By: Awa Conteh
It’s another Monday, and we’re excited to welcome Ms Rohey Njie, a superwoman who has committed her life to the noble aim of public health communication in this week’s episode of Women in STEM.
She is a trailblazer and an advocate for women’s health. Her journey, which was heavily impacted by her grandmother, exemplifies the strength of perseverance in the face of hardship. Join us as we unearth our guest’s inspirational story, whose unrelenting dedication to shedding light on the complexities of disease and fighting for science-based healthcare has left a lasting mark on the world. Her tale is more than simply a personal accomplishment; it is a tribute to the limitless possibilities within STEM, particularly for women and girls.
Rohey Njie’s road to becoming a public health specialist began with her grandmother’s unwavering attitude as an intense and diligent fruit and vegetable trader. Life was beautiful, with colors of rural simplicity. However, fate, in its whimsy ways, decided to unleash its most fearsome foe – illness.
It all started with a seemingly innocent ailment, an eye condition, which eventually prepared the way for diabetes to infiltrate her life. Her strength dwindled with time, and the daily task she once enjoyed became a distant memory. At the time, tradition had a solid grip on the minds of the village’s people, including the belief in the curing prowess of traditional remedies. Thus, her grandmother’s health was entrusted to the wisdom of these age-old practices.
But the aspiring public health communication specialist, with a spark of defiance in her eyes, saw things differently. She couldn’t bear the burden of misunderstanding that shrouded her grandmother’s illness and the misguided treatment she endured. At a tender age, she was convinced that tradition alone was an incomplete answer to the mystery of her grandmother’s ailment. In the quest for answers, she witnessed the traditional healer repeatedly administer a concoction with lime to her grandmother’s eyes, a remedy that ultimately led to the shroud of blindness. It was a heart-wrenching journey, and it reached its melancholic end with her grandmother’s passing.
Young Rohey’s grandmother, an epitome of strength and resilience, became a silent inspiration, the lighthouse that guided her toward a career in public health. It was a calling fueled by the fervent desire to unravel the mysteries of disease, bridge the gaps in understanding, and communicate the importance of science-based healthcare. And so, her journey in public health communication began a journey of empathy and enlightenment sparked by the memory of a woman who had faced adversity with unyielding determination. In her story, the legacy of her grandmother lived on, illuminating the path to a brighter, healthier future for all.
Through relentless study and discipline, Ms. Njie secured a scholarship to The Gambia College upon completing secondary education for a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Public and Environmental Health. Then, she embarked on distance learning to obtain a Master’s and Doctorate in Public Health from Brunel University London, United Kingdom, and the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, respectively, a feat that made her the first in her family to set foot in a university. As destiny would have it, she found herself as the sole woman in her public health promotion program, and there, her brilliance shone brilliantly. Her rise through the ranks was nothing short of meteoric, from a public health officer to a health education and promotion officer, culminating in her appointment as a Senior Program Officer for the Ministry of Health in the Gambia.
Our trailblazer laid the foundation for the Directorate of Health Promotion and Education, leaving an indelible mark as one of its founding pioneers. Her work became a symphony of advocacy, community engagement, and social and behavioral change communication. Her tenure in the health communication division saw her orchestrating the planning, coordination, implementation, and evaluation of health promotion programs, focusing on immunizations, social mobilization, and disease prevention. She became a catalyst for numerous interventions and response programs, tirelessly supporting and empowering individuals, families, and communities with the knowledge they needed to take control of their health and well-being.
Her reach extended far beyond her homeland, as she represented her country at prestigious international conferences, including the Global Conference on Health Promotion in Nairobi (2009), the Validation Workshop on Communication Strategy for Maternal Health in Burkina Faso (2012), a Workshop on Mental Health Leadership and Advocacy Program in Nigeria (2014), and the 10th Stop Cervical, Breast, and Prostate Cancer Pre-Summit Training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2016).
In July 2019, a new chapter began as she was recruited by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative of the CDC Atlanta, where she embarked on a transformative journey. Trained as a field epidemiologist and communication specialist in Kampala, Uganda, she was subsequently assigned to Nigeria at WHO/UNICEF as a Public Health – SBC Consultant. Her dedication to public health interventions remained unwavering as she continued her brave battle against polio and other public health challenges, leaving an indelible mark on the path to a healthier world. This legacy endures till this very day, as we meet her in the pages of this column.
In public health communication, the challenge of inspiring behavioral change looms large, and navigating this complex terrain is no small feat. It’s a field where the hurdles often present themselves as language barriers. Still, a remarkable advantage came to Ms Njie’s aid – the ability to converse fluently in two of The Gambia’s native languages, Mandinka and Wollof, languages that resonate with the hearts and minds of almost every Gambian. It was a lifeline that bridged the gap and allowed her to connect with her audience on a profoundly personal level.
