It was our first morning in The Gambia, the week before Christmas. Lady Kira Dalton, a Trust Director, met us by reception at our hotel at Kombo Beach, as arranged. We’d heard about the African Oyster Trust via James Holden, a founder member, and were curious to learn more.
We bundled into Kira’s car, which had all the hallmarks of a local vehicle, covered with a liberal coating of dust. We drove through the streets of Banjul while Kira filled us in on the back story, about how the population has multiplied from 1.1 million to 1.8 million in the space of five years. We were told that 70% of the population is under 35, but of those 70% were unemployed. A fact exacerbated by the migration of many young people from the villages to the city seeking work. There were children everywhere.
We drove past the traffic lights (of which there are four sets in Gambia, although only a couple are working) along dusty roads. We shared the highway with donkeys and mules pulling carts, with mini buses crammed with locals, their roofs pled high with luggage. It was an assault on the senses.
Life is colourful and vibrant here. Bright fabrics are worn by the women, fashioned into graceful dresses and elaborate headdresses. Bustling street markets display produce in baskets, livestock and all manner of household utensils, furniture and firewood. While this colourful chaos may be interesting to see, the reality for people living here is that life is tough. It’s a case of survival for many.
Gambia is not a wealthy country. Far from it, about a third of the population lives in poverty; employment is scarce; people struggle to feed themselves; the government has questionable probity; the medical care must be paid for; education is limited. These economic forces drive many young Gambian men to seek a better future in Europe.
It is against this backdrop that the African Oyster Trust operates.
Stepping Stones Nursery
Kira drove us to Serrakunda, the Gambia’s biggest city, to visit the Stepping Stones nursery. On our arrival we were met by a sea of smiling faces. Stepping Stones is clearly a happy place to be. It boasts fresh water, purpose-built school rooms, a good play area, clean loos, and dedicated staff.
The children were very well behaved, sitting at their desks in the four classrooms, under the watchful eye of a member of staff. Class sizes are limited to thirty. This nursery education gives a great head-start in life and puts them at an advantage when they begin junior school where class sizes can be as large as 60 to 90 children per teacher. Not a great ratio for learning.
While they speak different Gambian dialects amongst themselves, at Stepping Stones these three and four-year-olds learn English. Colourful images of the alphabet decorate the walls. One young by was acting as prompter, pointing to the days of the week on the backboard and getting the rest of the class to repeat the days.
We handed out balloons to the younger children, while the older ones received pens. They were all very polite and said thank you.
The lesson stopped, and break started. Instantly we were surrounded by eager youngsters all trying to shake our hands. The classroom emptied, and the playground filled up. The boys at one end kicking a football around (football and the Premier League is like a religion in Africa) while the girls played skipping and gossiped at the other end.
Compare and contrast
After Stepping Stones, Kira took us to see a state-run nursery not far away where one of her teachers had been parachuted in to sort it out. This was in sharp contrast to the environment we had just come from. It was dirty, shabby and overrun with children. The classrooms were sorely in need of a coat of paint. The alphabet pictures were peeling off the walls.
But the new head was beginning to get the place in order. No mean feat when the class sizes were 60+ in a classroom designed for 30.
It made us appreciate how well the Stepping Stones model worked by comparison.
A humbling experience
Our visit to Stepping Stones took place just before the Christmas break. It was an education for us. It was also a joyous and at the same time humbling experience; humbling to see what had been achieved by the Trust and how this small group of individuals had taken it upon themselves to be a positive force for change against a backdrop of seemingly overwhelming odds.
Coming back to the UK and filling up my supermarket trolley with food for Christmas gave me a sense of guilt, to have so much compared to the little that the Gambians have to survive on. All credit to Kira and her team for their dedication and commitment to making a difference to these young lives.
We would urge everyone to make whatever contribution they feel they can to support them in their work and if you ever get the chance to go to The Gambia be sure to call in to the Stepping Stones nursery. Don’t forget to take some balloons and pens with you!
