Relections after a first visit to Gambia as a new MBG Trustee

Trevor Kearley reflects on his first visit to Gunjur.

I had travelled to and stayed in a dozen or so countries in the Dark Continent, including West Africa, before - on business and as a tourist visiting relatives or friends. So my first visit to Gunjur as a new MBG Trustee was not entirely novel. The totally different visual environment, the searing sun, bustling dusty towns and shanty villages and the brightly dressed women were familiar. This, though, was my first in depth visit. I was to stay with an African family in their compound - albeit a fairly upmarket one.

I am ashamed to say that in the first 48 hours I found myself thinking "I'm not a celebrity but get me out of here". No running water, flushing loo, electric light, drawers or hanging space. A thin patchwork foam mattress on a vast bed that collapsed under me at 1.15 am on the second night. The not so hot food. A cockerel outside my net window, his raucous and unpredictable squawk from 3.15 am onwards piercing the other sounds of an African night.

A saying I try to heed is "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change the way you think about it." So on day three of my visit I did just that. It wasn't difficult. A less shameful part of me rose up and reasoned. We are all human beings on this planet and purely as an accident of birth they are Africans and I am a western European reared in different circumstances and environments through no fault or merit of them or us. Poverty and wealth are only perceptions. I am not in Gunjur to pity or condemn what I find here. I am here to learn about, and from, them. And what is quickly becoming clear is that the Gambians are far better at obeying the Commandment to love thy neighbour than I am.

The genuine sincerity of our greetings and meetings with the Gunjur people at all levels warmed my heart and jerked a few tears, not least their obvious love for immediately-recognized "Doctor Nick", as we moved among them in the town and they mourned his imminent retirement as MBG Director after 33 years and 61 visits. Countless traditional hugs for him (a good five-second tight embrace right shoulder to shoulder - not the mwah-mwah kissing of westerners). An outstretched hand and a smiling "You are welcome!" for me, the newcomer. The many children of my compound's family running to greet me on returning home at day's end. The girls proudly wearing bracelets made out of the WH Smith kit of beads from my various presents. The boys wanting to know my favourite UK soccer team. A wall map of the world, also from Smiths, now stuck (slightly askew) on one of their otherwise totally blank walls and creating great debate about where America, Russia, China and Australia actually are on the globe. Even where tiny UK and Gambia itself are!

At the end of my stay I learned that the African name they had given me is "Father Ebrahim" and I had the honour of being presented with a specially made Kaftan in purple cotton. It was a truly sad parting, mollified by reassuring "my" family that I would return one day.

You can read elsewhere about the achievements of the Marlborough/Gunjur link. I have written here only about the warmth of an African welcome and kindness - because these are the abiding images from my 10 days in Gunjur. Smiling faces with dazzling white teeth, sparkling eyes and an embrace that is physically and emotionally strong. True family and community love and respect for old age. Those are the memories that I shall treasure. To have experienced them is a real privilege and they will always remind me that we are indeed all children born in the image of Allah/God. We must not abandon our precious link there.

Trevor Kearley
5 December 2015