My week in The Gambia – where a Herts-based project is trying to make a difference

PUBLISHED: 13:18 15 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:18 15 March 2018

The Marriotts Gambia Project team in the completed park. Picture: Marriotts Gambia Project

The Marriotts Gambia Project team in the completed park. Picture: Marriotts Gambia Project

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Royston Crow editor Nick Gill reflects on a week in The Gambia, where a Herts-based project is trying to make a world of difference to small and poverty-stricken communities in the African country known as ‘the smiling coast’.

Royston Crow editor Nick Gill meets the chief of Kassa Kunda village. Picture: Jay DrackfordRoyston Crow editor Nick Gill meets the chief of Kassa Kunda village. Picture: Jay Drackford

An empty plastic water bottle might be an unwelcome piece of rubbish in the UK, but for children in The Gambia it is a luxury item worth fighting for.

And we all know how much kids love sweets but, handing them out at Kassa Kunda Lower Basic & Nursery School, they seemed other-worldly.

It is the third consecutive year the Marriotts Gambia Project – which has seen staff and students from the Hertfordshire school team up with community volunteers since 2015 with the aim of making a difference in the west African country – has visited Kassa Kunda.

After last year’s project saw two classrooms built and decorated, in 2018 the aim was to build a playground – designed by primary school pupils in North Herts – and transform a library.

The completed library at Kassa Kunda. Picture: Jacob SmithThe completed library at Kassa Kunda. Picture: Jacob Smith

Hundreds of donated books – all collected at Marriotts Sports Centre in Stevenage – were shipped out prior to our arrival on March 2, and materials and tools gathered for the jobs in hand.

Arriving at Kassa Kunda last Sunday, children almost instantaneously mobbed me and wanted to hold my hand.

Some seemingly became attached to you – literally and metaphorically – if you showed the slightest interest in them. But nothing could hide the sadness behind their eyes, their poverty plain to see.

Our 23-strong team set to work, digging holes in the dry earth for the playground and fixing some shelving for the library.

Jay Drackford's daughter Lois takes a selfie with Kassa Kunda schoolchildren. Picture: Lois DrackfordJay Drackford's daughter Lois takes a selfie with Kassa Kunda schoolchildren. Picture: Lois Drackford

By the afternoon, both projects were already beginning to take shape and by then staff, locals and – dare I say it – children were all laying their hands on any available tools to pitch in as the heat intensified.

Once they knew what to do and how, the Kassa Kunda community were only too ready to get involved. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see, and really brought home to me the power of education in all its forms. After lots of cementing and a lick of paint, the end result was Kassa Kunda Park – consisting of a seesaw, balancing beam, ‘car’, Sid the snake (as we’ve called him), and, our holy grail, the tyre wall.

I’ve lost count of the amount of holes needed to bolt the tyres together for it but, as the battery-powered drill didn’t last too long after an unsuspecting powercut overnight, the hand-drilling required ensured it really was a labour of love.

And it was all worth of it, of course. Returning to see it in use was a sight to behold – truthfully you couldn’t see the park equipment for the amount of children clambering over it.

The completed Kassa Kunda Park, with a sewsaw, log steps, balancing beam, 'car', Sid the snake and a tyre wall. Picture: Nick GillThe completed Kassa Kunda Park, with a sewsaw, log steps, balancing beam, 'car', Sid the snake and a tyre wall. Picture: Nick Gill

The refurbished library, too, looked magical after being decorated, with stacks of carefully-arranged books all ready to be used.

The three-day visit also saw both volunteers – some teachers themselves – and Marriotts students spend some time in the classrooms, singing songs and helping pupils reply to letters from their Stevenage pen friends.

Reflecting on the week, project leader Jay Drackford – the facilities and communities manager at Marriotts and Lonsdale School who took his own family for the first time this year – said: “Our Year 10 students that travelled to The Gambia were completely overwhelmed, but adapted to their surroundings well. They noticed how different the culture was and felt very grateful for everything we take for granted at home.

“The headteacher was full of praise for our efforts said that the school had run out of word to express their appreciation. Knowing we can make a difference to their lives is why we come back year after year.”

Crow editor Nick Gill with Kassa Kunda schoolchildren on arrival. Picture: Jacob SmithCrow editor Nick Gill with Kassa Kunda schoolchildren on arrival. Picture: Jacob Smith

In 2016 the project began a feeding programme in Kassa Kunda to ensure every child had at least one meal a day after funding urgent repairs to the school kitchen, but this had to be stopped due to a lack of funds.

Having seen the impact it previously made on the children’s health and the subsequent deterioration, Jay has vowed to recommence the programme on April 11.

I’m confident from spending just a few days in the former British colony – where English remains the official language and tourism is vital to the economy – I have made some small difference. But the thought that by donating just £12 we could provide school meals for a pupil for an entire year and, in doing so, engender change seems both brilliant and absurd in equal measure.

In the library a newly-painted message of Marriotts’ student mission statement reads: ‘Aim high, work hard, be kind’, something everyone from all parts of the world could benefit from.

Crow editor Nick Gill tests out the tyre wall, a build overseen by Jacob Smith and Steve Sargent (also pictured). Picture: Sharon RogersCrow editor Nick Gill tests out the tyre wall, a build overseen by Jacob Smith and Steve Sargent (also pictured). Picture: Sharon Rogers

But as Malik – a wonderful local who is now an integral part of the project – told me: “It’s just about helping people to help themselves.”

To find out more about the project and the how to sponsor a child for the feeding programme visit marriottsgambiaproject.co.uk.

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