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Traveling Reports “Helping People to Help Themselves”: A Trip to Gambia

“Helping People to Help Themselves”: A Trip to Gambia

On April 14, 2011, my husband and I travelled to Gambia for two weeks to help with a development aid project, along with 4 members and both directors of the association “Hilfe für West-Afrika" (Help for West Africa), which is based in Mössingen-Talheim (Baden-Württemberg). When we arrived in 35 degree heat, we were met by the school principal Mr. Kalipha Jobe and a 15-strong delegation from the John Pickering Comprehensive Senior Secondary School in Lamin Daranka, which we support. After a warm welcome, Mr. Kwamla Elliot and his colleague Mr. Belford took us and our luggage to our accommodation. Mr Elliot is the owner of a gas factory in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, and provides much support to our association. This support includes financial donations, which among other things are used to fund container transportation (one container costing €6,000). In addition, he provides lorries and manpower to move and unload the containers. This year, three containers were shipped to Gambia containing parcels for children who are sponsored by the association, bicycles, sewing machines, fabric, computers, hospital beds, medicine, clothes, shoes, various kinds of seeds and large quantities of jam jars. After our first very warm night we drove to our school in Lamin Daranka to meet with the principal, Mr. Jobe. An inspection of the warehouse also took place and we were forced to note that, in typical African style, all the parcels that had been delivered were stored without any apparent order. It therefore took us several hours and plenty of sweat to sort the packages numerically and match them to their respective projects. The Lamin Daranka school was closed for the Easter holidays. However, the doors were opened to the pupils for two days to hand out the donations sent from Germany. Despite the great distance some of the children have to travel to get to school, more than two-thirds of the parcels managed to find a happy recipient (the remaining parcels will be given to the children after the holidays). I noticed to my astonishment that some of the children were wearing shoes that were more than a size too big for them. These had been borrowed from neighbours or friends so that they could look particularly nice for this special day. It was exciting to watch mango and papaya jam being produced in the school's Skill Training Center. Gambia has no raw materials of its own, apart from a large number of mango and papaya trees, whose harvest is often left to rot due to the volume grown. This gave Ms. Renate Müller, the association’s chairwoman, the idea three years ago to put the “Gambians' gold” into jars – preserved as jam. This project seems to be a great success as demand is constantly increasing. A Gambian television company is going to film a report soon about jam production. Could there be a better advert? The only downside is that there is nowhere in Gambia which can provide jars. So it falls to us to organize the sourcing and shipping of jars and gelling sugar from Germany to Gambia, funded by donations. Another very important project reflecting our motto “Helping People to Help Themselves” is providing IT and textiles training to young men and women in our Skill Training Center, where they design and produce different fabric products such as clothes, bags and the like. The center is run using German donations of computers, sewing machines and fabric for training purposes. Therefore, for my husband and I it was a particular highlight to be able to present those who had successfully completed the IT course with their diplomas – especially as my husband had seen to the donations of PCs and monitors. As always in Africa, there was a great deal of fuss surrounding the presentation, which took place during a three hour ceremony. Needlework and pictures by the art students were also proudly presented to the interested guests. In addition, the governor of the province opened the newly rebuilt and enlarged IT Center along with the principal and my husband. As a result of their many trips to Gambia and the contacts they have made there, a few of the association members also support individual Gambian families on a virtually one-on-one basis, in what is known as a 'Family project'. However, this help is limited, for example, to handing over a sack of rice, some chickens or clothes and shoes brought by the association workers. The families live not far from Banjul and yet it was incredible to go to a village and hear the children cry "Tubabs, Tubabs", which means "white people" in the local language. After our arrival we were quickly surrounded (by adults as well as children). I was particularly moved by the children, who initially kept their distance but crept closer and closer to the “whites”, so that they could touch a hand or a finger to find out if there was really no black skin concealed beneath our white skin. The number of children with swollen stomachs was noticeable. Ms Müller explained to me that these children were suffering from worms, because there is a shortage, or rather