Stephanie Allen (UK, AC 06-08)
In Summer 2008, a couple of Atlantic College students went to Gambia in order to not only have an amazing trip, but also to try to bring some change to the country’s desperate situation. The following is an account of their journey.
I suppose it would have verged on overly optimistic to hope that we would all actually make it to the Gambia, but after one trip to Disneyland, one last-minute university interview, a funeral, two lost plane tickets, one plane ticket that never existed, two stolen rucksacks and a train in the wrong direction an hour before takeoff, eleven out of fourteen seemed to me a reasonable triumph. In fact, one might say we had weeded out the weak ones (we did say this actually, in Barcelona airport, while we were crossing their names off our t-shirts.)
We landed on Gambian soil at 3am, tired from the journey, prickling uncomfortably in the intense humidity, wincing at the mass of people who only wanted D100 to snatch away your suitcase, give it an obligatory bash on the conveyer belt and then loose it for you. But at least some of us were in a good mood.
After meeting the delightful heads of the charity we were working for (for the purpose of this report, I’ll call them MF and Daffy) we were driven to our accommodation in the Allahisgreatmobile, a vehicle that I personally would come to regard with a sweaty, queasy mixture of loathing and dread.
I suppose it would be most revealing to tell you that our accommodation cost fifty pounds, for the month, and that our dormies were a trained assassin, a chef and various other tall and questionable men who played loud music and revved their car engines many, many times every night. There were cockroaches, but this was actually rather a good thing as the fear of discovering some disgusting animal in your clothes made some members of the group quite tidy.
We woke up on the first morning to mangoes, tea, sunshine, chicken fights in the sea, Happy Laydees, It’s nice to be nice and a local Gambian delicacy called Domoda, which Louise enjoyed. Our watchman, Badou, introduced us to various other Gambian delicacies as the project progressed.
There were three main aspects to Gambia Project. First, there was Abuko: a charity-funded nursery school that we renovated in our first two weeks: clearing rubble from a wall that had collapsed in the season’s first rain, sorting through container upon container of termite infested, dust-spluttering ‘teaching materials,’ washing and painting walls (YAY) singing Arctic Monkeys songs to the hordes of children that followed the ‘Toubabs’ (us) pretty much constantly, and hauling water from the village well. Louise tried to be cool and put the water on her head: this was very amusing for both the Gambians and me, as she just got wet and all the dirt from underneath the bucket stuck to her head. We were given the first of many overwhelmingly warm welcomes at Abuo; the Children of the Gambia charity has supported the school for about seven years and MF and DAffy are well known and liked amongst the locals. The villagers were heavily involved with the renovation, pitching up daily to mend holes in the roof, plaster the walls and organise food for the charity.
While we were at the coast, to Joe Llwellyn’s delight we also ran a lifeguard training project, organising swimming and first aid workshops for pool attendants at various hotels. We also ran free sessions at the beaches that anyone could join, and ran a couple of sessions for the Red Dolphin Lifeguards, a group of unpaid volunteers who watch the tourist and local beaches of the Gambia, living in a deserted building site, relying on donations to eat and frequently being beaten up by the police for being homeless.
In our third week we traveled thirteen hours upriver to Kusalang with the COTG charity again, to work on another school. Kusalang is incredible: a tiny village lost in the Gambian bush, made up of two wells, a school, ALOT of snakes, its territory marked by a line of pebbles and surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of dusty nothingness. We slept in tents that didn’t close alongside mossies, earwigs and the fear of waking up face to face with a scorpion. Alex developed a golf-ball swelling in his arm which turned out to be a nest of lizard eggs (honest), the bloodthirsty among us went hunting and we ate two monkeys, tinned tomatoes and burned rice, getting water to bathe or wash up was a strenuous half hour task and Joe jumped out of a tree and proceeded to strip after an army of red ants decided he was dinner. No-one used the toilet after a bat swooped out of it.
The school was disused as it had been destroyed in the previous year’s rains: for four days we cleaned, threw away old books and sorted through herculean piles of what seemed to be junk. By the end, the classroom looked good; the tables were set up with chairs grouped around them, there was a toy corner, a sports corner, a reading corner.
I’m sure I’ve left bits out, but the project was incredible. For many of us it provided an opportunity to put our service to good use; for me it added a certain validity to two years of kayak rolls and front crawl, Carolina made a fundraising video for the Red Dolphin Lifeguards, people were able to put into practice skills learnt in EMC to engage with the children despite our language barrier, or Estate with the harder manual work. Plus, we all got great tans and loads of photos to put on facebook, of us looking really cool and saving the world.
– United World College Student Magazine –