Yet, the nuances of public health messaging extend far beyond language alone. Complex concepts and ideas, especially when addressing deeply rooted cultural practices with health implications, can be a difficult puzzle. In a society as rich in tradition and culture as The Gambia, conveying these issues and persuading individuals of their consequences becomes a formidable challenge.
In her quest to create a sense of comfort and trust among the women she sought to assist in Northern Nigeria, she was compelled to learn Hausa, the language of the majority in that region. The approach to communication was paramount, and in her determination, she undertook the endeavor of mastering essential words, offering a token of respect, and fostering a deeper connection with those she served. Ms Njie’s journey exemplifies the art of communication, where language is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s a story of breaking down barriers, finding common ground, and persistently working towards change, a narrative that mirrors her unwavering commitment to public health and her extraordinary journey in STEM.
«Over the years as a public health communicationist both in The Gambia and Nigeria, what I did first was to learn the culture and language of the people I work with, which serve as the basis of the medium in which I communicate issues affecting them. I am naturally a good listener who is very approachable and convincing, and these have been very helpful in overcoming any challenges», she told TAT.
For those who aspire to embark on a journey in Public Health, our guest offers a simple yet profound piece of wisdom: passion is the compass that guides any career pursuit. In the pages of her journey, Public Health was not just a choice; it was a dream that had taken root in her heart. And woven into that dream was her profound passion for communication, a fire that was kindled by the story of her grandmother.
Her path to success began from the ground, nurtured by dedication and unwavering commitment. To the girls and women who dare to dream, she extends an empowering message: remain resolute in your pursuit. In a world that often attempts to define the aspirations of women and girls, she champions the idea that one’s destiny should be shaped by one’s own beliefs and passions, not the expectations of others.
In the world of STEM, traditionally regarded as a male-dominated domain, she stands as living proof that passion and belief are the ultimate driving forces. These qualities can dismantle any barrier and clear the path to a thriving career in any field, regardless of gender.
She also emphasizes the importance of career counseling as an integral part of the school curriculum, beginning as early as secondary school. This early guidance can be a beacon for young minds, helping them discover their true calling and chart their course toward a fulfilling future.
Furthermore, our guest underlines the significance of creating visibility and sharing the stories of individuals from many disciplines. These stories serve as beacons of inspiration, guiding others towards pursuing their passions and carving out their unique path in STEM. In her narrative, she represents the embodiment of this vision—a woman whose passion, belief, and unwavering commitment have propelled her to incredible heights in Public Health.
In the ever-evolving narratives, a transformative shift occurs as more women venture into STEM. While these positive changes are undeniable, it’s essential to acknowledge that there remains room for further progress, particularly within the medical field, where the number of women practitioners still lags behind their male counterparts.
Ms Njie further advances a compelling argument: women are uniquely positioned to deliver essential healthcare information that directly impacts the well-being of their fellow women. This dynamic, built on empathy and shared experiences, creates a bridge that fosters trust and comfort, a critical element in healthcare.
As the number of women in the health sector grows, so does the potential to bridge the knowledge gap that often plagues women regarding health-related issues. She highlights a poignant example that can be found in The Gambia, where the scarcity of women gynecologists and researchers in the health sector presents a pronounced challenge. Women researchers, however, play an indispensable role in spotlighting evidence-based matters that affect women. Their work is an invaluable asset in pursuing comprehensive health development, spanning from the individual and family levels to the broader community and national landscapes.
Women stand at the very heart of development on virtually every front, and their empowerment is the key to their participation in STEM-related fields, particularly in health. This narrative highlights the importance of encouraging and supporting women as they step into these fields, ensuring that their voices and expertise are integral in shaping the future of healthcare and, by extension, the health of entire communities and nations.
“Women’s representation in STEM is gradually improving, but more improvement is needed as women are in better positions to address issues affecting women regarding health. This is because women are more comfortable opening up to their fellow women when they face health complications”, she said.
Ms Rohey Njie’s narrative exemplifies the transformative power of women in the health sector, highlighting the importance of their presence and the wealth of knowledge they bring to the forefront. As the stories of women in STEM continue to evolve, it is our collective duty to empower, uplift, and support their endeavors, ensuring that they stand at the vanguard of healthcare innovation and knowledge dissemination. Because, as we have learned, the presence of women in STEM isn’t just about breaking barriers; it’s about enhancing the health and well-being of nations, one courageous step at a time.