Toufah speaks to us. About us. For us. Women, men, boys and girls. And this is why.

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With Rohey Samba

“I felt offended. ‘Parce que man dema yakarr dress bow bu’…” this innocuous statement by sexual assault survivor of former president Yahya Jammeh, Toufah Jallow, made me laugh amidst tears for a harrowing testimony that stirred the conscience of our nation. She was addressing the sheer intrepidity of Jammeh’s alleged pimp, Jimbeh Jammeh, who had cautiously recommended that she change her mode of dressing to suit the Jammeh’s predatory orgies. In fact, she said without saying; that timeless trick women use on women as a cruel form of control.

Jimbeh was utilising to full effect, the young woman’s inexperience and her inability to respond to threats, real and perceived. By constantly fawning over her and making her feel good about herself, yet, once in a while, putting across a purposeful, targeted, not-too-nice-you-need-to-obey-me message, Jimbeh was carefully luring the prey to its predator. And what a cruel end it came to…

Every young woman is reminded of the affinity to that dress, that particular dress you feel so highly for, and find it inexcusable that others don’t feel the same way about it too. I guess this is one sensitive phase of life that some of us humans have to go through. The pride and frustration for ‘the dress…’ Ugh!

I’m 37 this year, and I’m just beginning to realise all the interesting emotional challenges being a young woman have produced in me. You set a goal for yourself and made a plan. You were really determined to succeed. But then something happened. What do you do? Well, some of the answers were given by Toufah in her actions following her violent rape by Jammeh and her powerful testimony made on 30thOctober, 2019 at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. I was impressed, pleased and awed by the intelligence of Toufah, as were many Gambians on that day.

So Yahya Jammeh lured her to the lion’s den. The gaslighting former president did everything to woo the innocent girl much to her nescience. The mindless invitations to State House, of a student who had no need to be awake at those ungodly hours, the innocuous hugs, the irrelevant comments, the silly conversations, so on and so forth, and worse, him pretending to forget her name in public were all typical gaslighting moments that should have sent alarm bells ringing in her head. The precocious, solitary young woman was too innocent to notice.

It was not by virtue of her age. I mean, I, in particular, married at 19. And I have no regrets whatsoever about it. Moreover, I know nineteen-year-olds who act and think fifty due to their life’s experiences. Thus age and maturity had nothing to do with it. She fell into the trap because she was blindsided by her sense of purpose. Full Stop. But aren’t we all, at one point in our lives?

Toufah wanted a scholarship to further her education. She was determined to get that scholarship. It was her goal. Her plan. She fully comprehended what it meant for her future aspirations. She knew in order to obtain the scholarship, she needed to comply with the Presidency, after all the president was the chief patron of the Miss 22nd July pageant. Patronage is deeply embedded into our culture, it was extended to her understanding, to include everything else she was required to do when it served their ends, that is the Presidency.

Moreover, her inability to respond to the looming threat of Yahya’s childish gambits was directly linked to her purpose and because she chose to trust in him wholeheartedly as a fatherly figure. Therein lied her mistake. Even in moments when her mind chose to align with the reality of the moment, she tricked herself into believing otherwise. This happened on a couple of occasions when she met with Yahya in person. On both occasions, once the former president got a call from his wife to bid him good night, she would reassure herself that she was doing nothing wrong. Her guilt for being with another woman’s husband in her living room was muted by the reassurance she gave herself that nothing was going on between the two of them. After all, he was just a fatherly figure to her.

Now, the human mind is very powerful. We choose to believe what we want to believe because our minds can afford us that luxury. It is no different from the woman whose husband is a philanderer, who chooses not to see, hear or discuss her husband’s womanising just because she chooses not to. The same applies for men too. Now, this is a bit far-fetched but it is essentially the same thing. I am simply stating the fact that self-abnegation is the worse form of selective amnesia that we choose to affect ourselves with supreme ease, when it suits us just fine. It is a human thing.

Yahya Jammeh as we have heard from numerous testimonies made about him at the TRRC so far, was a disturbed young man who accidentally came into power with the wounds of his depraved childhood too broken to be healed by power, fame or even wealth. He had absolutely no social clues. He was abusive, manipulative and vindictive, with a high proclivity for making up mighty fibs here and there. It’s hard to develop a decent gage for the difference between constructive criticism and emotional abuse when it came to him. For Toufah, the first form of abuse came when he asked whether she lied about her age. A self-assured Toufah, well brought up and groomed, who was actually used to being judged by her ‘big bones’ did not feel slighted the least bit.

