Sharjah: Meet the 'recycling queen' who has been fighting plastic pollution for over 25 years

Today, she spearheads over 117 recycling and women empowerment projects all across Gambia

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Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Fri 15 Sep 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 15 Sep 2023, 10:20 PM

For Isatou Cissay, opportunities are like ripe mangoes. You grab them and never let them go. When she saw an opportunity to rid her village in Gambia of harmful plastic bags 25 years ago, she grabbed them with both hands. Today, she spearheads over 117 recycling and women empowerment projects all across Gambia.

“The project not only made my village clean but also financially empowered women,” she said. “And as Nobel prize-winning activist Dr. Mohammed Younus has noted, when women control money, their families are more likely to benefit from it.”

Cissay, an activist and social entrepreneur from Gambia popularly known as the ‘Recycling Queen’, was addressing crowds on the second day of the 12th edition of the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF) that kicked off in Sharjah on Wednesday. Organised under the theme 'Today's Resources... Tomorrow's Wealth', the meeting debated how to find solutions to the sustainability issues the world is facing.

One plastic bag at a time

Despite being forced to drop out of school to work, Cissay had a good imagination and was great at working with the environment. It was a chance meeting with a Peace Corps member named Peggy that changed Cissay’s life. “She wanted to learn my language and I taught her,” she said. “In turn, she told me about sustainability, plastic waste and other environmental issues.”

She began noticing animals in her village of N’jau dying. “People said it was because of some strange disease,” she said. But with the knowledge Peggy imparted, Cissay knew that the animals were not dying of any diseases.

To prove that the animals were dying of plastic, she went to butchers in the village and begged them to let her look at the intestines of the dead animals. “With that, I convinced them that plastic was bad for animals. Also, people began burning plastic bags as fuel. I was able to convince them to stop it.”

Then, Cissay came up with the idea of recycling plastic bags. She initiated the movement called "One Plastic Bag" to teach women the skills of recycling waste and transforming it into products that generate income for families. “First we started turning them into purses,” she said. “Then we expanded to other products.”

Women empowerment

When she started employing women, Cissay noticed how their lives were changing. “These women were using their income to buy cooking pots, cook nutritional food, pay school fees, repair their houses and plan ahead for their lives,” she said.

Their work started to impact the village as a whole. This motivated them to take their work from their village to other places in Gambia. “In 2012, we were registered as a community-based organisation called Women’s Initiative Gambia,” she said. “Since then, we have expanded our programs to include several other initiatives.”

She gave the example of briquet production. “Instead of traditional charcoal briquets, we began using coconut husk and shells to manufacture briquets,” she said. “This reduced pollution and deforestation.”


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