Huge progress in Sukuta

Regular visitors to this site will know that we have taken the lead in helping to transform Sukuta Lower Basic (primary) school, in The Gambia - largely through the many arms of Rotary International. The school, with 2,000 pupils, is one of the country's largest and the project is ambitious.


 Parents' meeting at the Sukuta school, discussing the priorities to be adopted for the ambitious project

Over a two-year period, we were able to raise in excess of £35,000 - mainly through Rotary - to pay for the project. Sohm Schools Support provided a substantial donation to launch the fund-raising and the Rotary Club of Redbridge undertook finding the rest of the money. The Redbridge club, itself, contributed £5,000 and two other London clubs (Barkingside and Gants Hill) made generous donations. The London regional District contributed $10,000, and two of Redbridge's twinned clubs in Europe (in the Hague and Slovenia), both made important contributions.  On the back of all of this, the Rotary Foundation, in Chicago, contrubuted a further $8,000.

  

Extension of footprint and size of the computer room - underway

The project at the school had seven elements and aimed to: greatly increase the water supply and capacity at the school, by erecting additional solar-powered storage tanks, and from them running a number of waterlines to standpipes scattered throughout the school. These are to be located near toilets and food serving and eating areas, by the first aid room (see later) and by classroom blocks. All of this activity will assist with personal and food hygiene and offer easier access to drinking water for the children.

The school's toilets were dilapitated, and as "the local contribution" - a requirement of Rotary Global grants - the Gambian Ministry of Education agreed to replace the old ones with new ones.

 Part of new toilet blocks, already installed by the Gambia's Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education

There is no sick room in this school of 2,000 pupils - so the project proposed to build one. The school's library was out of commission, because termite damage had destroyed many of the books, and made the room a health hazard. The Sukuta project aims to seal the walls and floor of the room and re-tile them, to prevent the re-emergence of the termites.

  

Construction of the school's first sick room, well under way 

Dis-infestation of termites from school's library - well under way

The school's only "computer room" is reasonably well-equipped, but is too small to provide access for all the pupils to have a lesson in it, each week. The project proposed to increase the room's size by around 30%, to overcome the problem of the inadequately sized room.

The final aspect of the project is to build a safe, water-supplied, hygenic base for the provison of school lunches. At present local traders (overwhelmingly women) sell meagre lunches under trees in the blistering heat, in the school's playground. The school's head and Council wanted sheltered accommodation to be built for the future safety and comfort of the saleswomen, and children, alike.

 

Construction of sheltered area for food vendors - at an advanced stage

Redbridge contacted a local club in the Gambia - Brusubi - based about five miles from Sukuta - to manage the project locally. All of this was arranged before I visited the country for 10 days at the start of March.

The first problem I encountered was that the original estimates upon which the project had been costed and funds raised, were almost two years old. Although a small contingency element was included, it wasn't large enough to account for the 35% increase in building material costs over the period. Some hard bargaining involving the local contractor, school management and the two Rotary clubs (Redbridge - the sponsor, and Brusubi - the host) negotiated a slight variation in the specification, while mainating the intergrity of the project, which enabled it to be undertaken - within budget.

The contract-signing ceremony took place in front of a local audience of around 50 people, on March 8th - International Women's Day. And how significant that was. two of the key signatories - the recently appointed school head and the recently appointed CEO of the building contractors' - were both women . This would have been unheard of, even a decade ago in The Gambia. They were flanked at the signing cermenony by Omar Jallow, President of the Rotary Club of Brusubi, and me - represnting RC Redbridge (see photo).

 





Contract signing ceremony. Left to right: Omar Jallow, President Brusubi Rotary Club, Marian Mendy, head teacher, Sukuta Lower Basic school, Jainbarr Sarr, Chief Executive Future in Our Hands (contractor), John Walker (Sohm Schools Support and Redbridge Rotary)

 Part of the hard bargaining over the contract embraced a tight timescale for its completeion. The aim is for the end of June.

