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Serrekunda – The rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide is placing a strain on the availability of hygiene products, as Gambians grow increasingly concerned with the pandemic. Over 70 per cent of the country’s 2,116 cases were confirmed only in the first two weeks of August. Migrant returnees and their families are coming together to enhance the availability of hand-made soap in their communities — serving as an alternative source of income while building the country’s COVID-19 preparedness, prevention and response.
When Musa Jallow returned to The Gambia after three years in Libya, his family was overjoyed. “They were very happy because they saw me alive,” he says. Musa has always only had one goal in mind — to provide for and sustain himself and his family. His return would finally give him this opportunity.
In January 2020, no one, including Musa, would have expected that a global pandemic would throw a huge wrench in his plans. “COVID-19 has limited the movement of people, goods and services, which makes income-generation very difficult. It has had an impact on almost everyone and every enterprise, so I am not spared.”
Musa did not give his participation even a second thought “I knew it was a rare opportunity, so I did not hesitate to grab it. Not only is it another source of income, but it is going to promote good hygiene in my community,” he notes. Musa believes that the skills he learned will be useful to his family members, whom he hopes to pass his knowledge onto. “I have acquired another skillset, and I’m excited. I’ll teach my wife and other family members how to make the soap. We can produce soap for ourselves and also make a living from it.”
Another participant, Alieu Jarra, returned from Morocco in April this year. He was all set to receive a commercial vehicle as part of his reintegration assistance. “The vehicle, managed by the Village Development Committee and I, was to be operating between the village and neighboring ones. This project is meant to ease transportation in our community and, more important, provide employment and income,” he explains proudly.
Commercial transport, however, has been severely hit by the pandemic; the state of public emergency passed in March limited commercial vehicles to carrying only 50 per cent of their capacity. While waiting to get his vehicle on the road, the soapmaking initiative came at an opportune time. “We can sit down and wait for the coronavirus disease to be contained or work on the goals we want to realize. We have to face this reality bravely and make our living,” Alieu explained.
“When I was informed about this initiative, I decided to register myself and my brother’s wife. It’s important that she is here with me, so we could easily collaborate afterwards to start making the soap back in our village for our personal use and even to start up a business,” added Alieu, who envisions the same business opportunity that Musa contemplates.
Musa, who says he was mocked by some community members when he returned, is not bothered one bit by the huge gender stereotype attached to soap manufacturing, widely considered a “woman’s job” in The Gambia.
“Soapmaking is a genuine initiative through which I can support response efforts, teach members of my family the skills and, more importantly, earn income from it. Who knows? Maybe I can even be an inspiration to change the perception of soapmaking in my community,” reflects Musa.
At the other end of the country, in the North Bank Region, survivors of the December 2019 fatal shipwreck off the Mauritanian coast are coming together with their families to replicate IOM’s soapmaking initiative, with support from the UN Peacebuilding Fund. The shipwreck claimed the lives of at least 62 Gambians. Affected families and communities continue to mourn the loss of their relatives while survivors are trying to rebuild their lives.
After being rescued from the harrowing ordeal, Fatoumatta Sonko ventured into petty trade. Since restrictions on market activity and public gatherings were put in place, however, she has been struggling, as have thousands of others across the country. “I had to stop my business because of the restrictions that followed the outbreak,” she laments.
Together with other shipwreck survivors, she decided to join the soapmaking initiative. “I believe I won’t lose anything by joining this initiative because I will be trained on how to make soap and I feel very excited to contribute to the fight against COVID-19,” she notes.
In the midst of the pandemic, the initiative lays the groundwork, not only of sanitation but also of solidarity in communities overcoming the tragedy of the shipwreck. “This initiative brought hope to survivors and their families. You can see the resilience, great energy, high level of participation and willingness to acquire skills,” says Omar Jallow, another survivor of the shipwreck. “Throughout the activity, we are strengthening relationships and trust between survivors from neighboring communities.”
With survivors and their families working together, the initiative also aims to promote community-based mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). Previously trained ‘MHPSS ambassadors’ — identified in coordination with local community and health authorities — led a series of activities in between soap production, including peer-to-peer discussions and psychodrama. “This has served as therapy for us and allows our families to know how to support our healing process,” explains Sagarr Cham.
With so much uncertainty caused by the pandemic, such initiatives are a way to empower and connect returnees, who were made more vulnerable by today’s socioeconomic climate, which often lacks viable income-generating activities.
Since his return, Alieu is already looking forward to putting his plans into action. “When my transportation business commences, I will certainly practice personal hygiene and always keep the van clean,” he points out. “With this, I will be able to take care of my family and plan for future investments.”
Until then, Alieu glances at all the bars of soap he helped produced in such a short period of time. “Having this soap would be good for everyone who uses it. I am doing my part in the fight against COVID-19 because washing your hands regularly with soap is still one of the best ways to avoid the virus.”
The pilot soapmaking initiative and production of protective suits and shoe covers were made possible by the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, the first comprehensive programme to save lives and protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. Reintegration support is provided through an integrated approach, which incorporates economic, social, and psychological dimensions.
The soapmaking initiative among shipwreck-affected communities forms part of Strengthening the Sustainable and Holistic Reintegration of Returnees, a project funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund and implemented in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (ITC), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
This story was written by Alessandro Lira and Lamin W. Sanneh of IOM’s communications team in The Gambia.