On Dec. 1, 2016, the West African country of Gambia held its presidential election that voted Yahya Jammeh out of office after ruling for 22 years. Jammeh took power in 1994 after a coup and has remained the leader of the small African nation ever since. He was known as a brutal dictator by many; he once said he would rule the country for a billion years. The official title of the former president is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh,” which is stitched onto the seats of the cars in his presidential motorcade.
After his defeat, Jammeh conceded to the winner, Barrow, via a phone call. However, days later he announced that he had rejected the results of the election. Jammeh refused to give up his power, inciting fear in Gambian people, many who left Gambia to travel into Senegal, which borders it on three sides.
Barrow was sworn into office at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal but was unable to return to Gambia because of the political climate. After pressure from other African nations and threat of military action, Jammeh made a deal that allowed him to escape prosecution and leave the country. He is now thought to be living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, a country that also has a history of a brutal government.
Beginning in 1996, St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) has been sending students to Gambia as part of a study tour. In 2003, Professor of Anthropology Bill Roberts received a Fulbright grant in Gambia and got the idea for the name of a study abroad program. The program went by the acronym PEACE, which stands for Promoting Education and Cultural Exchange.
In 2004, Jammeh was the SMCM commencement speaker. While he was here, he received an honorary degree from the college. That summer, Jammeh financed 50 people to go from St. Mary’s to Gambia, including staff and faculty. The PEACE Program became a signature study abroad program in 2006, and they started sending a student from University of the Gambia to study at SMCM for a semester as well.
In 2013, Maribeth Ganzell, the club athletic trainer at SMCM, spent 8 months living in Gambia with her husband Mathematics Professor Sandy Ganzell and their two daughters. Professor Ganzell worked at the University of the Gambia for a semester. At the same time, Mrs. Ganzell worked at a local hospital in physiotherapy and was a teacher of orthopedic physical therapy. Mrs. Ganzell spoke of a lack of freedom of speech in regards to talking about the president. People were not allowed to criticize his regime, even in their own homes.
Mrs. Ganzell said that despite issues with the president, there was no violence and they always felt safe. Professor Roberts spoke of the importance of international experiences, and as SMCM diversifies, people will want meaningful experiences in that part of the world. He says “ I think Gambians are very happy now that there has been a peaceful transition,” and he hopes this can be “used an example of democracy working in West Africa.”