Impressions, Reflections and Revelations! Andrew Mallinson Nov 2015

Fears & Hopes
How easy would it be to slip into the African way of life, where time has a different meaning, where levels of hygiene and comfort often fall short to our Western/European norms, where poverty is all too visible and sometimes uncomfortable to view, where illness and malnutrition are so evident, where issues which to the 'Western eye' are so solvable are yet so unsolvable in the African could/would I adapt to all this?

Initial Impressions
Introductions, lots of smiles, cries of 'Hello Dr Nick' from all corners, dust everywhere, grubby hands proffered, heat and glorious sunshine, sense of community, children playing in the street with no fear, life being lived 'day to day with little security for many, mutual respect for different faiths, cries of 'toubab, toubab' from the children, sense of ritual and the sound of Muslim prayers being echoed through the streets by dated megaphones, importance and respect for the 'elders'...

My Host Family
Hosted by the ever-smiling Abdoulie Jabang, wife Jenaba and 7 delightful children: Habbie (adopted and 17), Fatou (adopted niece and 13), Caddie (11), Mariana (7), Omar (5), Baboucarr (3) and Mhamed (1). Shy at first, the elder children soon relaxed when I joined with them in playing either 'Catch' with some tennis balls I had brought with me and in sharing with them the 'loom bands' donated by my daughter, Lily, which are used to create colourful bracelets.

Memorable moments of being hosted?
1. Quiet time chatting with the intelligent 13 year old Fatou as she sat on the floor outside my room with a mountain of clothes in front of her, happily doing her family chores on a Saturday morning – hot charcoal supplied to the iron from a small fire a few metres away. Fatou never seemed to complain, was always smiling, always keen to learn and hear more about where I came from and my family
2. Returning late one evening from meetings and sitting down outside Abdoulie's house by the main road with four of his friends, chatting, laughing, telling jokes, drinking attaya (sweet green tea), sharing stories...a very natural moment where I felt assimilated and accepted.

The Entrepreneurs
From the inspiring (ie beekeeping/making honey) to the disappointing (sanitary towel home production) we experienced the highs and lows of helping entrepreneurs with loans, grants and hand-outs. Sulayman, the bee-keeper, was making over £800 per year and had 2 shops and 45 hives and was in expansion mode; he had even started to guide and train a couple of other beekeepers. A true role model and an excellent case study.

A visit to the market garden, a 15 acre oasis of peace and tranquillity carved out of the forest, was also a revelation. Someone's vision of creating sustainable income, employment and food for over two hundred families had come to life. The women were working hard to tend their plots, growing a mixture of tomatoes, spring onions, mint and aubergines. The 30 plus feet deep wells would soon be replaced by automatic watering systems which would increase efficiency and potentially productivity, an exciting step forward in a project that has involved the helping hands of many UK citizens as well as the local Gunjurians.

The Gunjur Pre-School
Built in 2004 by students from Marlborough in partnership with local Gunjurians the pre-school cares for, educates and feeds a daily meal to 160 children in Gunjur of which over 100 are on some sort of sponsorship. The school teachers benefit from excellent collaboration with other local pre-schools and an inspired 'home-grown' early years curriculum.

It was great to see the children looking so happy and, whilst funds are obviously tight, the school continues to benefit from the ongoing link between MBG and the inspirational Neil Griffiths.

Highlights of my trip
1. Living with my Gambian family and just 'being' with them and the children, who embodied a sense of spontaneity, fun, endeavour and desire to learn
2. Meeting the inspirational, courageous and passionate Dr Isatou Touray, head of GAMCOTRAP and the leading campaigner in the country to eliminate the practice of FGM
3. Feeling as you walk the streets of Gunjur a sense of community, of 'safety' as children walk and bike along the streets, a sense of a 'natural way of being'
4. Seeing how 2 different faiths can live alongside one another in what seems like total harmony
5. Sensing a deep sense of progress / relationship building across two diverse communities in two different continents / a sense of warmth and mutual respect – and a feeling that, despite many challenges and frustrations along the way, that a HUGE amount has been achieved between the communities of Marlborough and much of it intangible – in terms of learning, experience of living alongside another culture, building of friendships, mutual admiration and respect from both sides – yet so much of it tangible as well...