I went to Gambia in March 2012 as part of a wide range of individuals. We, collectively as volunteers, share a common denomination as we all work for Lush Cosmetics. We span the breadth of the globe, from North America and the US, to England, Scotland and Japan. Upon arrival in Kwinella, we were welcomed gloriously by the villagers. Children, eager to see the newbie ‘toubabs’ gripped hands and when we ran out of them, clung onto t-shirts and danced around us singing and peeking with curiosity. We were then treated to a display of Mandinka welcome, drumming and dancing, singing and clapping and lots of smiles.
The 21 of us were split into groups, one lot were to tackle the restoration of the nursery and the outer walls of the school buildings. My lot, were to work on the community farm for the majority of our time in Kwinella . It is a place where the people of the village can help to sustain themselves by growing food, plants and trees. Part of the sweeping farm land has been given to the women of the village, who we regularly saw working their ground. We had chance to explore other ventures within the village. We went back to the School on occasion, sometimes to decorate and be productive… but the best part was playing with the children because it was so difficult being away from them!
I shall never forget the intensity of the first day as we divided into groups once more, and me and four other volunteers embarked on making raised beds. It was exhausting labour of digging of four circular holes that meant chopping the hard African soil one foot deep to enable the construction of raised beds. It took over two hours in midday heat, which we reckoned wasn’t too shabby even though we did have a hand from the farmers! With the help of the other group, we all mucked in and carried wood freshly chopped from a tree to stake into the ground to make the wall of the bed and loaded up the two wheelbarrows with layers of dirt and compost with the help of the farmers and craftsmen, Lamin and Pa. Then we sewed seeds in the four beds that were blooming after two days of planting! As knackering, as deliriously hot that it was, the exhilaration and satisfaction that comes from seeing visible results from your hardwork is so inspiring! A glass of ‘attaya’ ( African green tea) and a nibble on freshly roasted cashews were our sustenance throughout our farming achievements.
During our time, daily duties consisted of watering, morning and eve. I will always remember watering banana trees by moonlight, pumping water from the bore hole that has dug 30ft into the ground to draw water up. Then the farm volunteers and the school decorators came together each evening and ate a delicious meal together outside, cooked by the wonderful Fatou. We would tend the nursery and using our environment, up cycled some plastic bottles and lids to make handy scarecrows!
Later in the week some of us set to work on constructing a solar drier, to dehydrate fruits such as mangoes. The detrimental environmental costs of further devastation to our environment have never been so apparent. John, the agricultural specialist who has lived in Kwinella for a year to help construct the farm, did a fantastic job of teaching us the importance of sustainability and farming. His role was to bring knowledge and educate the farmers about farming in difficult climate and how to be self sufficient, reusing, recycling and responsibly looking after their environment and community. The compost heaps were amazing, reusing dried cow dung and organic waste like leaves and rice husks from the rice milling machine that we had inaugurated that week. We planted banana trees, mango trees and orange trees, mustard cress, carrots, onions… By the end of the 10 days we were all working together like a well oiled machine! And what was apparent the immense physical labour, careful consideration and intellect it takes to work on the farm- and the farm lads do this amazingly, 6 days a week.
We all, whilst simultaneously getting something a little bit different, have found volunteering with Fresh Start life changing. I knew before I went to Kwinella, that this trip would change me. The grass roots aspect of Fresh Start Foundation guarantees a direct result in providing resources to the community in Kwinella. Amongst these, FSF teaches the importance of sustainability and education. These are gifts that will be passed organically in thought and conscience to a developing community of families and friends. You look beyond the poverty to see the individuals that make up a strong and close community. I have made friends for life, in Gambia and England, Scotland, Japan, North America and the US. In fact, I’m returning to Gambia in November for a month and I know Gambia and FSF will be part of my life from now on. Abarakbaki Fresh Start, I and we, are humbled, touched and inspired!