By Alan Dick, Volunteer and Fundraiser
"Hmmm...... the Gambia......yes, somewhere in West Africa," I thought to myself when, back in 2007, I first had discussions with James Holden about the African Oyster Trust to which I wanted to contribute in some way. So first task was to find out exactly where it is as I had agreed to go out with James in order to familiarise myself with the country, its issues and of course the work of the AOT.
Geographically, I was surprised by its smallness, shape and the fact that it is surrounded on three sides by Senegal - but this was nothing compared to the experiences that were to unfold during a week in 2008.
And so it was that in early March I became a member of a party of four that set out to the Gambia - in the shape of Kira Dalton, our unofficial chaperone and, in my view, a true 'Mother Theresa' figure of the Gambia; James and his son Alex, who wanted to experience an African culture, before embarking upon a rugby coaching spell in South Africa, later in the year.
After a brief period of acclimatisation, our first port of call was the Kunta Kinteh nursery school in Serekunda - a remarkable achievement in such a relatively short period of time by Kira, the AOT and the indigenous few.What a welcome we received - the smiling faces, the classroom singing , the joyous delight at receiving 'minties' (sweeties - a real luxury) and the eagerness to have their pictures taken in order for them to see themselves on the camera screen (one of the many things we take for granted, yet never experienced by the majority of gambians).
However , the real highlight for me was the trip to Gunjur in the Southern part of gambia to see the nursery school that was being created from derelict buildings on the site of the present primary school.The project had been conceived and started by a lady called Ali Calvert and I was only too happy to assist with the funding of this project in order to help bring it to fruition - hot off the press, the 'clerk of works' (the redoubtable Kira) has reported excellent progress.In the fullness of time, the AOT would also like to provide first aid facilities at this school, and hopefully this will be funded by the recent generosity of the Greggs of the Midlands employees.
My week in the Gambia also afforded me the time to experience other aspects of the country, most notable of which was our trip up river to Juffureh ( the village brought to fame by Alex Haley's novel Roots) - this visit left me with mixed emotions as the abject poverty of the villagers was only too apparent and you left with the feeling that any financial benefit from the marketing of this attraction did not actually find its way into the pockets of those that most needed it.Given the plethora of bird-watching opportunities that exist in the Gambia, James did also try to turn me into an ornithologist - he failed to do so, but at least I can now tell the difference between a violet turaco and a purple glossy starling !!
Overall it unquestionably was the individual cameos and fleeting images that created the most impactful and lasting impressions - a game of draughts with Mr. Faye and his friends ; a game of cards with the local yougsters ( they now know how to play snap !!) ; Kira kitting out a toddler with some 'new' clothes; Omar's great pride in the rebuilding of his 'home', the original having been destroyed by termites(!) ; having green tea with omar's family- they have virtually nothing but what they do have, they are prepared to share - a truly humbling experience.
Would I go back ? Probably at some stage in the future, primarily to see the progress being made by the AOT, but equally importantly, as a sense check, just to remind me that, despite the present woes and tribulations of the credit crunch, high fuel inflation etc., just how lucky we really all are in the Western world.