Children’s smiling faces and shouts of “Kathryn” and “Shelagh” greet us in Jeddah, a poor district of Brikama.
It’s Wednesday morning and we’re off to visit Jeddah Progress Nursery School in Brikama (for children 4 to 7 years old), a school Nyodema has been supporting since 2007. We’ve organised teacher training courses, distributed mosquito nets to every child and helped with the upkeep of the building which really is in a sorry state. As is typical of schools in The Gambia, it was built on a very low budget with mud bricks, no proper foundations and poor quality timbers supporting the corrugated steel roof. Luckily, Friends of the Gambia Association (FoTGA) have been able to step in and build a new school next door to the old one.
Driving through the outskirts of Brikama into Jeddah we hear some children calling out “Kathryn” and “Shelagh” which we find a welcome change from the usual shouts of “toubab, toubab” or “minty, minty” which are calls any passing tourist or traveller would usual hear. (Toubab is a common term in West Africa referring to someone of European decent.)
When we arrive the children and teachers are all at the gate to meet us outside the Lower Basic school (for children 7 to 12 years old) and lead us back to the nursery school in procession singing as they go. The new school building looks wonderful, very well built and beautifully painted in orange and red with bright blue doors and window frames. We are delighted as are the children and all the teachers. I was surprised and sorry to see that the new school building is not big enough to accommodate all the children and one class is still being taught in the old school building.
The youngest children haven’t met us before and look at us a little warily, however, the older children know us and greet us with smiles.
As well as seeing the new school we meet Ebrima,who has recently joined the teaching staff. He is not a qualified teacher but we are very impressed with him and we offer to fund the teacher training course he will need to become a qualified teacher. It runs in the school holidays over 3 years and costs around D6,000 (£130) a year which is way beyond the means of most Gambians.
The teachers have organised lunch and we gather round a large bowl of domada, a popular Gambian dish of rice with vegetables and (sometimes fish or meat) in peanut sauce. It is traditional in The Gambia to all eat from the same bowl using your hands. our hosts kindly give us spoons knowing that we are not used to eating with our hands and would probably make quite a mess if we tried! Shelagh really doesn’t like domada and barely eats any so it is down to me to tuck in.
We then visit the home of Lamin the headmaster, and I’m pleased to see that he can finally afford for his wife and two children (who were living up country) to live with him here and I meet them all for the first time. Lamin’s little boy spends much of our visit playing with a deflated football with his friend. The ball may be broken but their enthusiasm is endless. We are offered another domada lunch, but explain that we ate at the school.
On to visit Lisa and her family. I’ve sponsored Lisa since 2005 through FoTGA. She was attending Jeddah nursery school the first time I visited which is how I become involved with helping that school. She is now at the lower basic school next door. I’ve brought some exercise books and coloured pencils for Lisa and we give Lisa’s mother a large bag of rice. We are offered lunch and a large bowl of domada appears. I eat what I can but don’t do it justice. There really is only so much domada a girl can eat. (This is beginning to feel like the episode of the comedy ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ in which the vicar feels she can’t refuse any invites for Christmas lunch and ends up eating 6 in a row.)
Back at our hotel the contrasts of how we live and life in The Gambia once again hit home. It’s easy to start thinking every time you spend any money… ‘but that would buy three mosquito nets’ or ‘that’s enough to buy a bag of rice to feed a large family for a month’ and so on, but you really have to try not to think like that most of the time. Occasional thoughts like that, however, are no bad thing (and I probably should do it a little more often than I do).
More photos of Jeddah Progress Nursery School can be seen on Flickr