How did you grow up? Did you see church leadership in your future?
Johnson: I was a very timid, very shy girl when I was growing up. Even in school, if I knew the answers I would not want to be called on, simply because I had a speech impediment. I was afraid people would laugh at me. I used to hide away from teachers. In school, I stayed in the background. Then, I just had this inspiration: I started writing poems and that’s how I sort of blossomed out. I was invited to read my poem onstage at one of the hotels. That was the first time I stood in front of crowds of people. How I did it, I don’t know! People were calling the house, saying: “Is this Mathilda we are seeing?!” It just carried on from there.
I grew up in an Anglican-Methodist home. We used to go to service three times in a Sunday. I was more or less spending most of my time in church, and the youth club, and all of the things, but I was just one of the crowd then.
What made you take the next step?
Johnson: The next step was when I joined the women’s auxiliary. I went on this particular Monday to become a member. That day, they were having an election. I was roped into being a secretary. And that’s how I became more involved in church. I held that position for ten years. Then I became a steward, then society steward. Then I became bold, I started speaking. Growing up, I was very naive. But then there was this civil society organization, and I was invited to network against gender-based violence. That also helped to put me on the platform. I was invited to become a member on the national committee for the prevention of female genital mutilation. People started calling me here and there. I became a member of the National Gambian Christian Council.
What do you hope in your current position, working with an international group of women?
Johnson: With the women, there’s always the issue of self-esteem. There’s always the issue of “maybe I am not good enough” or “what would people say.” In every family, you have your skeletons. Your voice needs to be heard and that is one of the major issues that we have, working with young women and even middle-aged women.
Especially with the African culture, we have been brainwashed from birth: marriage, children, you stay in the house, you’re a good wife, a dutiful wife, but if you do anything other than that—you are a rebellious woman. Because in the African culture, when you marry somebody, you don’t only marry the man, you marry the whole family. They feel they have the right to come into your home anytime and your husband will not say anything. Now, it’s changing a bit. In our early years of marriage, we went through a lot. We now turned around and said to the others, “do not accept this.” We have a lot of elderly ministers. They will tell you, no, you can’t leave the marriage. A lot of women, including my mother, when they got married, they retired from work. But I would like to say, things are changing. The girls now, they don’t rush into marriage. They have well-paying jobs, they buy their cars, they build their houses. They are not bothered about tradition, about the shame of divorce. It’s no longer a shame. So those are some of the issues, and again, education is key. We found out, for most women their education status is just high school. They didn’t go on to university. I didn’t go to university until I got married and had one child. If I can do it, married with kids, you can do it!
What are your hopes for your sisters in Africa?
Johnson: My hope for my sisters is that they would be educated. They would be independent. They would have that ambitious mind—good ambition. You want to excel; you want to get to the limits. I would hope that some of our sisters would want to reach for all of those things. You don’t depend on any man for anything. Then you will be able to survive any situation, any condition.