Builders were on the site within a week of the signing and progress has been quite remarkable in the six weeks since then - as the photos in this blog show. I hope to be able to run an article in July featuring photos of all of the elements of the project, completed.

  

Framework contract - signed, sealed and being delivered!

But, in the meantime, a huge thanks to all involved in making the project come so rapidly to fruition.

These include the generous supporters of the Sohm Schools Support charity, whose funds launched initiative and the many arms of Rotary who have provided additional funding and are overseeing the construction process. 

And finally, huge thanks to the fine and thoroughly professional staff of contractors, Future In Our Hands, whose steady application is gradually bringing to fruition what, three years ago, was a casual conversation between me and the then deputy head of the school, about trying to transform it













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Successful return - after two years!

I have just returned from a brief, successful, trip to the Gambia - following a two year absence, for COVID-related reasons - and feel there are good stories to tell about the schools in Sohm and beyond.

I'll concentrate on Sohm in this post, and deal with our Rotary-supported project in Sukuta, of which I've written much over the last year or so, in a blog in a couple of weeks.

Senior management team, with Rotary and Beech Hill logos

Firstly, although the Sohm schools were closed for nine months, because of the local COVID lockdown, there seemed to have been few - if any - serious cases of the virus in the village. The Lower Basic (primary) school's staff, however, were very greatful for the supplies of masks and sanitiser that we were able to get to the school, via our good friends at the Scottish charity First Aid for Gambia.

 

Pupils and staff with SSS-supplied anti-COVID sanitisers and masks

 

Before I left the UK, the pupils at Beech Hill in Luton, with which Sohm LBS is twinned, produced some lovely artwork and letters for me to take to Sohm. The Gambian youngsters were delighted, and below are some photos of some proudly displaying their incoming correspondence.

Some of the Beech Hill letters to Sohm
and more ....
and more ....
and more!

The Sohm children have responded in kind, and within two days turned around a similarly impressive set of letters and art work, which we will share with Beech Hill, when they have their annual "Gambia Day", in April.

There has been plenty of work taking place on the ground in the Sohm LBS, to which we have contributed 50% of the cost, over the last two years. A six-classroom block, which was partially damaged by a hurricane two years ago, has now been completely restored and renovated.  It is looking good, as the photos below show.

A local craftworker was also commissioned to repair over 100 pieces of broken school furniture, at an average cost of £8 per item, and with the chairs we supplied two years ago, the school is now well stocked with necessary furniture.

And nursery children - note reconditioned, shiny furniture!   

This means that in the ten years of our involvement with Sohm LBS, we have restored and upgraded every building in the 500-pupil school - and the place is looking very smart.

We are delighted to report that our previous, large, building project - the new school hall - is now being well used. Its kitchen, which was part of the construction, is a busy source of nuitritional cooking, much of the food for which has been produced in the school's garden.

 

 New school kitchen - pots bubbling away with veg grown in the school's garden

As we do every year, we made a donation of almost £1k of stationery to the school. This meets the whole requirements for the 500 children and staff there for the year. So, there are exercise books, pens, pencils, crayons for the pupils and flip charts, marker pens, chalks and record books, duplicating paper, printer inks etc. for the staff.

Below is a photo of some pupils displaying some of this donation. We have had a long relationship with a local stationer - Prime Stationers -  in The Gambia, who has always given us extremenly competitive rates for our purchases. This year he made a significant personal contribution, to top up our donation. So, we were delighted to have some of the pupils wave some of his advertisng material, by way of thanks. Enlarged copies of some of these photos now adorn his shop, with the strapline "Delighted to support the education of local children" Win:win, here! 

Annual stationery donation, assisted by our friends from Prime Stationers

 One other donation to our charity must be recorded. One of our dearest supporters, concious that donations of clothing to developing countries rarely include underwear, was determined to redress the issue and purchased a large quanity of bras, knickers and underpants for what turned out to be a hugely grateful bunch of local recipients (modesty prevents us showing them in action!). It really was a bit of a struggle to get everything out there, and within airplane luggage restrictions - but we are glad we managed it! Delighted as we are to have assisted this very thoughtful donation, we are not opening up a clothes donation facility for the future! In previous years we have had access to free container space. Unfortunately, we no longer do.

