What the Sukuta project involves

Our previous article, below, gave the background to how SSS became involved with, and is fronting, the renovation of the largest Lower Basic (primary) school – Sukuta – in The Gambia. This blog focuses on what the plans are, and what we hope to deliver within eighteen months.

Based on discussions with the school leadership and the regional director of education, we drew up a list of the priorities that would renovate the school and make it fit for the 2020s. These are:

 We will double the school's water storage capacity via solar-power

  

There is no piped water at the school. The supply comes from a well, it is too small. We will double its capacity.


As a rseult, we will increase the number of water standpipes from one to eight, locating them next to toilets, the food serving area and sick room

  

There is currently only one standpipe in the school, to serve 2,000 children. We will be increase this to eight, placing them near toilets, food serving areas and the new sick room  

We will completely rebuild the unhealthy and unsafe toilet blocks

  
The toilets at the school are unsafe, insanitary and unhygenic. The Sukuta renovation project will rectify this.
 
We will build and furnish the school’s first sick room, training staff in first aid skills 
 
  
There is no sick room for 2,000 students at Sukuta, but there is a space just ready to install one!
 
 
 This is the sick room we resored in Sohm. We plan to build and equip a facility like this in Sukuta, for the first time. 
 
We will restore the school's termite-ridden and unusable library
 
  
Infested and unusable library in Sukuta - 2,000 students denied access 
 
 The library in Sohm was in a similar position, before we restored it. We will repeat this in Sukuta 
 
We will extend the schools inadequate computer room

  
 
The computer room is well equipped, but too small for all pupils to gain access each week 
 
  
We will extend it to the pillars. The photo shows builders in discussion with school staff and education director  
 
We will give the providers of school meals shelter and water
 
Children get their lunch-time meals from (overwhelmingly female) vendors who sell very basic (bread or rice-based) food in the school grounds. There is no adequate shelter for either the women or the food and no running water to use in its preparation or for the children to wash.  Sheltered accommodation, with a water supply, will be provided for the women and children.
 
 

Our funding proposals to date, will pay for all of the above

There are, however, two outstanding elements of the nine-part project for which funding has yet to be identified.  We will seek the money this over the next few months,  so that all aspects of the project can be completed in one construction exercise. The unfunded elements are:


Refurbish and make fit-for-purpose the existing, but unfit, school hall
 
 
  
This is the dilapidated school hall, which is out of commission. We hope to be able to fund its restoration 
 
  
Because there is no hall, all large meetings take place outside. This is a meeting of the PTA, convened to consult on the school renovation project.
 
 
 This is the hall we built in Sohm, that now acts as an assembly hall, gym, meeting centre, performance area, prayer room and the main village hall
 
Establish the school's first staff room 
 
There is a disused classroom and storage area that with a little adaptation could be transformed into the school's first staffroom, for its 70 plus teaching staff. It is our aim to fund this 

All of our proposals have been put to the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, the school’s governors and its PTA, and they have been enthusiastically endorsed. The food vendors have been consulted and are delighted by them and will be involved in their design and layout of their new area.

Getting the band back together

Having defined the scope of the project, we obtained quotes from the construction company- Future in Our Hands - that we have worked with successfully in a variety of building projects in Sohm. It began as a Swedish NGO dedicated to training Gambian people in construction skills. It has gradually emerged to become a building company, jointly Swedish and Gambian managed, that operates almost exclusively in the not-for-profit sector, with an on-going commitment to train local labour in building skills.

In all of our dealings with them, to date, they have provided a high standard of work, to spec, on time and on budget.

We are confident that working with Lamin Saidy, the former deputy head at Sohm and now at Sukuta and the construction company that delivered in Sohm that we will be getting the band back together to deliver the renovation of The Gambia’s largest primary school, over the next eighteen months.

The third article of this three-parter on Sukuta, to appear in two weeks, will explain how we have managed to fund this major and exciting project.

 

Next: renovating the Gambia’s largest primary school!

A couple of years ago we had raised the funds to commission our most ambitious project in Sohm, the building of the new school hall, and felt that once it was complete, we could switch off our charity’s fund-raising engine, take the hand break off and slowly cruise down-hill in future years at the Lower Basic school.

And so, on time, budget and target, a year later, the multi-function hall (assembly, gym, dining room, prayer room, village meeting room etc.) was opened, with much local fanfare and celebration. We felt very pleased – bordering on smug - at the achievement.

  

New hall at Sohm - ourmost successful project - to date!

But something was missing. It was our key contact at the school, with whom we had worked successfully on all of our other projects over the years: bringing electricity to the school, renovating the teachers’ accommodation, rebuilding dangerous and unhealthy toilets, restoring a library made unusable by the ravages of termites, renovating a broken six-classroom block, adding water standpipes, building a new sick room and providing PCs and stationery each year etc.

