During April 2011, my Dad and I went on a trip to the Gambia and Senegal
in West Africa. My Dad, who had travelled a lot before I was born, had
been there before during the time of the previous president and just
before Yahya Jammeh and a group of young officers in the Gambian
National Army seized control of the country from President Dawda Jawara
on 22nd July 1994 during a military coup.
I had heard what a lovely part of the world this was and how desperately poor the people were from him many times and I had seen the photographs he had taken. We were not going on a beach holiday, and we were not going to chill out sitting by a lovely poolside reading novels, my Dad had different ideas for me. Though when I asked about what we were going to do, he was strangely evasive about the facts. He just smiled, telling me he was "introducing me to third world poverty". Funnily enough, I wasn’t put off by this as I trusted my dad; and I knew he would be with me the whole time, and I could see just how much he was looking forward to going back to West Africa.
My Dad had been preparing our trip for many months now. He had purchased
a SteriPen and a Lifesaver water filter, to keep us as healthy as we
could be, and as his old Red Cross Katadyn had long since given up the
ghost! When in early March we both went to the doctors and had our
Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Polio, Tetanus, and Diphtheria
vaccinations and collected our Malaria tablets, it hit me with a wave of
excitement, nerves and realisation as to just how close the trip was.
The Republic of the Gambia - commonly known as The Gambia - is a country in West Africa, and the smallest country in mainland Africa. It is surrounded on three sides; North, East, and South by Senegal, with a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The country is situated around the Gambia River, the nation’s namesake, which flows through the country’s centre and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Its area is almost 10.500 km² with an estimated population of 1.700.000. It is also one of the poorest countries in Africa, and unfortunately also holds one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
My father and I visited The Gambia and Senegal to look at the work of two small UK and Gambia based charities which exist to help improve the lives of children and bring hope to the people of the Smiling Coast of West Africa. Stepping off the plane into Africa was like stepping into an oven. The heat surrounded me, and for a moment took my breath away. It was hotter than anywhere I had been before and nothing like what I was used to living in England, and I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces and none of them white. From the very beginning, I knew this trip was going to be one I wouldn't forget in a hurry I was right out of my comfort zone.
On the first morning after our arrival, we met up with Alex Ngum, the
Gambian representative of The Gambian Schools Project, a charity set up
by a couple in the UK in 2004. Alex took us on a very scenic drive to
the lovely little village of Bafuloto, where we met some extremely
friendly locals, all happy to know that we were interested in meeting
them and learning about their lives. The school we visited was called
the Mason Nursery School, and I was surprised at how small it was
compared to our English schools, it currently has three classes of 3 to
9 year olds, and it had a small cashew orchard where the school could
earn a little much needed income.
The journey to Bafuloto was incredible. Most of the village roads were just tracks in the bush; and at times, it was very difficult to tell where the road actually was. We spent a lot of time negotiating massive ridges and large ruts in the road, created by the water in the rainy season, and I found it was so different from driving on our tarmacked roads in England. We drove through Banjul, the capital city and the city where we were staying; Serekunda, the largest town in The Gambia which was heaving with market-stalls, spare part stores for cars and people walking up and down the streets with baskets on their heads, laden with produce and water bought and sold around the bustling town; before finally driving through peaceful villages in rural Gambia. The villages were like something out of a film set; so different, so small and primitive, compared with the technologic, developed towns of Britain. The houses looked like pretty tough places to live; many were made of mud or cheap breeze-blocks, with rusty corrugated tin rooves that would offer little protection in the long months of the rainy season or from the searing daytime heat of the sun in the dry season. Donkeys, chickens and goats wandered freely about, and parents smiled and waved as their children began chasing the bush taxi we were in, yelling and grinning, asking for sweets and money from the mysterious pale-skinned travellers.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted warmly by the very animated and enthusiastic headmaster, Mr. Sidou Mass, and were swarmed with little hands and voices. "Hello! What is your name? Hello!" they giggled, eagerly reciting what English greeting phrases they knew. They found us new; completely different to anything they had seen before, as I guessed that not many visitors find Bafuloto village during their stay in the Gambia - it was not marked on either of the two maps that we took with us. The little children were desperate to make friends with me – some of the younger ones had never seen a white person before, they started stroking my light hair, gripping my hands in their sticky little fingers, and touching my face while talking constantly. They were all so friendly, and my heart was immediately warmed, but that was before they got together in one of the classrooms to sing me a special greeting in Mandinka - their tribal language! They sang sweetly and happily, as I watched, humbled, at the front. They invited me to sit with them, and clap along to the songs, and as I saw them singing and dancing, it was hard to recognise how unfortunate and poor these adorable little boys and girls really were. But the bad circumstances revolved around one main problem, as we learned when we took a tour around the school.
