This world-renowned Gambian musician is building an academy so children can study their own culture — without leaving Africa

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Written by Rachel Wood, CNN

She has found international fame as a musician, but Sona Jobarteh has a bigger mission — to use culture to empower Africans to reform their countries.

Jobarteh has been performing with the kora — a 21-stringed African harp — on the world stage since she was five years old, becoming the first professional female kora player in the West African country of The Gambia. You can hear her vocals on the soundtrack to the movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

As well as being an acclaimed performer, Jobarteh is a scholar in the field of traditional West African Mande music, and it was during her studies at SOAS University in London that she came to a realization.
“[SOAS] has one of Europe’s largest libraries containing African literature and resources — an absolutely amazing place,” she told CNN. “But why should Africans leave Africa to go and study their own culture? This is something that didn’t sit well with me.”

The Gambia’s first female professional kora player is hoping to educate the next generation

Wanting to give Gambians a sense of pride in their own culture, Jobarteh is now building an expansive campus for academic and cultural studies — complete with concert hall, amphitheater and recording studio.

History of the academy

Jobarteh founded The Gambia Academy in 2015, teaching school-age children a mainstream curriculum alongside African history, culture and traditional music.

Her idea was to create a course of study that highlighted the country’s culture in a way that could be replicated and implemented across the country.

The Academy started with 21 students — “to symbolize the kora’s 21-stings,” said Jobarteh — in a makeshift facility in Farato, a rural town in western Gambia.

Sona Jobarteh playing the kora during a World Music Institute concert at Symphony Space, New York, June 2019.

Sona Jobarteh playing the kora during a World Music Institute concert at Symphony Space, New York, June 2019. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images/Archive Photos/Getty Images

More than half of the children were orphans from rural communities, who had little or no access to education. The intake has since expanded to 40 students, whose fees are paid by Jobarteh.

But with a growing waiting list of new applicants, the academy is expanding to a purpose-built site in Kartong, southwestern Gambia, with capacity for 500 students, ranging in age from eight to 18.

The academy also plans to invite international students and musicians to further the educational experience of the children.

“Center for cultural knowledge”

Building in a remote location in rural Gambia comes with plenty of challenges: “heat, humidity and heavy downpours” along with “termite infestation and snakes,” said the British project manager Ron Mitchell in an interview.

But for Mitchell, the project is worth the hardship. “For the first time there will be a place of learning in a bright, natural setting that blends African tradition, arts and culture with academia that allows disadvantaged young people to learn alongside adults from all over the world,” he said.

The design seeks to use various sustainable, locally sourced materials including timber, natural straw and compressed earth blocks. The site will also be self-sufficient, using solar power for water and electricity.

The most eye-catching elements are the “five specialist cultural facilities” — including a multimedia department, concert hall and archive library — which Jobarteh hopes will form a “center for cultural knowledge.”

The project has received $45,000 from UNICEF, enough to begin construction in November on the Junior Department’s main building. Meanwhile, fundraising is underway for the remainder of the estimated $3 million total cost, with the aim of completing the full build by the end of 2021.

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