Having just left Gambia, as the rainy season and Ramadan are fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to briefly reflect on major events and progress made during the past 8 months.
Firstly, the nursery schools all continue to prosper and are all fully enrolled with 30 children per class. It is very rewarding to see the AOT making a major contribution to educating 360 children!
Stepping Stones children are enjoying their new football goal post/climbing frames funded by a generous donation from Rob Bagnall raised by completing the Great North Run. Grade 3 teacher Pa is about to finish his studies at Brikama College funded by AOT. I am delighted to report that he has been top of the class throoughout his full 3 year Early Childhood Development Course.
I was very honoured to attend the graduation ceremoney at Independence Square in Banjul with the three teachers who competed their ECD studies last year. Taku and Bintu from Mariama Mae and Fatou Sonko from Jappineh all looked splendid in their gowns and mortar boards. (see photo)
Mariama Mae students have enjoyed free school lunches these past few months funded by a generous vistor and from September onwards, will benefit from a regular porridge breakfast – thanks to donations raised by Ali Calvert and friends. Their playground is looking very nice with some stunning new murals painted on the outside walls by recent visitors from Gunjur Project.
A group of children from HENS (Hilary Emery Nursery School) took part in the national marching day at Indepedence Stadium. It was clear from the songs they sang that they take great pride in their school. Janko and Natoma have nearly completed their ECD training course. Bintu made a tiny uniform for her young daughter (photo) who has “attended” school from a very young age.
Jappineh Nursery has a new the school library which was largely funded by the Jappineh Doll Studio and supplied with numerous books by AOT and a generous donation from Cheryl Lowman.
All the Lower Basic Head Teachers all report that “our” children have a BIG head start in life.
Jappineh Health Centre continues to make excellent progress. There are now two SRNs, one of whom is also a qualified midwife, and the number of patients continues to rise steadily. In an area which is so far from any other medical facility, being able to provide skilled care, constant supply of good quality essential drugs, and laboratory and ambulance services undoubtedly saves many lives.
The community are very grateful for the ongoing financial support from KASTIA foundation.
Following a visit by Mel and Dee Bixley (who donated the funds for the ambulance) we have been able to make a major stride in improving mental health facilities in the provinces. Dee Bixley spent much of her career working at The Priory and after her visit to the Traditional Healing Facillity in Jappineh, she wanted to improve the plight of the many menatally ill patients housed there. The Bixley's generosity has enabled us to fund a training course in psychiatric nursing, facilitate regular monthly visits from the national outreach team from Banjul and to supply many essential drugs.
We continue to donate medical supplies to the Gregs Clinic at Gunjur School where Mr Saine and his Red Cross Volunteers provide treatment for emergencies and minor illness for 1,900 students.
Recently, we have partnered with the Kartong Bird Observatory and Gunjur Project to fund a new Health Centre in Kajabang. This exciting new project links our assistance to health care of their community to an on going commitment to protect the environment at the Bolong Fenyo Reserve.
In line with our stated objectives, we are making quite an impact in both health and education!
Last month, Mel and Dee Bixley went to The Gambia and visited many of the African Oyster Trust's projects. The following blog post is the fourth and final part of a series of articles based on extracts from Dee's diary. You can read the background to their involvement with the Trust, plus the first, second and third extracts from the diaries.
Tuesday 11th February
So that we can see just how carefully the ambulance Mel 1 is looked after, Kira has arranged a visit to Riders for Health, the company which maintains all of Gambia’s health service vehicles, including 90 motorbikes, 36 ambulances and 27 off-road vehicles.
We meet Therese Drammeh, Country Director, a very influential woman whose innovations include the introduction of female mechanics in Gambia and even a female ambulance driver. We have a tour of the works too, meeting mechanics and reviewing their system for ordering the necessary parts in advance of servicing the individual vehicles.
A couple of thoughts
I was of course keen to learn about the Muslim custom of having more than one wife and I did pick up information here and there. But perhaps I should limit myself to quoting Mel when he took one of the chaps aside for a quiet word: “You men certainly know how to make your lives complicated, don’t you?!”
