With Alagie Manneh
In this edition of Bantaba, award-winning Standard sub-editor Alagie Manneh speaks to Olay Ceesay on her ascendance to vice presidency of a Fortune 500 company in the US; the murder of her brother by former president Jammeh’s henchmen; race relations in America; the presidency of Adama Barrow and transitional justice.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the circumstances under which you grew up?
I am Olay Ceesay-Jabbi, a Gambian. I was raised in The Gambia. My parents were both in business and my dad Alhaji Ebou Ceesay was the owner of Niamina Enterprises which sold car parts and motor oil back in the early 1990s. My mom had a farm which supplied commodities to hotels and eggs to the neighbouring countries. Both businesses later closed down. Growing up, my parents instilled in us the meaning of hard work at a very young age and I also learnt very early that our parents success was not ours and that we had to create our own paths and also to be very humble. During summer breaks, when a lot of our friends travelled outside of the country, my parents sent us to the village to spend time with our grandparents. During Tobaski and Christmas, our parents sent us to spend time at SoS [orphanage] and we saw firsthand the hardships. My dad was an avid giver and from an early age he thought us the act of giving and kindness and that helping the less fortunate (if you can) is a must. I attended Methodist Primary School in Banjul and from there I went to Gambia High School after sitting for the A levels, I travelled to the US. In the US I enrolled at two-year Navarro College in the small town of Corsicana in Texas. Being an immigrant, jobs on campus were extremely scarce and being an immigrant student it was even more challenging as you didn’t have a work permit. I think I had about six roommates or more at that time. I remembered whenever we went to the store to buy grocery it was always eventful. We would all pick what we wanted but when we got to the cashier we never had enough money and so we always had to return half of the stuff. Our favourite food was noodles because they cost a few cents. We came up with a special recipe that reminded us of ebeh. We will add lot of lime and chopped hot dog to make the soup. It was the best thing ever! I recalled one of my roommates cooked “chew” and messed it up and we had to wash the meat and re-cook the food because we couldn’t afford to buy more groceries. After two years in Navarro I got an associate degree in Engineering and got scholarship to the four-year University of Arlington in Texas and graduated with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering.
You work as vice president and chief of staff for a Fortune 500 company in the US. That was not a mean feat for an immigrant, especially a woman. How did you accomplish this?
Growing up my parents instilled in us the value of hard work and going after our dreams. It wasn’t a cakewalk getting to where I am today and it wasn’t a straight path. In the US, having work experience is big, so it’s usually very hard especially for immigrants to be able to have a job in our fields of study straight from college. Most of us when we arrive in the US, did not have some of the connections that kids who grew up here have. We usually don’t have a mentor in the same field who can show us the ropes. We have to figure things out through trial and error. After I graduated I didn’t go straight to get a job in my field. I didn’t have the experience. I initially went into teaching for about a year and even tried my hand in running a braiding shop with my sister for a couple of years. I later decided to get into the technology field which is what I studied. I was able to find an entry level job as a junior software tester which was paying lower than the job market. I needed to get my foot in the door. I knew once I get in, I can gain experience and move on. After more than a year I was able to move to another company. During those early years I hardly stayed in a company for more than three years because I knew it was harder to move up that way. In addition, I was in a field where you hardly see women, even white women. I was always the only woman in the room, the only black person most of the time and definitely the only immigrant. Those were all obstacles I had to deal with but I learnt very early on that I had to work twice as hard as my counterparts and knew I had to be three times better than my colleagues just to be on the same level playing field. I had a vision and a roadmap of where I wanted to be at the end of each year. I also made sure I had mentors who helped me along the way. I made connections and built relationships. As my career progressed, sometimes I didn’t achieve the goals I set out for myself at the expected time but I never let that deter me because I knew I was on a journey and sometimes as you set out on a journey the trip isn’t always a straight path. You may find a traffic jam on the road and you have to take a detour to your destination, you may run out of gas and have to get your car to be pushed. But at the end you will eventually get to the destination.
You recently came up with The Sisters Show which has been a viral hit. What motivated you to do this show despite your busy schedule?