Our ten-year involvement with the school has had a remarkable impact on its educational performance.  All schools in The Gambia are given an annual Scorecard, by the country's version of Ofsted.  Below is Sohm's most recent score card.  It has - quite simply - been turned from a run of the mill, rural, back water school, to the exemplar primary school in its district and top of cluster groups and other measurement devices.

Impressive Lower Basic school "Scorecard"

The senior school in the village of Sohm has been badly run for the last four years, and we have refused to work with a head whom we did not trust. He has now been replaced and the school is in the temporary charge of two long-serving deputies, with whom we have always had a very good relationship - Nicholas Mendy and Mama Gomez - see pictured below. We look forward to re-engagement with the school, staff and pupils.

New interim management at secondary school, Mama and Nicholas - back in safe hands

The senior school has good facilities, many of which we, and our partners from the Jersey Gambia Schools Trust, have contributed to, over the years.

We are very pleased to say that the Education Regional Director, now he has replaced the former head, is determined to turn the senior school into a district school of excellence in science and technology (because it has good facilities, and a well educated intake).

The two schools in Sohm do, however, have teacher recruitment and retention difficulties; because they are in a relatively remote area, and the accommodation available to staff is poor. We are currently working with the Regional Director on submitting a bid to a significant Dutch charity, to create new teacher accommodation for upto 40 staff, in the village, in unused land and premises already owned by the ministry.

  

Potential location for new teaching accommodation - we're in talks!

We'll let you know how we get on!





















Brilliant news!

The last 18-month COVID period has been difficult for us all, but SSS has been beavering away, quietly, trying to get resources to improve conditions in the Gambian schools we work with.

Funding for two of the largest projects we have ever worked on has finally been agreed over the last two weeks, and we are absolutely delighted.

It is a fitting way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of our existence, coming up in January 2022.

Two huge projects

As we have reported on this blog before, we have spent the last two years putting together the finances for completely renovating one of The Gambia's largest Lower Basic (primary) schools - with over 2,000 pupils, in Sukuta.

Piecing together the funding for this has been tricky, but we now have in place the last part of the jigsaw that will allow us to proceed. The project will cost in excess of £30k, and is largely being funded by the Rotary Foundation.

 

We have also been working with our Jersey colleagues in the Jersey Gambia Schools Trust (JGST), and the Jersey Overseas Aid department to put together a £12k project that will completely renovate the only building in Sohm Lower Basic school that we have not already improved over the last decade.

Funding for this has finally been agreed by all parties and construction contracts were signed in early October, with the target of begining work by the end of December.

Sukuta funding

SSS's loyal band of regular supporters will be contributing over £12,000 to this (from money accumulated over the last 2/3 years) and Rotary the rest.

Rotary funding is coming from Redbridge Rotary club (John's own club), which is contributing £5k, with contributions from neighbouring clubs in London (Barkingside and Gants Hill), as well as from international sister clubs in Holland and Slovenia. In addition, the London District of Rotary is contributing $10k and the Rotary Foundation (based in Chicago) a further $8k.

It has been time-consuming and tricky putting the project together, but just yesterday we got the final grant go-ahead and funding agreed.

The project will mean that from early in the new year, our sister Rotary club, Brusubi, in The Gambia, will be able to oversee the construction of:

Double the water tank capacity in the school


Increase the number of water standpipes from one to 11, for the 2,000+ children

 

Completely renovate the unsafe and unhealthy toilets

 Build the school's first sick room

 Bring back into operation the termite-ridden library

From the above to the below

Increase the size of the school's only computer room, so that all pupils will be able to receive weekly computer lessons. 

Reduce overcrowding here, by extending, below

Provide a safe, clean and hygenic food serving area for school meals.

Replace this with a hygenic preparation and serving area

The lives of 2,000 Gambian primary school children will be transformed by these changes.

