US-based Gambian teacher Alhassan Susso is a world-renowned educator, author and motivational speaker who has devoted his career to transforming the lives of young people facing difficulties. Alhassan migrated to America at age 16 where he was educated to become a globally recognised teacher, winning multiple awards and inspiring generations through his writings. He is a frequent visitor to The Gambia and recently established an initiative to highlight the importance of teaching by putting up a national teacher prize to promote quality teaching. In this edition of Bantaba, he talks to anchor Alagie Manneh about his work in the US and The Gambia.
You left The Gambia as a teen and resettled in the US. Tell us about growing up there and the experiences that shaped your childhood?
Going to the US at the age of 16 was both a blessing and a lot of challenges because as a new immigrant to the US there are social, political and economic challenges that you might not be aware of, and the perception of America from outside and the reality are not the same. So what I was expecting in terms of what education looked like, in terms of how schooling would be, was very different from the reality on the ground. As a result, I had a lot of challenges adjusting to the schooling system over there because the school I went to, I was the only African there. Also, sometimes understanding the language was challenging even though The Gambia is an English-speaking country. And then being in the eleventh grade also came with its own challenges because there are history and context that when they are in discussion, I have no idea what they are talking about. So, those two years I would consider significant years of adjustment. But thankfully there were educators in the building who went above and beyond to ensure that I succeed.
Did you experience racial discrimination and what was your reaction?
I think every black person in America at some point or another would face racial challenges, not just in school but in the larger context. I remember during the summer I was riding my bicycle and was stopped by two police cars and I was surrounded and asked for my identification. I gave them that and they still didn’t believe me. They said if this is your address, then let’s go there and I took them to the place, opened the door for them and they couldn’t believe that I actually lived in that neighborhood. I asked them what have I done wrong and they said well, there were a series of robberies in the area and the suspect happened to be black man riding a bike. That’s at a grandiose level. At the micro level you always face that almost anywhere you go in the streets.
You studied politics. What is your assessment of Gambian politics?
I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as a political scientist because even though I studied political science that is not my area. So, I would consider myself a historian because I did history too and I will focus more on the history angle because that is what I teach. I teach American history of government and economics. I do not focus on politics because that is not my lane, and I want to speak on issues I know something about. While I have my opinion about Gambian politics it’s just not something I am comfortable speaking about given that it’s just not my lane.
What motivated you to write the compelling memoir ‘Light of Darkness: the Story of the Griots Son’?
Because my students face a lot of challenges. I teach in the poorest congressional district in the United States, and my students are all recent immigrants who are living in the poorest district in the country and realising that what they imagined America to be and the reality they are facing are completely different. When I speak with my students, I try to give them advice, guidance. They would feel I don’t understand, but I do. I have been through it before. So the reason I wrote the book is that since I cannot have that one-on-one conversation with every student, the intention of the book is to reach as many as possible and to give young immigrants a roadmap to have more like a toolkit on how to be successful in the US.
Like okay, it is telling them ”you are going through this today, but that’s not your destiny. As long as you are willing to do the work and focus, eventually, you will get there. This is where I started, but look at where I am today”. So, basically, that was the reason for writing the book; to basically be like an instructional manual for young immigrants and also a source of inspiration for them to believe that it can do it then they too can do it. And that was the reason for writing the book.
In 2017, you were named as one of the Top 50 outstanding educators in the world by the Verkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize. How did you accomplish such an impressive feat?
The Global Teacher Prize was during my fourth year of teaching, actually. It started when I received an email from a colleague who was my mentor during my first year of teaching, who’s been teaching now for 20-25 years. She sent me this email and said: ”Hey I saw this and thought of you. I went online to google it, and looked at the first winner who taught for like 40 years. But you have done more in four years than most teachers would do in their entire career, and therefore, you need to go for this recognition”. As you could see from her mail she basically forced me to write the application and I did. And as fate would have it my work became worthy enough to be recognised as one of the top 50s. That year there were 22000 applications, globally. It was a huge honor, and I will forever be grateful for that. Eventually, it opened opportunities for me to deepen my understanding of the teaching profession, and other opportunities to expand my capacity.
Do you consider that accomplishment the highlight of your teaching career?
