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


One last push - imaginative Christmas gifts!

Six months ago there was a barren piece of land next to the playground in Sohm Lower Basic school, and the first activity took place around building the new multi-purpose hall. Progress has been swift, as these photos show, and all will be ready for the official opening of the hall, when we visit the country in January. 

Stuck for a present idea, for the person who has everything?

Help someone who has nothing

Make a name for your recipient in Africa

Since we launched our "chair naming" initiative, as a fund raiser, supporters have donated money to name over 100 chairs!

Imaginative people have come up with a whole range of interesting ideas for chair names. Some, as we had originally hoped, have named chairs after themselves; others, after grand children, other family members or well-loved, deceased relatives. 

Some donors have wanted to celebrate figures who may be inspirational, or role models for the students; figures from black African history, inventors, pioneers, African musicians and writers etc.

There are a number of chairs dedicated to our only two "institutional" sponsors - Beech Hill Primary School, in Luton and Redbridge Rotary Club - without whom this new hall would not be possible.  So - a very big "thank you" to them from us, and from the youngsters in The Gambia.

We have now got all the chairs to The Gambia, and our friends out there have stencilled the nominated names on the requisite chairs - as some of the photos show.

But - hurry, while stocks last!! We still have some sad looking chairs with no names - just waiting for your choice (and £25!). There are less than three weeks to Christmas and you know you are struggling for ideas for some "difficult" people.

Your dilemma is solved! Send us you "name" by Christmas Eve, with the £25 donation, together with the e.mail address of the person to whom you are sending the named chair as a gift. We will send them an e.mail with a photo of a named chair (not their name), but with a promise to send a framed print of a Sohm youngster, sitting on "their" chair, in the new hall, in February.

Two bites at the cherry! They get a "gift" promise on Christmas Day and the framed photo two months later. Two gifts for the price of one!

Simple! A quick way for you to solve a dilemma of a gift, we do the work for you, and the youngsters in Sohm get the benefit. Sounds like Christmas, to us!

Roll up - with role model footballers

John is a Crystal Palace supporter and has named a chair after every African footballer in the current squad; see below for a couple of examples.

As an extremely generous Christmas offer, we will be prepared to name other chairs after other African footballers, playing for other clubs - at no extra cost!!! 

For just £25, you could inspire up to 300 African youngsters who, on a daily basis, could see the name of your team's African all-star!

To "Name that chair"

Simply pick a name of your choice, and drop us a line to that effect, with a £25 (or more, if you like!) donation to Sohm Schools Support - see below for bank details.

If you want us to write to the recipient, telling them of your gift, just drop us their e.mail address, too. And consider it done!

We really do need the name before Christmas, as we have to get the stencil of the name made, before we leave for the Gambia in mid January. We will then have get the chair painted in time for the opening. 

We will send you, or your nominated person a framed photo of one of Sohm's youngster's sitting in the chair, in the hall, rather like the mocked-up one below when we return from the country in February.

We are creating a "Scroll of Honour", which will be displayed in the hall, saying a few words about the named person on every chair, to let the youngsters know a little about the people. You may wish to send a few words about your nominated "chair" person.

The bank details are:
Bank: Santander
A/c name: UK Sohm Secondary School (The Gambia)
Sort: 090128
A/c no: 04453414

Great progress with the new hall

The schools have been back from the summer holidays in The Gambia for about a month and there has been significant progress in the construction of the new hall in Sohm, that so many of you have generously contributed to.

As the photos show, the shell of the building has now been completed and plastering/rendering work is continuing apace.

As we have previously mentioned, our key contact at the school, Mr Lamin Saidy has been given a significant promotion away from the school, and we wish him well. 

Great progress with the construction work

The king is dead - long live the king! We are delighted to welcome Mt Jawara, as the new head.

He is in the white cap, at the centre of the photo, above, being shown around the construction project, with which he is totally delighted.

We are hopefully that the building will be complete by December, with the official opening next January, when Sandra and I will both be present.

Meanwhile, we are moving apace in furnishing the hall, through a great contact we have made, who imports second hand furniture into The Gambia from the UK.  

He has just sourced us 24 sturdy tables, that  can be used at school meal times, then stacked and pushed to one side of the hall, when other activities are taking place. Our friend is on the look out for a further 30 or so of them to ship out.

We have previously mentioned that he had secured 125 chairs for us, which are now in The Gambia. He has sourced a further 75, which will be shipped out in time for the opening of the hall.

Our "Make a name for yourself in Africa" (see earlier posts, below), initiative has gone well.  We are delighted to say that we are now able to "name" 62 chairs, under the scheme.  But there are still about 140 chairs without a name on their back, and for just £25 a chair, you could change that!

While, generally, it is invidious to name donors or chair sponsors, we must make an exception in the case of the family of Yasmin Hussain, a member of staff at Luton's Beech Hill school which is twinned with the Lower Basic school in Sohm.