Last piece in Sohm restoration

Over the years, we have: brought electricty to the Sohm Lower Basic school, improved the teachers' accommodation, brought back to operation an infested library, renovated the school's sick room, improved the toilets, refurbished one of only two teaching blocks and built a new multi-purpose hall.

There is only one building within the school complex that we have not yet upgraded. Eighteen months ago, storm damage ripped off the roof of part of that teaching block. 

Last year's storm damage
Next year's refurbished block!

Together with our Jersey friends, we put together a plan to completely renovate the block, and have been able to identify funding from JGST, Jersey Overseas Aid and ourselves to pay for it. 

Our contribution has been effectively funded by donations and fund-raising events organised by Sohm's twin school Beech Hill Community Primary school, in Luton. We are hugely appreciative of their efforts, without which this six-classroom block renovation could not take place.

We hope construction can begin before the end of the calendar year.

All in all - these have been two great weeks for SSS and for Gambian school children. 

We are delighted, but now, absolutely skint! 

If you would like to help us fund further projects to advance the education of Gambian youngsters, please consider supporting us.

School year ends in Sohm

Much of our attention this year has been spent in driving forward, with Rotary, the Sukuta school renovation project - about which more, later. 

But we haven't forgotten our friends in Sohm, the first school with which we worked in The Gambia. Although, for COVID reasons, we were unable to visit the country this year, we have been able to make an impact, as a result of the generous donations we have received from our supporters and sponsors.

What follows is a brief summary of some of our impacts over the last twelve months. 

We have assisted the school in getting anti-COVID supplies to it, including hand gels and a range of face masks and shields, as the photos below illustrate:

We supplied the staff with a new laptop computer, on which they have been able to keep the school's COVID records. Thankfully, there have been no incidents at the school.
We have maintained our annual stationery order to the school, whereby we are able to provide all materials the pupils and staff need for the whole academic year.
We introduced electricity to the school about five years ago, and gave a commitment that we would pay the running costs(fortunately no heating bills to incur!). Here is a receipt, for about £9, for the quarterly charges, we have been happy to support.
Regular readers will know that our biggest project in Sohm, to date, has been the construction of a large, multi-purpose, assembly hall last year. We are delighted to report that it continues to be well used, both by the school and the local community. Below are photos of one of the regular assemblies and, excitingly for us, pictures from an inter-school debating contest the school was able to host in the hall, recently.

The hall is the main community assembly room in the village of Sohm, and is used for a range of local events, such as the women's assembly shown below. We have encouraged the school to adopt a charging policy for these lettings and have offered to match fund the income they receive from the lettings, to supply enhancements to the hall and school. 

As a result, we have been able to purchase an additional 100 chairs for the school, a PA system (which many of those letting the building have asked for) and some much needed ceiling fans for the hall. This great partnership working has improved facilities in the school and strengthened community relationships and ownership of the hall.

From the UK, we have maintained our relationship with fellow British charity First Aid 4 Gambia and have ensured that there has been further first aid training and supplies given to the school. Many thanks to our Scottish friends for this. In the spirit of improving first aid facilities, we have also upgraded the beds in the sick room, which we restored a few years ago.

So, it's been a difficult year, because of COVID, but we feel that - even at a distance - we have been able to continue our support to the Lower Basic school in Sohm, thanks to the continued generosity of our family, friends and supporters. On behalf of the children in Sohm, we would like to say a very large Thank You to you all! 

Meanwhile, our major pre-occupation this year has been progressing the Sukuta project, which, with great Rotary assistance, we are attempting to oversee a major renovation of the Sukuta Lower Basic school. It has over 2,000 children and is the country's largest primary. 

There has been a slight delay in progressing this, as the Rotary annual budget for supporting projects such as ours was exhausted earlier than expected this year. However, the new Rotary year began on 1 July and we were encouraged to make a grant application for this new year. Which we have done! 

Without wishing to sound too confident, we look forward to being able to announce significant progress with the project within a month or two. 

Thank you for reading. Your continued support is important to us, and is vital to Gambian youngsters.