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Sheriff Sambou, US-based Gambian health entrepreneur

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Sheriff Sambou started a career in nursing at the then School of Nursing and Midwifery in the late 1980s. In 1994, he abruptly quit for greener pastures to the US and unlike many, found those pastures in the same medical field in his adopted country the USA, where he now runs three nursing companies employing dozens of staff.

In this edition of Bantaba, he talks to Standard editor Lamin Cham about his inspiring life experiences and plans to apply and replicate his successful American dream in his native Gambia.

The Standard: Who is Sheriff Sambou?

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Even this simple question requires explanation so be prepared for a long day if you want to share my life experiences with your audience. I used to be called Sheriffo Sambou from my christening mat until when I got to Primary 6 at Brufut Primary School where one teacher, Abass Manneh of blessed memory, decided that Sheriffo is a title and not a name. He advised that the right name is Sheriff and so legally and in all papers I am Sheriff Sambou but in Brufut and to many who know me from the cradle, I am still Sheriffo Sambou.

So where do you hail from, Foni or Brufut?

Actually I was born in Kampasa in Foni and before my stepfather moved to Brufut, (my dad passed away when I was two), I was sent to Kalagi Primary School staying with a relative at nearby Jarol village. But then we moved to Brufut where I completed primary school and then went to Saint Augustine’s High School from 1982 to 1987.

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Any later-in-life well known classmates at Saints you can remember?

Oh certainly, bunch of future ministers and top civil servants actually. Benjamin Roberts, Edward Singhatey, Mustapha Batchilly of BCC who actually became a close friend are just a few.

How did your professional career as a nurse begin?

Well you know in those days coming from the rural area was in itself a challenge. So having no connections in the system I had to struggle to find a job and after many trials someone suggested I go to the School of Nursing and frankly that was the last thing on my mind at that time because I did arts in school not science and my dream was to become an economist or politician. However, I went along and applied for enrolment and in those days all information about vacancies came through Radio Gambia’s public announcements.  So, actually people heard my name and told me that I was being invited to an interview. I attended the interview and was accepted so I started the course in 1988 and completed in 1991. It was a class of about 25 but only 17 of us graduated. I was posted to do peri-operative nursing which trains you on emergency medicine and operating room consultancy. It was a novelty programme supported by UN or WHO under Dr Ulric Jones and Dr Osinowo from Nigeria.  Following completion, they sent us to strategic hospitals or clinics where they were planning to start operations and I was posted to Kuntaur in early 1993. But as destiny would have it, it ended abruptly because in December of the same year I obtained a visa to go to the US and off I went in January 1994. I settled a few months in New York and then moved to Seattle where I am still staying.

I immediately enrolled to get the US board certification to become a nurse. That is an examination you must undergo to be certified as a nurse. It was also easy for me because the standard of nursing education in The Gambia was ranked to be the same as UK so the Americans accepted my level as long as I can pass the exam. And of course they required my transcripts direct from the School of Nursing here in Banjul which is like they were transferring my credits from here to some companies that do credentials for nurses in the USA. It so happened that our nursing education in The Gambia is more than the required criteria but the US exams are however more rigorous than here because they do multiple scenario questions and basically all their courses are pegged one thing, patient safety.  So when I passed that, I was given an option where to practice as a nurse and I chose New York state which is an easier process even though I was staying in Seattle. So I started practicing and this was in 1997. But then I got bitten by my previous bug, the dream to become an economist and politician

And what did you do?

All along I wanted to become an economist and so having qualified as a nurse and can pay for myself I focused on pursuing that dream too. So I enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx and graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Political Science but continued with nursing. I went on a nursing travel assignment to North Carolina at a veterans hospital and was staying in Raleigh where I met the likes of Ebrima Sankareh, Pa Nderry M’Bai and Alkali Conteh. After two years, I went back to Seattle and in 2006 I ventured into private business. I created a Nursing Temp Agency.

What is a Nursing Temp Agency?

It is a company which hires nurses and supplies them to hospitals and facilities that need them.  I own the company but I am the Number 1 employee of the agency and sometimes supply myself to work in various hospitals who need our services. They pay my agency and I pay the nurses.

I hear you also started a nursing training school?

Yes in 2010, I expanded my agency business by opening a nursing assistant training school to train my own nurses and others. This is a very regulated training programme with federal and state components and students have to meet both requirements that lead to the Certificated Nursing Assistants accreditation which enables them to practice anywhere in the USA.

 Tell us about your new project,  Care Home Service ?

Yes, in 2020 I ventured into long-term care too, they called it Non Medical In-Home Care meaning going to people’s home, mainly elderly people living on their own or discharged patients recovering at home and helping them with basic house stuff, sending them to go get medicine and so forth. I just created that but that is under a franchise meaning there is a parent company under which I signed. So all together in these three companies I have a team of over 30 staff who are running all the businesses.

I understand you have coined a local name for these businesses. What is it?

I called them Westfield Nursing Agency and Westfield Nursing Assistants Training Institute. I first started as Bright Star but in the USA when a company used a name and federated or trademark it then that name becomes theirs so in order to avoid losing it to some group or being bombarded with paper work I settled for the name Westfield which, is yes, inspired from home, The Gambia. As for the care home the corporate name is Synergy Homecare of Everett.

Any chance of bringing your vision and expertise back here?

Very good point. In fact, one of the reasons I am here is to seriously consider how I can contribute to the Gambian market too. I really want to see what kind of help I can do here.  I know The Gambia does not have the level where you will need Temp Agency but they have been talking to me about home care, which is similar to the one I have in the US. The Gambia Government I understand is working on some national health plan or something and non-formally I have been approached about possible training but I think it is still in infancy and not yet finalised. So once they are ready, I can sit with them because I have been training nurses in the US now for 11 years and I am very familiar with the curriculum. But The Gambia would have to need a standardised curriculum to be approved by parliament which will   be the standard all trainers would have to meet and be guided by. But I am ready to give my time to such a project. However, I must say that The Gambia Government has not formally approached me directly.

But one thing I definitely want to go into is the pharmacy business to see how to get quality medicine to people out here at a very reasonable price.

How did you see the healthcare delivery system in The Gambia?

Well to be fair, I did not visit EFSTH but talking to my former classmates and people on the ground here, and again I do not mean to make any criticisms, but I surely think we have a long way to go in terms of logistics. Imagine where basic things like beds and sheets are scarce: not to talk about buying your own gloves to go work in the 21st century. That’s very challenging. But all the same we are open and there are a lot of Gambians over there who have the knowledge and know people who can help so we are open to any help in any way possible. We need to lift all red tapes or bureaucracies too.

One other area we are looking at is how to promote health tourism. I am thinking of having facilities here that can entice people to come here for treatment and to recover here.

Mr Sambou, thank you for your time.

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