On a serious note, however, spending time with Kira, watching her in action day in day out, we begin to know the pearl at the centre of this oyster, this small charity with the big heart. We understand why, whenever we leave her compound, and all the way along the red sandy roads, we hear “Kira! Kira!” as we pass. Smiling, waving children, barefoot and covered in dust. They know, their parents, aunts, uncles and grannies know, that if they’re injured or sick, this lady will do all she can to help.
We have witnessed how, in the evenings chatting quietly in her garden, Kira’s watchman will suddenly be at her side, clasping the blue cards we now recognise as health charts. The patient will have been prescribed medication, they are not able to obtain or afford it, so they bring the problem to Kira.
Wherever our travels have taken us in the day, Kira stops off at a pharmacy on the way home to pick up her latest medication requests. One night, when all electricity has been turned off in the area, we watch from the car as she carries out her business by torchlight.
Therese Drammeh referred to her as the ‘ultimate philanthropist’ and I have seen her described somewhere as the Mother Theresa of Gambia. Yes and yes again. But when you include her background as a successful businesswoman, her prodigious knowledge of Gambia and how it works, her diplomatic skills and (when required) sheer cussed perseverance, you have a pearl indeed.
Last month, Mel and Dee Bixley went to The Gambia and visited many of the African Oyster Trust's projects. The following blog post is Part III of a series of articles based on extracts from Dee's diary. You can read the background to their involvement with the Trust, plus the first and second extracts from the diaries.
Friday 7th February
The first thing we spot as we arrive at the health centre is the ambulance. Chalo, its driver, proudly demonstrates how everything works, stopping long enough to have his photo taken.
Next we tour the very impressive clinic, meet the dedicated staff, visiting the laboratory, the wards and even the store cupboard!
It is now time for a special meeting, which we suspect is in our honour. The Chief of Jarra Centre is in attendance, the village Mayor, Elders and Imams, all gathered to give thanks for the ambulance.
Kira is thrilled that they are all here on time! We know that there were huge celebrations at the time the ambulance was brought to the village in 2011, so it is very kind of them to hold this meeting.
Through a translator, Fanding tells the story of the ambulance. Then the Chief, an Imam and another Imam speak. They are effusive in their thanks but also encourage us to extend our efforts! Indeed, the second Imam has a curious request. Mel whispers: “Has he just requested a trolley for fat people?” Yes he has. An irony, perhaps, in a country where so many are hungry. We are presented with ceremonial outfits and Certificates of Appreciation and we have the opportunity to present Chalo with a personal card and gift.
By now it is late morning and aware of my interest in psychiatry, Kira has arranged a visit to the nearby psychiatric unit. She has told me that in the whole of Gambia there is only one fully trained psychiatric nurse, and not one psychiatrist! So I’m not a little wary of what we will find.
We are met by the man in charge, who greets us warmly. A ‘traditional’ doctor, he is tall and flamboyantly dressed, sweeping ahead to show us several wards. In the last one a woman, psychotic when she was admitted following the birth of her baby, now lies quietly on the floor, shielding her face but eyeing us through her fingers. Lying nearby, her baby is completely covered by a shawl to keep away mosquitoes.
The doctor then ushers us into his office and Kira and he discuss how they can work together in obtaining psychiatric medication, never an easy task in Gambia. We learn afterwards that this is the first time the doctor has accepted the idea that his herbs do not help every condition. Now he is actually asking for help. We feel we have witnessed a significant breakthrough in what had seemed an intransigent situation.
Fanding has invited us for lunch at his compound and his wife, who we saw teaching at the school earlier, has come back to complete the preparations. We eat in the customary way from one shared bowl and it is a delicious meal.
Back at the health centre, a committee meeting is held outside, and we are invited to sit in. Following prayers, the proceedings are translated, perhaps for our benefit rather than for Kira. I suspect Kira understands rather more than she admits! But how she manages when they all speak at once in Mandinka, I don’t know.
As they move on to next year’s budget, the committee resort to further praying. Afterwards, Kira states that although she is grateful for their prayers, they must remember that it is their own hard work which has enabled them to make the clinic successful, both medically and financially. She says this in such a way that I feel mighty proud to be sitting next to her.
