YOUTH FEATURE: Meet Gambian author and literacy activist YaAdam Fye

YaAdam Fye is a Gambian author and literacy activist. She is co-founder and Managing Director of the Fye Network, an entertainment company that creates African inspired content and promotes education and literacy in The Gambia. This year, she was one of the emerging leaders brought together by The Obama Foundation for its inaugural The Leaders: Africa program, and was listed in the Quartz African Innovators series.

In a piece for Quartz by Lynsey Chutel on The Obama Foundation’s program, she described the dynamic of returning to the Gambia this year, after the fall of dictator Yahya Jammeh in early 2017 – “A lot of us are coming back, but we’re having a hard time finding our footing. There is that power play between the diaspora coming back and the locals who have been there.”

YaAdam’s family left the Gambia in July 1995, precisely a year after the coup that brought Jammeh to power.

“I was seven, turning eight that month. Our departure was a complete secret to everyone. We were not allowed to inform anyone that we were leaving. At 3 am, we were picked up by an uncle and driven to Dakar, to the American Embassy. Two weeks later we arrived in the U.S. with everyone referring to us as ‘the six refugees.’” This referred to YaAdam and her five siblings.

She explains that she later discovered, as an adult, that her mother had been a strong advocate for the dismantling of the Gambian army to refocus the monies into infrastructure development.

"She felt such a small country was spending too much money on an army. This did not sit well with the Army. Our parents received political asylum status in the U.S. and 11 months later, the six refugees flew out to be with them.”

As a child, she loved reading books with content that “highlighted the lives of people far from my own.” Her favourite books were The Little House on the Prairie series. Since high school, she has particularly loved autobiographies. Her favourite book that she read this year is Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime which she describes as “such an unrelatable and fascinating story of the African experience.”

11 years ago, while YaAdam and her were living in the United States, her sister’s daughter Anna was born – her first niece. “We found out she was having a girl and started looking for books that would capture the essence and the complexity of our wonderful country and continent."

"There was nothing out there.”

On a visit to her mother in Ethiopia, her and her siblings started joking about how they should write a book. “My younger sister Jay grabbed her laptop and we started spewing out ideas. We wrote our first story.” For a year or two, they were simply reading it to her niece Halima. Halima is of Guinean, Gambian and Tanzanian descent.

“We thought the best way to educate Halima about her many homelands was to start the series through which she will not only discover her heritage, but also learn about the African continent as a whole.” Eventually, they did the illustrations and printed it. But it was only when people started asking for copies that they published it publicly – Princess Halima and the Kingdom of Affia.

It began to sell. “We realised that there was a market, a niche for this kind of content, it wasn’t just us looking for representation of our beautiful little brown and black girls.” As more children were born into the family, they realised that they had all been writing more stories individually. “That’s when we came together and created Fye Network, Fyen.”

They then produced their second series, Baccarian Safari, about “this curious boy who loves nature, whose mother is a vet and whose father is a tour ranger out on the Serengeti.”

"The aim is for him to visit all the African national parks, introducing them to young readers. Fyen’s third series is Sam and Batch, two naughty best friends and the life lessons they learn as kids, told from an African perspective."

YaAdam is Managing Director for Fyen. She has her Masters in Management, and deals with all the "inward facing aspects of our small business", including social media content development, branding and administration such as printing, editing, illustrations, shipping, sales, and distribution.

She chuckles as she highlights that this includes her mother and sisters. They all contribute to the series.

“We share ideas, brainstorm on plot, themes, characters (which are all family members including siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, aunts), how the illustrations should be done, initial editing and finalization of all products."

"As content creators, we want to bring Africa to the forefront; and educate our readers that Africa is a continent full of rich history, beautiful cultures and traditions, and awesome people. Our tagline is ‘Our stories, our way: owning our narratives!’"

During Fyen’s work in the Gambia however, YaAdam encountered the hard reality that the basic text of their series was challenging even for young Gambian adults.

“We realized that unfortunately most Africans aren’t avid readers, especially in Gambia where leisure readership is below 5%. And in doing our projects (Let’s Read Campaign and Miss In Action), we saw that high school students couldn’t even read our books which are meant for children under 14 years. This pushed us to focus some of our efforts on increasing literacy and education- the Gambian system is deplorable"

Since returning to the Gambia, the biggest challenge has been “the lack of responsiveness and engagement from our government. But we are consistent and will keep knocking on as many doors as possible until they start to crack open with reform and the desired changes start to become reality.”

On a personal level, YaAdam’s biggest challenge has been “finding my footing as I adjust to the way of life in a developing country, and at the same time contributing to the way forward without stepping on too many toes - just a few.”

She specifies that her inspiration is “the smiles on the faces of the kids when they read our books and find the storylines relatable, the character’s name being their own - it offers me a sense of validation beyond anything else. Our stories, our way.”

Her passion for literature and literacy remains rooted in her own life. Since returning to the Gambia, her favourite thing to do is to read on the beach. “Reading allows me to decompress. I have a vivid imagination and when reading a book, I allow myself become the main character, sitting on their right shoulder as we experience the story together.”

Learn more about YaAdam and Fyen:

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