Power Up Gambia—bringing solar power to hospitals and clinics. With this non-profit she took many trips to The Gambia to ensure that the solar panels were properly installed and maintained. She grew connected to the people and the country.
Isatou Ceesay particularly impressed Carol. Isatou had already started the Njau Women’s Group, a cooperative of about 90 women that made and sold dried fruit, batik fabric, handbags made of plastic, and other products. Carol was impressed with Isatou’s dynamism and ability to get things done. In 2009, Carol and Issatou co-founded Women’s Initiative Gambia (WIG). Carol brought her expertise in cross-cultural business, fundraising, and desire for women empowerment. Isatou brought her passion, local cultural expertise, her collaboration skills, and her desire to help her fellow Gambians. This combination of talents proved an ideal team to found WIG.
I am a Gambian environmentalist and social entrepreneur nicknamed ‘Queen of Recycling’. I was born into a polygamous family in N’jau, a small village located in the Central River Region of the country. My parents were poor immigrants from Mali who struggled against all odds to settle in their new environment.
My father died when I was nine, leaving the burden of looking after the family on my mother. I dropped out of high school because my mother could not afford to pay for my schooling. Out of school and jobless, my family members had wanted me to get married but I had plans of my own. My mother worked hard to put food on the table for the family, but despite the challenges, she was full of joy and very contented with life. I admired her and I made up my mind at that point that I would love to spend my life rendering services to women like my mother who strived each day to provide for the family.
I turned to volunteerism which provided me the opportunity to work with the US Peace Corps Volunteers in my community through which I was inspired to venture into an enterprise of my own. My voluntary services with Peggy, a US Peace Corp Volunteer posted to my village in 1997 became the turning point. Through her, I attended a waste management training workshop in neighbouring Senegal and I was inspired to go into environmental work.
My collaborators and I figured out a way to recycle discarded plastic bags into useful products, such as ladies’ bags, purses, balls, and wallets. We formed local women groups and trained them on processing waste plastic into long stripes which could then be woven into useful products. The women were able to sell these products, bringing in much-needed money, and at the same time helping reduce plastic waste in their community.
In 2012, WIG was registered as a Community-Based Organization (CBO). Since then, the initiative has grown beyond plastic recycling to include other areas of recycling—such as briquette production from discarded groundnut and coconut shells, and bag production from used rice bags—as well as teaching entrepreneurial skills and empowerment to women, youth and disabled groups.
There were points along my journey when I felt like I was alone. A particular period was between 1997 and 2000 when I was engaged in selling the project idea to people. Being poor, young, and a woman felt like I was all alone and nobody seemed to be listening to what I had to say.
The lesson of my life that I would like to share is that being a school dropout is not the end of a girl’s dream in life. While education propels one into achieving their dreams, it is one’s will power and believing in one’s self that makes all the difference. I did not allow my poor education to define me. I did not allow my family and society to define me. The only person who could define me was myself, and it was how I defined myself that has made me to become what I wanted in life despite the challenges I was surrounded with.
There are millions of young girls and women out there who have dropped out of their careers in life. To them I say, do not let the hurdles define your life. Look around you and try another approach, and keep trying and you will find one that works for you. Believe in yourself and believe in what you want in life, and go for it. Be prepared to persevere in the face of adversity and success will be yours.