Last August while browsing through the Sunday paper a notice caught my eye. It was for GIVE – Gambia Ireland Volunteering in Education, so after thinking about it and discussing it with my family I decided to go for it.
In February, following a preliminary meeting in Dublin with the main organiser, Joe Griffin of GIVE, I set off for The Gambia with 13 others all unknown to each other, 5 secondary teachers and 8 primary teachers – all but one, retired.
We met in Dublin airport and flew to Madrid and from there flew to The Gambia’s capital Banjul. We arrived at 5 am exhausted and excited.
It was incredibly dark, so much darker than here at night time. We were greeted and surrounded by lots of people willing to take our bags for a tip, of course, and people begging for anything at all. What a shock to the system.
For the weekend we rested at our hotel apartment – a very basic bedroom and small kitchen that was more than adequate.
The Bungalow Beach Hotel was right on the beach with the Atlantic waves bashing the beautiful long sandy shore.
This was a fantastic asset to help us cool down in the intense heat especially from 12pm-4pm with temperatures soaring to over 37°C.
On Monday morning, I travelled to the Presentation Vocational School girls skills centre with two other volunteers Betty and Hilda. This was our new work place for the next few weeks.
The school caters for girls from 1st to 3rd year; somewhat similar to the Irish VEC Junior Cert programme. We were warmly welcomed by the principal Sr. Rosaline and her staff.
I was assigned to the Home Economics Department as I am a recently retired Home Economics teacher.
The teachers have very little training, so I mentored the teacher and hopefully taught her new skills and new ways of teaching to help engage students more in their own learning.
I was amazed to find the students have no textbooks or copies and pencils or pens are very scarce and expensive.
The classroom was very bare with few pictures/posters and the many presses were empty, only a few held a scant amount of Home Economics equipment.
There was a single gas hob and up 60 students in many classes – quite different to our school rooms here.
I spent some classes in the textile area where students learned tailoring skills and this helps them to get a job with a tailor as all women make their own clothes and sell what they can to increase family income.
I was amazed to see a young teacher with her baby strapped to her back while teaching in the class room; the child is breast fed as required with a mat for the baby to play on in the corner.
Literacy and numeracy skills are very poor in The Gambia. In my classes students varied in age in 1st year from 12 to 28 years and most of these students had never been to school before.
You can imagine the different levels and needs within each class group. My colleagues, Betty and Hilda took groups for English, reading and maths at very basic levels.
Sr. Rosaline and I discussed the lack of equipment and decided to buy some goods for the school and we both headed off to Banjul market on a shopping expedition.
We made our way along dust/dirt roads to the markets where haggling was the order of the day. It was an amazing experience, stalls on streets,
African cows that are very thin with long horns, sheep, goats and hens wandering in and about the stalls while we haggled over cookers, pots and pans, sweeping brushes, bowls etc.
I was very kindly given donations for my trip from my generous friends and family and I decided to put this money to good use by purchasing gas cookers as electric ones were of little use with the electricity supply very unreliable. We also bought basic equipment for Home Economics classes like bowls, cutlery, weighing scales, an electric mixer and blender about which there was great excitement.
I replaced the twig with a sweeping brush. I also helped provide a laptop and a keyboard.
That was a day I will never forget – buying the items and returning to the school where everything purchased was put on display outside.
A general assembly was called and wonderful speeches of thanks and fantastic singing and dancing from staff and students took place in appreciation.
Money is very scarce and conditions are very poor in The Gambia and yet every student arrives to school in perfect uniforms with a continuous smile on their faces.
The Gambian people are very tall, slim, and elegant and wear brightly coloured clothes; they seem to be very happy in the land of sunshine and smiles.
My other colleagues worked in other schools, including primary, nursery and secondary level. Some schools did not have floors – just a dust floor – same as outside.
Some desks had no tops and the rims of chairs were shared as there were no seats. Blackboards were crumbling apart and primary students had no pencils.
I brought bundles of pencils, rubbers and pencil sharpeners and these were like gold dust – such a treat- kindly donated by Fieldmaster Clonmel.
I also had wool, needles and patterns and these were greatly appreciated too.
We were in The Gambia for St. Patrick’s Day so we went all green, knitting Irish flags, Tipp flags and Kilkenny flags.
We made green, white and gold pom poms and shamrocks and students really loved the whole story of St. Patrick and the traditions of Ireland.
We enjoyed a great sing song and craic on St. Patrick’s night having attended Mass in the morning where we sang our traditional hymns “as Gaeilge” to huge applause.
Mass lasts for 1.5 hours which just flies by with fantastic singing and dancing – just like a choir in the National Concert Hall.
The church is full to the door and everyone dressed in their finery with half the congregation made up of young children and not a sound of disruption. The Mass is said in English and the local dialect - a wonderful respectful experience.
The country is over 90% Muslim and the rest Christian – Catholic. These communities live very peacefully side by side and it is a very safe country – no crime and never murder.
As The Gambia is so poor with no mineral resources, no one really wants it so its 1.5 million population are a forgotten people.
The Gambia lies in the west coast of Africa surrounded on three sides by Senegal. It is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a total land area of just over 11,000km2.
It lies along the banks of the River Gambia and stretches 470km from east to west and varies in width from 80 km near the mouth of the river to about 24km further inland.
The country is mainly dense mangrove and swamps near the riverbanks. Fish, rice and peanuts are the staple foods along with lots of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables.
People are not starving here but they are all very, very poor. Women do all the work, carry babies on their backs, carry water and firewood on their heads and work 7am – 7pm in fields harvesting crops while the men sit around under trees at bantabas while chatting and drinking tea.
These bantabas are seats for chatting under trees. Local currency is dalasai - €1 = 44 dalasi – so a few euros go a long way.
The Gambia is renowned for its bird watching with almost 300 species here.
We set off at 7am one Saturday morning and spotted about 60 species in a couple of hours among the birds we saw were vultures, eagles, giant kingfishers, several species of herons, pelicans and parrots.
Walking through the woodlands, we spotted coconut trees, bananas, mangoes, pineapples and orange groves – local oranges are green. We also passed through paddy fields or rice.
As we were free at the weekends, we travelled up country to get a true picture of The Gambia. It is amazing how barren the country is with dirt roads and shacks of houses.
One wonders how people make a living here.
We visited some fishing villages where boats seemed positively unsafe with visible holes and very overcrowded.
Of course we could not leave The Gambia without paying a visit to “Kunte Kinte’ country the home of 80s TV series “Roots”. Alex Haley, the American author of Roots claims to have traced his ancestry back to the small village of Juffure; Kunte Kinte is said to have been abducted from here to be sold onto slavery in America.
This was truly one of main highlights of our trip. It was very upsetting to see and hear how desperately people were treated when captured before being sent to US as slaves to work on plantations there.
My trip to The Gambia was most amazing and I certainly realise how lucky I am to be here in Ireland – even in a recession
How the Gambian people would like to know what a recession is!
Every day I just thank God for the wonderful life of luxury we have in this country and remember, “it’s always better to be born lucky than rich”.
For further information on volunteering in The Gambia, please contact Joe Griffin of GIVE at (087) 2255040.