The introduction of an ambulance at the Jappineh Health Centre, based in the Lower River Region of Gambia, has been a hugely successful achievement for the Trust.
It was June 2011 when joyous villagers from miles around escorted the Mel 1 ambulance to its home at the Centre. Children stared in wonder and ladies with loudhailers chanted, “…once there was no ambulance and sick people went to hospital in donkey carts ...”. The day of the ambulance was now part of their oral history, to be handed down through the generations.
At the wheel, Chalo Dampha felt proud but slightly nervous. As the newly-appointed ambulance driver he would soon help to save lives. In fact it was sooner than expected because the celebrations were hardly over when Chalo and Mel 1 saved a life. (You can read all about it in our News Diary for June 2011. And a further story, involving a bush taxi that overturned carrying 22 people, in the July 2011 archive).
Chalo was trained by Riders for Health, an exceptional not-for-profit organization that maintains all The Gambia’s health service vehicles. At first, Riders were a little concerned about him - “Isn’t he a bit old?” The happy answer is that Chalo has been highly commended as one of the most careful ambulance drivers in the country. He ensures that the ambulance is regularly maintained and well-kept. And not surprisingly Riders for Health now select older drivers!
Lady Kira Dalton, the Trust’s lynchpin in Gambia, has often commented on how immaculately Chalo keeps the ambulance and was reminded of this recently. He had attended a particularly harrowing accident the previous night but first thing in the morning there he was giving the inside a thorough hose down.
Mel Bixley, who donated the ambulance, met Chalo in 2014 - a memorable occasion for them both.
Six-and-a-half years later, Chalo continues to love his job. He is always ready to serve the interests of the villagers, he answers calls quickly, and is totally committed to his duties.
Our thanks to Kemo Bah, Education Director & Secretary, Gambian Management Team, for his help with this News Diary contribution.
On your marks for The Big Give Christmas Challenge 2017!
We are very happy to announce that once again the African Oyster Trust has been selected to take part in the Big Give Christmas Challenge, when our online donations will be doubled!
This year we are concentrating on two projects in Jappineh: a new roof for the health centre, and new tables and benches for the nursery school. The roof promises to be a major task – the extreme West African weather conditions being an unavoidable factor of wear and tear. As to the nursery school - founded by Kira in 2007 - ten years later those tables and benches are (literally) on their last legs.
The Challenge goes live at midday on Tuesday 28th November and runs until midday on Tuesday 5th December. Donate during that week and your gift will be doubled with funds pledged by Lady Kira Dalton, and by our ‘charity champion’, the Coles-Medlock Foundation. The online donation target is £2,500.00.
Please join us in achieving our target and in that most pleasurable human experience: giving hope.
Remember: to double your donation you must make it via the secure Big Give donations page. Click here between the campaign dates to access our page:
Gift Aid your donation if you can - it will be worth vital additional money to the Trust.
Long live the African Oyster Trust! Meet Fanding Manjang, General Manager of AoT's Gambian Management Team
When and how did you first meet Lady Kira Dalton and get involved with the African Oyster Trust?
I met Kira at the Atlantic Hotel when she visited The Gambia in 2000. I worked as a tourist taxi driver and was hired to drive Kira and her friends to several destinations, to do with her first ongoing project, the renovation of Niumi Lamin Lower Basic School, on the North Bank.
Five years later the idea of the charity was born. I started the construction of a nursery school on land within my own compound, and Kira helped with completing the school.
We developed a special interest in building nursery schools. I think I gave Kira confidence that we could work together to achieve her goals and she asked me where she should start building.
When Kira visited my own village, Jappineh, it was with the intention of starting a project there. On her way from Sambel Kunda, a village in the Central River Region, she came to Jappineh. I had informed the entire village of her intention to visit and she was given a tumultuous welcome.
I am very satisfied working with Kira on the Trust’s numerous projects. She provides the funds to buy materials for the construction work. I sometimes sub-contract people to do the labour at the schools or health centre but in other instances I do it. I also act as the foreman at each site. I’m ready for any challenge the Trust gives me!
