The following is a guest post from Jo Wedeman who has worked for The Gambia Experience for over 10 years. This is an account of an emotional visit she undertook to a school on a recent trip to the country.
I can’t actually remember the number of times I’ve visited The Gambia, although I think it’s around fifteen over a period of ten years. I had fallen in love with the place the first time I’d travelled back in 1999. It was the first time I’d been to a developing country and seen such poverty and at first it was a shock, the hassle from the locals was also a shock but I soon got used to how to deal with it and from that point on I could see just how unbelievably friendly and funny the majority of the people were. I even started to enjoy the banter, the bartering and the inventive sales pitches the market stallholders come up with.
During my many visits I thought I’d seen the majority of sights and experienced all the emotions associated with visiting a developing country – but oh, how I was wrong. On my last visit, last November, I saw the country and more specifically the people in a totally new way. Admittedly I hadn’t travelled to The Gambia in over four years and in that time I’d had two children. I’d experienced new emotions that only a new parent can feel and these travelled with me on my trip to Africa – my first away from my children for so long. I was escorting a press trip on a brief four-day tour of the coastal region and one morning I accompanied a BBC journalist Bridget Blair to a school where she was covering a story for BBC Radio Leicester. The story was about a British woman, Sharon Jervis, who was supporting a school in The Gambia – nothing extraordinary there I thought beforehand, there are hundreds of people supporting schools, hospitals and community projects across the country.
The school’s headmaster collected us from our hotel after breakfast, in a car he’d borrowed, and drove us the half-hour journey to Joyce International School, stopping briefly at a roadside stall to buy some books, posters and pencils to give to the children. As we turned off the tarmac road and started to navigate the potholed sandy tracks between the houses, children playing and goats scavenging I knew we were approaching the village and then I became aware of a distant sound. At first I didn’t think much of it. In The Gambia people live outside: women work, men talk, children play in the streets, there’s always noise. But as we continued the sound got louder until it became apparent that the noise was because of us. For us. We stopped briefly for the journalist to start recording and do a short introduction to what was happening and then we continued. The whole village had come to welcome us. Teachers, parents, children had all come out to the edge of the village to welcome us, chanting “welcome, welcome” over and over again, waving branches and banging drums. The noise was overwhelming and the sight of the children surrounding the car, with their huge smiles and gorgeous eyes, was a sight I will never, ever forget. As we followed the procession to the school I had to keep my sobbing to a minimum for fear of spoiling the radio piece.
On arrival at the school the singing continued and every classroom we went to we were given the biggest welcome from everyone we met. OK, so we were there to publicise the school and they had received a great deal of financial support from the British charity so we expected to be well-received, but I was totally unprepared for the genuine love they had for Sharon and the emotions I would experience. These children were so appreciative of the very basic school buildings and equipment, proud of their new toilets, the kitchen with its bare floors and simple cooking facilities, which meant they all got at least one hot meal a day.
One girl stood out because she was the only one not smiling, the only one not rushing to hold our hands, the only one who didn’t seem excited by the visit, who didn’t sing and didn’t say how grateful she was to Sharon. She was clinging to her teacher and when I asked why I was told it was the first time she’d ever seen a white person and was she was scared. I smiled, tried to be as friendly as possible but moved away – how do you expect a small child to understand what is going on?
Outside the classrooms I chatted to some men and women who helped in the kitchen and some who lived in the village and had come along to meet the visitors from England. They were the happiest, smiliest people I have ever met. They urged me to take their photographs over and over again, delighting in the fact that they could see their own images on the back of the digital camera. They posed by themselves, with different friends and did dances for me. The most forthcoming of them even asked to carry my bag, parading around the courtyard like a catwalk model. Some people might have felt intimidated about handing over their bag to a complete stranger in a remote village in West Africa, but I had no concerns that this incredibly warm and friendly lady would simply hand it straight back.
As I was waiting for Bridget to finish her interviews I wandered around the school yard and started to get the feeling of déjà vu , but I had visited a number of Gambian schools in the past and the simple buildings can all look fairly similar. But then it occurred to me, I had been here before about six years ago. The buildings had been in a much worse state then, there had been no kitchen and no toilets, there hadn’t been the same enthusiastic welcome but I had been here before. And then the appreciation of how much had changed for these children and for the villagers really hit me. I realised how much one person can do to help and suddenly I felt very very humble.
If you want to read and hear more about Bridget’s project there is some information on the BBC Leicester site that is well worth a look.