Sigga Jagne was the 24th child born to a well-respected educator in The Gambia in West Africa. Her father, Alhaji Mamour Jagne, who died at age 84 in 1993, had five wives during his lifetime including three at the same time.

Sigga’s mother, his last wife, is younger than some of Sigga’s siblings.

“Dad was a gentle soul,” Sigga said. “He was one of the first black principals of a recognized high school. He had a huge orchard with all kinds of fruit trees in a forest and would spend much time there in solitude, prayer, reading and writing. He was very much into nature and had all these stray cats and pigeons he would feed. They would always follow him. He was a practicing Muslim his entire life.

“He spoiled me a lot because I was his last child. I was the only one allowed to sit with him when he was praying.” 

Although Sigga earned a full academic scholarship to Kentucky State University in 1994, she admits it wasn’t easy for girls who loved learning to get a good education in The Gambia when she lived there.

In the winter of 2018, Sigga talked about growing up in The Gambia at a fundraising dinner for Starfish International at Bridgeport Christian Church. Starfish is an educational mentorship program for girls in Lamin, a village of 25,000 in The Gambia, where a third of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. 

Yassin Sarr co-founded Starfish in 2007 with her husband, David Fox, originally from Syracuse, New York.

Yassin and Sigga grew up in Lamin during the same time but didn’t realize they knew each other until meeting at the dinner in Bridgeport.

Sigga — founder and CEO of Signara Global Solutions Inc., an international consulting firm — was one of the major sponsors of the dinner.

Yassin went to Berea College in Kentucky and met Frankfort’s Nathan Rome when he was a student there in the 1990s. While at Berea, Yassin had the vision of returning to her home country and starting an after-school program for girls, Nathan said.

Since 2015, Nathan’s parents, David and Julia Rome, of Frankfort, have traveled to The Gambia five times, staying five to 10 months and working primarily as volunteer English teachers at Starfish.

Today, Sigga and Yassin “communicate all the time. We call each other twin souls,” Sigga said. “We’re very different in some ways. Yassin is much calmer, more centered. We went to rival high schools and were the head girl prefects at our schools. We would see each other at the same places, over and over, but we never became close growing up.” 

In 1993, the late Anthony Woods, a KSU professor, came to Sigga’s high school to give a lecture. He was doing volunteer work through a program called Teachers for Africa. 

“Being the head girl prefect at my school, I gave the word of thanks to Dr. Woods after his lecture. He told me I was very articulate and asked about my future plans.

“I said, ‘I’m definitely going to a university. I don’t know how because I don’t have the money. But I know I’m going.’”

Woods advised her to take the SAT, an academic exam she hadn’t heard of. But she took it, “and had a real good score. I earned a full presidential scholarship.”

At KSU, she majored in biology and chemistry, and was graduated with high honors. Her family wanted her to go to medical school, “but it was not the calling of my heart to go into medicine.”

She also earned a master’s in public administration from KSU, and an associate degree in public health at the University of Tennessee.

She worked 14 years in Kentucky state government and was a director overseeing the state Department of Health’s HIV-AIDs program.

“I had a good job. I was traveling all over and sitting on national boards. I was going to Congress and having press conferences with the governor. But I got to the point where I literally had to drag myself to work. I knew it was time to leave.”

Sigga said 10 years ago she started learning about meditation and it triggered a lot of changes in her life. Her meditation practice helped her find the courage to leave state government and work fulltime at Signara, a small sideline business she had started in 2010.

Her childhood struggles

When Sigga was 12, she went to evening classes to prepare for an important exam that would determine which high school she would get to attend.

“I would get a beating from an uncle when I got home because his wife complained to him that I was supposed to stay home and help her. But I kept going to the classes because I loved learning.” She said her uncle “was very remorseful later in life for giving me whippings. He’s a different person now.”

Sigga also remembers a brother checking out books at the library, and reading those because she wasn’t allowed to go to the library. That way of thinking has changed a lot now, thanks to girls’ mentoring programs like Starfish, she says.

“In my generation, what was emphasized was a woman growing up and finding a good husband to marry,” Sigga said. “A part of me resented that. Why can’t I be the right person to do the things I need to do?

“I’ve always had this inkling of rebelliousness, not doing what everybody else does. So you can imagine growing up in that environment and having that attitude. I got a lot of beatings because I questioned things. I was the hard-headed difficult one.”

