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.

October 2016 newsletter - Big changes at Sohm

Farewell Ismaila

Ismaila Sambou, principal of Sohm's senior secondary school for the last seven years, is moving on to new pastures - having been appointed to a vice-principal's post at a larger urban school, nearer his family home.

Ismaila has overseen huge changes at the school:  a more than doubling of its roll and a considerable increase and upgrading of its accommodation, the introduction of mains electricity, being the most obvious.

Sohm Senior Secondary school
 principal leaves for pastures new

We have worked with Ismaila to equip the school with: computers, science and sporting equipment, enough course books to ensure that all pupils have access to a shared text book for all subjects, and stationery to meet their needs, twenty bikes to help students with long journeys to school, to name but a few.

The big task for the new principal will be to oversee a considerable improvement in the academic performance of the students.  Our funding of out-of-school remedial classes, available for all students in English and Maths, will go some way to addressing this issue.

We believe all the building blocks are now in place to a see considerable take-off in examination results and pupil attainment  - under the right school leadership.

We would like to take this opportunity of wishing Ismaila all the best in this next, exciting, stage in his career.

Remedial class progress

As we have noted, we have funded remedial out-of-school classes accessible to all the senior secondary school students in English and Maths, since March this year.

We have now had an opportunity to review their progress and impact.

The good news is that the classes have taken place with pretty good attendance rates.  All but one of our sponsored students has achieved an 80% plus attendance rate.  The rate for the school, overall, has been around 70% - for this voluntary activity.

On balance, reasonable progress being
 made with remedial classes.  We look
 forward to improvement with the new principal

The bad news is that the largest cause of disappointment has been with year 10 students (15 - 16 years!) - whose attendance rates have bobbled around a disappointing 50%. We have not had a satisfactory explanation for this, or what steps are being taken to address this poor rate.  Overall, the administration of the scheme has left, somewhat frustratingly, much to be desired.

This will be top of our priorities to address with the new principal.  We will, of course, keep you updated with progress on this, our most ambitious and expensive initiative at the school.

New library, refurbished sick room

As we have previously reported, this year we have paid for the refurbishment of the sick room and library at the Lower Basic (primary) school.

We understand that the work has been completed and that the facilities are now in full use, now that the new school year is underway.  We look forward to posting photos of these two great new facilities in use, when we next visit the country, in the new year.

Hopefully, we'll be paying for a homework
 club in the Lower Basic school's newly
 refurbished library, from early 2017

All being well, we hope to be able to fund and after school homework club in the much improved  library, for those pupils who are unable to study at home.

Doing a Danczuk

Some readers/site visitors to this site may know that John has been in dispute with Rochdale MP, Simon Danczuk, for the last three years over copyright/plagiarism issues around his book, Smile for the Camera, which claimed to expose his predecessor as MP, Cyril Smith's, sexual abuse of young men in and around Rochdale.

John always made it clear to Danczuk that any payments made to him for his work on the highly successful book would be donated to this charity - and find its way to Sohm. We said that if the donation were significant enough that we could ensure that a facility at one of the schools would be named after him: say the "Simon Danczuk ICT suite", or "Simon Danczuk science laboratory".
Danczuk consistently refused to make a donation. 

Eventually we challenged his publisher, Backbite, over copyright issues.  They, reluctantly, made a donation of £250 - which is now with this charity.

Reluctant donation from this book's
 publishers will pay for the
 "Simon Danczuk toilet block"

True to our word, we will put the money towards refurbishing a toilet block at one of the schools, and have the facility named "The Simon Danczuk toilet". In all the circumstances, we feel that this is an appropriate name.

It will, after all, give an appropriate meaning in The Gambia, at least to the notion of "Going for a Danczuk". We will post a photo of the suitably named facility, when we next visit the country.

In keeping with the Danczuks predilection for selling photos of themselves, we will happily send photos of pupils "on their way to doing a Danczuk", for an appropriate donation.  Just let us know!

And finally ...

All is going reasonably well in our annual fund-raising drive (we aim to take around £5,000 to Sohm each year). But, there is a bit of Brexit fall-out to deal with.

The slide in the value of the £, means that we will get around 10% less with our money in The Gambia, when we visit in 2017.
Forget Marmite - remember Gambian kids
 So, we will need to raise 10% more this year, or the kids in Sohm will suffer.

