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 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.