THE SALIKENNI SCHOLARSHIP FUND
Dr. Wuyeh Keita
When Wuyeh Keita, from the village of Dobo, took the Hippocratic Oath to become a doctor on June 22, 2022, the event was a milestone in a long personal journey, but he still has far to go before treating Gambian patients.
The ceremony marked his completion of the seven-year medical school of the University of The Gambia, although because Covid-19 disrupted the university schedule, this actually took almost eight years.
Wuyeh (pronounced WEE) now is eligible for a two-year provisional license to practice in The Gambia as a junior doctor. But he plans instead to apply for a medical residency in the United States, and after that to return to practice medicine in his home country.
“It is my intention to come back to this country to practice after further training in the West,” Wuyeh wrote in an interview conducted in written questions and answers. “We very much need doctors here, but most importantly we need better trained doctors.” He will seek a residency in internal medicine.
There are residency opportunities in The Gambia, he said, but these do not provide the level of training available abroad. The Gambia’s main teaching hospital is not accredited to offer residencies in his field of choice, internal medicine.
Wuyeh’s formal education began at the primary school in the nearby village of Banni. When he was in grade 2, his father, Seikou Keita, a Dobo farmer, died. The family was destitute, and he had to leave school for several years. In 2005, when he was 14, his mother, Omie, enrolled him again in grade 2 in Banni. He completed grades 2-4 there, skipped grade 5, after reading its syllabus, and enrolled in grade 6 in the village of Salikenni. He joined SSF in 2008, when he was in grade 7 there, and we have continued to sponsor him through middle school, high school, and medical school.
Wuyeh walked from Dobo to Salikenni and back each day for grades 7-9, nearly an hour each way. His classes were in the afternoon shift, but he would arrive early, and we often found him in the school library, reading.
When he was admitted to the science program at Masroor Senior Secondary School in the suburbs of Banjul, his family had no relatives in the area whom he could ask for lodging. Our then manager Fatou Janneh allowed him to live in a shed outside her house in Sukuta and provided him with food and money to travel to and from school. Later he lived in the campus that SSF opened in 2013 to house its high school and college level students.
“My mother has been a catalyst in my academic journey,” Wuyeh said. “From the day she walked me to the Banni school in 2005 she hasn’t for a day gotten tired of supporting me.” As this is written, Omie was ill with a diagnosis of stomach cancer. She was receiving palliative care at home and, according to Wuyeh, was “doing better.”
Omie was in charge of the compound for many years after her husband’s death. Now that she has slowed down, Wuyeh’s older brother, Fakanda, has taken on that job. Fakanda’s two wives and numerous children also live in the compound. Several of the young ones are in school.
The family has encouraged Wuyeh’s medical education even though he could not contribute to their financial support. “They are happy to see me become the first doctor, not only in the family, but in the entire village,” Wuyeh said. “This I think could serve as encouragement to the young ones that if I can do it, they can do it better.”
“Access to health care is poor in The Gambia, especially for people living in the rural Gambia,” Wuyeh wrote in our interview. He explained that most of the major hospitals are in the urban area. Rural hospitals typically are understaffed because there is little incentive for doctors and nurses to live there.
“The most important thing hindering healthcare workers going to the rural Gambia is the low pay,” he wrote. “Most Gambian doctors and nurses work at more than one hospital in the Banjul area to earn more. Therefore it’s difficult for some of these doctors and nurses to be posted by the government to rural areas with no incentives.”
“The Gambia lacks most of the basic diagnostic tools that are paramount for day to day clinical care,” he wrote. “For instance, as I write, there is no functioning CT scan or MRI in all the government facilities in The Gambia. The Gambia being on the list of countries with a high rate of road traffic accidents, patients are forced to pay exorbitant prices in private scanning centers or left to die.”
And there are not enough specialists. “Medicine is evolving every day, and to provide the best quality of care doctors must specialize in different fields. This is lacking in this country. For example, right now I know of only one neurosurgeon in this country. And he is expected to provide care to everyone in this country with a neurosurgical problem, which is not possible. People with treatable diseases get referred for overseas treatment or are unfortunately left to die, because there is nobody with the required training to take car of them in The Gambia.”
Wuyeh said the Covid-19 pandemic was an “eye opener” for every nation in the world, including The Gambia. “We were long unprepared for any such health crisis. Lack of hospital spaces, low doctor to patient ratio were all laid bare. Therefore, even with low mortalities compared to other countries in the West, this country’s response to Covid-19 was poor.”
The Gambia has suffered 4,826 confirmed cases of Covid-19 per million of its population cumulatively from the start of the pandemic through mid-June 2022. The same statistic for the United States was 258,497 deaths per million. [Our World in Data] Most of Africa also has had lower case rates than western countries. The causes, according to experts, may include the youthfulness of Africa’s population and limited testing.
