Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement
Kim Pittaway and Toufah Jallow
Random House Canada, 2021
Review by Cicely Belle Blain
When Toufah fell into my lap, I felt at home. On the cover, author Toufah Jallow is pictured like a chiaroscuro, wearing a tailored bleach-white grandmuba seated against a pitch-black background. Anyone who has walked the Gambian streets of Banjul, Serrekunda, or Bakau will be familiar with the grandmuba—a modest dress made from thick, waxy material, usually paired with a musorr or headwrap. The stark difference, though, is that West African dress is known for its colour and vibrancy, while Jallow’s outfit is a simple, poignant, white and orange. Most strikingly, down the centre of her dress, an orange strip is emblazoned with the word “surviving”—hanging like a tie from a tight collar—representative of Jallow’s moving story on the ensuing pages.
For almost my entire life, Yahya Jammeh was the president of The Gambia . When my mother and I tried to visit our family there in 2006, an attempted coup to remove dictator Jammeh changed our plans. From our privileged vantage point in England, we caught a glimpse of the oppression experienced by our relatives under Jammeh.
Toufah Jallow is one such Gambian who experienced firsthand violence from the dictator . In 2015, she was raped by Jammeh after refusing his marriage proposal. A local beauty pageant winner, she used her influence to share her story and brought the #MeToo movement to West Africa, where the topic had previously been silenced.
Toufah infuses personal story and political urgency. In the opening of her book, Jallow critiques the word “allegedly,” like many survivors of sexual assault. “People kept telling me I should always say ‘allegedly,’” she writes, contrasting her truth to the bizarre claims made by the pres- ident, such as the power of bananas to heal HIV. Why are the words of powerful men believed without critique?, she calls us to consider.
Throughout the book, Jallow takes the reader on a journey of the fear, pain, shame, and triumph of speak- ing out against her abuser . A major theme in Jallow’s book is the power of the media and its ability to share or stifle the truth and the complex responsibility of journalists to choose sides, risk their own safety, or sell out. Over his twenty-year reign, Jammeh’s domestic policy focused significantly on media suppression . In the early 2000s, he declared that journalists would be “buried six feet deep” and “go to hell” if they disobeyed his orders and spoke ill of The Gambia.
Ironically, it was both traditional and social media that helped Jallow tell her story. In Chapter 10, entitled #IAMTOUFAH, referencing the hashtag used over 50,000 times in solidarity with the writer, Jallow shares in detail the brave choice to go public, internationally . Sitting in a hotel in Senegal, overlook- ing the resplendent blue Atlantic ocean that holds so many memories and traumas for West African people and their descendants, Jallow waits for a British journalist to publish her story. By this time, Jammeh has finally been ousted and replaced by Adama Barrow, whose first priority upon election was to ensure freedom of the press. “I imagined Jammeh in exile, watching the press con- ference, knowing he hadn’t been able to silence me. He wasn’t in control anymore . And I wasn’t invisible,” Jallow reflects.
“The truth always needs a resting place or it will lie down wherever it sees fit,” says Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, in her latest book, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience. Jallow honours this call to truth, despite the pain and fear it causes her, knowing that her story can validate and inspire others who have been hurt and silenced. In Toufah, she does not hold back and instead launches her full body—a body that deserves justice and autonomy—into this literary work and into the movement for survivors across her home continent.