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Gambian Muso Uses Culture to Empower Africans to Reform their Countries

She has found international fame as a musician, but Sona Jobarteh has a bigger mission. 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. 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. 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.