A bit of history

Starting my “Gambia” blog while still in the UK gives me the chance to try it out and to provide some background for those of you who know nothing of our Gambian involvement over the years.

Before that, however, I have been doing some serious packing – or rather re-packing – as my first attempt was a couple of weeks back when I started to make piles of stuff to take. I have no extra “Charity” allowance this year, so I’m limited to Thomas Cook’s 20kg, unless I want to buy extra weight. In previous years, we have been allowed to take extra – I hope the school fare better than me at negotiating.

Right: how do I come to be heading out to The Gambia for two months? (The essence of the following is right, but I may get the details wrong!)

In 2005 the then-Director of Education for Highland Region in Scotland – Bruce Robertson – facilitated a visit to The Gambia by a group of Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme (DofE) Gold candidates from the Inverness area. Their task was to set up a computer network at the PIA Skills centre in Bakau, near Banjul, The Gambia. The Gambian PIA (President’s International Award) is allied to the DofE through an international organisation that links other Commonwealth countries’ Award schemes.

In Scotland, if you are doing DofE, you need to complete volunteering, physical abilities, skills and expedition sections. There’s also a residential requirement at Gold level. Much the same structure exists in The Gambian PIA, but instead of practising skills such as macrame, playing the oboe, or singing, young Gambians use the Award to compensate for a shortage of secondary education and to make a concrete start to a career. They learn skills such as IT, woodwork, metalwork, car mechanics, “home science”, cookery, business studies etc. – all skills they hope will be marketable. The Skills Centre at Bakau is equipped with workshops, computer lab etc. and also a basic “motel” The Rhun Palm Inn, which I will shorten to RPI as I am sure it will feature prominently in blogs ahead.

After the computer installation in 2005, Bruce Robertson called for volunteers from the Highland Council’s teaching staff to go to The Gambia at Easter 2006 with a view to providing training to teachers on the use of computers. I was lucky enough to be accepted. It was, possibly, a turning point.

I’d always had a conviction that not only did I want to travel but I also believe in its value per se. Over my years as a teacher I had done my fair share of trips abroad – skiing and whitewater rafting in Italy, canoeing the Ardeche in France and I was already in the early stages of my biggest adventure til then – a month of the summer hols were going to be spent with a group of senior pupils in Botswana. I should here announce a debt of gratitude to Tosh, a colleague in the IRA where I worked, for his willingness to let me go along on some of the trips, leading in some cases to me taking over a year or two later.

So now I had two African experiences in quick succession!

My 10 day stay in The Gambia, along with another nine colleagues (including Tosh!) was an eye-opener. We stayed in a middle-banded hotel on the shore – The Sunset Beach – and travelled daily the 10 minutes or so to the Skills Centre. What a contrast between the two environments: at the hotel, an employee tested the water daily to check it was fit for tourists to swim in: whilst at Bakau, just on the edge of the tourist strip, kids queued at a standpipe to collect water in second-hand plastic bottles discarded by tourists. The Skills Centre is on a tarmac road (a black top for our American readers) albeit of doubtful quality, but a couple of minutes on foot would bring you to sandy alleys edged with open sewers running between mud and wattle houses topped with corrugated iron. In fact, corrugated iron everywhere – roofing, fencing, bridging sewers, providing makeshift shelters.

It is here you meet “real” Gambians – those relatively untainted by contact with the west / north (depending on your worldview). Within moments you will be holding hands with snottery half-naked children who have been playing in the dirt outside, hopefully avoiding the effluent in the open sewers. You mentally check your bag: did you bring the hand gel? Yes – relax again.

On returning, I approached Bruce Robertson about making a visit with a group of IRA pupils and, with his support, our first visit from the school took place in Easter 2007. Over the years, the format remained fairly consistent: a group of 3 or 4 staff travel out with about 15 senior pupils, to spend a fortnight with Gambian counterparts from the PIA. Our pupils do not need to be doing DofE, but some use the Gambia trip to qualify for parts of the Award. Whilst in The Gambia, we would spend 3 or 4 days at Bakau staying in the Rhun Palm Inn (RPI), where we generally mixed decorating / maintenance work with visits to the Crocodile Pool, the beach, the market etc. Next, we would spend about a week in Kerewan, a township some 40 miles inland. There, in increased heat, we would work with counterparts to make concrete blocks for the construction of a second Skills Centre. Whilst there we would sleep communally on the floor of the village school. After Kerewan we would come back to the relatively luxury of Bakau and again mix work and play.

2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 all passed in much the same format and I enjoyed organising the trips, though it was rather all-consuming! Sonia would complain that after I got back she wouldn’t see me for weeks as I was huddled over the computer editing the video. Those days are past.

This year things are different. I’m retired, Tosh is leading the group out at Easter and I’m going on Saturday 18th Feb! I will be staying in the RPI and hopefully doing some teaching – either IT or English, probably both – at the Skills Centre. I will try to prepare the ground a bit for the IRA Easter trip as well doing some travelling.

I have neglected one important strand in the history of all this – Gamscot (Scottish Charity number: SCO40496). A number of interested folk came together to found the charity two or three years ago. You can reach our website from here. Our aims include promoting “social and personal development through the provision of Skill Centres”, so it tends to have an over-arching involvement and coordinating role in the various organisation that run trips such the IRA’s. Gamscot were good enough to make an ex gratia payment of £100 towards my living costs on this trip. I will also be acting as their representative – possibly involved in management changes that are happening at this point.

I will have been in The Gambia for 5 weeks by the time the school group arrives. I will share a week with them, then Sonia is coming out and we will both spend 10 days in the Sunset Beach Hotel, where it all started for me. We will then fly home together and I’ll start thinking about walking in Corsica next September.

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