June 2017 - curriculum area investment reaps rewards

Each year we try to improve the equipment in under-resourced areas of the Senior school's curriculum, in Sohm.

As a result of generous donations in previous years, we have, for example, established a fully functioning ICT suite there, added significantly to the science laboratory equipment and provided key text books in all curriculum areas.

This year, we extended the process by purchasing technical drawing equipment for the school, including a number of Tee squares and set boxes, as well as specialist drawing paper - some of which can be seen in the accompanying photograph.

Senior school principal, Mamadou Manneh,
with some of the technical drawing equipment
donated.  We look forward to improved exam
performance in that subject in future years
It is most heartening, therefore, to see the longer term benefits that these investments bring, years after the initial intervention.

Three years ago, our friends at Football Gambia and Kit Aid supplied over 60 sets of football kit to the school.  These are being well used.

Successful girls football team,
kitted out thanks to Football Gambia
and Kit Aid, two great UK charities
We are delighted to report that the girls' senior football team at the school made it through to the quarter finals of the national schools' football championship.  The photo above illustrates them wearing donated kit. 

It is unlikely they would have entered the competition without the donation of the kit, and they certainly would not have looked so ready for action as the photo shows them to be.

Similarly, two years ago, we re-equipped the schools' domestic science kitchen with new cooking utensils - a priority determined by the school. This is important for the pupils as it gives them a grounding that help gain them access to the national catering college - and into important tourist industry jobs.

Ready, Steady Cook - Sohm girls
at regional cooking finals
This year the Senior school got to the final of the regional schools' cooking competition. Unfortunately, they were disqualified from the final, for adding a Maggi cube (similar to Oxo etc) to the stock in their entry for "Preparing a National Dish".

A delicious dish - too much Maggi, however!
It was done in good faith, for as one of the girls said "Well, that's what we do at home!".

Great to see that small seeds sown in curriculum areas can bring such rich rewards two or three years afterwards, once the investment has had a chance to percolate through to the students learning, and wider performance and experience.

Quite apart from the skills enhancement these initiatives have brought, they have encouraged (in this case, all girls) to broaden their horizons and to participate in events beyond the confines of the village.  These social experiences are, in themselves, important for students living in relatively remote communities.

So, once again, many thanks to our donors and supporters for enabling us to facilitate these small, but important steps to improve the education and experience of the young people of Sohm

First Aid transformation

We are proud to have championed and facilitated a transformation in the First Aid provision in Sohm Lower Basic school over the last two years.

This article sets out how it has been undertaken and the spectacular results achieved.

Each year we sit down with the heads of the two schools in Sohm to determine their priorities for our funding them for the next twelve months. Last January a key project for the Lower Basic school was to reconstruct the dilapidated and non-functioning sick bay (see photos).

The way the sick bay was
... and from the outside
We got the head to provide costings for a complete refit that would: re-plaster and paint the walls, re-floor, provide a new door, two beds, a medicines cupboard and some limited other furniture - and curtains. The overall cost was out of our budget, but we found a funding formula that worked - see footnote for details.

So, we were able to give the project the go-ahead and ensure that the money was available for the refurb. Political uncertainties in the country held the project up for a while, but the work was complete by the time we revisited in February this year.

The school was able to proudly show us the results then.

We then worked with a local pharmacist and the first aider at the school to stock a secure medicine cupboard with necessary items (see photos).

.. and is now
A First Aid room/Sick Bay is vital at the school, where children can experience bouts of malaria, debilitating hunger pangs and the older girls experience menstruation for the first time. The medical facilities in the village are almost non-existent, apart from a couple of visiting clinics held every month or so.

Lamin - deputy head (far left), first aider,
 Malamin, head (blue shirt) with teacher and
 three pupils displaying early first aid kit,
 in refurbed sick bay/first aid room
For some time we have been following a UK charity First Aid 4 Gambia on Twitter (@FirstAid4Gambia - www.firstaid4gambia.org), and have been impressed with their work in the local education sector. So we contacted them to see if they could help take the Sohm project on to the next level.

They could - and responded remarkably quickly. For a small annual charge (well within our budget)they have undertaken to completely restock the medicine cabinet each year with appropriate provisions and to provide first aid training every two years for a dozen or so people nominated by the school's head.

The first training session took place within a month of us making the connection, and the results were spectacular - as the photos and comments show.

Head, Malamin Gibba opening the training session

Staff and community members at
 FirstAid4Gambia training session
The head and deputy head, together with the nominated first aider took part, as well as the head boy and head girls (a great move in our opinion), two parents/members of the community and seven teachers.