What do you most admire about Kira?
Kira is a hard-working lady. She is committed, sympathetic, loving and caring towards humankind, and generous too. She uses resources only for the projects as dictated by the donors’ wishes. She devotes three quarters of her time to the Trust. I started out as a volunteer before I was paid a salary - all due to Kira’s motivation and encouragement.
What might displease Kira?
Kira Dalton is a lady of principle who has respect for time. She dislikes people who are not committed and gets cross with anyone who fails to complete an assignment within a stipulated time!
Do you enjoy meeting the Trust’s supporters from the UK when they visit?
Yes, I really enjoy meeting supporters of the Trust. I am pleased and proud to take guests around to see for themselves our projects in The Gambia.
How much does Gambia’s weather affect your work?
I cannot embark on the painting of schools, for example, during the rainy season - the only time this can be done will be in the dry season. Sometimes it rains when I have already mixed cement and sand to commence work!
Has your standing in the community changed, with this important role you play?
My community has changed now towards me. At first, the villagers in Jappineh viewed me as a difficult person - they envied me for working with the UK people.
With time, that attitude has changed. My community is more positive towards me now - they realise that what I was advocating was real, and has happened.
The health centre in Jappineh and all the nursery schools speak for themselves. Communities are benefiting immensely from these facilities, thanks to the efforts of the UK team of volunteers and all our supporters and well-wishers.
I am happy with the activities of the Trust, especially now that the staff are paid and well-motivated. Those difficult days many years ago, when our people were volunteers, have passed.
I never expected to become the Gambian manager of the African Oyster Trust and I am very thankful to Kira and the UK team. I am happy working for the good of my country, especially my village. I started as a taxi driver and have risen to the position of a manager, which is a great achievement for me. I am grateful because I didn’t get a formal (English) education but the faith bestowed upon me by the UK team gives me great confidence.
My connection with Kira and the Trust has changed my life. Long live the African Oyster Trust!
Fanding is married, with children. He was interviewed by Kemo Bah, Education Director & Secretary, Gambian Management Team
The African Oyster Trust's 2016 Annual General Meeting will be held on Sunday 10th September at 3pm.
The meeting will be held at The Birbury, attached to Birdingbury Village Club, and supporters are warmly invited to attend.
The main business of the meeting – including the presentation of accounts for year-ending 31st December 2016 – will be brief, leaving plenty of time for Lady Kira Dalton to update us and answer questions on an exceptionally eventful year in The Gambia.
Many supporters will have seen her blog on the website in January, following the December election. Nothing was straightforward in that process, and through it all the Trust’s work has been even more challenging than usual. Yet remarkably, as Kira will report, the Gambian Management Team has coped admirably.
To help us with catering and arrangements, please do let us know in advance by either post or email by Friday 1st September if you are planning to attend: email@example.com or Old Fox Cottage, Heath End Road, Great Kingshill, Bucks HP15 6HS.
Trust founder James Holden has sent the following update from his recent visit to the Gambia:
“After prayers (Muslim and Christian) on Friday 3rd March, I enjoyed a spicy Chicken Domada in the bantaba at The White Horse Residence with the Gambian committee of the AOT.
“General Manager Fanding Manjang surprised and delighted me by presenting me with a special certificate of appreciation and looking round the room I could see from the faces of Saineh, Ansumana and Kemo that this was a very genuine gesture.
“Kira quickly made it clear that this was not something she had engineered and to be quite honest I felt very humbled.
“I was even more humbled once our meeting proper kicked in to gear as there are so many positive things that our newly formed Gambia committee is achieving.
“Despite all the recent uncertainty that The Gambia has experienced, it seemed to me that although Kira still plays a key role, her plan to put an ever increasing responsibility into Gambian hands is working very well indeed.
“The governance of the AOT's work in the Gambia is very strong and there's no doubt that the Trust's commitment to The Gambia is still vital as this smallest of mainland African nations sets out on its journey to establish itself as a genuinely self-governing and peaceful democracy.”
