2 July 2010

Gambia: Encounter With Dr. Florence Mahoney, a Historian


In this edition of Foroyaa Panorama, we have caught up with Dr. Florence Mahoney, a Gambian Historian and first Gambian woman to hold a PhD Degree for her to share her experience with our readers.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Dr. Florence Mahoney. I was born in 1929 at Bathurst now called Banjul. I did my primary school education at St. Mary's Anglican School from 1935 to 1939.

I later proceeded to the Methodist Girl's High School in 1939 and completed my high school in 1944 when I sat to the Senior Cambridge School Certificate. At that time before one could be given entrance to the Universities in Africa, you have to do what was called "London Matriculation" and I took the London Matriculation in 1945.

What happened after taking the "London Matriculation"?

My Headmistress at the Methodist Girl's High School was Mrs. Norman Senior and she had always wanted me to go to one of the Universities in England. After taking the "London Matriculation," she encouraged me to go to England. I went to Elphin's Bording School for Girls in Derbyshire, England in 1946 to do a higher school certificate and completed it in 1948.

I later went to the Westfield College, University of London to study history and I completed in 1951. In 1952, I went to Oxford University and did a Diploma in Education. I returned to the Gambia in 1953 and taught at the Methodist Girl's High School up to 1954. I later got married and went with my husband to Bansang who was a Medical Officer there.

In 1956, I returned to Methodist Girl's High School and continued teaching. I later went to Wales with my husband who was studying there and came back to the Gambia in 1959 when Methodist Girl's High School was changed to Gambia High School.

In 1960, I went back to London at the school of Oriental and African Studies, London University to do my research on African History and I got my PhD in 1963.

My research topic was "Government and Opinion in The Gambia 1816-1901". I returned to The Gambia in 1964 and became a member of The Gambia High School Board up to 1967. I left the Board in 1976 and started teaching History at The Gambia High School and later became a History Mistress up to 1972.

What were you engaged in after you ceased being a teacher at Gambia High School?

When I left Gambia High School in 1972, I went to America and was awarded professorship called "Full bride Professor of African History" at Spelman College in Atlanta , Georgia . I became a lecturer in African History at the College. I had a program on African Women and came back to The Gambia in 1973.

In March 1974, I went back to America to lecture at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California in U.S.A. I was lecturing History and Religion and did lectures on "Black Women of two Worlds and the way to Salvation," and the "Black Experience and the way to Salvation."

When I completed these lectures, I joined my husband in Congo Brazzaville who was working there in 1974 up to 1979 and returned to The Gambia in Mid 1979. In 1982, I started lecturing at The Gambia College in Brikama on Social Studies and was the Academic Coordinator of the College up to 1985 when I retired from teaching.

Were you involved in other things apart from academia?

Yes. When I returned with my PhD, that was before the Gambia got Independence in 1963, I was part of the committee that selected The Gambia National Anthem and Flag. In 1966, I was part of the committee that was responsible for the participation of The Gambia in the First Black Arts Festival held in Dakar in 1966. Artists from all over Africa and Brazil participated in the festival. The Gambia delegation produced a drama written by the late Augusta Jawara called the "Rebellion" and we went with some dancers and paintings done by Mrs. Shola Mahoney who was an artist.

In 1968 I was also part of the delegation that attended a seminar on "Museums and Anthropological Research in the Service of Development" held in Tanzania. When I returned from the Seminar, together with some interested people we founded an association called the "Friends of the National Museum" in order to establish a National Museum in the Gambia because there was no museum at that time.

The Association did conduct an exhibition at the Gambia Town Council and we collected artifacts from people and some Wollof women. The exhibition was meant to showcase cultural artifacts to the people for them to know that such artifacts were to be put in a museum.

I was awarded a fellowship by the American Embassy in The Gambia in 1971 to go and study museum. In fact the National Museum was established in my absence while I was in Congo.

When I returned, I became the Chairperson of the Monuments and Relics Commission and the Commission was responsible for the museum and relics such as Stone Circle in order to try and maintain them for posterity. I was appointed the Chairperson of Public Records because when I was doing my research for my PhD, there was no Archive and papers were just left at the Governor's House, very important papers for that matter and I gathered and arranged all the papers to be kept in files. The government thought it was necessary to have an Archive and I was appointed the Chairperson and that is how the National Archive started.

I was also part of the National Scholarship Board which was responsible for giving scholarships to students from 1967 to 1972. At that time, my concern was to try to help girls to go to university and it was difficult to get girls to qualify and we even ended up having a special program to send girls to England to study Education.

