Photos by Luke Duggleby
Video by Max Riché
Isatou Ceesay, Queen of Plastic Recycling in The Gambia
Isatou Ceesay is educating women in The Gambia to recycle plastic waste – one of the worst pollutants – into revenues for themselves. For 17 years, she has been empowering women, and contributing to one of the most important issues around waste.
The deep ruts and the mud puddles are forcing the car to move ahead slowly, as its wheels disappear entirely into the rainwater pools blocking the dirt path leading to the Brikama landfill, near Banjul, in the Gambia. On board, Isatou Ceesay, with three of the volunteers currently in training at the Women Initiative The Gambia (WIG), explains: “the rainy season makes our plastic waste collection activities more difficult. The plastic is wet, it needs to be dried before it can be recovered.”
Created in 1997 by Isatou and four other women, the Recycling Centre of N’Jau, her native village further north in The Gambia, initially had the mission to educate their fellow villagers to the necessity to reclaim waste rather and do plastic recycling, than let them pile up behind their houses: “as a habit, people are used to pouring their waste at the back of their homes, and as it is out of sight, they forget about it. But adverse effects come back knocking at your door very quickly: the air is filthy, disease develop. In Africa, we say that ‘if your house is clean but your neighbour’s isn’t, then you are not healthy either’.”
Every Sunday, first on local markets then through other programs, this group of volunteer women started by teaching their communities to manage domestic waste and to change the role women play in society: “Our culture usually pigeonholes women to carry out all crops and housekeeping activities at home, then clean, cook, and raise the children, waiting for the husband to come back from work. Changing this image has been one of our main challenges. By bringing a financial independence to the members of the group, Isatou wanted to turn this image upside down, and allow women to make their own decisions. Things clicked in her mind when she saw the women of N’Jau using plastic waste to light up charcoal stoves: “them and their kids were directly breathing those toxic fumes. I realized we had to change this.”
Acting for the environment became an obvious consequence: “I think that when you abuse your environment, you abuse yourself”, she says.
Thanks to a Peace Corps USA volunteer she met in The Gambia, Isatou therefore learnt how to reclaim plastic waste, an evil material that represents no less than 20% of all waste in the country to this day. Every week, members of WIG now craft wallets, bags, and balls for children from the reclaimed plastic bags that they cut, knit and sew patiently. « But in the beginning, women wouldn’t believe we could turn plastic into revenues », remembers Isatou.
Beyond plastic recycling and waste management, after members have gone through 18 to 36 months of training, WIG’s mission is also to provide them with sound budget management principles. By ensuring a steady monthly income (about 80 euros), saving and planning for personal development projects, this allows them to take an important part in the preservation of their country’s environment, and gain a better role within their household.
Recently recognized as an official community-based organization in The Gambia, WIG has progressively taken a very special place in Isatou’s life: « with more than 2,000 members in 40 different communities throughout the country, many women but also a few men now, and projects with the European Union or the UNDP, my days typically start at 5 a.m. and I end up working until late at night. »
After seventeen years of hard work, Isatou is happy about a recent victory: « the government consulted us and voted a total ban on plastic bags imports, a couple of months ago. It was the single deadliest type of waste for our environment. Shops have to use alternatives now, such as paper bags or paper wrappings, or customers need to bring their own reusable shopping bag.”
With the help of the Brikama Area Council and its 120 employees, and the support of NGOs such as WasteAid UK and Concern International, members of WIG now collect plastic and organic waste in designated areas around town. A new Waste Innovation Program has been put in place to manufacture briquettes made out of dried grass, mango leaves, coconut fibre, or paper: « organic waste make up 50% of all waste in The Gambia, whether it is from agriculture, or domestic uses.” This briquetting method allows preventing unnecessary deforestation for the traditional charcoal briquetting, while also reducing the cost for families – the recycled briquettes produced this way are much cheaper than traditional ones – and also prevent toxic fumes that result in the use of traditional charcoal in households. This program therefore participates in several ways to mitigating CO2 emissions, as well as to managing waste, a true curse in Africa. “We still have a long way to go in order to educate the population on the relationship between our health and the environment. This is a key issue, as 75% of the population in The Gambia does not have access to proper education.”
Isatou thinks that women have a key role to play in this endeavour: « throughout the world, women carry an incredible responsibility; they are by nature the engine of human development. I love them so much. Their commitment and their strength are unrivalled. We have fallen behind in our development in Africa by not including them. »
« In order to love the environment, you must first love yourself. This is our responsibility to ensure that future generations do not ever live what we have been through. If we prepare children to become better leaders, and women to play an important part alongside men, then we will be able to mitigate climate change, while living and working in better conditions, and contributing to the development of our society. Everything is linked together. If we understand that, then we are on the right path. »
With waste volume expected to double in several African countries by 2030, according to the latest Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) report, Africa needs a lot more people like Isatou, a real hope for the continent.
Waste, and plastic waste is a huge issue globally. In Africa, even more than anywhere else, waste is a major contributor to carbon dioxyde emissions and climate change. Isatou Ceesay has been empowering women in The Gambia for over 17 years, to turn plastic waste into revenues and thus take a more importante role in society while ensuring their financial independence. With over 2,000 members in 40 groups, and projects with the EU and the UNDP, Isatou’s organization, Women Initiative the Gambia, is one of the hopes for the continent to see this situation change.