By Lady Kira Dalton
Well! It certainly has been a roller coaster ride these past few months. There is seldom a dull moment here in Gambia anyway but this year has truly been exceptional and very exciting.
For those who don’t follow African news closely, there was a Presidential Election held on the 1st December 2016. Much to everyone’s amazement, Sheikh Professor Alhajie Dr. Yahya A.J.J Jammeh Babili Mansa, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since taking over in a bloodless coup twenty-two years ago, LOST to a coalition of eight other parties, headed by a total newcomer called Adama Barrow.
That evening, Jammeh duly congratulated Barrow and conceded defeat on national TV. There was dancing in the streets and much jubilation for a whole week! To say that people were ready for change would be a massive understatement.
The exact details of Jammeh's greed and abuse of power are only just beginning to emerge and there is already talk of either a truth and reconciliation committee or international criminal court proceedings against him. Today one of his henchmen, Interior Minister Sonko, was arrested in Switzerland.
On the evening of 9th December, Jammeh returned to our TV screens to declare the elections null and void and to demand a rerun. His announcement was met with shock, horror and near universal worldwide condemnation. Country after country announced that they would no longer recognize him.
Nevertheless, he endeavored to cling to power through the Supreme Court (which had insufficient judges to hear his case since he sacked most of them years ago), National Assembly who declared a state of emergency to extend his term by three months and the threat of armed enforcement of his wishes.
Radio stations were closed down, people were arrested for wearing opposition T-shirts and known dissenters within the army and police were locked up by the National Intelligence Agency.
As the date for the inauguration of Adama Barrow approached, things got very tense indeed. The African Union and the Economic Union of West African States, having attempted several negotiations with Jammeh, realised that he was becoming more and more entrenched in his views. So they and the U.N. authorised a military force, which was poised to dislodge him if he did not leave of his own accord.
Over 46,000 Gambian's and many more Senegalese, Nigerians and Guineans left the country. Many others fled to the provinces away from Banjul. Thomas Cook and Gambia Experience evacuated nearly 5,000 British tourists when the FCO issued a warning of imminent military action on the 17th. A similar number of Dutch were flown out by TUI and Caradon on the 19th and 20th January.
President elect Barrow was also flown out for his own safety, first to an AU meeting in Mali and then kept abroad to be inaugurated at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal on the 19th January.
That day was the final deadline given for Jammeh to leave. He did not, instead requesting further talks and stalling in any manner possible. Those of us still here witnessed many reconnaissance flights overhead by the Nigerian Airforce, and streams of heavily armoured vehicles laden with Senegalese, Nigerian and Ghanaian peace keepers drove past our front doors heading for Banjul.
The presidents of Mauritania and Guinea, who were the last-ditch negotiating committee, extended the deadline and halted the military advance temporarily to 4 pm the next day. Finally, at 12:45am on the 20th January 2017, Yahya Jammeh announced on GRTS TV that he would be standing down.
Even then, he kept everybody in suspense for almost another full day, before boarding a plane bound for Equitorial Guinea late in the evening of the 21st. Allegedly, he took with him a substantial sum of the nation's currency, luxury vehicles and anything else of value that could be removed from State House. We are told that his wife Zaineb had already made several trips with assorted valuables.
Subsequently, when ECOMIG troops were able to enter State House the following evening, they found that the air conditioning system had been loaded with poisonous gas, furniture and carpets had been looted and there was a small armoury of weapons which had gone missing. It is believed that there are still numerous members of the presidential guard, and up to 2,000 mercenaries hired by Jammeh at large somewhere in the country. Peacekeeping troops will remain for up to six months to stabilise matters.
At last, today the 26th January, almost two months after the election date, our new President Adama Barrow has finally made a triumphant return to The Gambia.
The streets are once again lined with jubilant supporters and I can hear sirens, music, drumming and singing as I write. There will be another official celebration on Independence Day, February 18th.