Lamin Saidy, the ever-reliable, unassuming but determined deputy head teacher and rock upon which our efforts had depended was not there to celebrate the hall opening, because he was busy in his new job. The Gambian education authorities had spotted his talents and transferred him to become deputy head teacher in the country’s largest primary school – with over 2,000 pupils. It was a great move for Lamin: promotion and fresh challenges in a less isolated location.

  

Lamin Saidy, ex-deputy head at Sohm, now at Sukuta

But it wasn’t all positive. He must have groaned when he saw the state of the place. Like Sohm Lower Basic, his new school in Sukuta was about forty years old and had suffered neglect, due to lack of funding from incompetent/corrupt governments for most of that period. The same deficiencies were obvious: insufficient water storage and standpipes, dangerously unhealthy toilets, a lack of safe eating area for children’s lunches, a library made inoperable because of termite attacks and cramped accommodation.

In some ways it was worse. There was no sick room in a school with 2,000 youngsters, many of whom were undernourished and would suffer fainting episodes in the sweltering heat, others who faced regular bouts of malaria, older girls with nowhere to go when menstruating for the first time. Never mind the lack of facilities to deal with the scrapes, cuts and bruises that would attend normal playground accidents for any large group of children aged 4 – 12.

  

No sick room at Sukuta - but there is a space crying out for one to be built in it!

The school hall was structurally damaged and out of bounds and there was no hygienic area in which to serve school meals, nor a staff room for a school with over 70 staff. The school was lucky in some respects, another UK charity had supplied it with a number of perfectly serviceable computers, but the only secure and relatively dust-free room was too small to accommodate them all. Children missed out on ICT lessons, not through lack of equipment, but due to a lack of appropriate accommodation.

To be fair to the new (three years old) government in The Gambia, they have begun to address the infrastructural neglect of the country’s education system. But they face a dilemma with an inevitably limited budget: repair the damaged buildings of the past, or build for the future? The country, in common with most of Africa, has a young population with an ever-increasing demand for school places. The government cannot afford to both renovate and build for the future. For wholly understandable reasons, they have largely embarked on the latter. So long-time neglect will continue to be evident, as priority spending is focused on the new build.

  

Dilemma for government: restore old facilities, like damaged water suppy (foreground), or build for future with new classrooms (background)?

We visited Lamin in his new school and he and the head gave us a guided tour. It was déjà vu on the dilapidation front and almost dispiriting.

Back in the UK, almost out of the blue, Rotarian friends of ours began to sow seeds. Why not apply to Rotary international, and see if funds can be forthcoming to help at Sukuta?

The seeds germinated during the lock-down period of COVID – in The Gambia and UK - and a year later the first signs of healthy growth are evident, as we embark on a complete renovation of the largest primary school in The Gambia – at a cost of £60,000!

  

The only library in the school of 2,000 pupils is out of use because of termite infestation

Most of the pieces of the financial and organisational jigsaw are in now in place as we hope to launch the project in the summer and complete the transformation of the school within twelve months.

To return to the motoring metaphor, the fund-raising engine has been re-ignited and we have embarked on a long journey with a few bumps on the way.

  

School lunches provided by local women from stalls without access to water or shelter - breeds disease

This is the first of three fortnightly blogs on the Sukuta project – so watch out for further installments explaining what the project involves and how we have arranged (most of!) the funding for it.

And finally, in this mini-series, we will provide a fourth blog: “Not forgetting Sohm”, explaining how we have continued to support the Lower Basic School in the village that first inspired the establishment of our charity.

 

Schools' back for winter

Schools in the Gambia returned 10 days ago after a lock-down in the country endured since March. And we, and they, have been very busy since!

First, a bit of bad news - but don't give up, the rest of the newsletter is very positive!

Summer in The Gambia is the rainy season, with torrential rainfall, often lasting many days. So, not surpringly, there are not many tourists (even in a good year) from May till September. This year's season was particularly savage, and it found a victim in the Sohm Lower Basic school. The sick room which many of you generously contributed towards refurbishing three years ago, had its roof blown off one night, and rendered unusable.  Everything in it was destroyed - and the photo below shows why.

Storm damage to sick room

We are seeking quotes not just for its refurbishment, but for that of the whole block in which it sits. All being well, we and our partners from Jersey are hoping to find funding for it, so that we can refurb the whole block next summer.

In the meantime, we will be using the deputy head's office (sorry Mamodou!) as an interim measure and we bought a new bed for the room last week - see photo.

Our friends from First Aid 4 Gambia (FA4G) have been good enough to replace the wrecked first aid supplies. So, bad as the storm damage was, we have been able to salvage a temporay solution and hopefully a longer term benefit from the wreckage.

