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.


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