Our message: Forget Marmite, remember the Gambian kids!

End of term report - summer 2016

Schools' out for summer - in the Gambia, just as it is here in the U.K. So, it's time for the dreaded end of term report.

Lower Basic - library refurb

As we have mentioned in previous blogs, our main projects as far as the Lower Basic (primary) school in Sohm this year have been to pay for the complete restoration of the school's library and its sick room.

The former has been out of effective use - other than as a store room - for about three years, because it has suffered from termite infestation. With our friends from Jersey, we have paid for the removal of the termites and for new sealed - termite-resistant flooring and treatment for the walls of the room.

Library termites: out! A new refurbed library
 will be up and running from September

This was completed by the end of April and we are pleased to report that the termites have not revisited since! Our grant also paid for a new door and windows, in an effort to resist the forward advance of the little pests. These, too, seem to have done the trick.

So, the room is now being re-equipped with new book cases and chairs.

Having sorted out the books earlier this year, and disposed of the termite infested ones, the school is now re-arranging the them on the shelves, ready for use in the new school year.

The library will be back in full operation from September; with each class in the school having a weekly visit to the library, in an effort to encourage "the reading habit".  

Our initiative last year, in providing electrical wiring for the whole school and donating a number of computers, means that the library will be well-equipped in September for books' study, and perhaps some early computer education.

We will next be in The Gambia in January 2017. It is our intention to discuss paying for the  running an after school 'homework club' in the library, open a couple of hours of each evening - courtesy of the donations we receive from our supporters.  
Accommodation conditions like this make home
 study difficult; so we will discuss paying for
 homework clubs, after school, in the library,next year

Many of the children find it almost impossible to do school work at home, because the poor and over-crowded state of their living accommodation, lack of lighting, privacy, quietness etc.

There is, however, the slightly trickier cultural issue to consider.  Many of the children at this primary school are expected to work at home, or in the fields, as soon as they get back from school in the afternoon.  We will need to have discussions with parents about this and try and find a solution that assists the educational opportunities of their children and not clash with home demands.

Wish us luck!

Lower Basic - refurb sick room

Work is, similarly, at a very advanced stage of rebuilding and re-equipping the school's sick room.  This has been in a bad state for at least three years.  A functioning sick room is essential in a school like this, where children are prone to recurring bouts of malaria and the parents cannot be easily contacted to come and assist them readily.

Inside the out-of-use sick room.
 Now completely refurbished,
 ready for a new school year
So, come the start of the new term, in September, the building work will be finished, complete with re-plastered walls, re-flooring and new windows and doors. There will be a new bed and table and chairs and medicines cabinet.

Although we wish none of the children ill, they will, at least, from September have a comfortable place to relax/recover in the event of any unpleasant bots of sickness.

Senior secondary school - remedial classes

As we have reported before, the senior school has made great strides in most curriculum areas and exam performances since we became involved with it, five years ago.

The most serious area needing attention has been poor performance, across the whole school, in both English and maths.  To address this, earlier this year, with our colleagues from Jersey, we agreed to fund our most expensive and ambitious initiative to date.

We are paying for one additional hour's teaching of both English and maths for all pupils in every class in each year, on a trial basis.

75% plus attendance rates in remedial
 classes across almost the whole school

We have just received the initial results of the trial, and it seems to be progressing well - after a shaky start.

The attendance rates, across the whole school, are above 75% for this voluntary activity for all years, apart from 10 (16 year olds). 

It has been difficult to get meaningful feedback on the impact on the educational standards of the students concerned (no public exam results in yet, no face to face conversations with students or teachers etc).

We are pleased to announce that all students sponsored by our supporters have achieved an 80% plus attendance rate.

Its early days, but the signs look good.  We will need to have further discussions with a number of partners over the coming weeks before deciding whether to extend this (for us) expensive scheme in the new year.  

We will also have to consider how to deal with the poor year 10 attendance - but it is 16 year olds we are talking about!

We need to be convinced we are getting good value for your money, before extending the trial.

We'll keep you informed of progress.

Brexit - unforeseen consequence

It's not the role of this site, or charity, to comment on the recent  referendum decision of the British people to leave the European Union. There has, however, been one unintended consequence that impacts on us, and those we are attempting to support in The Gambia.

The £ - Delasi exchange rate has deteriorated by about 10% since the referendum; meaning we need to raise 10% more, in donations, to compensate and continue with our ambitious plans for the future.
You support would be of great assistance!

