An interview with Mariama S. Jallow - Gambia's first female air traffic controller

Written by Saja

Mariama S Jallow

Gambian women have pledged themselves to be a vital part of the country's success. Mariama S. Jallow is The Gambia's first female air traffic controller at the Banjul International Airport.

What’s On-Gambia: Tell us briefly about yourself?

Mariama: My name is Mariama S. Jallow, I’m 29 years old and I was born in Farafenni. I did my schooling from nursery to junior school in Farafenni before moving to the Kombos for my secondary school at SOS Herman Gmeiner where I sat to my WASSCE in 2011. I then got admission to the University of The Gambia in September of that year and I attained my Bsc with a Major in Physics and a Minor in Mathematics.

I started working at The Gambia Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) in 2012 on attachment at the Flight Safety Department and in 2013 I was transferred to the Control Tower. I was an Air Traffic Controller cadet from November of that year when I first got my appointment.

 

What motivated you to be an Air Traffic Controller?

What really motivated me to be an Air Traffic Controller is that it actually started when I was going to school in my formative years. All I wanted was to become a Pilot but when I started my attachment, I only saw men at the Controller Tower as Air Traffic Controllers. I kept asking myself why were women not doing that job too. Then I realised it was a male-dominated field.

Then I went and did a quick research about being an Air Traffic Controller and there I realised these are people that give directions to pilots. Then I said to myself, yes, I wanted to become a pilot but why not be someone who gives directions to the pilots. So, while the Flight Safety was recruiting new cadets, the then Director General Mr. Abdoulie Jammeh called me into his office and said he heard I did physics and mathematics at the university. He said: ‘Mariama, why not you go to the Control Tower and break that record of becoming Gambia’s first-ever female Air Traffic Controller.’

At first, it was a feeling of shock but then I convinced myself that I could do it. I applied for the new recruits in 2014 and I was lucky to be selected and ever since I’ve been committed to becoming the first female Air Traffic Controller in The Gambia.

 

As the first female Air Traffic Controller, do you feel like a role model for young women?

Indeed, I think I’m a role model to many young Gambian women out there. Sometimes I get stopped by people to ask me how the job is, the challenges involved and positives and stuff like that as well as how they want to become like me one day. And I hope that my success will serve as a motivation to many others out there that they too can do it.

 

What are some of the tasks assigned to you at the airport?

The tasks assigned to me are to make separations between aircrafts as well as landing and take-off of aircrafts and those that are within the maneuvering areas in the runway and taxiway. This excludes the apron but you also provide separations for that and the expediting and maintaining of the traffic as well as notifying the appropriate search and rescue for aircrafts that needs such assistance.

 

How did working in a male-dominated sector affect your personality?

Working in a male-dominated industry has killed my sensitivity because as women we’re very sensitive and take most things personally. You also need to know how you manage your emotions, especially between your professional and personal lives. You cannot allow your personal issues to have a bearing on your job because being an air traffic controller needs absolutely commitment and devotion as you’re dealing with lives and property and a slight mistake could be catastrophic.

I can tell you that some of the women air traffic controllers that I know, outside of The Gambia of course, they’re divorced because they find it very difficult for their men to understand them. If you want to spend the rest of your life with any man, that man has to understand the nature of your job can have a bearing on your personal life and I thank God that I have that man as my husband [Baboucarr Camara] who understands me perfectly well. Sometimes we’ve our issues as normal in any relationship but then he understands.

Is there any woman who inspired you since you started schooling?

 

The one woman who inspired me most was my mother. She always pushed me to my limits and believed in me. Even in times of difficulties, she will always encourage me to be patient as better days are ahead but unfortunately, she’s not alive to witness the day I got licensed. This license brings me bags full of mixed feelings because first I lost my father during the process in our first training in Ghana in 2017 and in 2021, again when I returned from Ghana for another training, my mother passed away. Today I’m an air traffic controller without my parents. Allah knows best and may their souls continue to rest in peace.

What's your message to young women today?

My message to Gambian women is that if Mariama can do it, then they too can do it. The journey was rough but Alhamdullilah today I can call myself an air traffic controller. I know it’s is a success but at the same time the beginning of new challenges with the task ahead of me. I know I’ve to work harder and do the things expected of me to keep that license because getting the license is one thing but keeping it is even harder.

So, to those young women who intend to venture into this field, I’d welcome them with open arms but also tell them that it requires focus, determination and dedication. Many people thought I couldn’t make it because others came and left due to one reason or the other. But here I am and I believed they too can. I’ve broken the barrier; thus, I indulge others to join me to prove to Gambians that we’re also ready for this.