My mind wanders as the meeting continues and village ladies arrive for the celebrations to follow. One or two come through the gate and sit on their water carriers (later used as drums), waiting patiently. Outside, a group of young children play in the dust.
The celebrations underway, the women sing about village life, perhaps part of an oral history handed down through the generations.
Once there was no ambulance, they chant, and sick people travelled by donkey cart to hospital. When the drumming reaches a crescendo, more women and children are inspired to perform short bursts of an exquisitely rhythmic pounding of the ground.
Fanding pulls me up and shows how to reward the ladies’ efforts. The game is to give them notes of small worth but lots of them, which they tuck into their costumes. The money they raise will go towards village projects, such as the women’s garden, loudspeaker batteries, even pocket money for themselves. I hope so.
Mel is sitting next to the ambulance driver, Chalo, who has received some much deserved attention. His quiet mantra throughout the day - ‘Happy Happy Happy’ – will be a treasured, abiding memory for us.
Last month, Mel and Dee Bixley went to The Gambia and visited many of the African Oyster Trust's projects. The following blog post is Part II of a series of articles based on extracts from Dee's diary. You can read the background to their involvement with the Trust, plus the first extract from the diaries, here.
Thursday 6th February
At 10am we begin our journey up country. Our final destination tomorrow will be Jappineh Health Centre, the home of the ambulance. We collect Fanding en route and he and Kira debate whether this will be a goat, cow or donkey day.
In fact, the leisureliness with which all these creatures wander into the road makes it a ‘mixed’ day. Driving in Gambia has many challenges. Most of the unmade local roads have huge potholes to negotiate. And where sand has accumulated, the need to accelerate and go with the ‘skid’ is imperative if you don’t want to get stuck. Once we understand that Kira knows exactly what she’s doing, we relax!
As to Gambia’s major roads, there are regular check points where you must stop for the police, military or immigration authorities. However, as soon as they realise its Kira, their stern attitudes soften and they salute with alacrity. The fact that a gun is pointing at us from a camouflaged hut nearby doesn’t matter - Kira has clearly earned their respect and affection.A visit to The Big Tree Nursery received an ecstatic welcome for Kira and Fanding!
We arrive at Moses Guest House in Soma, the best place to stay near Jappineh.
Moses is a small establishment, five or six rooms situated around a courtyard, where we drink tea from pint mugs. Kira must read something in my face - “How’s your comfort zone, Dee?!” she teases. She is right to do so.
After all, we have a flush loo, a tap in the wall for cleaning our teeth, and Kira has thoughtfully supplied a travel kit of essentials.
What’s more, our host has been out and purchased toilet paper for us. When people are this keen to please - to hell with my OCD tendencies!
In 2011, Mel Bixley's extraordinarily generous donation made possible the acquisition of an ambulance for the Sir Howard Dalton Clinic in Jappineh. You can read the full story here, and see reports throughout the news diary of the lives being saved every day as a result.
Last month, Mel and his wife Dee went to The Gambia and visited many of the African Oyster Trust's projects - including, of course the Sir Howard Dalton Clinic.
These blog posts over the next few days are based on extracts of Dee's diary. You can read part II here.
4th February 2014
Three years ago my husband Mel funded an ambulance for the African Oyster Trust’s health centre in Jappineh. Even Gambia’s President Jammeh became involved in the quest for an ambulance and it has been heart warming to read about how it is saving lives. Now we have come to Gambia to see it for ourselves.
During our time here, Kira Dalton is going to show us some of the charity’s many projects, and today she and Fanding (her second in command) are taking us to see a nursery and adjoining school in Serrekunda, near Banjul.
The Stepping Stones Nursery, formally opened in March 2013, has three classrooms and was built on land donated by Kunkujang Keitayah Lower Basic School, next door.
We meet many enthusiastic teachers and children, and witness the Jolly Phonics teaching method in action. The secret of its success seems to lie in the fun of it, the way it captures the imagination of young minds.
But fun or not, one thing is already abundantly clear: Gambian children want to learn.