John and Sandra

April 2016 - huge leaps forward

Our recent post gave details of the achievements at the Sohm Schools over the last year, following our interventions in January 2015.

This time, we are focusing on what we arranged during our annual visit this year, and the progress that is already being made over the last six weeks or so since we have returned from The Gambia.

But first - a huge expression of thanks to Redbridge Rotary club. Following an introduction to the club by a near neighbour last autumn, we gave a presentation to the club in January, a couple of days before our annual trip to west Africa. 

Huge thanks to Redbridge Rotary club
 for generous £250 donation
 - it will be well spent!

It was well received, and the members really seemed to appreciate what working at grass roots level, in international development, can do.  They particularly liked the accountability and regular updates and progress that we are able to provide about our activities in Sohm.

Imagine our delight, when last week we received a £250 donation from the club for future activities in Sohm! Thank you, one and all.  We promise to come back and provide reports on what has happened to your donation - whenever you invite us!

ICT lessons for ALL students at the senior secondary
 school for the first time, this year, thanks to
 donation from SSS and Little Heath school, Redbridge

As we have tried to show on this blog, each year we fund projects at each of the two schools.  These are agreed with the schools' heads (drawing on their priorities) and are usually cleared with the regional director of education and implemented in conjunction with the schools'governors, parents and staff.

Previous interventions have: provided stationery for all students in both schools each year, fully equipped an ICT suite in the senior school, provided sporting equipment to both schools, run school trips for students at the Lower Basic school, provided and repaired bicycles for students who have long journeys to school in searing heat.

Our biggest intervention to date - three years ago - was to provide enough textbooks to the Senior Secondary school to ensure that all students had access to a key text book in all subjects they are taught.

Over the last five years we have also, provided teacher training days for all staff in both schools, refurbed the staff accommodation at the Lower Basic school, provided mains electricity to the Lower Basic school and teachers' quarters. We have re-equipped the cookery classroom at the Senior Secondary school and added stock to the libraries at both schools.

Electricity supply to whole of Lower Basic
 school and teachers accommodation, for the
 first time, thanks to SSS - and your - support
 and donations.
Probably wouldn't satisfy UK electricity regs!

All of this has been done in addition to sponsoring the education of a dozen or so of the most needy pupils in Sohm.

This year we have initiated some of our most dramatic interventions, described below.  They have been more ambitious than some of our previous initiatives, but we have been able to weave a partnership together with our colleagues from Jersey and the Jersey Overseas Aid Commission, who between them, have provided over half the funding for the projects we have initiated.

Firstly, at the Senior Secondary school. There has been a gradual rise in public examination performance, and school inspection ratings each year since we have been involved with the Sohm schools. 

However, the glaring omission has been the inability of the students and schools to significantly improve examination results and performance in the key subjects of Maths and English. This is a MAJOR issue. To be frank, it is a problem nation-wide.

The excitement of games lessons will soon
 be enhanced a an hour a week's remedial
classes in both English and Maths for all
 secondary school students!

So, in January we worked long and hard with the staff at the senior school and have arranged for a well monitored and evaluated scheme whereby we - with our colleagues from Jersey - will fund the provision of one hour's remedial English and one hour's maths for ALL students at the secondary school, every week of the school year.

See how delighted some of the
 students are at the prospect!

We have allocated enough funds to pay for this for an academic year - subject to termly break-monitoring clauses. We are hopeful this will have a dramatic impact - over the years.  The early signs, from independent feedback we are getting, are that the scheme is working well.

As far as the Lower Basic school is concerned, we have - with our colleagues from Jersey - initiated a complete refurbishment of the library (it is currently out of use because of severe termite infestation).

The termites will be eradicated with new flooring and appropriate deterrent treatment.  We began the process of re-arranging the library stock when we were at the school, and from September, the school will have a member of staff dedicated to running the facility.  

This termite-ridden and out of commission Lower
 Basic school library will be a valuable education
 resource centre and library to be used by ALL Lower
 Basic school students, from September, thanks to
 SSS - and your - funding and support

New library furniture (including 3 dozen chairs and book cases) will be provided by our initiative and all pupils will have weekly sessions in the library, to encourage the "reading for pleasure" habit.