Until then, there are huge expectations on the shoulders of the new government but no money and few resources left with which to achieve them. We all fervently hope that with help from the international community, this will be the start of a new era with vastly improved living conditions for the bulk of the population – rather than for the few at the top of the heap. Already Barrow's coalition has indicated that they will rejoin the ICC, perhaps the Commonwealth, and more generally forge close links with the world at large, in stark contrast to Jammeh's isolationism.
In the meantime, I am personally very relieved that this momentous transition took place with no bloodshed. So now, after weeks in limbo, we can all return to work/school/health centre.
There is still plenty to do here for a small but effective charity such as the African Oyster Trust.
Last week, Trust directors Dee and Steve went to Holt village hall for the presentation of the monies the musicians raised as a result of their 24-hour Playathon - an amazing £1,500.00. Our thanks again for such an amazing effort, and for this message from Joanne and the musicians.
“Dear All, following our 24-hour Playathon on October 7th and 8th 2016, we are delighted to donate the sum of £1,500 to the African Oyster Trust, with the specific aim of replacing the roof on the Lower Basic Jappineh School Library.
"Music for Adults @ Holt has thoroughly enjoyed raising funds for the African Oyster Trust during 2016 and wishes all involved a successful 2017. With best wishes, Joanne Jefferis & Holt Musicians”
We are delighted to announce that the African Oyster Trust has again been selected to participate in the Big Give Christmas Challenge.
We’re very excited to have been chosen for the 2016 challenge and are looking for your support to help us make it another huge success.
This year the challenge will run for 72 hours from midday Tuesday 29th November to midday Friday 2nd December.
So please do mark your diaries today!
To unlock this match funding and double your donation:
Remember, to double your donation you must make it via the secure Big Give donations page:
Thank you on behalf of everyone at the African Oyster Trust.
Report by Dee Bixley
The Playathon had been going for fourteen hours by the time I arrived at Holt Village Hall.
Joanne Jefferis, the professional cellist, teacher, and inspiration behind this venture looked remarkably bright-eyed as she greeted me.
She was delighted with the musicians’ collective enthusiasm for the project, and her mother Sue Steel was a great example of the support they had received. Sue had been up all night too, greeting visitors in the early hours and offering refreshments.
Five years ago Joanne founded the successful VLO String Quartet. She has also formed, with her students, the Severn Cello Ensemble – Worcester’s only 16-piece cello orchestra – and we were treated to a performance. Inevitably, their skills varied and so the immaculately-timed string plucking needed for the Strauss Pizzicato Polka went wonderfully awry.
The mirth of the more practised performers overcame them!
I heard how a lady came in at 3am, played for 1½ hours, went home for a nap and was back ready for more. One chap became so immersed in his music that he didn’t take the hint when his time on the programme was up!
But for me the best story featured one of Joanne’s cello students. Her husband is a professional pianist and her own lack of confidence means that she confines her cello practice for when her husband is playing golf! During the night, however, despite her nerves, they played together as a duo. And now, hours later, she played again with complete confidence.
And to think: all this might never have happened but for the need of a new roof for a school in West Africa! We will of course keep you informed about the library roof, but there's one thing for sure - there will be some highly delighted teachers and children.
A huge thank you from all of us at AOT to everyone involved in the 24-hour Playathon.
After the event, Joanne told us: "Everyone involved in Music for Adults @ Holt has found it a privilege to support The African Oyster Trust over the past few months.
"We have made small donations after collections at our concerts but the 24-hour Playathon was a dedicated effort by many people to raise funds.
"Although it was a bit daunting at first I am proud to say that all of the students who attend sessions at Holt wholeheartedly supported the event and contributed talent, time camaraderie and baking skills to the event. Without their generosity and the support of our families and friends, this would not have been possible.
"We had some moving moments, some unique moments and some hilarious moments - particularly in the small hours! I am very excited about the the total amount raised, which is still rising, and we anticipate that the final total will be near £1,000".
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.