She said if someone was getting bullied at school, she would “jump in to make sure the fight got stopped.”

Today, Sigga owns a nice home overlooking Duckers Lake on Village Drive in Frankfort. While preparing to buy it in 2004, a friend in the U.S. with a master’s degree, originally from The Gambia, advised her to wait until she got married to buy a house.

“She wasn’t doing it from a place of hate,” Sigga said. “But she was saying because I’m young and not married yet, ‘If you build your whole life and get everything you want, what is a man going to bring to the table? He would feel intimidated.’

“And I said, ‘The man who is going to get intimidated because I’m living my life the way I want is exactly the man I don’t want.’

“It used to irritate me. But I’ve settled into realizing that we see the world differently. For me, it’s not a get married for the sake of getting married; it’s get married for the right reason with the right person, at the time that is right for me.”

More spiritual than religious

Sigga grew up Islamic in a country where 90 percent of its people are Muslim. She still considers herself a Muslim “because I was born a Muslim. But I am more spiritual than religious.”

Her mother, Yassin Jobe, 74, who lived with Sigga in Frankfort from 2007 to 2016, didn’t have a formal education. “But she valued my education and was happy I came to KSU. She saw the difference it could make.” She’s witnessed her daughter’s generosity, empathy, kindness and compassion for others.

“She respects that,” Sigga said. “But she would rather have me pray five times a day and be very religious so God would definitely take me into heaven.”

Sigga still feels “absolutely comfortable” when she goes to the Islamic Center of Frankfort. “I’m comfortable no matter what the religious environment is. I know there’s a level of truth in each religion. But as human beings, we sometimes take the message and twist it.”

Now that meditation is part of her spiritual practice, she realizes she was meditating as a Muslim child in The Gambia when she would sit down for her five daily prayers “and communicate with God. I would take forever because I was praying from my heart. And mom would say, ‘Get up, that’s enough.’ But I couldn’t hear anything around me. It was like I was transformed and one with God.”

The experience was similar when she read books as a child.

“I would get into the story and people would pass by and talk to me and I couldn’t hear them. I was not only reading the story, I was in the story as it was unfolding. I got into a lot of trouble for that because people thought I was ignoring them.”

Family tragedy

Today, Sigga says she’s as happy as she’s ever been. But life’s road to joy also brought overwhelming grief.

One of her brothers, Njaga Jagne, a captain in the Kentucky National Guard, was killed in a Dec. 30, 2014, attempted coup that failed to topple the government of then-Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Sigga’s brother was one of four plotters killed at Jammeh’s headquarters.

He had moved to the U.S. in 1993, and joined the National Guard in 2005 at age 34, a few years after earning a degree in criminal justice from KSU. He was deployed to Iraq twice, in 2006 and 2010.

A January 2015 story in Business Insider, an online newspaper, said the decision Njaga Jagne made to participate in the coup attempt “is almost incomprehensible: He left a family and a stable life in the U.S. to foment regime change in a country he had been born in but hadn’t visited in over 20 years, joining a far-flung group of plotters that he may never have even met before.”

Sigga was quoted in the story, saying, “He was willing to risk his life to help people where it didn’t directly affect him.” She believes her brother died in a heroic struggle against tyranny. “His legacy is that he stood up for people who had nobody to stand up for them . . . people who were daily being abused and tortured and abducted and killed. It was worth it for him,” she said.

In 1994, Jammeh led a bloodless coup that overthrew the government of Dawda Jawara. Jammeh was elected president of The Gambia in 1996 and was re-elected three times. But he lost to Adama Barrow in 2016.

Jammeh is accused of having stolen billions of dollars from the country’s coffers to fund a life of luxury, Sigga said. After leaving office, his assets were frozen by many countries and he went into exile. In addition to charges of corruption and human rights violations, he is accused of having raped a number of young women.

In 2000, one of Sigga’s brothers, Assan Suwareh, was shot in the stomach and arm at a student demonstration in The Gambia while peacefully protesting against the Jammeh regime.

“Innocent civilians and children were demonstrating in broad daylight and the military turned their guns on them,” Sigga said. “He was in a coma and in a hospital for a long time. I brought him to Kentucky in 2002 to get better medical care. He’s very gentle, giving and caring. He has an associate degree from KSU, lives in Lexington and is finishing his engineering degree at the University of Kentucky.”