But that was just one of the things that the former president was unable to break in her; things she was not even aware of at that time, but those personality traits that made her survive and thrive in the heat of serious human rights violations meted against her by the former president of The Gambia. I will outline two of the traits and leave it at that, because I am no psychologist.

1. Her self-worth
Self-worth is something that is built in a child. When a child is properly loved and cared for, it is the most favourable environment to build that child’s self-esteem. When children aren’t absolutely sure if their parent will be there for them, then that positive self-esteem can’t be built. It’s like trying to build a house with shifting sand. Toufah’s parents gave her the proper materials to build her self worth. First, by her dad giving her the choice to attend Arabic school and buying in her decision later on when she decided that she wanted to change to an English school among other things. This is instrumental. Many parents would coerce, control and subdue their children into acceptance of their own decisions in the name of parenting. Sometimes, kids must be left to make their own decisions in life. This will help them to own their mistakes in the process of growing up in the cycle of life. Beyond that, it will also shape their future relationships. Thus Toufah, did not struggle with self-worth.

2. Her sense of self
People who grow up in close, supportive families such as Toufah did, have a better sense of who they are and where they came from. Children of bad upbringing aren’t allowed to be themselves. Rather, their job as the child is an exhausting job of constantly trying to please their parents, and put them in the best light. As such, they may struggle with knowing who they are, what they value and that they are worthy of love and respect. So when Jammeh proposed to Toufah in the hope that she would jump to the idea of getting married to the most powerful man in The Gambia, he was greatly crushed. Well, guess what, she did not feel romantically inclined as the president had not previously given away any signs of being in love with her. Toufah knew what it meant to be loved, and what trying to use someone smells like. She held him as a fatherly figure. FULL STOP.

We can go on and on about the strengths of Toufah, compared to say, Binta Jamba, who also suffered a battery of heinous sexual violations from another powerful man in the government of Yahya Jammeh. But that is not the purpose of this write-up. The reason for this article is in alignment with the purpose of my column, Sister Speak, which is to forge transformative responses to relational, specific and natural processes that influence women’s responses to the social problems that they are faced with every given day.
The fact of the matter is, when we talk about what women and children need in order to escape abusive husbands, fathers, brothers, leaders and so forth, the word we use is “resources.” Now, resources — whether they take the form of food, clothing, shelter, counseling, or support groups — are undeniably important. Yet what we mean when we talk about resources is the one important resource that actually counts, because it can get all the other resources, which is money. So let’s just call a spade a spade.

I wrote again after a long break. This of course is directly linked to my busy schedule in my new role in the Security Sector Reform process of The Gambia. However, I could not comment following the conclusion of the 9th session of TRRC’s public hearings dealing with sexual and gender-based violence, for I believe women who have been in the trenches and borne the brunt of violence, be it sexual, structural and other forms of violence continuously over centuries are far better prepared to understand what’s happening and how to confront it than the gaggle of people talking over them. Not recognising this and refusing to allow them to lead in this moment are the things that make me the most pessimistic about The Gambia’s future.

In essence, violence is a tool of power. The one who wields it, comports himself like a tyrant, and cloaking it in condescending benevolence doesn’t take the stench off of it. Sexual assault is no laughing matter. Any woman, at any age would lose their mojo from this despicable act and rightly so. This just about lifts the bar off the ground.

While I understand fully that the TRRC is more devoted to “truth” than to retribution; and that it is intended to achieve a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, at least for the moment, or may I say until the recommendations are made, my analysis is what Martin Luther King drew of the white moderate when he stated, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

We often think of movements as starting with a call to action. In fact, we are good at replicating slogans such as “Never Again,” to define our ideals while still claiming to be perfectly original. But research suggests that movements actually start with emotion — a widespread discontent with the status quo and a broad sense that the current institutions and power structures of the society will not address the problem. This brewing dissatisfaction turns into a movement when a voice arises that provides a positive vision and a path forward that’s within the power of the crowd. This is what we did with ‘#GambiaHasDecided’ and succeeded in ousting Yahya Jammeh. For me this is what Toufah and women like Toufah, who sat at the purgatory of conservative Gambia’s culture to narrate their sexual ordeals to the commission task us to do.
Toufah speaks to us. About us. For us. Women, men, boys and girls. So what do we do about it?