WGEC Gunjur teacher visit 2016

After 3 years of sifting through photos and personal accounts of trips (some going back 30 yrs), I finally get to see for myself what it is all about. It was surreal at times, visiting places I was already so familiar with, but it didn’t take long to feel genuinely welcome and at home in a place that has been in my psyche since childhood.

The first night was predictably a bit nerve racking, although the experienced host families took it all in their stride and the busy schedule for the week ahead does gear you towards just getting on with things. Toilets and food were the main topic of conversation on the first morning (and indeed for the rest of the week). We had a range of toilets from very basic to positively luxurious, I wonder if the Gunjur Link Committee (GLC) intuitively know who should be placed where in regards to personal challenges and development?

As a group, we paid our customary courtesy visits to the senior elders in the village, the Imam (head of Islam in the village), the Nyansimba (head of the women) and the Alikali, the mayor. The significance of these visits became very apparent to me later on in the week. It was a unique opportunity to listen to these highly important figure heads in the community and to ask questions. The Imam spoke very frankly about Islam and how it is perceived across the world today. I was touched by the respect shown to these elders by the entourage of young men who joined us that morning.

We had daily activities to keep us busy, including visiting MBG projects, a highlight for me being the abundant women’s garden. We were treated to an impressive dance/drama at the lower basic in Brikama, all the children hugely excited that their school was setting up a link with a primary in Newton Tony. Later in the week Caroline ran a business workshop for a group of students from the Upper Basic school in Gunjur. I have to say they were brilliant and coped really well with the business challenge.













 The teachers in our group were a lot of fun so there were plenty of little opportunities to relax and reflect. We went on a truly spectacular birdwatching boat trip and had a fab 2 hour walk along the beach to the Gunjur Project, one of the beach lodges. It was interesting to visit the various eco / tourism lodges along the beach to get an idea of how people are approaching tourism differently. All the projects we visited are using a sustainable, ethical and local approach which is encouraging; we could only speculate at the mass tourism going on further up the coast.













 I really valued spending time in my compound on that first afternoon as I sat and shelled peanuts with Rohey (my Gambian namesake), Binta and some of the little ones. It was my first glimpse at how companionable life in a compound is and how traditional gender roles still are. It was a privilege to get to know the people in my family during the week. Fatou was there visiting for a few weeks to care for her elderly mother, the first time she had seen her since emigrating to Washington DC 15 years ago. It was very interesting to talk to her as she had a deep understanding of life in both places; the reoccurring theme that we kept coming back to was this sense that Gambians in Gunjur may not have the material goods or opportunity that we have in the west but that they are intrinsically happier because of this strong family unit (and that the sunshine helps, re: Washington / UK winters respectively!). Throughout the week I gained a real sense of how grounded people are in the Gambia compared to the UK. On the other hand, I could completely relate to the younger members in my compound who were studying and looking towards a future further afield than sleepy Gunjur.

At the end of the week, we had an overnight stay at Bintang Bolong, a beautiful riverside lodge in a historic and culturally rich location. Much more rural than Gunjur and it showed, it was our first encounter of visible poverty amongst the kids who apparently didn’t belong to the village but just drifted in from other areas. I described them as slightly feral which wasn’t supposed to be offensive; they just seemed a little wild to me and not nearly as well cared for as the children in Gunjur. We got hassled for sweets and footballs; later we talked about drive-through safaris throwing sweets and pens to kids from moving landrovers - we could only cringe at what we in the west have ultimately created and discuss the challenges now faced by international development and global education. Although only an informal conversation I think we all learnt a lot that day.













 On our return to Gunjur, I had my own first hand experience of this. Walking the short distance back my compound with my overnight bags I got accosted 3 times, twice by children, and once by a mother and small baby, asking for money for food - this was the first time it had happened all week. One hour later, I walked back down the same short stretch in my tailor-made African suit and was genuinely complimented many times. I couldn’t get over the difference in reception I received based entirely on my appearance and apparent provenance. I guess they thought I was just some backpacker who had just arrived in town and was ‘fair game’. Wearing the African suit indicated that I was part of the Gunjur-Marlborough link and I was treated accordingly. This highlighted the importance of the courtesy visits paid at the beginning of the week and how it also serves a purpose to inform the village that the link is in town. There is an incredible amount of respect for the link in the village and this came through strongly all week.

 I loved it though, loved the people, the colours, the intensity, the women’s postures, the prayers, the food, the swallows, the beautiful beaches, the fact you can buy fantastic material and take it to a choice of tailor. There are so many aspects of Gambian life I would switch. I was made to feel part of the family, and I will stay in touch with them, especially Rohey who went out of her way to be kind and welcoming, although I get the impression that everyone in the compound values Rohey for these qualities! I hope that I get the opportunity to go again one day, as I have returned with more questions than answers.

Sarah Lively