New bed in its temporary home 
- the deputy head's former office!

As we said in our last newsletter in September, The Gambia has been relatively lightly hit by COVID (nationally, only 120 registered COVID-related deaths in total over the 8 months). The country has been very strict on preventative measures - schools closed, full lockdowns, night-time curfews etc. The government, nervously, sanctioned the return of schools after what was both the English and  Gambian half term, last week.

Social distancing is strictly adhered to in the country, and is maintained as the children have returned to school - see below. 

Pupils observing social distancing on return from lockdown
 
  
Staff observing social distancing on return from lockdown

Our good friends from First Aid 4 Gambia were able to get a consignment of hand sanitiser and visors to the country, and we were able to purchase a small quanity, at cost, for use in the school. Thanks to an anonymous donor for funding this and to FA4G for letting us have the supplies.

Pupils modelling visors, masks and hand sanitiser,
 supplied by our friends at First Aid 4 Gambia
 
  
Head and deputy head wearing FA4G-supplied visors

Meanwhile, the Scottish-based FA4G are trialling a new training course, and such is our close relationship with them that they chose Sohm Lower Basic to launch it on Monday.The photos we have been sent are very gratifying. You will note that it took place in the shiny new hall we opened in January, with the chairs that so many of you funded, stacked and moved out of the way for the course!

Trainer demonstrating CPR on the course
 

Staff practising CPR on the course
 
 
Never too young to learn - one of the teachers 
takes her youngster with her to the course! 

The school staff are delighted, all passed the course and they remain the most medically-qualified people in the village!

Certificate awarded for passing course

 All sixteen attendees displaying thier certificates of First Aid competence

 Huge project on the horizon

Lamin Saidy, the former deputy-head of Sohm Lower Basic school, with whom we have worked so closely to deliver so much at the school was, unsurprisingly, promoted last summer to become deputy head at Sukuta Lower Basic school. This is the largest primary school in the country - with 2,000 pupils. 

Following 40- years of neglect at the school, during most of which time the former president had some difficulty in distinguishing between his back-pocket and the schools' refurbishment budget, precsiely the same issues have emerged at the school as we found when we first got involved with Sohm. He found: a poor water supply, insanitary toilets, lack of a serviceable hall, no first aid room etc.

He, I and the building contractor we used in Sohm put together a detailed spec and estimate for carrying out the necessary work. I was on the point of returning to The Gambia in the first week of April on a fact-finding mission with some key Rotary International officials. 

We had lined up meetings with the permanent secretary at the ministry of education, the regional education director, three Gambian rotary clubs, trips to the schools (Sukuta and Sohm - the latter to see what we had done, at a similar price), with a view to applying for a large Rotary International grant.

The COVID lockdown intervened, just a week before we were due to fly out. The initiative was put on the back burner. It is now being revived and strengthened by the fact that my local Rotary club in London (Redbridge) has twinned with a club in Slovenia, who wish to be involved. So, we are gradually knitting together a truly international team which, hopefully, can do in a year for a school five times larger than Sohm, what it has taken us five years to achieve in Sohm. Watch this space for updates!

Wish us well!  Beware - a begging bowl may come out soon, to help fund the project!

We hope this newsletter finds you as well as it leaves us, as this dreadful pandemic drags on without apparent end in sight.

Sohm schools and COVID

It's September and the schools are returning in England, rather gingerly.  So, what, we are often asked, is happening in Sohm?

Like the UK, The Gambia went into lockdown in March, and all schools were closed - but they have yet to open again.

The pandemic seems to have hit the country less badly than most others. Until about a month ago there had only been two recorded deaths, nation-wide and the infection rate seemed to be low.

The government publishes a simple daily summary of the situation with regard to COVID, like today's - below. It is easy to see what is happening, at-a-glance, and we have heard no suggestion from anybody that the government is lying, or making claims and promises it can't keep.

 

The Gambian government's simple daily message on COVID - not "World Beating", not "Moonshoting", but simple, honest and clear

A little over a month ago, there was a sudden surge of deaths and the total number shot up rather rapidly, from two to the seventies.  The government responded by extending the lockdown and introducing a dusk til dawn curfew. The death rate began to drop quite dramatically and there have only been two deaths in the last week.

Which is great news!  Because the medical infrastructure in the country is fragile  and it could not cope with a large infection rate.

To put the total Gambian death figure into context, we live in a London borough with one sixth the population of the whole of The Gambia, but we have experienced over three times the total number of deaths - suggesting that things in London have been 18 times worse than The Gambian's situation.

Which brings us back to The Gambian schools. They should be on the point of re-opening, but they will not be doing so.  The government is working on a number of options - one is to open schools six days a week, for extended days, with all pupils attending on alternate days.  There are a number of problems, of course - not the least the impact this would have on the teachers. 

