It was a story that made headlines around the world.
An all-girl team from Afghanistan applied for visas to come to the First Global Challenge, an international robotics competition taking place in Washington, D.C. this week.
And their visa request was denied.
They weren’t the only team to face visa hurdles. The team from Gambia — two girls and three boys — was also denied when they first applied.
“Having no hope to come, we still worked,” says the team’s captain, 18-year-old Alieu Bah. “We never give up, no matter how hard the condition is. That’s how we pushed and pushed and pushed until we finally reapplied and got our visa, and here we are now.”
The Afghanistan team got its visas as well. Now both teams are in Washington, D.C., for the contest. Each of the roughly 160 national teams participates in several matches, hoping their robots earn the most points.
We spoke to the members of team Gambia to see what it’s like to plunge into the world of robotics in their country — where 48.4 percent of the population lives in poverty — and what it’s like to be a girl in the male-dominated world of science and technology.
None of the team members had any experience building robots before this competition, says Khadijatou Gassama.
“We didn’t have anyone to help us with the design,” she says, adding that the team watched videos and followed a guide provided by First Global to learn how to make their robot.
The theme of this first-time competition is “water issues.” The Gambian team’s robot, a cube-shaped device about the size of a large microwave, is designed to separate balls that represent water particles and balls that represent water contaminants and deliver them to different places.
Gassama and Fatoumata Ceesay are the two girls on Gambia’s team. It’s their first time in the U.S. They’re both relatively soft-spoken but seemed confident as they interacted with their teammates. The girls spent some of their free time between matches working with their teammates to fine-tune their robot.
Gassama says she loves physics because it requires thinking outside of the box, coming up with new ideas and inventing new things. The 17-year-old’s skill in physics led her professor to recommend her for the robotics team.
“It may not be complex, but I think it’s efficient enough to take part in the competition,” Gassama says of the team’s robot. She graduated from high school this year and hopes to study nanotechnology. She’s not planning to start college this fall — it’s too expensive, she says — but instead wants to do an internship.
Both girls would like to inspire more young women in their home country to get into robotics.
“The [girls] that do not have it in mind can change their minds, because it’s very interesting,” says Ceesay, 17. She also graduated from high school this year.
Gambia, along with many other countries, still has a STEM gender gap.
As of 2011, about 20 percent of the country’s researchers are female, according to a UNESCO report. That’s better than Saudi Arabia and Nepal and comparable to the Netherlands (24 percent) and France (26 percent).
Hamba Manneh, charge d’affaires at the Gambian embassy in Washington, D.C., says the Gambian government makes an effort to include girls in all its government-sponsored events.
“If you neglect half of your population, you are likely to fail in any undertaking,” he says. “Girls are very smart, they’re just as smart as their boy counter[parts], so that’s why they should always be center stage.”
That’s a sentiment shared by the young women at the competition. Laura Ortiz, a 10th grader on the Chilean team, says, “Many say that engineering and robotics are for men, and places like salons are for women. But I feel we all have equal rights to do what we like.”
Gassama hopes she and Ceesay will inspire other Gambian girls to become interested in technology — and look for solutions to some of Gambia’s problems such as getting access to clean water for everyone.
“Especially during the rainy season, it’s very terrible,” she says. “Most of the places have boreholes and during the rainy season those have rubbish. People find it very, very difficult to get clean water.”
“That is why more girls should get involved in this kind of stuff, because it’s really, really important,” she adds. “We want to build our nation, to make it a better place to live.”