Yasmin has been an enthusiastic supporter since we first met her, two and a half years ago.  She has passed on her dedication to her two children and six nephews and nieces.  Aged between 5 and 18, the eight of them have saved their Zakat (an Islamic charity donation scheme) and donated £300 to "name" twelve chairs in the school. Their parents have been so inspired by their action that they have added a further £200 - making a total family donation of £500 to Sohm.

Yasmin Hussain's generous family, showing their
support for Sohm Lower Basic school, in action!
Left to right; Saffa (11), Ibrahim (7), Alisha
(12, Anisa (16), Esa (6), Haleema (5),
Sumaya (11) and, front Musa (5)

We really can't thank them enough, and can't wait to bring back photos from Sohm, showing some of the school's youngsters at work on the chairs the family have sponsored.

A very productive summer

As the children in Sohm look to return to school, next week, they - and we - can reflect on a very productive summer for the school.

Construction work on our Sohm 2020 project - the new multi-purpose hall for the school - is proceeding at a rapid rate. We had only just put in place funds to complete the project in early July, and a week later signed the contracts and documentation, when, within days, work began on site.

The photos tell their own story of
rapid progress within six weeks.
As can be seen from the photos, progress has been remarkable on this 30 metre building, that will act as: a school dining room, assembly hall, gymnasium, prayer hall, and village meeting hall. We are optimistic building will be complete by the end of this year, so that we can be present at an official opening in the early months of 2020 - on schedule for our plans!

Make a Name for Yourself in Africa

In July we launched our "Make a Name for Yourself in Africa" initiative, where we offered donors the chance to have a chair in the new hall named after them, or a person of their choice. Each sponsored chair would have the chosen name stencilled on the back of it, and recorded, with brief details of the named person, on a Scroll of Honour, to be displayed in the hall.

We are delighted to say that we now have over 50 chairs sponsored, out of our first purchase batch of 100. We hope to purchase another 75 chairs later this year.

Our generous donors have been very imaginative in their choice of "names". Twelve grandchildren will receive copies of a photo of a Sohm child sitting on "their" chair, in the hall, in early 2020. 

Others have nominated four children, six African footballers, three African musicians, four Gambian historic figures, four world-wide philanthropists, three US civil rights leaders/campaigners, four deceased loved ones. 

Each donor will receive a photo of a Sohm pupil sitting on a chair with their nominee's name on the back of it, next year.

For just £25 you can have the name of
 your  choice properly stencilled on to the
 back of one of the chairs in the new hall.
 Your nominated person will have a brief
note about them on a Scroll of Honour
in the hall, and we will send you a photo
of a pupil, sitting on "your" chair when we
 visit Sohm next January.
See post, below, for further details.

One enthusiastic supporter has gone for slogans of encouragement, like "Go for it", as their sponsored message on four separate chairs!

We have worked hard and well with two heads and one deputy head at Sohm Lower Basic, who are no longer at the school - because of death or promotion elsewhere - to help us with this project. Each will be remembered on a chair back, as will the two principal funders of the project: Beech Hill Community School and Redbridge Rotary Club. Generous, anonymous sponsors from each of those organisations have paid for two chairs each, as a timely reminder of the contribution of their organisation to the construction of the hall.

We would like to say a big "Thank you" to each of these sponsors - and you know who you are! - for supporting this new hall project so imaginatively and constructively.

If you haven't got round to "Making a Name for Yourself in Africa", and would still like to - don't worry, you still have time, and there are available chairs! See the post immediately below this for full details of the scheme and how to sign up and help.

Moving on

It is with a little sadness that we report that Lamin Saidy, the deputy head at Sohm, with whom we have worked so closely on our projects at the school is moving on. He has been promoted to another school, and is excited at the new challenges he faces.  This is a justified reward for his diligence in Sohm, and we wish him well in his new post.

It is to Lamin's eternal credit that he put a great deal of effort into succession planning. One of the younger members of staff at the school, whom he mentored - Yahya Badjie - has picked up the baton and is continuing with the excellent supervision of the new building and reporting back to us, in Lamin's absence (including sending almost all the photos in this post).

Virtuous circle: outgoing deputy head, Lamin
 Saidy (right), with mentor, Yayha Badjie,
 displaying lesson planning booklets for staff
that they had made from materials supplied by
Sohm Schools Support. These put into practice tips
picked up from a training day delivered five years ago
by Natalie Carson, now deputy head of Beech Hill
school, Luton - Sohm's largest institutional funder!

So - a little period of adjustment for us, promotion for Lamin and a great opportunity for the new generation. The future looks safe. Couldn't be better! 

Summer school

One of Lamin's last jobs at Sohm was to organise three sets of summer classes, over the holidays for 133 of the school's children. These were a transitional class - for those moving to the village's senior secondary school, which we have significantly assisted. Plus two others, for pupils facing the Gambian equivalent of SATS 1 and 2 next year.

Lamin, and colleagues, identified the need, put together a case and we were delighted to find a sponsor who was happy to pay the £420 that it cost to put on the classes over the summer, shown in the photos, above and below.

Thank you all, once again, for your support for Sohm Schools Support. We hope you'll agree that the work in partnership, we have done with the school community there is bringing exciting results - and making a real difference to young African children's lives.