I mean the awards are really great, the top 50, and the New York State award. New York State has 200,000 teachers, so to be the Number One among those was great. The US has 3.2 million teachers so to be selected as Number One was great. That’s a huge achievement, and I will never downplay that accomplishment, buy I wouldn’t consider that the highlight of my career. The highlight of my career happened in my second year of teaching. I had this student who was absent for three weeks from school, and when she came back, I spoke to her and she said her mom is sick and currently in hospital and that she was the only person living with her and her 65-year-old step-dad who does not speak English. After school on a Friday, I decided to go to the hospital, to see her mom and how they were doing. Long story cut short, the mom was not getting the care that she needed and when I got there her first statement to me was that for 12 hours, they did not give her food. I spoke with the authorities there, but they said they couldn’t tell me much due to privacy laws. The doctor on duty that day was a Nigerian, and you know, sometimes our African connections do help. He called me into his office and explained to me what had happened. Basically, she did a surgery at another hospital that didn’t go the way it was supposed to and they brought her here. The doctor said she was not going to make it beyond tomorrow if the situation isn’t expedited. He told me exactly what to do. I called my principal and we got our lawyers involved, and they expedited her case quickly. She was able to get the care that she needed and a month later she was discharged from the hospital. The day her daughter graduated, and was crossing the stage and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t know who it was. I looked back, it was the mom, and I looked ahead, it was the daughter crossing. I realised why I went into this profession. My sister did not have that life, but because of what happened to her somebody else is able to live.
That was quite emotional for you, wasn’t it?
Whenever I think about that,yes. And when I think about what teaching means to me, yes, I have a record that I can run on. My students did exceptionally well academically. When I think about those kids and where they are today and based on what we have built together, I get driven by the passion and that is the reason why I continue to do what I do.
You have a demonstrable interest and a distinguished track record in education. Therefore, I am curious to know what you think of the education system in The Gambia which remains in dire straits?
Well education is challenging everywhere in the world because unfortunately, governments do not prioritise education that much. Of course, not all governments but even in the US there is still a huge lack of resources in the field of education.
In The Gambia, I think we are facing a lot of challenges. First, we need to attract the best and the brightest, and build the capacity of teachers. If we do that then we need to give them the support that they need to be able to continuously develop their craft in the profession because it is one thing to graduate from the university and become a teacher but another thing is that teaching is a life-long experience. So, they should continue to develop that. Secondly, teachers need to be able to lead a life that gives them comfort with resources to take care of themselves and their family. This means we need to increase their pay, how much should that be, I cannot say but it’s very difficult to be out there helping others’ kids when you are unable to take care of your own kids and family. Therefore, a lot of our bright young minds are looking to other professions because teaching doesn’t seem that attractive. I know nobody goes into teaching because of the money, at least I haven’t met one yet. But it needs to be incentivised in a way that at least when you go into it you can be able to live a decent life.
What specific strategies or roles should intellectuals like yourself play in that revamping process to put The Gambia’s education system to those lofty heights?
That’s exactly what I am doing now in this country. I always tell my students, ‘be blessed, and be a blessing’. I established the NAMIA Foundation a couple of months ago with the objective of uplifting the teaching profession in The Gambia, to provide high-quality professional learning so that every Gambian child could end having high-quality education, and to empower people who are differently-abled to live meaningful lives, and use their knowledge and skills to serve something greater than themselves.
Our first initiative is establishing a National Teacher Prize, and the whole idea of the Prize is to identify exceptional Gambian educators across the country, and expose them to the country so that they could become role models in the community to inspire young people to join and stay in the teaching profession. That is one thing our foundation is doing, and that initiative has just begun. Two days ago, we launched it to the public. The application will open on 1st October, which is this coming Sunday, and it will close on November 7, so folks have about six weeks to apply. So, I would highly recommend any Gambian who knows a deserving teacher to be able to go out there and nominate that person. They can do that @namiaorganisation.org. The ceremony will take place on Thursday February 15 at the Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara Conference Centre. So, I will encourage the entire nation to nominate a deserving teacher starting on 1st October so that in February that person and many others in this country can see the exceptional work that educators in this country do.
The brain drain of skilled people like you has been indicated as one of the challenges to Africa’s development. Do you envision yourself ever coming back to serve your country given you have been domiciled in the US for most part of your life?
The answer is yes. My long-term goal is to establish an educational institution in The Gambia and to raise my kids in this country. The values of this country and the culture that we live by is something that I would want to ingrain in my kids. And we are in that transitional phase. My kids spend the entire summer here and every summer they will be coming. And I visit now three to four times in a year, and I will continue to do that until am able to fully relocate.