Community members dressing wounds
First Aid 4 Gambia declared the day a great success and the school was more than delighted with the outcome.

Head boy learning
respiratory techniques
This small initiative has not only up-skilled members of the school staff, but provided a huge boost to health provision within the whole community - all for £150!!

New first aid kit - courtesy of FirstAid4Gambia
The school head wrote to us:
So pleased with your effort in bringing this wonderful initiative to our school. We have all benefited from the training. Every teacher in the school is now a first aider.

Deputy head practices wound dressing,
 with head as the patient
The First Aid 4 Gambia trainer reported back to his charity that the training went well:
Monday 10 April 2017, New training course with supplies to the Sohm Lower Basic School at the Sohm Village West Coast Region.

Staff practising respiratory techniques
 14 participants received the training including the School Head Boy and The Head Girl respectively attended the training .The school is running a first aid centre which is well organised and clean, two beds in for temporal admission in case of any emergency.
The School First aider was also part of the workshop, along with 2 community members also joined the training. All the topics were briefly discussed which to my understanding was well received and their practicals were perfect too.

Head girl hard at work, using
 some of the training equipment
 FirstAid4Gambia brought to the day
All the participants were certified and the school was fully supplied. Though it was a long day, everything went successful.
On behalf of the School Mr Malamin Gibba the school Head  thanked the Charity for the gesture, as First Aid 4 Gambia have boosted them to a higher level in terms of first aid.

Some of the other equipment used on the day
 He said the community will also benefit from the supplies.
We would like to thank all of our supporters for helping us achieve this. It is quite an extraordinary achievement, made possible by goodwill, and partnership working across charities, with the fullest enthusiasm from the host community.

Deputy head, Lamin, practisng revival techniques

Footnote: The funding formula

The cost of the building work and refurbing the old sick room was in the region of £2,000. This is considerably out of our price range, but our Jersey partners in Sohm were able to persuade the Jersey Overseas Aid Commission to "match fund" our contribution to the cost. So, suddenly tour commitment was halved to £1,000.

The happy, first aid-certified training
attendees show their certificates
Bearing in mind that we are able to get 25% Gift Aid funding from the UK government for most of the money we raise from UK taxpayers in donations, it meant that we only needed to raise £800 from our donor/sponsors to fund our contribution and kick start this remarkable achievement.

April 2017 Newsletter: Getting bogged down in toilet matters

As we reported in our newsletter of October last year (see here), following a some dealings with Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochdale over the last few years, we decided to name a toilet block in the senior secondary school after him.

The ceremony was covered by the Mail-On-Line (see here for full details and below for some of it) in February this year, and we reproduce, below some of their extensive coverage.

We are delighted to say that these facilities are now up and running and much appreciated by the staff and students, alike, at Sohm Senior Secondary school.
Ok, we'll leave out the endless puns.

We are pleased to report that we "sold" the story to the Mail-On-line, through a news agency and that money received will help us fix more school toilets in the village.

For the coming year, the Lower Basic school in the village has asked us to refurbish their toilets - for boys, girls and staff.  The photos tell their own story of how much this restoration is needed.  These three tiny blocks provide toilets for over 400 students and 25 staff.

This year's funding project
They are clearly insanitary and, until March this year, were nowhere near running water.

The concrete bases of the blocks have cracked and the ground underneath the blocks are home to snakes - particularly in the rainy season in the country (summer and autumn), with the result that many pupils and staff, alike, refuse to use them.
Roof and doors blown off
 during rainy season
The school's request for assistance is modest. We are committed to working in partnership with our colleagues from Jersey to: restore and recent the concrete bases and erect new doors and roofs, where necessary.

Girls' toilet - snakes nest
below the concrete slab.
200 girls only toilet at the school
Fortunately, because of a water supply project the Jersey Overseas Aid Commission has funded, a new standpipe was erected close to these outside toilet blocks in March this year, to try and address some of the sanitary issues associated with them.

Roofless staff toilets
Given the success of the naming of the Simon Danczuk block, we would look sympathetically on bids to rename any of these three blocks after other people, in return for a suitable donation.  

Water now running near toilets,
 for better sanitation
We will of course be willing to supply photographs of the unveiling of the appropriately named facilities to any sponsor.  Just contact us at: John@SohmSchoolSupport.org.uk if you are interested in this nomination facility!
Whose name would you like to
 adorn this fine facility
- when renovated, of course!

Reporting back from a recent visit

I have just returned from a month in the Gambia (Sandra stayed at home with our new puppy)and can report on very considerable progress at both schools, which I will post details of over coming months.

