Successful return - after two years!

I have just returned from a brief, successful, trip to the Gambia - following a two year absence, for COVID-related reasons - and feel there are good stories to tell about the schools in Sohm and beyond.

I'll concentrate on Sohm in this post, and deal with our Rotary-supported project in Sukuta, of which I've written much over the last year or so, in a blog in a couple of weeks.

Senior management team, with Rotary and Beech Hill logos

Firstly, although the Sohm schools were closed for nine months, because of the local COVID lockdown, there seemed to have been few - if any - serious cases of the virus in the village. The Lower Basic (primary) school's staff, however, were very greatful for the supplies of masks and sanitiser that we were able to get to the school, via our good friends at the Scottish charity First Aid for Gambia.


Pupils and staff with SSS-supplied anti-COVID sanitisers and masks


Before I left the UK, the pupils at Beech Hill in Luton, with which Sohm LBS is twinned, produced some lovely artwork and letters for me to take to Sohm. The Gambian youngsters were delighted, and below are some photos of some proudly displaying their incoming correspondence.

Some of the Beech Hill letters to Sohm
and more ....
and more ....
and more!

The Sohm children have responded in kind, and within two days turned around a similarly impressive set of letters and art work, which we will share with Beech Hill, when they have their annual "Gambia Day", in April.

There has been plenty of work taking place on the ground in the Sohm LBS, to which we have contributed 50% of the cost, over the last two years. A six-classroom block, which was partially damaged by a hurricane two years ago, has now been completely restored and renovated.  It is looking good, as the photos below show.

A local craftworker was also commissioned to repair over 100 pieces of broken school furniture, at an average cost of £8 per item, and with the chairs we supplied two years ago, the school is now well stocked with necessary furniture.

And nursery children - note reconditioned, shiny furniture!   

This means that in the ten years of our involvement with Sohm LBS, we have restored and upgraded every building in the 500-pupil school - and the place is looking very smart.

We are delighted to report that our previous, large, building project - the new school hall - is now being well used. Its kitchen, which was part of the construction, is a busy source of nuitritional cooking, much of the food for which has been produced in the school's garden.


 New school kitchen - pots bubbling away with veg grown in the school's garden

As we do every year, we made a donation of almost £1k of stationery to the school. This meets the whole requirements for the 500 children and staff there for the year. So, there are exercise books, pens, pencils, crayons for the pupils and flip charts, marker pens, chalks and record books, duplicating paper, printer inks etc. for the staff.

Below is a photo of some pupils displaying some of this donation. We have had a long relationship with a local stationer - Prime Stationers -  in The Gambia, who has always given us extremenly competitive rates for our purchases. This year he made a significant personal contribution, to top up our donation. So, we were delighted to have some of the pupils wave some of his advertisng material, by way of thanks. Enlarged copies of some of these photos now adorn his shop, with the strapline "Delighted to support the education of local children" Win:win, here! 

Annual stationery donation, assisted by our friends from Prime Stationers

 One other donation to our charity must be recorded. One of our dearest supporters, concious that donations of clothing to developing countries rarely include underwear, was determined to redress the issue and purchased a large quanity of bras, knickers and underpants for what turned out to be a hugely grateful bunch of local recipients (modesty prevents us showing them in action!). It really was a bit of a struggle to get everything out there, and within airplane luggage restrictions - but we are glad we managed it! Delighted as we are to have assisted this very thoughtful donation, we are not opening up a clothes donation facility for the future! In previous years we have had access to free container space. Unfortunately, we no longer do.

Our ten-year involvement with the school has had a remarkable impact on its educational performance.  All schools in The Gambia are given an annual Scorecard, by the country's version of Ofsted.  Below is Sohm's most recent score card.  It has - quite simply - been turned from a run of the mill, rural, back water school, to the exemplar primary school in its district and top of cluster groups and other measurement devices.

Impressive Lower Basic school "Scorecard"

The senior school in the village of Sohm has been badly run for the last four years, and we have refused to work with a head whom we did not trust. He has now been replaced and the school is in the temporary charge of two long-serving deputies, with whom we have always had a very good relationship - Nicholas Mendy and Mama Gomez - see pictured below. We look forward to re-engagement with the school, staff and pupils.

New interim management at secondary school, Mama and Nicholas - back in safe hands

The senior school has good facilities, many of which we, and our partners from the Jersey Gambia Schools Trust, have contributed to, over the years.

We are very pleased to say that the Education Regional Director, now he has replaced the former head, is determined to turn the senior school into a district school of excellence in science and technology (because it has good facilities, and a well educated intake).

The two schools in Sohm do, however, have teacher recruitment and retention difficulties; because they are in a relatively remote area, and the accommodation available to staff is poor. We are currently working with the Regional Director on submitting a bid to a significant Dutch charity, to create new teacher accommodation for upto 40 staff, in the village, in unused land and premises already owned by the ministry.


Potential location for new teaching accommodation - we're in talks!

We'll let you know how we get on!