At Kunkujang Keitayah, we meet the Headmaster, Edrissa Bojang. He is a very impressive man, Kira tells us later, whose roles include Chairmanship of the Gambia Teachers Union Cooperative Credit Union (GTUCCU).
In his office, I spot a photo of he and his wife and remark upon how pretty she is. He pretends to be annoyed, “What about me? Am I not handsome?!”
A chart on his wall shows that the school has almost 2,000 pupils.
By Kira Dalton
It is good to be back in Gambia although the weather is still unusually hot and sticky after a later than normal rainy season.
This has meant, however, that the incidence of malaria is at an all time high.
To make matters worse, there is a shortage of malaria drugs everywhere -
except, I'm pleased to say, at Jappineh Health Centre.
Last month they treated an astonishing 896 patients. Nearly double the usual number. Because of drug shortages elsewhere, patients are coming from far and wide seeking treatment and it is VERY rewarding to be able to meet their needs.
Within minutes of arriving in Jappineh on Monday, a woman came in by donkey cart and was delivered of a bouncing healthy baby girl a few minutes later. Ansumana then rushed back to out patients where two young children had been brought in.
One was nearly comatose and the other was having seizures - both because of very high fever caused by malaria. No sooner had the young patients been sponged down, put on drips and stabilised when the next batch of patients arrived. All this in addition to the usual queue of chronic illness, minor injuries etc.
All the staff at Jappineh Health Centre do an amazing job. Adama and Wandifa seem to be on call day and night - constantly needed on the ward and in the lab.
Our newly recruited second nurse, Alhajie, has been thrown in at the deep end and very quickly proved himself as part of a great team. Even the orderlies and cleaners are having a much busier time than usual and are still managing to keep the place spotless. Their efforts have been made much easier due to our newly tiled floors for which we thank Drs. Isa and Isabella from Holland. Soon we will be using some surplus funds from their very successful Facebook Campaign (Bella Africa) to begin replacing the old, cracked and totally unsuitable double glazed windows with much more appropriate shutters and mosquito netting.
Chalo, the ambulance driver, has been rushed off his feet. He had already made two runs to Soma on Monday morning with emergency referrals but was still on standby well into the evening in case he was needed again. Fortunately, both of the young children stabilised and one was even able to go home the next day as was the proud new mum and her baby.
Our nursery schools on the coast are all looking good after their rainy season
maintenance. All are fully enrolled with the maximum 30 children per class. That in itself is quite an improvement. I recently saw 2 grade 1 classes where there are over 90 children! Their teachers face an impossible task, especially as they are not fortunate enough to have access to the facilities and equipment which our donors have made possible at HENS, Mariama Mae and Stepping Stones. Next we want to upgrade the playground facilities at Jappineh Nursery School so they too can enjoy swings, slides and other playground equipment.
To all our wonderful supporters, please do keep those donations coming. There will always be more to do here ......
By Ali Calvert
The Mariama Mae Pre-school is celebrating. A lot has been happening in the past twelve months. The latest big event is brand new metal playground equipment, which all the children and staff love.
This wonderful playground was made possible by a very dear friend of mine Sue, who came out to visit the school with me in February this year. Unknown to me she had been raising funds from family, friends and colleagues who wanted to do some sort of project for the school. I would at this point like to thank all of those people for providing our school with one of the happiest pieces of equipment it has ever received. Thank you.
After a week of living and being in school with Fatou (our head teacher) Sue and Fatou had decided on their project. Their first port of call was to visit the Iron Man in Brikarma, a much larger town a bush taxi ride away, who would be making and supervising the installation of the playground. After talking with him Sue and Fatou now knew how much equipment could be bought, so all that was left to decide was what was needed, where it would be placed in the playground and to arrange transport, cement and labour and to make sure everything was safely installed.
All of this came to a little over Sue’s budget but I had been given some money from my local charity shop here in Porthleven which made it possible to complete the playground. Thank you Winston.
Unfortunately our visit was over before the playground equipment had arrived so we had to wait patiently to receive photographs of the finished project. My heart sang when I saw the photographs. The school now has a fantastic outside play area which is more than we could have dreamed of. Thank you.
