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