Working toward peaceful development and civic responsibility
Gambia is a country of fierce tribal loyalties, where justice has less to do with fairness and more to do with clan, yet Omar Cham was raised with a respect for human rights. “I was molded around the pillars of selflessness,” he says, “and the need to accommodate every type of person.”
At age 12, Omar participated in programs offered by Kombo East Youth and Children Development Alliance, a youth-led organization that addresses the empowerment and protection of minors, often through sports. An adult advisor stressed development over tribal and religious affiliation. “I was taught patience and tolerance in relation to handling conflict,” Omar says, and it helped him cope in his home region where there is “endless conflict between our village and the neighboring village, Giboroh, over the ownership of land. This has led to a lot of bloodshed, enmity, and fear.”
He attended school in Giboroh, however, and was chosen head boy at age sixteen. Yet his three friends had dropped out of school. A volunteer from ChildFund invited them all into an entrepreneurial program offering free training through 28 Junior Achievement sessions. The four boys started a batik textile enterprise producing bags and table runners. They were able to travel to the African regional competition held in Nairobi and won a Most Valuable Company Award, giving them a sense of empowerment and connection.
Escaping the local conflict, Omar joined International Children Exchange Program (ICEP) to continue his education for a year in Dakar, Senegal. When he returned to Gambia, he attended Nusrat Senior Secondary School near the capital, Banjul. At the end of the spring semester in 2013, he won the Best Government Student Award.
His years at The Gambia College increased his activities and opportunities. He volunteered with the organization that had helped him earlier, Kombo East Youth and Children Development Alliance, and participated in debates and public speaking, winning a Best Speaker Award at a Masters Round Debate through DeGa (Debate Gambia). In September, 2016, he volunteered as a teacher for a year at Maserr International Comprehensive Academy. He also joined National Poetry Slam, nourishing his love of poetry.
Also that semester, Omar, who had been serving as Deputy Clerk of the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia at the West Coast Region Office, was now appointed Deputy Speaker, “spearheading the planning and implementation of developmental programs in the areas of good governance, democracy, and the respect for the fundamental human rights,” Omar says, “also reproductive health, environmental protection, gender mainstreaming, and road safety.”
Government corruption hampered all these beneficial efforts, however. President Yahya Jammeh’s tribe, the Jolas, were given benefits like free electricity, while poor regions did without, inflaming ethnic conflicts. Jammeh performed rituals where he claimed to heal people of AIDS. Jammeh and his government “trampled on the fundamental human rights of its citizens, taking innocent lives, embezzling public funds, and abusing young women. Most of the citizens had fear to express their opinion towards the government,” Omar says.
Elections were a month away, and Omar, nineteen, decided he should do something. “I organized civic awareness campaigns through radio programs where I sensitized the citizens on their rights and the concepts of democracy and good governance” by engaging ministers, national assembly members, mayors, and youth leaders to speak to the populace about accountability and their contributions towards national development. He also trained approximately 240 young people in constitutional development, rights, and civic understanding.
A week away from the December first Presidential Elections, Omar participated in a “massive voter education campaign across the country,” visiting schools and communities, sensitizing them on their right to vote and urging them to do so.
Yahya Jammeh lost the elections, but many were devastated. No more free electricity and other benefits. They arranged boycotts, and Jammeh refused to step down, throwing the army into chaos. In this tense situation, Omar arranged a radio broadcast on a Saturday night from the Bwiam Radio Station in Jammeh’s home district.
As moderator, he opened with: “The power of votes has given authority to those that will be in charge of our affairs for the coming four years. Therefore, it is our duty to accept the results in good faith, unite with one voice, and shape the direction our nation is heading.” An elected representative from the National Assembly spoke and accepted calls from listeners.
In many areas, threats of violence loomed, however. Thousands of ECOMIG* forces entered the country, and Jammeh finally went into exile. Due to ongoing unrest, ECOMIG forces had to extend their stay, making normalization painfully slow. “Just recently, twelve army officers have been charged with treason,” Omar says. “Conflict has severely retarded development and has gone a long way towards creating everlasting damage, resulting in death, abuse of women, child exploitation, loss of economy, damage of national properties, and mistrust, just to name a few.”
While his country was still occupied by ECOMIG forces, Omar left twice to attend international festivals, one in Thies, Senegal, and the ten-day World Festival of Youth and Students, organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), a UN-recognized NGO. He also visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
An award closest to his heart was becoming the winner of The National Poetry Slam in 2017, written while he was trying to help his country heal. “Basically, I write and perform poetry all around the country on diverse themes and situations aimed at creating awareness and impact through the art,” Omar says. “Most of my works are political in nature to remind our leaders of their duties and keep the population more conscious of their rights and responsibilities.”
Omar dreams of becoming a diplomat devoted to developing Gambia and maintaining peace at home and among the international community.
An excerpt from Omar’s winning poem:
If it is their right
Let the President not dictate, let the VP regulate**
Let ministers initiate, let MPs formulate
Let Judges adjudicate
Let the media operate, let the farmer cultivate
Let tribes cooperate, let religions tolerate
Let cultures integrate
Let the activist advocate, let the artiste decorate
Let the teacher educate
The Red Cross, the First Aid
Our education with better grades
*Economic Community of West African States’ Mission in Gambia
**VP refers to the vice-president