As in much of Africa, Wuyeh said, the economic effects of the pandemic have been major. “Most people here live from hand to mouth. Their livelihoods are in small businesses. With Covid restrictions, these businesses have been seriously affected. Thus making it difficult for many people to earn income for their needs.” At the same time, Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised food prices.
But The Gambia has learned some lessons from Covid, Wuyeh wrote. At the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital in Banjul, “When cases started spiraling up, the infected cases couldn’t be handled in the hospital because of small space and poor infrastructure. The government had to create makeshift centers for admitted Covid patients. This I believe led the government to embark on renovations and some new structures at the hospital. That project is still ongoing.”
Wuyeh is very grateful for SSF’s support, and so is his mother Omie. Shortly before he took the Hippocratic Oath he told us: “When I visited her last week she asked me to extend her gratitude to you and the SSF for your support to me.”
Alimatou Bah is in many ways a modern Gambian woman, managing marriage, motherhood, and a career.
She has come a long way since 2008 when she joined SSF as a new student from the village of Dobo in grade 7 at the government school in Salikenni. Her parents, Massaneh Bah and Maimuna Sowe, farmers in Dobo, were not satisfied with the quality of teaching at the Salikenni school, so they sent her to live with an older sister, Oumie Bah, who was then and still is the bursar at the Yundum Upper Basic School near the capital city, Banjul.
Alimatu thrived in that school and finished grade 9 with one of the best overall scores in the history of our program. We then sponsored her through Masroor Senior Secondary School and then at the Management Development Institute, a Gambian business college, where she earned an advanced diploma in banking and finance in June 2017.
After her graduation she married Fabakary B. Ceesay, a journalist and managing editor of The Trumpet, a Gambian newspaper. They have a son, Momodou, now three years old. They live in Ceesay’s family compound in the Serrekunda area of the Banjul suburbs.
Alimatou now has started her own career, working as a cashier at the Saho Kunda branch of Trust Bank Gambia, within walking distance of their home.
Many of our graduates have a hard time finding a job in The Gambia’s economy for which they were trained. This was true for Alimatou. “It took me two years searching for a job, applying to banks,” she told us. She likes banking work and hopes at some point to get further training at the University of The Gambia.
Alimatou said that in The Gambia it is not very unusual for young married couples to each continue their careers. “Though there are many households where only the man works,” she said, “ours is not like that. We both work to support each other.”
Ebrima Marong earns Master's Degree
In May 2022, Ebrima Marong earned a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering degree from Minnesota State University. Fund Administrators Dave May and Anne May Hart travelled to Mankato to recognize this achievement. In June, Ebrima will join the Google Hardware Pixel Device team in their Chicago branch as an RF Desense Hardware Engineer. In that position he will be working with Google's artificial intelligence, software, and hardware to create global smartphones and other advancements. As enthusiastic as ever, Ebrima said "It is going to be another great learning experience which I am looking forward to exploring."
Further information about Ebrima's career thus far is included in a story further down this page.
Note: Dave and Anne's travel expenses were paid personally and not by the Fund.
Two new university graduates
Amadou Ceesay (left) and Ansumana Kassama (right) have formally graduated from the University of The Gambia in ceremonies held on 5 March 2022. Both have been sponsored by SSF since junior secondary school in Salikenni village.
Amadou received a bachelor of science degree in political science, with honors. He plans a career advocating for peace and human rights. He already has direct experience in this area. In 2017 he founded a group called Rise of the Young Gambia. The group conducted voter education in rural villages in the lead-up to the December 2021 presidential election. It plans to do the same in upcoming legislative and local government elections. It has conducted human rights education in schools.
Ansumana received a bachelor of science degree in accounting. Though many new university graduates in The Gambia struggle to find jobs, he already has one. He’s been working for several months for the Gambian Ministry of Finance as a procurement specialist.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted education at all levels in The Gambia during the past year. At the university, many students found it difficult to attend classes online. Lecturers found it difficult to complete their curricula on time.
As a result, several SSF university students who should have formally graduated on 5 March were unable to do so because of a course or a paper yet to be completed. In one case some of a student’s freshman grades went missing in an electronic system, and the student was told to make up the lost credits.
Taking this Covid chaos into account, when we published our Annual Report in November, we wrote about all the students who were wrapping up their degrees at that time, without trying to guess when they would actually appear in caps and gowns. We did so to show how hard they had worked and how much they had achieved in a wide variety of fields of learning. You can read all of their stories, and more about the two who did graduate, in our 2021 Annual Report available here.
— 6 March 2022
Ba Alagie Conteh, Esq.
