- Published: Wednesday, 21 September 2016 14:34
St John's student Ann Cannon reports back on her experiences in Gunjur this summer. Ann spent almost 5 weeks in Gunjur this summer with 12 other St John's students as part of a volunteer programme run by MBG. Working alongside Gambian volunteers, the group constructed a new classroom block for pre-schoolers in Kulukochi, Gunjur.
Every week, we worked 9-1, Monday-Friday, with the weekends off to explore. Most afternoons were spent picking mangoes, buying what they called "groundnuts" (peanuts) coated in milk and sugar, and cycling on death-trap bicycles around the village (I had one bike with no brakes, pedals or handlebars). In the evenings we often 'dined' at Calla Calla's, a small roadside restaurant. The menu was chicken with chips, rice or pasta. They flavoured everything with a stock they called Jumbo. I bought little packets of Jumbo back home, and after exclaiming to my parents how delicious the food was there because of it, we realised it was MSG. Every evening back at my compound, while the family crouched round a bowl of fish and rice, I was given a separate plate of omlette, bread and fresh avocado from their garden.
Some days we would go to the tourist beach nearby after work, a place called Nemasu. I remember on the last week I caved in and bought a pizza, after craving cheese and dairy products. Excuse me for mentioning food so much --the two main conversation topics among our group seemed to be food and the movement of our bowels. Other conversations with the locals were quite different. If you were close enough to someone, you could ask them about the government. I was told by a friend there about the riots that were happening around the country.
Everybody was exceptionally happy, considering people in the UK would be distraught at such living standards. In fact, the women loved the president. He could provide all they needed, given that a woman’s role was to cook, clean and look after the children. The men saw things differently. The man’s role was to be the breadwinner. But there weren't any jobs, so the men sat around all day, rarely helping with the women’s grinding chores. In the evenings everyone stayed up late, music blaring from speakers, everyone on their phones or chatting, it always felt very communal. (The Marlborough Brandt Group had previously installed a wifi café in the village, and now wifi was available, weekly, across the town. I'm unsure as to how it benefitted the community: it may just bring with it a western habit of prioritising screentime over human contact.) Often the late evenings turned into dance lessons or lessons in Mandinka, the local language, and someone was always brewing Ataya or Lai. Ataya and Lai are the traditional type of tea, and their creation involves a lot of sugar and mint leaves, and an extensive pouring process which creates a thick layer of bubbles. One person drank at a time. Lai was my personal favourite -- sweetened condensed milk, warmed, more sugar added, and occasionally a dash of mint. It was our daily sugar hit besides breakfast.
Breakfast, for us, was a full white baguette (Takalaka was a type of bread, to which nothing compares to in the UK) filled with chocolate hazelnut spread. We would buy these from one of the numerous shops on the way to work. A shop was like a Tescos, but compacted into a small 2- by 2-metre room, with a mesh over the counter, behind which were stacked mayonnaise, margerine and chocolate spread tubs, sweets, washing powder, ataya leaves, condensed milk, and takalaka. Sometimes they sold Fanta and Coke in glass bottles which had to be returned.
Work was hard. In the heat, and due to the lack of spades and wheelbarrows, we had to take it in turns to work and rest. We got through 3 litres of water a day each. Some days, the rain would come, and production would have to stop completely. We were incredibly lucky – it being the rainy season – that it only rained for 4 days on and off, which set us back, but was not critical. We all took part in plastering, bricklaying, cement mixing (the worst job with no cement mixer and 2 spades) sanding, and painting. Occasionally, due to exhaustion or illness, the numbers of people at work would fall. One of us fainted due to the heat and dehydration levels, and had to discontinue the last few days of work and be sent on a drip to a hospital 40 minutes away. One of us had to be driven to Banjul, the capital, to take a malaria test due to malaria-like symptoms. One of us came back with 6 hookworms in their body. All of us got homesick or had constipation or diarrhoea. But no one died, no one did get malaria, no one fell severely ill. It was tough, but it was worth it. We all powered through.
We finished the classroom on the last day, with 3 hours before the handover ceremony. We had just enough time to finish the decorations inside (I've attached photos below) and clean up the work site too. We went back and dressed in our traditional clothes that our hosts had tailored for us. The Minister for Education came and gave us cetificates.
Below are photographs of what your money helped me to do. Put it this way, to build one classroom, they had to get 14 people to come 3,000 miles. Every little helps.
I got more of a culture shock when I got home. When you've been living with the bare minimum, coming back home is coming back to more than just luxury (toilets, showers, drinkable water from taps, cheese), it's coming home to the stress of living the high life. I realised every burden I carried was entirely created by man. The stresses in the Gambia consisted of things that matter, not the likes on an Instagram post. This trip has opened my eyes to so many things I have taken for granted and made me appreciate the simple things in life. Appreciating school, for instance. When we’d finished and the children went in for the first time it was like Christmas had come early. When I got home and heard all my friends talking about dreading the start of the new term, I couldn’t help but remember just how lucky we where, and maybe the children in Gambia deserved our places there more than we did.
Thank you for your outward looking, global-reaching aid in my life-changing experience. By life-changing I don’t only mean me: I mean my classmates, and most importantly, I mean the children who will use the classroom we built. Education is something which the whole country lacks, and is directly linked to the extremely high levels of unemployment. You should be honoured to have made such a difference.