MBG Volunteer Phoebe Studdert-Kennedy Report

Phoebe Host Family - Copy

From January to March I experienced the most challenging, yet amazing three months I've ever had. Returning to the village of Gunjur in The Gambia, having visited for two weeks in 2012, was something I said I'd like to do but didn't truly believe would happen. When the opportunity arose to spend three months of my gap year there, the dream became reality!

Gunjur is a large village and about as 'African' as you get! By this I mean it fulfils the stereotypical image of Africa, minus the people starving and crying on the streets. The (majority of the) people are incredibly happy. Dusty sandy roads, children playing and running around barefoot, big black women in brightly coloured clothes carrying water/ food on their heads and donkeys pulling carts. It's always noisy, and very busy. Everyone wants to talk to the 'tubab' (white person).

The compound I lived on is definitely one of the nicer ones, and nearly all of the compounds have electricity now which makes night time less scary! A compound is a collection of houses lived in by different members of the extended family. My 'bath' was a bucket, sponge and water from a tap in the village and my toilet was a long drop. Compound life was very different to life at home! Food was cooked on a fire and clothes washed by hand in a bucket. The food I ate consisted of spicy fish and rice for lunch every day, and fish/chicken/omelette and chips most nights. I taught my host how to make pasta sauce so got that a few times too. It must be said after 3 months I was rather sick of the diet and don't ever want chips again! It's strange how quickly you adjust to basic living. I stopped thinking it was strange to use a long drop or wash from a bucket fairly quickly. I loved the togetherness of the whole family living in one place, and spent many afternoons sat outside drinking 'hatayah' (green tea) and eating oranges. The family were incredibly welcoming and kind, and I truly feel a part of them. They took amazing care of me and I will definitely go back to stay with them.

Phoebe TeachingThe purpose of our trip was teaching in the Upper Basic (secondary) school. I was assigned two grade eight classes, age range 14-19, ability range U-A* and about 45 students in each. It was most definitely a challenge! The classrooms are the standard African school rooms of wooden benches, tables, and a blackboard. Corporal punishment is now banned in The Gambia but we witnessed an awful lot of it at the school, which was tough to see. I was teaching English four mornings a week. At the beginning it was easy when everything was new but once the pupils got to know us discipline became very tricky with one of my classes. However, there were plenty of lovely kids in the classes and teaching was fun a lot of the time, especially when the class were enthusiastic. At the end of the teaching some of the girls performed a song for me and I was given a letter from another pupil about missing me once I'd left, which was great! Due to my timetabling I didn't have lessons on Tuesday mornings, so instead went to a primary school in the next village, Medina Salam, where I took children out in pairs for guided reading. I loved doing this as it's the age I want to teach in the future and it was really satisfying seeing the children make progress.

To fill our time in the afternoons we picked up a couple of other projects to do. One of these was designing and painting a sign for the primary school in Medina, which was a relaxing way to pass the afternoons and was really appreciated. The other main one was helping some local bee keepers get their business going. We painted their shop for them, starting with a bare room and ending with a decorated shop, shelves stocked with products and a grand opening including honey tasting!

The weekends were a definite highlight of the trip. Every Sunday, when possible, was spent relaxing at the beach. Empty except for a couple of cows, the white sands and sparkling blue water made a perfect escape from the hectic village life. We tried to do something different each weekend. This included visiting a monkey park, a nature reserve and going camel riding! We visited most of the big towns which was really interesting and went to loads of markets, coming back with lots of brightly coloured African clothing and of course fake designer sunglasses. We also did a trip 'up country' where we relaxed at a lodge on the river bank and did took a bird watching trip during which we saw pelicans, crocodiles and dolphins!

Transport to these places was hilarious. Everywhere we got lifts involved hitch hiking and none of the cars have functioning seat belts or speedometers. The bushtaxis (battered old minibuses) were always so crowded, we were often half sat on by huge fat ladies carrying buckets of fish, struggling to control their goat or clutching live chickens. The weather was fairly consistent throughout the three months, very hot and sunny during the days but generally cool at night which was a huge relief when it came to sleeping.

Over the course of the trip I faced a variety of challenges. The toughest time, for me, was when I was ill. Although on both occasions it was over in 24 hours, I found myself feeling very homesick and wishing I was with my mum. However, my host family couldn't have cared for me any better – bringing me anything I needed, checking on me regularly and making sure I was comfortable. The biggest challenge over all was the teaching due to it being something so totally new and different from anything I'd done before! Nevertheless, it was a hugely rewarding task and we all felt proud of ourselves for completing it. The final challenge I will mention was maintain patience with the young men who enjoy talking to white girls! It became incredibly annoying but not enough to put me off returning, we just discovered it is important to be blunt (or slightly rude) to get rid of them!

In conclusion, it was a life changing trip which will stay with me forever. It was the most authentic experience of Africa anyone could have and I will definitely go back. We met some of the kindest people you'll ever come across and have made some true friends who I really miss now I'm home. The most amazing part of the trip, in my opinion, was the way in which we lived with families and really became a part of them. The lifestyle was eye opening and made me aware of how much I take for granted, and changed my perspectives on what is and isn't necessary. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone, there is nothing else quite like it!

Find out more about MBG volunteer placements in The Gambia.