The purpose of the show is to connect, inspire and empower women of African descent, especially Gambians. During the struggle when so many Gambians were living under a dictatorship and my brother Alhagie Mamute and his friend Ebou Jobe where kidnapped as well as many others Gambians, the media was leveraged a lot and it’s one of the main tools that was used effectively hence Jammeh is no longer here. After the elections and coming to terms that my brother and his friend were actually killed and wouldn’t be coming back, we had to find a purpose and we did not want to just be victims but wanted to turn the tragedy by giving back and we figured the media is a very powerful tool that can be used to reach a mass number of people to inspire and empower others as we all educate ourselves in different topics and by bringing in different professionals from all walks of life.
What is the progress in the quest for justice for your murdered brother and his friend and your work with the Victims Centre?
It’s ongoing and the TRRC is in progress and we are hopeful that they will make the right recommendations to ensure all perpetrators are held accountable for the horrendous acts they have committed. We do not want what happened before to ever repeat itself on Gambian soil. I am a strong believer that the only way for history not to repeat itself is to hold people accountable. Holding people accountable has nothing to do with reconciliation or forgiveness. As people, we should always know in whatever position or situations we find ourselves that we are accountable for the actions and decisions we make.
The inception of Barrow government engendered a lot of enthusiasm for change, but he has since reverted to hiring former Jammeh acolytes. What’s your take on the Barrow regime and do you think his hiring trajectory bodes well for your fight for justice as Barrow cavorts with the same people who enabled Jammeh to commit those crimes?
We were all initially hopeful but that hope did not last long as we began to see the same people that were in the Jammeh regime still in same or similar positions. If we are going to make changes how can the same people that caused the problems be the ones leading the change. In the US, in corporate America when a CEO of a company or even a very senior leader of a company is fired, when the new CEO gets in the first thing they usually do is to get rid of most of the people at the top and bring in new people. They know that if they are hired to bring in change, it’s almost impossible to make an effective change with the same people at the top. Based on the people that I seen surrounding Barrow I am very sceptical that we will be seeing the change that we all yearned for.
On the Sisters Show you seem to take a dim view of cheating husbands and polygamous relationships. Don’t you think women should allow men to have multiple partners as allowed by Islam so that the high number of single women can have husbands?
I think a lot of time people just say Islam allows Muslim men to have multiple wives but they don’t delve into the conditions or how polygamy was legalised. When polygamy was first legalised at the time of Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) it was because thousands of Muslim men died in wars. So many women were left homeless and without any support. The Qur’an has set strict rules for a man to have more than one woman as the verses of the Qur’an indicate that a man should be strictly fair not only in what he gives in concrete material things (clothes, jewellery, homes, et cetera), but more importantly, in emotions. While the first order is possible to practice, God has recognised that no one can really command his feelings as we are all human beings. To break these rules was considered very sinful and the Qur’anic verses have directly commanded that a man should have only one woman. The verse says (Wa-in khif’tum all? tuq’si?? f? l-yat?m? fa-inki?? m? ??ba lakum mina l-nis?i mathn? wathul?tha warub??a fa-in khif’tum all? ta?dil?…” meaning “But if you are afraid you will fail to maintain justice, then content yourselves with one [wife]…” How many men out there are practicing polygamy the right way?
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 of your life?
My plan was never to stay in the US, my late brother and I planned to return home after working in the US for a few years. I was ready to come back home but after my brother’s incident that changed. However with the Sisters Show we are planning to have segments which will focus on building Africa and we will have conversations with various people to discuss issues and solutions as well as best practices in the West and how such policies and governance can also be initiated in Africa. We have a lot of things that we plan that I think will definitely be beneficial even if we are not physically present. In terms of coming back home I can’t predict the future but with time everything is possible.
Where do you see yourself as a person and corporate leader, as well as The Sisters Show in Five years?
I see myself continuing to grow in my field and mentoring other young black women especially those who want to get into technology. I also see the Sisters Show continuing to grow and becoming a household name in The Gambia and Africa. We want it to be the platform that will connect us as Africans and bring out the very best in each of us.
Any last words?
Dream big and work hard and know that anything you set your mind on is possible. Take any obstacle you face in life as a learning opportunity; always find a silver lining.