I was a member of the National Library Board and was also appointed Justice of the Peace (JP) in 1970. The Gambia Women's Finance Association was founded by us in around 1988 and I was one of the Directors and the late Mrs. Racheal Palmer was our President. I was there with the late Cecilia Cole and Mrs. Betty Saine. I was a member of the West African Examination Council and we designed the History Syllabus for the West African Countries. I was the President of the Mothers' Union of the Province of the West African branch of the Anglican Church from 1990 to 1996.

I was also the Vice-Chairperson of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches from 1977-1983. I was the Vice-Chairperson of the General Committee of the All African Conference of Churches in the 1980s.

How was teaching like during your days?

Teaching was not easy at that time because we didn't have enough books like today. Facilities and aid were also not like today. Students had discipline and were different from students of today. Though there were not enough books and learning facilities, children were happy and they had good teachers and friends in the school.

 What was the state of girls' education in those days?

In those days, girls were going to school but there were not many girls at the higher level. Girls were doing well at the lower level but dropped out at the higher level. The then Director of Education, Mr. Jones then formed a Special Committee which I was part of to investigate the problem why girls were unable to get qualification for higher education. At that time, we found out that lot of issues were responsible for that, especially the culture of the people.

People before perceived that girls were meant to stay at home and help their mothers do domestic chores and even those in schools usually didn't have the time to study. The tradition of some people contributed because at that time, some Muslim parents did not send their girl children to school and some girls did get pregnant and that prevented them from attaining higher education.

Today is different and it is encouraging to see so many Muslim girls in Banking, Law, Media and all professions which is really good.

Could you recall the names of some people that you taught in high position?

Yes, I have lot of them. You have people like Dr. Tijan Senghore, Dr. Jack Faal (owner of Ndemban Clinic), Lawyer Edward Sowe, Dr. Sidat Jobe (Works for UNESCO), Mrs. Janet Badjan Young (Poet), Mrs. Ralphina D' Almeida (Lecturer at University of the Gambia) Victor Clarke (Owner of Zenith Preparatory School), Lawyer Mariam Jack, Mrs. Fatou Jassey, Amie Dibba, Dr. Felix Downes -Thomas (worked for UN), Mr. Samuel Sarr (Foroyaa Newspaper), Mr. Francis Jones, Mrs. Nyimasata Sanneh Bojang, Fatoumatta Gibriel and many others.

Were you involved in politics?

I was never involved in politics. I know at that time when Jawara was Prime Minster during the colonial days, he invited me to be part of a committee that was going to England but I was unable to go because I was going to America to do my research for my PhD.

How was life during the colonial era?

Life was simple but at the same time hard because there were not many opportunities especially for higher education.

I went to England with my brothers to attain higher education because we had parents who were interested in Education and they put any money they had to the education of their children.

Also, I was encouraged by my Headmistress, Mrs. Norman and I got the opportunity to attain higher education. Jobs were also limited at that time and even those who were qualified could not have opportunity to earn high position of employment.

At that time, it was mostly the white people who had the opportunity to get top position employment because we were a colony. There was also discrimination because I remembered I was once sick and my husband who was a Senior Doctor at Bansang sent me down to Banjul to his colleague who was a white Doctor to cure me. In those days, white people were treated separately from black people and we had different queues and whites were given the privilege to be treated first before the blacks.

There was the mentality in people that top positions and privileges were for the whites and the blacks were inferior and that mentality still exists in some people. On the other hand, things and commodities were not exorbitant like today and things were easy to purchase. Young people were more discipline before than today and were not flamboyant. We as Creole youth were trained in the Creole homes and we were taught to be discipline, not flamboyant and we had respect for the elderly.

The training was very strict but we were disciplined and they instilled honesty and moderation in us. Some Muslim youth even do come to the Creole homes to get such trainings and youth at that time and today are quite different.

Could you tell us something about the books you have written?

I started writing when I was a member of the West African Examination Council and we designed the history Syllabus for West African Countries. At that time, there were not many History books in West Africa and that is how I started writing books on History.

I wrote books on "History of the Gambia," "History of Senegambia," "Creole Saga," The Return of the Liberated Slave and the "Gambia Studies". I spent money and time in publishing books but people don't buy books. Most of the books that I wrote I gave them away as complementary books because people don't buy books in the Gambia.

I just write because I am interested in writing and want posterity to know.

What is your final word?

I am encouraged to see so many young women achieve a lot and that they are progressing. There are so many women Lawyers, Bankers, Doctors and some even hold PhD.

However, I am discouraged that the participation of Creole girls in academic life is reducing. I am also concern about the attitude of the young people because youth today lack discipline and respect for elders.

I appreciate the good things in life and change in values.

Thank you very much for sharing your experience with our readers.

You are welcome.

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