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 the 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.
SSF Sends Out Two New Human Rights Advocates
In the midst of the corona pandemic, two SSF students recently completed all work on university degrees in
two subjects that break new ground for our scholarship program — law and politics. Both now plan careers
in the field of human rights.
Ba Alagie Conteh is the first of our students to complete the four year law school at the
University of The Gambia. He will apply for admission to the bar and plans to become a
lawyer specializing in human rights law.
Buba Njie is the first SSF student to finish four years of study for a bachelor’s degree in political
science. He has been a vocal advocate for human rights in recent years.
Both students have completed all coursework and exams. With the pandemic disrupting all Gambian education,
they will have to wait awhile to receive their diplomas.
In past years our post high school students have been interested mainly in medicine, nursing, and subjects
such as economics, accounting and business. Now they are moving into the social sciences.
Ba Alagie comes from the small village of Bani, near Salikenni. He joined our program in 2010 when he was in
grade 7 in the Salikenni school. He said The Gambia is a country with not enough legal experts but with continuing
human rights problems ranging from police interference with freedom of assembly to cultural discrimination
based on ancient traditions of viewing people as “nobles” or “slaves.”
“I will be able to help many people both nationally and internationally if their rights are violated,” he said in an
interview by text messages.
Buba Njie, son of a Salikenni farmer, has been an ardent advocate for human rights even while a student. He recently spoke on the subject before the United Democratic Party, a major political group. He already has started two jobs: one as political director for a media company, the other as researcher and policy strategist for the Centre for Research and Policy Development, a Gambian think tank that is focusing on the country’s transition to democracy.
This would-be transition is a work in progress. It has been going on since 2016 when voters threw out a 22-year dictatorship. A Truth, Reconciliation and Commission is still delving into past acts of torture and other brutalities. The Gambia’s constitution is being debated.
Our two students will be busy in the years ahead. July 2020
Salikenni Residents Support Human Rights
The Salikenni Declaration 2020 is not as old as the Magna Carta (1215), perhaps not as
elegant as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) or the African Charter
(activated 1986). But as human rights statements go, it has as much heart as any of the those.
It grew out of an initiative by a group of senior students sponsored by the Salikenni Scholarship
Fund, who went to Salikenni village on January 18, 2020, and held a workshop on human rights.
About 60 people took part in the event at the Salikenni Basic Cycle School — men and women,
young and old, teachers and village residents.
The workshop began with presentations on the history and importance of human rights, particularly in the African context of poverty, unemployment, and insufficient health and education systems. Then the village people divided themselves into small groups to discuss which rights are most important to them. Each group included youths, elders, and women. After these often-animated discussions, the groups reported back to the full session. The Declaration, containing 27 points, was drafted from their recommendations.
“The points were all selected by the village people,” said Amadou Ceesay, a third year political science student at the University of The Gambia, and the main organizer of the workshop. The event was co-sponsored by a local non-profit group called Ella Nyanto Loung. All of the discussion was conducted in the Mandinka language.
Perhaps reflecting the number of young people involved, the first recommendation in the Declaration calls for “Youth participation in decision making on issues concerning Human Rights.” Rights are enumerated for universal education, economic development, job opportunities, affordable and quality health care, justice, freedom of speech, assembly and the press, women’s participation in politics, and protection of the environment. There are calls for public protest against child marriage, poverty and police brutality.
So as not to leave anything out, the document specifically endorses the entire 1948 United Nations human rights declaration.
Both Amadou Ceesay and another presenter, Buba S. Njie, a fourth year political science student at the university, said a human rights meeting could not have been held during the 22-year autocratic regime of former president Yahya Jammeh, who was voted out of office in December 2016. The fact that this meeting took place clearly shows a significant return of democracy. But both students said human rights have not completely been restored under the current government. Njie noted that the Public Order Act, which Jammeh used to
suppress public demonstrations, is still on the books. Ceesay said he himself was arrested and detained at a police station last year for taking part in a street demonstration.
The student group plans to hold similar meetings in 14 other Gambian communities by the end of 2020.
