Ngaima Sesay: Saving Gambia from Itself

State of Mind

After years of living in fear of one’s neighbor, friends and even family, today, most Gambians believe to a large extent the past is behind us; and as a nation “we shall overcome”. However, the reality is Gambia will continue to experience generational trauma as a result of Jammeh’s reign. A reign where wives saw their husbands disappear never to be seen again; a reign where daughters were raped; a reign where sons were tortured; and a reign where favorite uncles were led to crocodile infested waters. Entire family units have been affected. For a society, who’s 6 degrees of separation is more like 2 degrees nearly, every single person has been affected by the 22-years of dictatorship either emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually.

 

As defined by American Psychiatric Association, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Increasing the quality of, and access to mental health is paramount in truly achieving a “new” Gambia. One that is inclusive, tolerant and progressive. In the fight to save our country from all of its ailments, mental health advocates like Ngaima Sesay are blazing the trail in reframing the issue making it more palatable to a community ignoring it’s trauma-related disorders. As the founder of Organization for Psychosocial Innovation (OPI), she is creating a safe space for services and discord for all of us!

Here, we share Ngaima’s passion for mental health awareness and services!

Tell us your story. Who is Ngaima?

I dream, breathe, and live mental health!

I am a creative, my creativity powers my passion for mental health by allowing me to dream up innovative solutions. Simultaneously, my passion allows me to tap into my creativity. My life and career have been driven by a strong passion to promote, and protect mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

I, especially, want to expand on the field of mental health and psychology in Africa (starting with The Gambia) as there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health. My goal is to create mental health awareness in African communities, lobby for greater government investment in mental health services and push for policies to address service disparities in mental health care which include reforms on social policies there impact on mental such as policies on prison, employment, social welfare, education etc. 

What made you want to be a psychosocial trauma professional?

Being a psychosocial trauma professional had never really been a part of my career plans. My plans revolved around clinical psychology and global mental health, juggling between research, academia and policy development. However, when the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission was established, I saw in it an opportunity to practice and work outside of academia. My work, there, allowed me to get a better grasp of the interrelation of social factors and life experiences to mental health and people’s ability to function. It was such an eye opener for me, understanding trauma and learning new types of psychosocial interventions and trauma therapies. I received the necessary training, and my career as a psychosocial trauma professional took off.

As an advocate, what impact are you looking to make in your community, and country at large? 

For me, being a mental health advocate revolves around being a voice for the voiceless. This involves educating Gambian communities about mental health and eliminating the stigma, judgment and discrimination surrounding mental health and ill health. Stigma and discrimination has really pushed people who have mental health conditions or diagnosis to bottle up their pain, to suffer in silence and to not seek help. It has caused our government to neglect mental health and to provide services that are subpar.

Lack of knowledge and awareness of mental health has really exacerbated this by fueling misconceptions and stereotypes. And, that is why I am hoping that through my advocacy, people will be given an opportunity to share their mental health stories, to understand that mental health treatment is their right and not a western thing, and that people with mental health challenges deserve to be treated with respect and dignity

I, also, hope that through my advocacy, policy makers will begin to understand the importance of mental health and our government will scale-up investment in mental health care, because the development of our nation largely depends on it. When mental health is ignored, when stigma and discrimination is prevalent, when mental health care is inaccessible the cost is quite high. Unfortunately, the people in positions do not know this, they cannot put policies in place to make the necessary changes. It is up to mental health advocates to make them understand the burden of mental health on the individual, social, and the economic benefits of investing in mental health. 

As an African woman working with the TRRC in The Gambia, and hearing first hand the trauma women have experienced under Jammeh; how do we, do away with toxic traditional concepts such as enduring hardships and abuse for the sake of keeping families and communities together?

Empowerment is the key ingredient to ending harmful traditional concepts that put women in precarious conditions. Women should be educationally empowered, this is first, and foremost, the most important form of empowerment that can be given to women which will allow them to fight patriarchal traditional concepts that allows society to suppress their feelings, thoughts and voices. When we are empowered educationally, we become self-sufficient and confident enough to leave situations that do not serve us.  

Women should be socially empowered, so, their contributions in society aren’t limited to traditional roles, their positions in social structures should be elevated to give them more decision-making roles, which includes equal job opportunities. Social empowerment allows us to fight prejudices against our gender that force us to stay and endure abuse because women should be “patient”.

Women should be financially empowered, as most women stay because they are at an economic disadvantage and lack the resources to walk away from abuse or breakaway from toxic traditional concepts. 

Women should be politically empowered, because by doing this, we’re ensured that the voiceless are well represented in the implementation of policies and programs that concern us.

Finally, women should be psychologically empowered, as years of patriarchal rule has labelled us as the inferior gender, which has led to demeaning behavioral interactions with women. Psychological empowerment allows women to recognize their self-worth in spite of all the traditional stereotypes against them, this recognition of their self-worth gives them autonomy to actively control their own lives.

The Our Stories, Our Way Fast Three!

1. What’s your favorite book to read for relaxation?

Unfortunately, it has been way too long since I last picked up a book to read. So, presently, for relaxation I’d rather just have absolute quiet, and maybe snuggle in with a movie and food.

2. If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be and why?

My mom, because she spent her entire life working so hard to give us the life she didn’t have. She never slowed down, she was constantly at it. Now, I want her to just sit and talk and pick her brain because she’s got so many gems, so much experience; and I can learn so much from her, and I want to learn so much from her.

3. What’s your best advice to the young Ngaima?

Breathe baby girl, breathe. I know it has been a lonely journey but don’t rush getting into anything or anyone, enjoy the quiet. You’re beautiful, you’re amazing, you’re smart, and anybody will be a fool to not see that. Stop doubting yourself, stop selling yourself short and stop waiting for validation from people who do not know you or your worth. I promise I love you with all of me.

***Look out for Ngaima’s special post this Thursday***

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