You will see by the pictures that the school walls are gradually being brightly decorated and this is thanks to Jo and Butch who have directed some of their youth project teams to the Mariama Mae School, and therefore we would also like to say a big thank you to everyone who has helped with this.
The school, both inside and outside, is looking good. It was completely repainted this year and has been maintained to a high standard, which is important if we want to be taken seriously as a school looking to make changed in pre-school education and to show that every penny is spent on providing as good a school as possible.
I am very proud of the Mariama Mae School and want to say thank you to everyone connected to it especially to all those who donate monthly, because without your support our school would not exist. You really are the foundations of the school and always have been. Your commitment is what pays wages, maintains the building, buys essential equipment and enables Fatou and her staff to have the security of knowing they have a school to teach in. Thank you for all your help.
As I said Sue spent time in school with us which was lovely but also very useful to me and helpful to see the school through fresh eyes. What I was reminded of by Sue was how calm our school is and how able the children are to complete tasks set for them and how automatically they help each other and explain things to each other. Something which sounds fundamental, but is not always found in Gambian Pre-schools. Here, in our school, children are actively given responsibility and allowed space to discuss their own learning. I know we are doing a good job and the children that pass through the Mariama Mae School are getting a comprehensive and full education.
My next concert is to make sure that all the staff continue to be inspired and that they have the time and energy put into their development.
By Ali Calvert
This is a well overdue update on the Mariama Mae Pre-School; sorry it has taken so long. We have been busy building a secure perimeter wall and a strong metal entrance gate. Glad to say this is now complete and looking good. We hope in the future to be able to plant Bougainvillea, (a fast growing flowering climber) up the walls to provide a bright environment.
Because of this building work the school has gained extra playground space which Fatou Janneh, the head teacher, has been creatively filling, a children’s garden where they can learn to plant, grow and care for food crops; a fabulous area playground area with climbing bars, swings and balance beams; a wonderful sandpit, and Fatou’s latest addition is a water play trough. All of these have been colourfully painted and are in non-stop use. The children are delighted with these new activities and wanting to use them at every opportunity.
I spent a lovely half hour just watching the children on all this new equipment. I wish I could capture the joy that the children find in this simple play. The delight and the laughter they share as they experiment and get involved in these activities is beautiful; if you just sit and observe you see how much learning is taking place.
I cannot praise the staff enough for the continual commitment to their children and the school in general. Everyone is working hard, constantly improving themselves and the school through attending The Early Years Training Course at Gambia College. Fatou, who started in class 1, has just completed her three years training, is now working closely with her head teacher gaining experience to enable her to teach both classes 2 and 3, well done Fatou. We welcome Bintu, our new class 1 teacher, who I feel will bring a lot of vibrant positive energy both to her class and to the school. She has just begun her training. Tako our class 3 teacher has now settled very well into the school, she has a very calm approach and her children respond well to her as she prepares them to move to Lower Basic School. Tako is now in her second year at college and enjoying it very much.
In all the teachers you can see a keenness to learn and share new ideas that going to the college gives them. It is a pleasure to see these ideas being brought back into the classroom with enthusiasm to benefit the children.
All the staff are teaching a broad based comprehensive level of early years education. They understand the importance that the children are given the opportunity to learn through varied creative and physical activities. I am very proud of everyone involved who help to achieve this; that is not to say there aren’t the usual hiccups in maintaining a school in Africa.
At this point I like to think “if only people could see for themselves”: This has happened this year, two separate families have gone out for a visit to the school. It was a real positive for everyone, I ws delighted that people wanted to go, see for themselves, it also gives a boost to the staff that others are interested in their work.
I would like to thank everyone for their continued support in making Mariama Mae Pre-School what it is - a really lovely school. I would like to thank everyone involved in the curry evening, a fundraising event that took place at Roger and Honors. It was amazing, thank you for all your hard work, what a wonderful evening.
Our school is developing into a place where practical real learning can take place within firm foundations for the staff and children, growing and encouraging confidence and furthering education within their community.
Written by Jonathan Evans OBE
Seeing really is believing!
My wife has been Company Secretary of the AOT for a few years now, and I have always been inspired by the reports I have heard and read – at second hand of course - of the projects the Trust is involved with in The Gambia.