 The headlines are:
  • After concerns about the political stability and personal safety in The Gambia following the disputed presidential election results of last December, all is calm in the country, as it looks forward to a new era;
Anti - Jammeh graffiti, widespread
 in The Gambia - making local feelings
 clear about the former president and tyrant
  • As promised in our newsletter of last October, we were able to officially open the new "Simon Danczuk Toilet Block", which gained press coverage in the UK. We will deal, in detail with this in our next newsletter;
  • Last year we funded the complete reconstruction of the Lower Basic school's First Aid room.  It now looks spectacular!  We will be posting details of this, and exciting forward plans for it, in a forthcoming newsletter;
Tee-shirt democracy - much in evidence
  • It is a similar good news story with the library that we were able to fund the restoration of in the Lower Basic school, again with exciting forward plans. We'll have photos and news of this in a future newsletter;
  • Our funded "Additional Classes" scheme in the senior school had a slightly disrupted start, because of the change of head at the school and the political instability in the country from November - February (see below). Those problems now seem to be ironed out and the scheme is back and successfully running on a firmer footing;
  • Our funding of equipment in specific curriculum areas in the senior school continues this year.  The school had a couple of spectacular successes over the last year, resulting from our previous equipment interventions - again, we'll provide fuller details in a forthcoming newsletter;
Local feelings made clear
  • We are continuing to sponsor a number of students in the village's senior school; some with excellent future prospects.  We are not, however, extending the scheme, as education is now free for all school students in the country.  We will be devoting our activities to whole school subject sponsorship initiatives in future - additional classes in the senior school and a trial homework club in the Lower Basic school. Once more - full details will be given in a later post;
  • For the future, we will be looking to restore the boys', girls' and staff toilets in the Lower Basic school.  We will provide details of the need and progress in addressing it, later in the year;
  • As a result of our ICT interventions in both schools, and because of better telecoms in the country, we will be sponsoring the installation of Wi-Fi hubs in both schools - so there will be good internet access for the first time. Again, we hope to report on progress, later in the year.
The medium is the message - Gambia style

Political climate and background

So much for the headlines. The more detailed aspect of this newsletter concerns the political climate in the country. Although this is, of course, completely outside of the control of this charity, it impacts directly on all those we hope to assist.

The Gambia is tiny (less than 2 million people) and is rarely news in the rest of West Africa, never mind in the West. What is reported in the UK is often garbled and incomplete, so we will attempt a brief, but fuller picture here.

The President of the Gambia for the last 22 years has been a corrupt, civil rights-abusing, brutal dictator, Yahya Jammeh. He lost the presidential election to an almost (even in The Gambia) unknown, Adama Barrow, in December last year.

Preparing for Barrow's inauguration,
which co-incided with Independence Day
Jammeh refused to accept the result. The surrounding West African states (known as Ecowas) played a key role in "persuading" him to go - including by amassing an armed force to ensure the election result was adhered to.

There was almost 3 months of instability (December - February), during which time Jammeh plundered the state's coffers and negotiated himself an exit (to Equatorial Guinea). He eventually left on 22 February, without a shot being fired in anger.

Hash tags abound - showing
 importance of social media in
 in the new Gambia
Adama Barrow was inaugurated as the new president on 18 March, amid much jubilation. Barrow is best, if at all, known in the UK as having worked as a security guard for Argos in Islington. Correct - but he was doing so when a student in the UK, as a means of paying his way through college.

He heads a coalition administration, with a very difficult job. The state coffers have been depleted and there are few people in positions of power in civic society, or the military who are not in some way tainted by their association with his predecessor.

Half the country have known nothing
 but Jammeh misrule - and
 are keen for change
So, the task ahead is a difficult one and it is far too early to indicate whether the new regime will be up for it.  But, the early signs are good.
  • The Gambian people are delighted with the change, as a few of these randomly photographed revellers indicate;
  • The Ecowas states are providing material assistance in helping the country's reconstruction;
  • The Gambia will be rejoining the Commonwealth, three years after Jammeh stormed out - and Boris Johnson flew to the country to discuss the process (see photo of him, at a beach bar we like to frequent);
Boris Johnson with Gambians at
the Calypso Bar, Cape Point, the day
 before the presidential inauguration
  • The country will be rejoining the International Criminal Court, after Jammeh flounced out, following criticism of his regime;
  • The country will drop the words "Islamic Republic" from the country's full name, which Jammeh had inserted as he ingratiated himself with the Saudis;
  • There is a fund of international goodwill for the new Gambia; and the EU has offered to restore Grant Aid to the country, for very specific and agreed projects, two years after having stopped aiding the country because of Jammeh's behaviour;
  • Barrow has said that he wants The Gambia to become a beacon of human rights in Africa, after the oppression of Jammeh.  Easy words, perhaps, but the gay-friendly article in the newspaper clipping below is a very bold step in that direction in a region of the world usually hostile to gay rights.
Western educated Barrow showing
 liberal attitude to gay rights -
uncommon in the region

As we say, these are early days, but we hope they will provide a peaceful and more prosperous political background for the people of the country, and in particular for those in the village of Sohm and their students.