Ba Alagie Conteh, the first SSF student to choose the law as a career, has been “called to the bar” in a ceremony at the High Court Complex in Banjul.
He will now start a one year pupilage, working under an experienced lawyer. After six months of this he will be eligible to appear in Magistrate Court. After the full year he can be licensed to practice law.
Ba Alagie was one of 60 students called to the bar this year, which means they have completed the bar course at Gambia Law School and passed the bar exam. Slightly more than half of these new graduates are women.
Ba Alagie comes from the small village of Banni. He has been under SSF sponsorship since grade 7. In 2020 he earned a bachelor’s degree in law at the University of The Gambia. He has long had a major interest in human rights law. (See earlier story in our 2021 annual report here.)
— 8 February 2022
Ebrima Marong Receives Bachelor of Science with Honors
In grade 7 at the government school in the village of Salikenni, Ebrima Marong was always quick to raise his hand, sometimes both hands, waving his arms eagerly to answer a question.Ebrima has maintained that enthusiasm for education ever since.
On May 8, 2021 he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Minnesota State University, Mankato, becoming the first SSF student to reach that level in a school in the United States. He begins work as an intern at a Minnesota engineering firm next month and plans to earn a master’s degree at Mankato during coming year.
Ebrima grew up in the village of Mandori, which had no government school. Its children walked 45 minutes each way to and from Salikenni to attend classes conducted in English, which is the official language of The Gambia. He is the youngest of seven children of Bubacarr Marong, a farmer and teacher of the Koran, and he was the only one of his siblings to be sent to the government school.
It would be wrong to imply there was no learning in Mandori. Young people came to his father’s house to study the Koran in Arabic. Children have long attended an “Arabic school” in the village. His father required all of his own children to have this training. “Before I got to elementary school I was able to read the Koran at a certain level,” Ebrima recalls.
“I was interested in reading and getting to know numbers,” he said in an interview in early 2020. “A friend of my dad used to come to our house. He would examine us. He would say, ‘If you can count from 1 to 50 [in English] I will give you a present.’ He would do that for all the children. I could count from 1 to 100 and I could recite the alphabet from A to Zed. And so they said maybe we should send him to school.”
His grade 1 teacher was amazed that he could count and write his name, and the principal quickly moved him to grade 2.
“I was with friends. We were learning to read. I started loving it. I started becoming a person. I enjoyed going to school. I enjoyed reading books. We had books for grade 2, 3, 4. There was a passage about a woman who was going to the market, leaving her children in the house. I don’t remember the rest of the passage. I could read fluently by grade 3 or 4. There was an SSF library in the school.”
His enthusiasm carried him through the science program at Nusrat, one of The Gambia’s best senior secondary schools. “I made a lot of friends at high school,” he said. “There were a lot of good students in my classes. We dug into our courses and we loved what we were doing. That made high school more fun. We got to grade 12 and worked on some projects. High school was a great experience. It was just a terrific place I thought.
“And I began to learn science. I was more into the physics aspect and the mathematic aspect, and that has given me motivation to explore engineering, and develop a passion for engineering.”
In 2017, his final year at Nusrat, Ebrima was chosen to be one of five Gambian high school students to represent the country in an international robotics competition held in Washington D.C. With no previous knowledge of the subject, the team spent three months in The Gambia doing research on the Internet and building a robot designed to demonstrate a way to remove impurities from water. When they took it to the competition arena in Washington, their entry won 77th position among 163 countries, beating high school students from the United States and Russia.
“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “It gave me the chance to explore the world, to meet people from China, Nepal, Tunisia, England. And I still know some of those people from other parts of the world. We are friends on social media. So it was a life-changing experience.”
The experience confirmed his ambition to become an engineer — and refined it. He would be an electrical engineer. But there was no way to pursue that goal in The Gambia. The University of The Gambia had no department of engineering. The country’s main technical training school was getting bad reviews from students who enrolled there.
Unable to pursue engineering, Ebrima enrolled in the University of The Gambia’s medical school and began classes. He also applied online to the university in Mankato, which he had heard about during the robotics competition.
On December 14, 2017, Ebrima emailed us that he had been accepted into the university’s engineering program. He already had a US student visa. A Gambian mentor had promised to buy him an airline ticket.
A few days later he arrived in Mankato. “It was very cold,” he recalled later. “I felt very nervous, because I didn’t know anyone in that city. I was the only one there. And it was just a terrible experience. But everyone was welcoming.” Local people took him to a store to buy warm clothing. The university arranged housing. “Minnesota people are friendly to immigrants,” he said.
The Salikenni Scholarship Fund has financed Ebrima’s study at Mankato in large part through private donations. Our budget does not permit us to finance education outside The Gambia with SSF funds.