Gambian TV and radio have been used as teaching substitutes over the last six months, but few families - particularly in Sohm have TVs. And, obviously it would be counter-productive if people without TVs crammed into the houses of people with them. The education situation is far from ideal.

When we visited the country, pre-lock-down, in January we took a gift from the wonderfully supportive Redbridge Rotary Club. A fellow Rotarian, from Australia, had developed/invented a simple device called a Spa-Tap, as an aid to personal hygiene. Redbridge Rotary purchased a number of these and we took 30 to The Gambia with us.

A Spa Tap device

it's a simple tough plastic valve that can be attached to a 2-litre water bottle, filled with tap water. Easily-applied pressure opens and closes the valve to allow water to flow, which can be used for hand washing and even showers. 

We took them to two schools, so that the bottles could be filled from stand-pumps  and students, on a "monitor" basis, could take them to the toilets - where there is no running water, to enable users to wash their hands after visting the facility.

Collecting empty bottles for Spa taps

Little did we know that hand-washing would attract so much attention and exhaltation just a month later, when COVID first entered our conciousness.

The regional director of education, headmaster and his deputy and a local Iman giving their backing to the Spa Tap

We hope the Redbrige-Rotary funded 30 taps have done their bit to keep COVID at bay in Sohm! 

And the kids get a look in too - including two rather large ones from the UK! 

And finally - the good news!
 
One piece of very good news on the health front concerns Robin Mallet, founder, with his wife Carol, of our Jersey-based partners in The Gambia - The Jersey Gambia Schools Trust. Last November he was diagnosed with tounge and throat cancer. Now - after nine months of surgery and intensive treatment - he has been declared cancer-free. He can't wait to get his sleeves rolled up and to be back in action on bealf of the children of Sohm.  Well done, Robin!

 

Sohm 2020 project completed!







Thanks to one and all of our supporters


In 2018 we launched our Sohm 2020 project, to replace a derelict dining hall in the Lower Basic school, with a multi-purpose hall - within two years.

We have succeeded: raised the funds, demolished the old hall and seen the new one completed!

We would like to thank our supporters, particularly Beech Hill school, Luton and the Redbridge Rotary Club for helping us fund the project.


The condemned, unfit, building above
 is the ramshackled one we have replaced

The new one can now act as: dining and assembly hall, gym, prayer and meeting room, and community area for the village.

With your help, through our 'sponsor a chair' scheme, we have been able to furnish the hall with almost 400 stackable chairs and dozens of tables - to enable the hall to be multi-functional.


The sponsor a chair scheme has
helped us furnish the new hall

Dozens of you contributed. For just £25 you were able to "Make a name for yourself" in Africa - and have a chair named after a loved one or inspirational figure for the African youngsters in the school.

We posted a "Scroll of Honour" in the hall, with the names of the chairs and why the people should be inspirational to the pupils.


Scroll of Honour - listing the names on the
 chairs, and the importance of that person

The new building is magnificent and was completed by local labour, using largely local materials.


The magnificent new hall

It was built: on time, to spec and on budget.  It has: electricity, running water and glass windows, that the old building did not.

Because the fencing around the school perimeter is now secure, the school community is now able to cultivate crops within the grounds, which can be cooked in the new kitchen - part of the hall complex - and help improve the diet of the children and encourage more local self-sufficiency.


Cultivating the crops in the school grounds,
 for use in the hall's new kitchen, better food
 for the children and a step towards self-sufficiency

The school and village are delighted with the building and came out in their hundreds, to the "official" opening in January 2020.

The village came out in there hundreds, to
welcome and accompany us on the way to the
hall on the day of the "official opening"

The village elders came out in force, to greet
 and thank us for your efforts in funding the new hall


The village grandees, out in force,
to "open" the hall, for the first time

The dancing and partying, to welcome
the opening went on for hours!

The children sang and performed for
us - to express their thanks

70 orange trees were planted in the school grounds to celebrate the opening.


Orange tree planting -
to celebrate the opening



The Director of Education (centre - yellow top)
visited and expressed his gratitude for the hall


The Regional Director of Education visited the new hall and was delighted with what he said; adding his voice to that of the local community in saying:


Thank you, one and all, for improving the lives of 400 African children

And ... the children were delighted!
If you would like to sponsor a chair (yes, there are still some available for this!)they are £25 each.  Just send us the name you would like on the chair, and a few words about the person to include on the "Scroll of Honour".

Bank: Santander.
A/c name: UK Sohm Seccondary School (The Gambia)
Sort: 090128
A/c no.: 04453414

e.mail: John@SohmSchoolsSupport.org.uk