Best post yet! - Partnership in action at the Lower Basic

This is our proudest post to date - and a testimony to true partnership bringing real rewards.

As regular readers will know, each year we attempt to fund a number of projects at both the Senior Secondary school and Lower Basic (primary) school, in Sohm - in addition to our sponsorship of a number of students and the supply of large quantities of stationery for students' use.

Library before(1) - termite infestation

This year we had two major projects at the Lower Basic school - the complete refurbishment of both the school library and of its sick room - from which up to 400 pupils could benefit.

We have just received photos of the library project - and were are bursting at the seams with pride.

The library was an unused wreck. It was termite ridden and no more than a depository for a bunch of books, and other stuff that staff didn't know where to place - see some of the 'before' photos.

Library before (2) - piles of clutter
 everywhere in an unused room

Working with the head and deputy, we identified its refurbishment as a priority - which we said we would fund.

Step 1. The school staff got competitive quotes to: eradicate the termites and cover the flooring and lower walls with termite-proof materials; and fix the walls and windows.  They would also arrange for quotes for shelving and tables and chairs.

Library before (3) - glass-less windows and
 a gap between roof and walls - but at least
 there was light (provided by SSS in 2015!)
Step 2. Establishing the cost. The total quote came to a little over £2,500. We don't have that kind of money - but look, below, at how we could find it.

Step 3. Getting some organisation into the library books the school already had (piles of books donated by other donors but never sorted or used). Sandra and John, with the head and deputy head, spent a couple of days on hands and knees - in searing heat - sorting the books out in January this year, and ditched or moved on many that were unsuitable for the school and arranged some sensible order for the remainder.

Step 4. Finding the money.

Step 5. Negotiating on the prices we were given and getting the figure to a comfortable £2k - that we thought we could find.

Step 6. Signing off the contracts and drip feeding the money.

Library after (1) - a working room, and
 pride of the deputy head and senior teacher

Village labour was used throughout (including building book cases etc). It was a local project which benefited local people, both financially and educationally. And the pride shines through.

Result: a thriving, well-used - just look at those photos - local resource.

We will be looking to build on this next year, by funding a regular 'home work club' in the library for those who find working in cramped ill-lit conditions at home difficult.

What has been achieved

A previously unused room is now a resource used by every class in the school for at least one period a week. We and the head wanted to use the facility to help deliver a 'reading habit' among the youngsters. We are some way down that difficult road now.

Library after (2) - good furniture, excellent
termite-proofed floors, books well
 displayed and avid readers
Just look at these photos (obviously not professional, or particularly posed for). We are delighted, beyond belief.

Finding the money

We are a small charity, entirely dependent on fund raising, overwhelmingly from family and friends.

But, we are resourceful.  A little over £800 of direct donations have paid for what these wonderful photos show.

Here's how:

We claimed gift aid on the £800, from the government - which turned the sum into £1,000 (thank you Mr Osborne - former Chancellor).

As regular readers know, we work very closely with friends from Jersey in Sohm. They were able to use an initiative of Jersey Overseas Aid to 'Match fund' the £1,000 we were able to find.

Library after (3) - a PC in action!
(courtesy of Little Heath school),
as a former dump becomes a
21st century resource centre
Local Sohm labour and enthusiasm for the project kept the price to a very modest one which fell within our budget.

Other factors - it all adds up

Then there are the other factors.  Our 'Lower Basic' project last year was to provide electricity to the whole school.  So, this unused library was already wired up.

Our friends at Little Heath school in Ilford provided us with surplus computers and related equipment last year, so the school was able to install one in the library, as a resource for teachers.  We could only get the equipment to Sohm because of free container space provided by our friends at Football Gambia.

And... so the story goes on.  Lots of people making small gestures - well-co-ordinated - can make a huge difference to young African lives.

We know lots of corruption and inappropriate expenditure follows the aid sector around the world.  But, please believe - it does not have to be like that, when small organisations, work on the ground with local people - BIG changes can happen at amazingly good prices.

Obviously, we'd like you to send us more money, so that we can carry on in similar fashion in the future.

But more importantly, we'd like to to leave this blog truly believing that well targerted aid changes lives; don't let the cynics persuade you otherwise.