Photo credit: Amadou Ceesay
Ba Alagie Conteh
Local Initiatives in Mandori
For decades, as demand for education grew in rural Gambia, Mandori remained a village without a school. The village was not totally without education. For generations the local Imam would invite young people to live in his compound and, and he would teach them to read the Koran in Arabic. Some years ago the community erected a building for Islamic education. But to attend the Gambia’s public school system, the normal gateway to high school and university, Mandori children had to walk 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) on a sandy road to the government school in Salikenni and back home each school day.
That has begun to change. This year Mandori has the beginnings of a primary school. So far it includes only grade 1. About 130 boys and girls are enrolled in it, evidence of the high regard Mandori parents have for education. The school does not yet have a building of its own. The primary classes are held mornings in the building of the Islamic school, which meets in the afternoon.
Mandori is a village of about 1,200 people, less than half the size of Salikenni. It is one of several small villages whose children attend the Salikenni school for at least part of grades 1-9. This means they are part of the SSF family, eligible to apply for our scholarships.
The startup of the new school is due to the initiative of the Mandori Youth Society. Alhagi Kanyi, assistant secretary of the group, said the Society appealed to the Gambian education ministry for a primary school, so its young children would not have to walk such distances. The government agreed and has supplied two certified teachers and a headmaster.
The plan is to eventually have a primary school with grades 1-6. Mandori children then would continue to attend the Salikenni school for grades 7-9. The Youth Society plans to launch a fundraising campaign to build a new primary school building.
The organization has had success in the past raising money in small contributions through its What’sApp group account, which includes Mandori residents and people with Mandori connections as far away as Europe, Turkey and China.
Using that method, it has recently raised enough money to partially construct a medical clinic. When that building is complete, the group will ask the government to send nurses and medicine. A future project will be to repair a bridge so that Mandori farmers with their donkey carts can access a potential rice growing area on the other side of a small waterway. March 2020
An Innovation in Tutoring
Shortly before Christmas nine of our scholarship students — five girls and four boys, all in grade 9 at the Salikenni village school — traveled to the Gambia’s busy metropolitan area to train for a crucial set of exams.
There, in the Salikenni Scholarship Fund’s campus in Serrekunda, just outside the
capital city Banjul, they have begun two weeks of intensive classes to prepare for
a week-long series of exams that grade 9 students throughout The Gambia will take
in June. These exams will determine whether they will be able to attend good high
schools in the urban area and thereby increase their chances of going on to higher
The training schedule in the campus library is rigorous — two hours a day in each of
four core subjects: English language, mathematics, science and SES
(social and environmental studies.) All of these, particularly English and math,
have tripped up many of our students in the past.
Eight senior SSF students, both men and women, many enrolled in the University of The Gambia, are teaching the classes as volunteers. Both the trainers and their trainees are on holiday break .
The team of senior students and alumni who manage SSF day to day in The Gambia took the initiative on their own to start the training program. They felt that our long established practice of paying selected teachers at the Salikenni school to hold after-school tutoring classes was not achieving sufficient results.
Abdoulie Bah, SSF’s new manager in The Gambia as of January 1, described the initiative as an experiment to see if a different method will get better results. An assessment will be made of student skills before and after the training. Meanwhile, the older system of hiring Salikenni teachers for tutoring classes has been temporarily stopped.
During their training the grade 9 students live in campus rooms vacated by grade 11 and 12 students, many of whom went to Salikenni to visit their families during the break. The grade 9 students were to be given a tour of the Banjul area, including sights such as the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and high schools they may want to attend.
One of the trainees, Mariama Fatajo, said in a What’sApp phone conversation, that this was her first trip to the urban area, which Gambians call the Kombo. She was obviously thrilled by the experience, and she said, “The classes are helping us a lot.”
Bah said students have told their teachers they wished they could stay longer to cover as many topics as possible. He said the classes are exposing students to topics not necessarily covered in their school, but which may well be on the exams — for example in English: comprehension, summary, and essay writing; and in math, the Pythagorean theorem and graphs.
The nine trainees were scheduled to return to Salikenni on January 5 for the next school term. Many of the senior students, who have a longer break, planned to follow them there to continue the training in the village.
Another batch of grade 9 students, the remainder of the current class of 18, were scheduled to travel to the urban area during their spring break for a similar series of classes in the campus library.
Some Grade 1 students and teachers at the Islamic school where they attend classes.