As is customary at the Trust's Annual General Meeting, Lady Kira Dalton presented an update on our work and the general situation in Gambia at the moment. The meeting also opened with a short video to set the scene. Both are reproduced here for anyone who was unable to join us on the day.
From Lady Kira Dalton:
Looking back on last year's report I can only say that this year has turned out to be even more eventful - not necessarily in a good way - although there have been some memorable highlights too.
Yet again the Gambian economy has been hit extremely hard by several major external shocks.
Firstly, the demise of Thomas Cook had a dramatic impact on tourism, right from the start of this season. Tourism is a mainstay of the economy historically, accounting for around 25% of GDP, with a similar percentage arising from agriculture and fishing.
Many annual visitors could not travel when they were unable to find alternative affordable flights in time to match their holiday dates. Unfortunately, as was the case with the threat of Ebola and the post- election evacuations in previous years, some of these regular visitors go elsewhere and decide never to return to The Gambia. Even our very own Banjul Brewery has decided to stop production due to low demand and increased taxation.
Then, just as tourist bookings were picking up for the start of the New Year, threats of violent protests by an anti-government group called “Three Year Jotna” (three years is enough – regarding the tenure of President Barrow) and counter demonstrations by the APRC (demanding the return of ex-President Yahya Jammeh) discouraged more tourists from coming. Dee Bixley was visiting me at the time and will tell you how, on several occasions, we had to detour or change our plans to avoid driving between large groups of protestors on one side of the road and fully armed riot police on the other. Unnerving!
And finally, the arrival of Covid-19 forced the closure of borders and airport in mid-March, cutting short an already very poor tourist season. (Please read my separate blog specifically about the Covid situation.)
The further effect of the worldwide pandemic will be felt for many years and has unfortunately pushed numerous people here back into abject poverty. Another major source of income throughout Africa and particularly The Gambia is overseas remittances. Some estimates say as much as 50% of some family's income comes from having a relative or two overseas sending home money. Of course, with the impact of Covid on European and USA employment, particularly in the hospitality and retail industries where many of these people are employed, we have already seen a sharp drop of over 20% in these funds. And with rapid escalation of Covid-19 their livelihoods are seriously threatened on all sides. There is no social welfare here but there have been various distributions of rice, oil and sugar meant to, at least, prevent starvation among the poorest members of society. Most say: “Too little and too late!”
Also, there have been widely publicised accusations of the misuse of funds meant for poverty relief!
We can see why, unfortunately, The Gambia will continue to depend on charities and overseas aid for the forseeable future, particularly to support health care and education. Covid-19 has highlighted just how woefully inadequate the Government Health sector is and the price has been paid by the exceptionally high numbers of deaths when compared with any other country – even in Africa.
The fact that the entire country had just 3 ventilators and under 100 ICU beds says it all.
On that depressing note, we will move on to some better news: AOT’s achievements this year.
Thus far, both Jappineh and Wellingara Health Centers have remained open and very busy. All staff are fully equipped with PPE and well-aware of the need to observe precautions. Ansumana not only ably manages Jappineh HC but is also a member of the Regional Covid Surveillance Team.
Interestingly, two members of the Jappineh team tested positive for Covid, which they caught while attending a funeral - not from their patients! Both were asymptomatic and able to return to work after home quarantine. The health facilities were disinfected and reopened almost immediately.
Jappineh now have three full-time Nurse/Midwives. Modu Barrow joined Ansumana Manjang and Modu Jobe, enabling them to continue to provide 24-hour services 365 days of the year. And all 3 are trained in psychiatric nursing and are available to attend the Njie brothers’ psychiatric establishments whenever required. Just as the Covid epidemic was unfolding, Omar Jarju made a visit to Karamo Njie and discharged 16 patients (with medication) to reduce dangers of transmission/overcrowding. He will visit Jappineh again this month to monitor the situation. Thus far Njie is contributing to medical costs!
Wellingara now has a fully functional ambulance and the driver is undergoing training. Purely by fluke, Dee and I spotted an old ambulance at the back of my local garage. On making enquiries we found out that it was for sale and had been abandoned by another health center when they received a new one. We were able to negotiate an excellent price and felt this was a good use of the Cecil Rosen funds. Riders carried out repainting and full maintenance for next to nothing by way of apology for the previous ambulance going missing from their premises and donated to us a pop-up stretcher on wheels.