a complete lack of worming treatments in Gambia. A father of three children aged between two and eight proudly showed us his house. There were two rooms with openings for windows, needless to say without any glass. There were no cupboards or tables in the house. Only a mattress to sit or lie on, a bed, a chair and an antiquated wooden two-seater sofa with rotting upholstery. An open fireplace served as a cooker, and the toilet was a hole in the ground. There were no mosquito nets to protect against malaria, which are particularly important during the long months of the rainy season. The family’s joy when presented with the food, seeds, clothes and shoes we had brought was indescribable. Other villagers who were present also received clothes and shoes brought by one or other of us. Their joy was also unmistakeable. The association is planning a further project in Dankunu, a village with around 2,000 inhabitants situated in the interior of Gambia, around 200km from the capital, Banjul. Mr. Jobe, the school principal, and some of the school staff come from there. The 6 hour journey to Dankunku was an experience in itself. There are very few asphalt roads and they eventually stop altogether, meaning we could only proceed along eroded sandy tracks. Tired and covered in dust, we arrived in Dankunku. Some of the village elders were already waiting for us and surprised us with three newly built round houses, made of clay with palm leaf roofs. The only furniture consisted of a palm wood frame to sleep on. Our first task was therefore to make this “bed” mosquito-proof and to bring in our own sleeping bags and bedding. A shower, running water or even electricity? Not a chance. After a short break the villagers invited us to eat with them. Benachin is a typical Gambian dish consisting of rice with various spices, to which can be added pieces of beef, goat, lamb, chicken or fish, a kind of white cabbage and a root that closely resembles our potato. Incidentally, we always had Benachin when we were invited to eat with the locals. As always, our meal was prepared on an open fire. In the early evening the villagers gathered in the village square. After the usual group Iman prayer, which caused a lot of fuss, Mr Jobe informed those present, amongst whom even we could easily spot the medicine man, about our planned new project: to build a further Skill Training Center for the production of jam. To the great joy of those present, it was announced that medical supplies had been brought for the “village hospital”. After approximately one and a half hours – by which point it was pitch black and the only source of light was an LED lamp we had brought – we were invited to the large gathering place. The villagers performed spectactular African dances for us, accompanied by fantastic music. At around 11p.m., we retired to our clay huts in 35 to 40 degree heat, well guarded by villagers at the open doors and windows, particularly from hyenas which sometimes roam through the village at night. The next morning it was back to the big gathering place for us. There were many more speeches from both sides, with gifts of jewellery to the most important village women; we learned that this is important and must be done. Then the supplies we had brought, such as beds for the infirmary, medicine, seeds, bicycles, a chainsaw, clothes and shoes were given to the village elders to be distributed amongst the villagers. After a lunch of Benachin with goat meat, we spent the afternoon driving back in the direction of Banjul. One of my fellow travellers once said to me “When you go home, you will enjoy having a functioning toilet, running water and reliable electricity.” Now I can only agree. However, despite all the sweat, the absence of a European toilet and shower and the general lack of hygiene, I would hate to have missed out on my time in Gambia. It was a tiring few weeks, characterised by little sleep and, considering that we were on “holiday”, a lot of work. A part of my heart remains with the Gambians. Despite the at times very difficult living conditions, these people radiate so much joy and warmth, as well as values that are partially dying out over here. Many impressions and images are indelibly imprinted on my brain and the return to “business as usual” is not easy with these memories. As a friend of mine said to me before we set off for Gambia together: "After you return you will no longer be the person you were before you left." And he was right. Therefore, in the future I will continue to actively support the most important aim of the association, “helping people to help themselves”, by sponsoring children and young people in their school and vocational education. This objective is complemented by medical support, delivering seeds to help cultivate fields and producing “Made in the Gambia”. The association needs people to help them by sponsoring children. For €55 per year, a child can go to school, get a school unifom and receive one hot meal every day. Financial donations, for example to finance the container transport to Gambia or to buy jars, gelling sugar and other supplies, are also desperately needed and therefore are very welcome.

 

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