Gambia: a very different kind of trip

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Arrival

Today, I’m going to visit Isatou Loum for the second time. She is the child that I sponsor. I’ve been following her journey through life for 10 years now and I’m really looking forward to seeing her and congratulating her on completing her studies in economics. My journey takes me to Serekunda, the largest city in Gambia with a population of 350,000. I am making the trip as part of the AWO Schwerin project “Nebenan in Afrika” (Next Door in Africa). While we’re there, we’ll be trying to find a building plot for a nursery school in the city’s poor Fajikunda district. For children in Africa, learning English is vital for their education. It not only offers a way out of poverty, but it also represents a first step towards active citizenship and hence towards the democratisation and self-determination of Africa’s smallest country. We will have one week to convene a committee that can make a decision on a building plot, distribute donations and foster cultural exchange – and perhaps we’ll even have a little time for ourselves.

 

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A little slice of the future

It’s day four and we’ve made a breakthrough. The founders and leaders of the “Nebenan in Afrika” project, Anett and Ulrich Kropp, have achieved something of a milestone. A council of elders is to come together to discuss a deserted building on a piece of common land. When we arrive, it’s not clear whether the council meeting will actually take place or not, but there’s certainly plenty of local interest. The proposed plot of land is much better than we expected. The building has been empty for 20 years and is almost totally derelict. But it’s a good start.

Another good sign is the fact that the Alkalo – the mayor of the Fajikunda district – has arrived to join the council of elders. It’s 40° in the shade, so people don’t get too excited. The discussion is very disciplined and focused. Women and young people are also given a chance to have their say, so the whole decision-making process is very democratic. I’m only able to follow the discussion when they use Anglicisms, because I don’t understand the local language. Sometimes they are talking about finances, at other times the discussion seems to revolve around jurisdictions and affiliations. But after two hours there is happiness and relief all round – the council of elders has given its approval to use the building. It’s an important first step. Today is a day for celebrating. Tomorrow is soon enough to start thinking about all the hard work and effort that lies ahead over the next few years. Restoring the building will cost around 100 euros per square metre and Isatou will be responsible for looking after the project finances.

 

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A little slice of happiness

We’re heading for the seaside. The beach is only 2.5 km from the city and yet 90% of the 70 children in the school have never been there. Although fishing is carried out all along the coast, people here don’t seem to feel much affinity with the sea. Rubbish is a major problem – only tourist beaches are cleaned. In Africa, bathing is not considered a leisure activity and it’s not normal to take trips out with the family. But today our visit is being supported by the local lifeguard organization. A representative from the Ministry even insists on instructing the children personally. After some initial hesitation, the children are soon having fun splashing about in the water. There is something magical about water that attracts children the world over. We organise some games – they all like playing football, including the girls. Afterwards, the tug-of-war rope comes in handy to help form an orderly queue for the big picnic. Some of the children fall asleep on the journey back. Six happy hours have simply flown by.

 

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A large slice of optimism

When we get back, I have a chance to wander around town with friends old and new. The people here are well known for being open and friendly. For a European like me, it’s good to open up, laugh and joke and do some friendly haggling in the markets.  Once word has got around that you’re not just a tourist, people soon start greeting you in the street like an old friend.

The community garden is a popular meeting place. This piece of private land belongs to the Alkalo but he allows people to grow vegetables there. Every family in the Brufut village has three beds for planting. Everybody mucks in together to get the work done. They sing and dance, sometimes for the visitors and sometimes with the visitors. We have had such a good time with these cheerful, friendly people that it’s hard to say goodbye after two weeks. As I leave the country, I wish its people all the very best. One day I will come back to see if their courage and optimism have borne fruit.

 

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