We have received interesting stories about visitors' first impressions as they share their thoughts on Gambian Schools Trust and the work we're doing.
Leaving West Yorkshire in the snow, our party landed into the heat, noise, hustle
and bustle of Banjul Airport in the small West African country of The Gambia. We had all been active in the U.K. fundraising for The Gambian Schools Trust, but now we were paying our own fares and accommodation to see for ourselves the work being done by The Trust. During the exciting, enjoyable and educational fortnight we spent travelling around this remarkable country, an important conclusion became obvious.
Despite coming from several different ethnic groups, the Gambian people are united in their belief that their future depends upon the successful education of their children.
In keeping with this national passion, The Trust has now built three schools from the ground, and is involved with many more. The newest is at Kumbija, a day’s drive from the tourist areas, close the border with Senegal. Here I was surprised and delighted to see a group of mums waiting for their children to come out of school in the shade of a magnificent tree sitting on one of the benches that my school (Braithwaite, Keighley) had donated to the Trust two years ago! Every school we visited had evidence of donated items of equipment being used efficiently and enthusiastically, and many of the children were proudly wearing uniforms with logos such as Thackley Primary School, Idle C.E. School and many others.
Enthusiasm is certainly the overwhelming impression we received from all our school visits. Especially in the Trust schools where a healthy communal lunch signals the end of the school day, the pupils are bright-eyed, alert and as eager to learn as the teachers are obviously eager to teach.
The Trust gathers school equipment and furniture in the U.K. and sends a container to The Gambia every year. They also organise fund-raising events and regular donations via standing orders. What is so striking to witness at first-hand is what a long way a little can go!
After having relaxed and tasted my first bit of Gambian culture in the combos for the 2 days we were at Hilary and Steve's we set off for Farafenni about a 2 ½ hour journey from Banjul port, this is where I would experience real Gambian culture. Once the ‘toubabs’ arrived at Farafenni to stock up on drinks and water we were swamped by the young Gambians asking for our water bottles, something which was a common occurrence. When we finished in Farafenni we
made the ¾ hour journey to Kumbija which was where the project for a kitchen to be built at the local school was to be completed. We met all the locals who were very friendly in greeting us; this included the team we were to be working with, the teachers at Kumbija school, and nearly every single child from the village that wanted to shake the ‘toubabs’ hand.
For me it felt like I was some A list celebrity that had come to visit them with the amount of attention I got. After greetings me and the father walked the short distance to where our accommodation was for the next 6 days. We stayed at the honourable Osman Bah's compound, which I could not fault one bit, possibly the donkey and hens squawks at half 5 in the morning but that had to be expected.
Anyway after our first sleep we awoke to start the first day of work on the kitchen, and I have to say if anyone needs to hire a JCB for foundation digging look no further than Sanaba, the man is a machine! Non-stop with the axe and shovel all day! As with me half an hours work in I’d lost my bodyweight in sweat alone and my hand had turned into one great big blister! The build continued over the next couple of days and I was starting to settle in and really start enjoying myself. Each night I played football with the local juniors who would give your average English junior squad a very good run for their money, their fitness is phenomenal! I also got friendly with a few children of similar age, I managed to make friends with the head boy of the local high school, a very intelligent boy and I have made contact with him whilst back in England, something which I wish to carry on. In addition, something which pleasantly surprised me, I really enjoyed the food out there, even though we led a very basic diet, mainly of couscous and rice, I really enjoyed the sauces that went with them, the luxury food out there was bread and beans, something that always goes down well, not as well on the backside though.
When the kitchen was in its final stages of completion Sanaba wanted to take us further up country for us to visit his home and family. Once we got to Farafenni by jelly bus we found a taxi driver that would do us the 2 hour journey for the biggest rip off I’ve ever seen…a whole 2 pounds 50, rip off I think not. On completion of the journey we were once again greeted by Sanaba's brother, teacher and headmaster of the local nursery school and about 40 of the children who had come to greet us even though they had the day off! As ever Sanaba's family were very hospitable and provided us with everything that we needed, even a sit on toilet! A rare commodity in Gambia. One of the great memories from my time in Sanaba’s village was the great football match where the juniors took on the ‘oldies’, even though they pipped us by a very controversial goal it was very enjoyable. By now it was Friday and we needed to head back the next day to Kumbija to see the finish of the kitchen and then head back down to combos. We set of early Saturday morning for Kumbija, hitch hiking a lift from a government official, earning a small buck on his way to work. Once dropped off in Kumbija we saw the finished product of the kitchen which truly was a job well done, and we had to say our goodbyes, something which wasn’t easy knowing I might never see these amazing people I had spent the best part of 10 days with. So there it was I had finished my work in Gambia and we had just over a day to relax and make sure our tans were to perfection before we headed home.