Early reports suggest that the building work is well under way. If things go according to schedule, we hope to have the library re-opened in September and for a couple of computers to be installed (from a donation from Little Heath school, Redbridge, last year). 

For the future, we are hoping to be able to sponsor a homework club in the library for pupils who do not get sufficient support and encouragement at home.

We are also funding the complete refurbishment of the school's sick room.

This will be a completely refurbished and
 functioning sick room in September, thanks to
 SSS - and your - intervention and funding

This is also currently out of use, as its equipment has been cannibalised over the years to assist with insufficient classroom provision elsewhere within the rapidly expanding school, and the doors and windows are in desperate need of repair.

A sick room is necessary in a school where pupils often suffer bouts of malaria (not pleasant, we can assure you, from personal experience!) and faintness fits due to poor diet, extreme heat and dehydration.  Again, we are being assured that this refurbished room will be ready for September.

These initiatives, aimed at addressing things that we, in the West, take so much for granted are literally life-changing for many Gambian youngsters.

We thank all of you for your support - financial, in kind and even just moral.

We will continue to keep you updated in the progress of these exciting projects.

February 2016 newsletter - Great progress over the last twelve months

We are just back from a few very productive weeks in The Gambia, working with the two schools in Sohm.

We saw pleasing evidence of real progress with projects that we sponsored and paid for last year.

This newsletter provides details of them. Future posts will explain what we are hoping to achieve over the coming months, and what steps we have put in place, to help deliver them.


We, or more accurately our supporters, continue to sponsor the education of more than a dozen Gambian youngsters. We caught up with each of the students, got a face-to-face statement of progress , received a copy of their latest school report and a letter of thanks written by the pupil to her/his sponsor. 

We also took a photograph of each of them.  We will be sending copies of all of the above to the sponsors over the next week or so, as part of our commitment to be accountable for all donations received.

Musa Jarju -
star sponsored student

Progress of the individual students was, inevitably, mixed, with one being a real "star" of the school and a couple struggling a bit, because of home/work pressures.

As we will show in a future newsletter, we have directly intervened to address poor results and performance and hope to be able to report satisfactory progress this time next year.

Computer technology

Last year Little Heath school in Redbridge donated 30 redundant computers to the charity together with a number of desk top printers.

We had them all cleaned up, reconditioned and had a Windows suite installed on each. Assisted by generous free container space, we transported the equipment to Sohm last year.

PCs at work - thanks to Little
 Heath school, Redbridge

The result: a complete transformation! Previously, the senior school only had three or four ancient, working, computers for the 400+ students to access.
The whole Windows suite being
 accessed by Sohm's youngsters

Today, enthusiastic students lap up ICT lessons with the donated computers and many are becoming computer-friendly and proficient for the first time, as the accompanying photographs indicate.

Electrification of the Lower Basic school

Last year we made a grant of £1,000 to the Lower Basic (primary) school, to connect with mains electricity, for the first time. That sum enabled lighting and a single power point to be installed in each classroom and in each of the two-rooms of the individual teacher accommodation.

The standard of electrical work would not gain too many professional plaudits in the UK, but it works - without mishap! The work was completed on time and on budget last Spring. Not a statement you hear often in The Gambia!

All wired up - of sorts! But, working well!

In addition to the installation of power to teaching and living accommodation, power points were also installed in the head's office.  As the photo shows, this, in conjunction with some PCs we supplied, has enabled the school to become self-sufficient administratively - saving costs and time over a number of key tasks.

Electricity and PCs in the
 head's office - real progress!

The geographical location of Sohm means that the schools can have recruitment and retention issues for teachers.  Supplying electricity to their accommodation helps a little: they can now read in their rooms at night, charge their mobile phones and crowd around TV monitors to watch DVDs, for entertainment and training.

Teachers' sparse accommodation,
 above and below benefiting
 from electrification

Cooking equipment

The cooking equipment we supplied the senior school with last year has had some beneficial effects.

External Domestic Science exam results have improved, with examiners commenting favourably on progress. More students are now moving on to catering college, in order to help gain jobs in the important tourist hospitality industry.

Cookery equipment,
being put to good use

While we were in the country in January some of Sohm Students took part in a regional cookery contest.  Although they didn't win, their output went down well with the judges, apparently. They scoffed the lot!

Future newsletters will explain what we have sponsored this year, to be rolled out over the next twelve months, in our efforts to keep supporters up-to-date with Sohm schools' activities.