The main problem Mason Nursery School faced was a complete lack of any water. As we looked around the tiny school, we noticed how the land was really dry, the toilets unwashed and unhealthy and the children were very thirsty, the school has to close at 12:30pm each day as the heat makes the children too sleepy. The nearest well to the school was a long way off, meaning the children had to make tiring journeys in the intense heat to get something they shouldn't have to work so hard for. Also, Mr Mass explained that he wanted the school to have its own fruit and vegetable garden, so the children could grow their own food to eat at lunchtime, and also learn about which types of produce could be grown in the arid soil, and maybe sell some to make much needed money for better resources and more classrooms for the school. But all this was not possible without a water supply.
Before I visited The Gambia, I had no idea of how tough the lives of people out there were. Families were coping with dreadful losses - especially in the wet season, when malaria levels are at their highest. A very high percentage of under 5 year-old children are dying yearly, and seeing the students at Mason Nursery School the education they so badly need in this poverty-stricken place first-hand was thought provoking. Education, water, food, medical care - Britain takes all of this for granted, but here in the Gambia you can't even turn on a tap to get water in 95% of homes.
Seeing all the hard work that needed to be done saddened me, as I knew how much this meant to the children and adults, but also how they could not do it alone. Some of the children were suffering from malnutrition, malaria, and other dreadful diseases that clean, stable drinking and washing water could help enormously. But also, being there with the children was such a rewarding experience. It compelled me to help them; knowing that if I could find the money to dig these children their own well, in their school grounds, I would be saving them from trauma; writing a new page in the school's history; perhaps even lengthening their now short lives.
My trip to the Gambia certianly was a life altering experience, I could see at first hand just how hard life was for the average Gambian, they have to be strong and capable just to survive especially in the rural areas, they shoulder their everyday burdens with great dignity and a smile on their faces. Living life as they do would be almost impossible for most of us Westoners. The heat is physically very debilitating, and the lack of water when they have a drought is life threatening. In parts of remote rural Gambia money is of no use as they have nowhere to spend it so they barter one item for another.
I spent a lot of my time with some of the poorest people in the remotest
parts of the country, as I wanted to get an objective view on the
everyday hardships that they have to endure. I can quite honestly say
that I found the people to be totally welcoming and friendly, they
possessed a great deal of sensitivity for one another, and they looked
after each other well living as they do in little compounds consisting
of extended families sometimes with four generations living under the
same roof quite happily in the most basic of conditions without any
water sanitation or electricity.
I have just launched my Just Giving appeal. I am hoping to raise the £3,000 needed for drilling the borehole and installing a hand pump suitable for providing up to 10,000 litres of clean filtered drinking water per day for The Gambian Schools Project and I will be doing it with your help through sponsorship by climbing Ben Nevis on 15th August this year, Ben Nevis is the largest mountain in the UK. I know because of my disability I will find the climb a big challenge so I am getting a little help from my Mountain Rescue friends, so please be as generous as you can to help this worthy cause. Click below to sponsor me.
Video of me at
Mason Nursery School
Photographs by my dad
Click photographs to enlarge
Click below to help me to raise £3,000 for the children of Mason Nursery School Bafuloto Gambia.