War and exile

Family tragedy and time have sparked a renewed interest in genealogy for Sigga. 

“Through research we’ve developed an extensive family tree of thousands of people extending multiple generations,” she said – including royalty on both sides of her family.

An excerpt of her family history follows:

In 1865, Sigga’s paternal ancestor – Warrior Ruler- Maba Diakhou Ba (brother to her father’s great-grandfather, Sait Diakhou Jagne) defeated the invading French army at the battle of Pathe Badiane (Paoskoto) allied with Sigga’s maternal ancestor – King Damel Teign Lat Dior Ngone Latir Diop (brother to her mother’s great-grandfather – Mam Njaga Jobe). Leading the allied forces was Sigga’s father’s maternal grandfather – General Biran Ceesay, who was married to Princess Mbake Ndiaye, the daughter of the King of Sine, in the ancient region of SeneGambia.

Both Warrior Ruler- Maba and King Lat Dior were later killed in two separate battles, leading to the exile of these great families into what was then annexed British territory – The Gambia. With French forces in hot pursuit, they left everything behind and sought refuge in English-ruled territory, where many remain today.

Change is coming

Sigga says she’s always had a passion for helping others. That’s why she started her own business.

She and her small staff do grant writing, problem-solving for small and medium-sized businesses and non-government organizations, project management and program designs. Signara provides worldwide services through an expansive network of professional experts around the globe, according to the company’s website.

“We have about 20 experts we contract with,” Sigga said. “We’ve developed a lot of mentorship programs. We’ve helped young women — who have a skill, a business idea and a passion, but no funding — to get the resources so they can thrive and be independent.”

Signara’s agribusiness division, called Green Love, focuses on organic farming.

Sigga says Africa has about a million young people turning 18 every month and the majority doesn’t find work, she said. She thinks organic farming is the solution.

“Africa imports more than a trillion dollars of food a year, and most of it is over-processed and poor quality. Our ancestors used to eat from the land and science has proven the best food you can eat is organic from local land, which optimizes your immune system.

“Now, people go to the supermarket and buy canned stuff, over-processed products that haven’t been stored right. Chemical fertilizers have damaged the soil. In The Gambia, a very high percentage of people have diabetes and high blood pressure. We have a sick culture because of what we’re putting in our bodies, and we don’t have a good public healthcare system.”

But there’s hope, she says, because of The Gambia’s young labor force, arable land, a river in the middle of the country and a lot of superfoods.

Green Love has created a cashew farm with 2,000 trees in The Gambia, a moringa farm, “and we’re expanding into rice farming because we have a local rice that is the most nutritious in the world and tastes amazing. It’s called Carolina Gold. We’ve also secured the rights to an organic fertilizer, all natural, to distribute in all of West Africa.”

She says getting people to eat better is a slow process. “There’s a gradual awareness that’s happening but it’s nowhere near the levels we want it to be.”

Today, at age 46, Sigga has lived longer in Kentucky than in The Gambia. She says Kentucky has become her home away from home. She’s renovating her house and getting ready for “the next phase in my life.”

“The next five years I want to travel the world. I want a mobile, nomadic lifestyle. I can be anywhere with a laptop and do my work. Gambia is going to be the base. Everything I’ve learned along this life journey, I want to give back. I want to use my talents where it’s needed even more.

“For a long time, I couldn’t do as much work in The Gambia because of the dictator there. I was very vocal against him, publicly and in the media. I’m sure he would have been happy to get his hands on me. But, he’s no longer there. I’ve been doing a lot of work, both behind the scenes in some projects and from a distance. But now it’s time to be there and do hands-on work.

“No matter where I am, I’ll always travel back to Kentucky because I have family here, a brother and nephews. My brother who died, his sons are in Frankfort and Lexington. I’ve developed a lot of ties here as well, and I have a home here.”

The two years following her brother’s death were the darkest of times for her.

“But coming out of that makes me appreciate things more, makes me see much clearer. I feel I’ve come through this fire, and out of it, I’m forged in ways I never would have been without that experience. Now there is a knowing there’s something greater that can hold me through the worst of times. There’s a level of courage, a level of inner calm, a level of wealth that money can’t buy. There’s a knowing that no matter what, everything is going to be OK.”