I was asked to do a write up on my experience of my recent trip to Gambia, yet I am struggling to put into words how moving and unbelievably amazing it was. I was volunteering with a charity called The Fresh Start Foundation; it was set up by Lamin and Rebecca Daffeh in 2006. I must begin with a huge thank you to Lamin; he truly is an inspiration and has been called ‘The Son of the Nation’ many times due to his hard work, dedication and commitment to the small village of Kwinella, where he grew up. I was working at Kwinella Lower Basic School, with 14 other volunteers, all with the same attitude and mindset that we were here to help and make a difference to the community. Our projects for our time there involved working in the school garden (planting mango and banana trees), painting and decorating 12 classrooms, 6 outer buildings and the head masters house which was also in the school grounds, sorting out the library and helping to teach the children. A lot of work to be completed in 10 days!!
Each day was different, even though our projects were continuous. Every day brought you new challenges, like running out of turquoise blue paint in the middle of a village 3 hours away from the Capital, with still half the school to paint: or the ground being so tough and dry we had great difficulty preparing the soil to plant our trees. However when in Gambia, do as the Gambians do, which is smile and not to worry! In their poverty and hardship they manage to look at life in a positive light! Waiting for 4 hours for new paint to arrive put us UK lot in a panic, worrying about deadlines and pressure. Yet the Gambians saw it as 4 hours to have lunch, soak up the sun, and play with the local school kids. Spending time with the kids turned out to be such a joy, it’s certainly not like school in Scotland, where children are told to sit quiet and smile politely at visitors. From the moment I arrived at the school, to my last day, I had kids at my side every second of the day. Many of them were eager to help me paint, to the point one day myself and 8 kids were painting, and chanting ‘Nice and Slow’ (this was my attempt to get some structure). We set up a School Sports Day for the community, with all the kids taking part, and their families cheering them on. The sack race, the egg and spoon race, and the 3 legged race were among the favourites. I must admit defeat though, and say that the kids bet us, in every race!!!
I was given the chance to go on a home visit with one of the children from the school; I of course could not wait to experience and see a local’s home and life. My excitement soon turned into reality. The house in which the family lived in was made up from 3 small huts; there were a total of 24 people living in this small compound. The words basic and crowded came to mind. Yet in amidst of this, I suddenly felt very jealous. Jealous, that there was such a sense of community here, jealous that everyone helped each other out in a time of need. It begins to make you think about life back home. How can I be a better person? Is there more I can be doing in my community? In my home? I was welcomed by the grandmother of the family, who told me that her grandson was due to finish Lower Basic School, and move to Upper Basic, but as it stands cannot afford to go, due to his father being ill therefore unable to work. During my time of the home visit I noticed that the grandmother was making a beaded necklace, and to my happiness and joy, as I was leaving she put the necklace round my neck, and thanked me for the hard work I had completed in the school. It was a very touching moment for me, knowing that although they have very little in the way of personal possessions , she gave me it as a gift, In return, on my last day at the village I went back to visit the family, and left most of my clothes and shoes for them.
As my time in Kwinella came to an end, we were taken to another school, 5 minutes away from our newly transformed one. This was a wake up call in a big way. There were only 4 small classrooms, dark and dim, made from mud blocks, with no tables or chairs. There use to be 5 classrooms; the last did not make it through the storms. If there was ever an unsuitable teaching environment then this was it. I was so busy living in my ‘little Kwinella bubble’ that I almost forgot that although I was making a difference in one school; there was many more in need of the same help. Seeing this has inspired me to do more fundraising and spread the word about The Fresh Start Foundation.
One lasting impression that has stuck with me is the lack of shoes that the children have. Every day at school I would see kids walk on the hard, dirty ground (although they would still have a smile on their pretty little faces). Their feet had open sores, and dry, cracked skin. It is because of this that I have started collecting kids’ shoes to send over. If anyone can help out then please do.
Gambia has been one of the best experiences in my life. Typical statement to make, but you could not honestly met nicer, friendly people. As Lamin told us on our first day “It’s not about making their life like ours, it’s about enriching the life they have already”.
If anyone has ever gave it any thought to do volunteer work, then I would say why wait? Go now! No matter what age, race, and gender you are, you can help. You can make a difference. During my time in Gambia I filmed various video diaries which can be seen online. For more information on The Fresh Start Foundation, their volunteer opportunities, and the video diaries please go to www.fsfgambia.org
Remember that it only takes 1.5p a day to feed a child.
Fresh Start Foundation Representative