We have identified a very good candidate to join Wellingara as a third Nurse/Midwife, as and when funds allow next year. This development will enable them to open 24 hours a day and to resume delivering babies. (And just in time as Fajikunda, the nearest large Govenment hospital, has been closed ever since a group of their health workers tested positive for Covid.) They have all been quarantined, some have resigned, and the facility is awaiting the fumigation team before it can re-open. So in the meantime, their patients all come to us. People still get malaria, wounds, dog bites, colds, stomach problems, worms etc., and they all need treatment!
After persistent efforts, we have Ministry of Health approval for use of the Butterfly IQ ultrasound scanner and Dembo Njie at Wellingara has been undergoing training in the use and interpretation of the images.
All the schools began the year with a face lift and were repainted in cheerful colors, ably managed by Fanding. The school furniture, some of which was ravaged by termites last summer, was all repaired or replaced. Fanding also presided over the addition of separate toilet and shower facilities for the Junior Staff quarters in Jappineh Health Center – just in the nick of time for their home quarantine situation!
Unfortunately, despite Fanding’s best efforts, when the rainy season began with two very violent storms, a section of the wall at Mariama Mae school was brought down and had to be rebuilt. We think part of the problem was the overgrown bougainvilia– which has now been trimmed. A week later the roof of Pa's classroom at Stepping Stones was blown off – literally – and had to be repaired urgently. We are so fortunate to have Fanding on hand to quickly mobilise materials and manpower!!
Before all the schools shut down by Presidential Decree in March, when the first State of Emergency was declared, everything had been going very well at all our nursery schools. We are lucky to have many excellent and dedicated teachers and, in most cases, experienced Head Teachers who understand our requirements and ways of working and the need to strive towards sustainability. On an amusing note, I am very relieved that Bintu Cham, Joint Head Teacher at Mariama Mae, will be back at work following her six month maternity leave if schools do re-open in September, just as Fatou Touray's baby is due! Some of our supporters will recall this was the school where all 3 teachers previously delivered babies within a month of each other – creating a staffing nightmare!
During normal times when the schools are open, we make a point of visiting each one at least once a month. Kemo observes teaching practices so he can monitor future training needs. Fanding collates lists of maintenance needs and attends to immediate small jobs, and I check on general admin. This works very well in keeping everybody on their toes and enabling us to plan future requirements.
Big highlights for me this year were the introduction of porridge feeding programs at Mariama Mae school in Gunjur and Makumbaya Community Nursery School. This year we once again hope to raise funds via the Big Give Christmas Challenge so that we can afford to continue, or perhaps even extend, this very worthwhile initiative. The kids love it and it is wonderful to see them running to school early and queuing up to wait for their breakfast to be served. I joined them at Makumbaya early one morning in January and can attest that banana flavored porridge is yummy!
Another excellent couple of days for me was the Christmas Break teacher training - ably organised and led by Kemo Bah. The teachers all enjoyed themselves and participated fully – see Dee's report. We were fortunate to have two exceptional guest speakers. The highlight was the presentation to Pa of the much-deserved Teacher of the Year award! This is also something we hope to continue doing annually and Kemo and I already have a possible candidate in mind for next year's award.
Finally, the most positive development, in my opinion, is the tremendous progress being made by the Gambian Management Team. They are proving to be such a great asset, especially during these recent months when I have been trying to NOT be out and about too much. It really is a big relief that they can manage perfectly well without me when they have to!
Recently, Kemo and Sainey Dampha came to my compound on a Sunday morning – both wearing their masks of course. Over a couple of hours, they went over the budget setting procedure for next year and were able to put together all the figures, which Kemo will type up and send to me, Steve, and Dee.
My role was purely to supply them with coffee – and Sunday lunch afterwards!
Sainey Dampha has just been nominated by Ansumana as his “Man of the Year” for the Jappineh Health Center. I will be presenting him with a certificate and small cash award at our next Management Meeting, to be held a few days before I hope to travel to the UK in early September.
It is a great relief to know that should I be unlucky enough to succumb to Covid or anything else, we have in place a sustainable structure which will ensure that the work of the African Oyster Trust can continue forever – as long as our generous donors continue to support our efforts. Long live the AOT.
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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.