In December 2015, a young Gambian woman, Toufah Jallow, won a national contest in which she was asked to talk about a number of subjects, including how to alleviate poverty, the improvement in the lives of women and girls and her thoughts on how to better her country. Then 18, Jallow was one of 22 women who had entered the pageant. To be awarded the title meant a college scholarship, which would be of significant help as Jallow pursued an education.
All the contestants were then invited to an audience with then-President Yahya Jammeh, who had come to power in a coup in 1994. In the months that followed, the president, nearly 50, gave special attention to Jallow, inviting her to dine with him at the State House in the capital Banjul, and also to appear alongside him at governmental functions, in her role as contest winner.
He seemed to want to hear, and to value, what she said. He encouraged her dreams for her future, flattered her with comments on her brilliance and maturity, and seemed to be generous, avuncular and paternal. Until he wasn’t.
Jallow, 26, will appear this Saturday in Woodstock as part of the annual Bookstock festival. She is the author, with Kim Pittaway, of Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement. It is published in the US by Truth to Power, an imprint of Lebanon-based Steerforth Press, and in Canada by Penguin/Random House.
Steerforth publisher Chip Fleischer will have a conversation with Jallow at the Town Hall Theatre, one of five Bookstock venues where the public can listen to and meet 60 writers in conversation with one another over the course of the weekend.
Jallow, who now lives in Toronto, is unsparing in her account of the brutal rape perpetrated on her by Jammeh. She’d been told she would appear at a state function along with the other contestants. When she arrived at the State House, she was ushered instead to her Jammeh’s private apartment.
“There’s no woman that I want that I cannot have,” he’d said, before injecting her with an unknown drug and forcing her down on a bed.
The rape shattered her worldview, she said in a Zoom interview from Toronto. Her ideals, her excitement about what lay ahead, the illusion that she was in control were smashed.
But, she said, she was prepared to shut it out, to tell herself, “This never happened. Forget about it. We move on.”
She would say nothing. It was safer for her, safer for her family, she said.
What Jallow did not anticipate his expected was that Jammeh her to continue to submit to assaults. She had done her utmost with to avoid him, coming up reasons not to meet. But then she received a phone call from a female protocol officer whose relationship with Jammeh was equivalent to the one between Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. The woman commanded Jallow to come with Jammeh to visit his hometown.
Jallow understood then: “Thinking that I could say, ‘No’ to a powerful man like that, and walk away, was not a reality.”
Jammeh was infamous, both within the majority-Muslim country and outside it, for his human rights abuses, his squelching of a free press and his promulgation of bogus cures for AIDS. Jallow knew that she would be seized by Jammeh’s security men if she didn’t obey.
“That ignited the survival instinct. I had to go,” she said.
Within 24 hours of the phone call from the protocol officer, Jallow fled The Gambia. She disguised herself in a hijab and, borrowing money from a relative in the UK, escaped to neighboring Senegal. She did n’t tell her family her she was leaving. Every step of the way was marked by difficulty and danger.
Once she made it to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in June 2015, she broadcast her story on a radio network run by a Gambian journalist in exile in the US She visited the American, British and Canadian embassies to ask for refugee status, and spoke with people at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about the charges she wanted to level against Jammeh.
In the summer of 2015, Jallow finally obtained a permanent resident visa to travel to Canada, and landed in Toronto on Aug. 8.
And in a sense, the experiences ahead were as challenging as what had gone before.
“I wasn’t a young woman who had left home and had gone to college, or left my city to go explore another city. … It was actually being uprooted. And there’s one thing in knowing that I’m going to come back for vacation or holidays. But it’s a different state of mind when you know you’re leaving and you’re not coming back. It felt like mourning,” Jallow said.
It was a struggle to find work, to accustom herself to a completely foreign culture, to make friends, to wrestle privately with what had happened to her, to communicate with her family, who were initially stunned by her decision. She battled deep depression.
“I think that’s why when I got to this part of the world, it was very difficult to just strive,” she said. “There is so much that I’m carrying that’s not mine. I think that’s what people fail to understand. … It’s a secret and a burden that doesn’t belong to me. While all of that is happening, I am discovering myself as a human being.”
In the years since, Jallow has started The Toufah Foundation, which works to support survivors of sexual assault in The Gambia. She testified at her country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. She has also testified before the United Nations as part of a young people’s forum on human rights, and at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Jallow wrote the book for a number of reasons, she said. First, she wanted to continue to hold Jammeh to account, although he was no longer president. He’d lost the 2016 presidential election, but refused to concede. He eventually stepped down after both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States said that he would be removed if he did not leave office. He was given haven in Equatorial Guinea.
Second, Jallow wanted other young women reading the book to understand what it was really like to live her life. It was not enough that readers come away with a sense of admiration for her ela, or look up to her ela, without also seeing themselves in her experiences of her.
“I want them to tell their truths even if they don’t know where it’s heading to,” she said. “As I’m taking you through the book, I’m walking you through my thinking process at the time. I didn’t have it figured out. I didn’t know, I didn’t master plan this.”
When co-author Kim Pittaway first met Jallow, Pittaway saw her as “a young woman who knew what she wanted this book to do, and that it wasn’t about putting herself front and center. It was about putting this issue front and center.”
In a patriarchal Gambian culture where the word “rape” does not exist in the same sense that it does in the English language, but is understood instead through euphemisms, indirection and metaphor, Jallow felt it was critical to be explicit, to leave nothing to imagination.
“You can’t unhear it, you can’t run away from it, you can’t tag it as anything else,” she said. “But for once it’s not mischaracterized at all, and that is important for me.”
The book is “so well-written and such a strong story,” Fleischer said in a phone interview.
Toufah is one in a line of books in the Truth to Power imprint that focus on stories that “need to be told,” he added, and “bring to light issues that aren’t talked about and understood well enough.”
What Jallow can’t reconcile is the continuous online vitriol and threats, scurrilous rumors and verbal violence directed toward her, both in The Gambia and elsewhere. Even positive media stories, such as some in The New York Timespersist in referring to her as a “beauty queen.”
“It’s exhausting to be misrepresented. But … what I can do is to represent a version of me and the stories that I want to tell, and to tell them on bigger platforms than someone’s Facebook status or someone’s Instagram stories. Let me get on bigger platforms and talk about and present the person that I know I am — and what it is that I am doing,” Jallow said.
Toufah Jallow and Chip Fleischer will talk about Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement at 11:15 am Saturday at the Town Hall Theater in Woodstock.
For more information, go to bookstockvt.org.