Fatoumatta Kassama is the Founder and Coordinator of Eye Care For ALL: a community-based organization that provides free home-based and community eye care services for the less privileged, orphans, prisoner, refugees, mentally challenged and people with disabilities. She is also the Co-founder and Program Manager of Prospect for Girls: a not-for-profit organization that empowers women and girls through vocational skills training and health education. Fatoumatta is the Proprietor of Girls’ Pride: a social enterprise that provides reusable sanitary pads, sexual and reproductive health education, and story books to address menstrual hygiene problems affecting less privileged women and girls and keep girls in schools during their period. Fatoumatta is a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow, 2018 One Young World Ambassador and Delegate Speaker, 2018 Opec Funds for International Development Scholar, 2019 Obama Foundation Leader, 2019 African Presidential Leadership Program Alumnus, 2019 World Youth Forum Delegate, 2019 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur, 2019 TAF-Africa Foundation Start-up entrepreneur, and the Vice President of the Association of Gambian Nurses and Midwives.
[Below are some highlights from the interview that are edited for clarity.]
Motivation to initiate Eye Care for All
Fatoumatta: In 2016, I used to work in a public eye hospital called Sheikh Zayed Regional Eye Care Center. I worked in the triage unit, which is the emergency unit where anybody pass through before you go to the outpatient department to see the Optometrist, Cataract Surgeon or Consultant Ophthalmologist. In my unit, we clerk patients and interviewed then and do basic eye examinations for them. I collected statistics for a period of six months. Over this period, we recorded over 590 people with one particular eye disease called Glaucoma eye disease. Amongst these people, 59 were blind, and they were youth.
For me, that was a huge challenge because when youth in the community get blind, there will be no development in my country. We are already in a developing country with a lot of crises, including corruption and other issues. If we have young people who cannot develop the country, there will be no future for the country.
I took it upon myself to address the problem of Glaucoma. People cannot go to clinics to examine their eyes if they do not know about it. There should be awareness in the community. I started to raise awareness in the community and sensitizing people. I used my networks. I contact my friends who are journalists or run radio programs to invite me to their shows to talk about the problem.
After some months, I started working on the nightshift, this was during my degree program. When we started recruiting patients and seeing patients with Glaucoma eye disease, we recorded their names, ages, and addresses to do home visits for them. If they have advanced Glaucoma, we visit their houses to examine their family members. If we find people who is at high risks, we send them to the hospital for further examination.
I used to save part of my salary between $10 to $11. I buy glaucoma eye drops from the nearby wholesale pharmacy in my community. I keep them with me. When I see patients, who cannot afford the medication, I give them one or two bottles. This was how the Eye Care for All started.
Why the less privileged?
Fatoumatta: For me, one of my values as a leader is empathy. I grew up in a poor extended family. I have seen how people struggled to feed their families and how they struggle to send their kids to school. When you compare putting food on the table and going to the hospital for a general checkup, going to the hospital is not a priority. You only go to the hospital when you are critically sick. I have been the part of the less privileged, so I know how they feel. I want to support people who don’t have the opportunity. The rich can pay their fees. Why don’t I help young people whose families depend on them? For example, one of the projects that we do with Eye Care for All is providing free eye surgery for older adults who are blind. In some communities, if the breadwinner of a family is blind, their kids cannot go to school because their father cannot work on the farm, sell the crop, get money, pay their school fees, buy books for them, pay the hospital bills or buy the drug for them.
For me, investing in those people is better than investing in people who already have money to walk into private hospitals. If I can help only one person, he can send his kids to school to have at least basic education. This can contribute to economic growth.
Reducing period poverty in The Gambia
Fatoumatta: My social enterprise, Girls’ Pride, provides reusable sanitary products, including reusable sanitary pads, baby diapers, and baby wipes to babies, women, and girls in the Gambia. The idea started in 2017 during my placement at Syracuse University where I met an American lady called Sarah. We discussed lot of things we do in our communities.
In Summer, Sarah goes to Kenya where she runs her community project. She buys reusable sanitary pads from Uganda to distribute to schoolgirls in Kenya. I was interested in her project. I told her about my interest in her project idea. She guided me through and connected me to people in this business and how to get support and training and all of these. For me, I wanted to set up something in The Gambia because we don’t have any business that provides reusable sanitary products in The Gambia. I was not willing to buy and sell or represent any foreign business in The Gambia.
Growing up, I never have the opportunity to discuss the period issues with my parents and no one buys sanitary pads for me. It was very challenging. Sometimes I miss classes because of menstrual cramps. Period poverty has affected my education at some level because I did not have the knowledge or skills to take care of myself during my period. In my community, the same thing happened to many girls. This is a general problem. I didn’t know how to address period poverty in a sustainable way until I met Sarah and the idea came up.
How to keep yourself motivated
Fatoumatta: I have mentors. I have people who I talk to. My mentors have been very helpful. Sometimes, you feel I am doing too much; you invest too much in what does not work, or you waste a lot of time on one thing. You need to look into something else. It is ok to fail but we need to have people in our lives who will put us through.
My family and mentors are my priority. If I have issues, I talk to them. People outside cannot bring me down or stop me from what I want to do. I set my target goals and I work towards achieving them. I don’t waste my time listening to people’s critics. You can send me whatever messages you want; I don’t focus on them. I have people who I listen to and these are people who motivates me and give me positive energy. I have people who are interested in my personal and professional development, so I keep them in my circle.