But it was not until Gill and I spent a week in The Gambia in February that I
fully understood just what amazing and transformational work the AOT does!
We fell in love immediately with The Gambia, a beautiful country with a majestic river, spectacular wildlife (we saw 125 species of bird in a week!), in the midst of which 1½ million people live their lives.
Most Gambians we met seemed happy: welcoming, smiling faces greeted us wherever we went, and even the tourist-harassing bumsters” plied their trade with a grin (most of the time). But apart from a small and growing middle class, most Gambians live in poverty – on one scale The Gambia is the 176th poorest nation on Earth. This is poverty in material terms: there is only a primitive basic infrastructure – water, sanitation, power, transport – and limited health and education provision, especially for small children.
And this is where charities like the African Oyster Trust make such a difference. We visited three of the Trust’s nursery school projects, and indeed saw the new Stepping Stones nursery being built.
The overwhelming view we were left with is how well the Trust is being run on the ground, with every £ donated in the UK being put to maximum value in The Gambia.
Thanks to Kira Dalton’s amazing energy and Fanding’s careful oversight of the projects, the cost of providing and maintaining a nursery school is remarkably low. Measured in terms of the benefit brought to
children’s education, the payback for every £ is astonishing!
To visit one of the Trust’s nursery schools, to see and hear how the children are enjoying being taught to read and write and sing, to talk to their committed teachers, is the best form of persuasion that here is a very worthy cause.
The latest update we have received from Kira in the Gambia follows a familiar pattern - another day, another life saved, and a salutary reminder why healthcare sits alongside education as a priority for the African Oyster Trust.
"On the evening I arrived back in The Gambia, I dropped off my bags and was
heading out for a quick supper before a much needed early night.
"As I drove across the little dirt track towards the Courtyard Cafe, I saw a big group of people in front of me. In their midst was a young man of maybe 20 struggling to carry a young teenage boy of perhaps 12 or 13 piggy back style. Perhaps he has hurt his foot, I thought.
"When I reached them it was obvious that the teenager was very ill indeed. He was deathly pale and almost unconscious. Malaria, they said. We are trying to take him to the clinic. Just then he vomitted all over the man carrying him.
"Since the nearest clinics are around 5 miles away, I offered them a lift. While they found a plastic bag to serve as a sick bowl, I telephoned Auntie Sally, the very capable head nurse at Sukuta Clinic, to tell her I was bringing an emergency case.
"Travelling by car meant we got there in under 10 minutes. Who knows how long it would have taken them to walk!
"I pulled in in front of their ambulance, which already looked full of patients
and ready to leave, despite remonstrations from the driver. Fortunately, Auntie Sally was there to meet us. She took one look, gave the boy an injection and put him on a drip and then loaded him into the ambulance to be transferred to RVTH in Banjul. I was so relieved that I'd blocked them from leaving earlier.
"While his brother filled in paperwork, the boy briefly opened his eyes and held onto my hand, obviously very scared. I wished them luck and asked the brother to let me know how they got on in Banjul.
"Cerebral malaria can kill within 8 hours so I fervently hoped that they'd got
him onto treatment in time.
"Three days later, I was delighted when the same boy walked in to my compound. He'd been in hospital all that time and had just been released but wanted to come immediately to thank me before going home. A very humbling experience.
"In the meantime, talking to Ansumana at our own Jappineh Health Centre, I learn that it has been a very bad season for malaria. Perhaps because of the late and heavy rainy season. Last month they treated over 400 patients there. By far the biggest number ever. At times they were two or even three to a bed.
"I am SO happy that Jappineh Health Centre is there to treat all those people. My experience with the young boy reminded me that before the clinic was opened, the people of Jappineh area had to travel for at least 20 kilometres to get to medical help. Many of them, I am sure, did not make it.
"Now, thanks to the many generous donations, they have health care on their doorstep and am ambulance too which can whisk them off to Soma in minutes."
The News Diary is a regular account of all that is happening at The African Oyster Trust. Please pop back for regular updates, follow us on Twitter or sign up for our RSS feed to have the latest news sent straight to your computer!
The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.