Before I finsh I just want to say my bit about Kebba. Kebba is the man who looks after Hilary and Steves compound. From start to finish of my trip Kebba was always around to help out. But for me it wasn’t the helping out that I was bothered about it was just the way he was always there to talk to and have a laugh with. Such a top, top bloke whom without I doubt my experience would have been as enjoyable.
And finally a big thank you to Hilary and Steve, who granted me this opportunity, really has been a tremendous life experience.
One of my life ambitions was to offer my time to work has a volunteer aboard and I was willing to go and work anywhere if I thought I may be of some use and perhaps give a little quality time to someone.
I became involved with The Gambian School Trust in May 2008 and since then my life has been changed completely. My three visits to Gambia in the capacity of a volunteer have been incredibly happy and I am privileged to work closely with the Gambian people.
All the volunteers pay for their own flights, accommodation, food, drinking water and for the transport to get us to the places.
There are three dedicated volunteers with the Charity who live in Gambia for six months Judith, Hilary and Steve and they ensure that the needs of the children and the volunteers are taken care of and we are looked after very well.
During November when I was working in Gambia I had the privilege of revisiting Nyofelleh School. I was informed that their water pump needed repairing and by making a donation their water pump will be repaired and the school children will once again have drinking water. On my last day I visited Jataba Nursery School until that visit this school had not received any help and once again with donations and supplying the school with chairs, desks, exercise books, pencils and a special request from the headmaster could he please have some chalk I feel that this Nursery school, had been given help, support and hope.
I can’t wait for the New Year so I can return to Gambia and work along side of The Gambia School Trust once again.
"When do you go to The Gambia again?” I asked Christine Schofield during a social gathering. Christine told me she goes every January adding, “You could come next time,” as she knew I had retired from work in education earlier that year.
The seed had been sown. On 16th January five of us left snow and ice behind in Manchester and landed at Banjul airport in a heat of 35° C. The sky was bright blue and I was excited. It was the furthest I had ever travelled and I was looking forward so much to meeting the children in schools supported by The Gambian Schools Trust and seeing the results of the effort put in by the charity and its supporters.
I was not disappointed in any way. At every school we visited the children and staff were welcoming, charming, polite, friendly, happy and pleased to be there. I could not get over how attentive and quick to learn the children were. Their eyes were fixed on whoever they were listening to or speaking to. Their hunger for education was a wonderful sight.
The staff are doing a magnificent job and their hard work is being rewarded by the smiles and confidence of the children who are bubbly yet respectful.
As we travelled around it was apparent that it is not only the children in school that are keen to learn. Every visit to a school resulted in other children and mothers from the village gathering around us and the school. Children want paper, pencils and books. One of my travelling companions got out some books in one village and was surrounded by children. Some wanted to read out loud, to a very good standard, some wanted to listen and a toddler was content to look at pictures up side down book after book without moving away.
Anybody who contributes to this charity in any way can be assured absolutely that it is so worthwhile and that everything and every penny is used. It was heartening to see in use in the schools equipment and furniture that had been considered obsolete in schools in England. It made me realise how wasteful we can be as a nation. Nothing is wasted in The Gambia and the people are very resourceful, resilient, community minded and dignified.
As I have no sense of taste or smell I think my other senses compensate. I was bowled over by the sights, sounds and textures all around me. Everybody is colourful, smiling and friendly. Shaking hands is commonplace for adults and children. People carry loads on their heads, goats and chickens roam, donkeys pull carts, roadside stallholders sell fruit, vegetables, peanuts and cashew nuts. There is hustle, bustle and haggling in the colourful markets where you can buy intricate bead or coconut shell jewellery, polished carved wooden figures or masks, tie and dye fabrics and clothes, wonderful batik wall hangings, drums and other musical instruments.
Noisy traffic rushes along the few tarmac roads – no pedestrian crossings here and no pavements, just red, sandy roadsides. Other roads are dry, uneven and sandy so vehicles bump along with great care.
All around there are the sights and sounds of people making a living and coping with life however they can.
I admire their cheerful disposition. How many of us can say we would be like that if we had to walk to a tap or a well to get water for our daily chores and cleanliness? On the subject of cleanliness I was amazed to see how smart, clean and well groomed the school children were. How they and their parents manage that when they get ready in sandy, cramped housing conditions without all our modern aids I really do not know. Maybe that is another indication of the pride and pleasure taken in attending school.
All the charity workers I met are committed absolutely to what they do. I felt privileged to be able to travel with and meet them. It opened up to me the true experience of The Gambia and not just that of being a tourist.
This is the third school the Trust has building with funding kindly donated by the Blue Water Partnership.
In 33 degrees of heat we bumped along the dusty road to Kumbija. The smoothest road had been badly damaged in the recent rainy season so our cavalcade of police car, the regional commissioners 4x4, the chief of police in his vehicle, the deputy head of education in another and other local dignitaries bumped along back roads generating an impressive cloud of dust as it moved through Gambian countryside, that in this region was well tended. And so the villagers were alerted of our approach well before our arrival(although even without the dust most villagers seem able to produce a mobile phone from their robes these days rendering jungle drums, or in this case savannah drums something of the past).
We drove into an explosion of colour, song, dance and drumming; many faces jostled and grinned, countless hands were extended in friendship. The unmistakeable shape and colour of the Blue Water school was the backdrop, a long white building with corrugated iron roof and trimmed in blue - in a township made largely of
mud and thatch it is an extraordinary sight. We were a party of 14 white people in all, absolutely a record in itself for Kumbija and all of our party had taken some trouble to dress colourfully as we knew the locals would do. Everyone was clearly in party mood.
Taking advantage of the diversion created by a large arrival of white people, I sneaked through the crowd with the sole and urgent objective of testing the blue water toilet block set to the side of the main school building. Having completed my mission (and being greatly impressed with quality and cleanliness that I found) I returned to the front of the school which was alive with excitement and anticipation. A large tented awning was set 30 yards in front of the school under which shaded seating was provided, between the awning and school the many people in attendance had formed three sides of an oblong with the awning completing the fourth and forming an open area in the middle. As I made my way around the back of the crowd I saw two large and decorative settees in pride of place at the centre of the awning , surrounded by rows of seats. On one settee sat the regional commissioner and another man, in the other sat Sharon with a conspicuously empty space next to her. Hilary and Steve Lawther, intrepid and apparently unflappable local organisers for the Gambian Schools Trust, had not informed me that we were to be so visibly the guests of honour but never one to shy away from the spotlight I took my seat as the drumming seemed to step up in volume.
Drumming and dancing are intertwined as a core cultural activity for these people. They tell stories, compete, entertain, welcome (and no doubt more) with dance - every person seems keen to take a part and so the oblong of soil now became centre stage to an astounding array of colour, song and movement. There was no doubt that these were happy people in celebratory mood, this was not just a school event, the whole community had turned out to welcome us. A megaphone appeared first used by a strident lady singer who turned out to be a ‘griot’ - someone who sings family histories. Some of the blue water school children appeared in their checked gingham uniforms and sang the Gambian national anthem to which we all stood and applauded, a group of ladies made some demonstration of traditional skills around spinning and pot making, and the drummers never stopped - sometimes quiet and subtle and at other raucous and driving even more dancing. And then the speeches.
Hilary had warned that these ‘programmes’ of celebration could take several hours with many speeches and whilst we had many speeches we also had the benefit of our school headmaster Mr Sowe as translator. On behalf of the sponsors I thanked them for their wonderful welcome and gave them some brief explanation of why and how we had raised the money for their school, with Mr Sowe’s help they understood and in particular enjoyed the point that we wanted to show their young people that with focus and determination
achieving extraordinary things is possible. The final speech was from the Regional Governor who certainly played to the TV cameras that were in attendance. He reiterated the government focus on education of the young and the importance of empowering women in a country where most women seem to work hard and many men do not. He also led the presentation to the UK delegation of African suits of green and blue made by the ladies of Kumbija in the new blue water skill centre. It was at this point that it seemed appropriate to join the dancing, and photographs are available of the ensuing duet offered to the appreciative and very surprised audience by myself and Maurice (one of the more outgoing members of our group - some understatement here). Apparently we got full marks for joining in but not for technique (which was innovative, exciting and only vaguely African).
I guess we were 2/3 hours into these fascinating and unforgettable festivities when it came to the official opening of the school. A cord had been extended across the front entrance and the blue water friendship plaque carrying the names of all who had contributed financially to the project was mounted on the front of the school beside the door of the headmaster’s office. The Regional Governor led the crowd to the front of the school and invited myself, Sharon and the village chief to hold the cord as he wielded the scissors and invited me to unveil the plaque.
And so the blue water nursery school was officially open. We met the teachers, the children, the villagers and returned invigorated by their enthusiasm and what has been and will be achieved in Kumbija. An achievement both for Blue Water and the Gambian Schools Trust to be proud of.
Two evenings later, having completed the long journey back to the coast, we sat in the heat of the evening with a cold beer watching the Gambian TV news in the company of Hilary and Steve Lawther. We all raised our glasses and let out a cheer as we saw ourselves appearing on the national news. Our TV fame was fleeting but the school is already changing forever and for the better the lives of those who are using it to grow themselves and their community.
A lot of effort goes into the charity. If you appreciate what GAMBIAN SCHOOLS TRUST is doing and wish to help, there is plenty to do. We often need assistants and volunteers to keep things running. If you see the value in what we do and wish to have the experience of your life, then let's get started.