Another magnificent Beech Hill Gambia Day

A huge thank you to Beech Hill community primary school in Luton for their continued magnificent support for the children of the Sohm Lower Basic (primary) school. They recently held their third "Gambia Day", which raised in excess of £2,000 - which via Gift Aid can translate into £2,500 - for the Gambian school.

The day featured assemblies to all of the 1,000 children at Beech Hill, with slides, videos  and a chat about how their previous efforts have aided the Gambian youngsters. This was followed by activities in all classes, who addressed national curriculum topics through Gambian themes. There were drawing, writing, dance, history, geography, music and social studies classes working round Gambian topics.

                                    Some of Beech Hill's children responding to a video 

                                   showing Sohm children singing and dancing for them

In addition, Beech Hill's cheft did some demonstrations of how bread is cooked in African countries and an African drum teacher was brought in and conducted lessons on tribal drumming thoughout the day.


One of the African drumming classes , during Beech Hill's "Gambia Day"

At the end of the day some of the great parents and support staff sold food that they had made from donations by local traders, in takeawy cartons, for parents, as they picked up their children from school. Surplus school and donated books were also sold, on a stall, with funds going to Sohm.


Delicious food, lovingly prepared and profitably sold for the benefit of Sohm's children. Great work by Beech Hill staff, parents and supportive local traders! 



A fund-raising book sale was held during the day, of surplus school books and donations from staff and parents

As the "target" photo, below, illustrates, Beech Hill has raised almost £10,000 over the last few years for Sohm. This has lead to a formal twinning arrangement between the two schools, the purchase of all the stationery (books for the children, flip charts and duplicating paper etc for the staff) over the last four years, together with huge assistance with major refurbishing and modernisng projects at the school in Sohm.


Beech Hill has raised almost £10,000 for Sohm over the last five years. Magnificent!

The Luton children clearly enjoyed the day and have learned a great deal, over the years of the lives of their African counterparts. The children in Sohm have obviously benefitted materially, but in educational and communications terms, too. One of the great outcomes of the twinning arrangment has been the regular exchange of letters and artwork between the two schools.

What follows are some photos that illustrate how well the twinning operates in practice.







 Two of the Beech Hill "sponsored chairs" donated to the new hall the school helped to fund

Sohm children displaying some of the letters and artwork sent by their "twins" from Beech Hill, in February this year


Formal recognition of the twinning - Beech Hill's logo outside the Sohm school's headteacher's office 


Sohm's children displaying some of the donated stationery that Beech Hill's contribution has helped fund 


Over the last year we have helped fund the restoration of a classroom block in Sohm and repair some of the broken furniture. These nursery children are clearly benefitting!

So - on behalf of the children, teachers and parents of Sohm - we'd like to say a huge THANK YOU to all concerned at Beech Hill. Their support has been vital - and long may it continue!

Huge progress in Sukuta

Regular visitors to this site will know that we have taken the lead in helping to transform Sukuta Lower Basic (primary) school, in The Gambia - largely through the many arms of Rotary International. The school, with 2,000 pupils, is one of the country's largest and the project is ambitious.

 Parents' meeting at the Sukuta school, discussing the priorities to be adopted for the ambitious project

Over a two-year period, we were able to raise in excess of £35,000 - mainly through Rotary - to pay for the project. Sohm Schools Support provided a substantial donation to launch the fund-raising and the Rotary Club of Redbridge undertook finding the rest of the money. The Redbridge club, itself, contributed £5,000 and two other London clubs (Barkingside and Gants Hill) made generous donations. The London regional District contributed $10,000, and two of Redbridge's twinned clubs in Europe (in the Hague and Slovenia), both made important contributions.  On the back of all of this, the Rotary Foundation, in Chicago, contrubuted a further $8,000.


Extension of footprint and size of the computer room - underway

The project at the school had seven elements and aimed to: greatly increase the water supply and capacity at the school, by erecting additional solar-powered storage tanks, and from them running a number of waterlines to standpipes scattered throughout the school. These are to be located near toilets and food serving and eating areas, by the first aid room (see later) and by classroom blocks. All of this activity will assist with personal and food hygiene and offer easier access to drinking water for the children.

The school's toilets were dilapitated, and as "the local contribution" - a requirement of Rotary Global grants - the Gambian Ministry of Education agreed to replace the old ones with new ones.

 Part of new toilet blocks, already installed by the Gambia's Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education

There is no sick room in this school of 2,000 pupils - so the project proposed to build one. The school's library was out of commission, because termite damage had destroyed many of the books, and made the room a health hazard. The Sukuta project aims to seal the walls and floor of the room and re-tile them, to prevent the re-emergence of the termites.


Construction of the school's first sick room, well under way 

Dis-infestation of termites from school's library - well under way

The school's only "computer room" is reasonably well-equipped, but is too small to provide access for all the pupils to have a lesson in it, each week. The project proposed to increase the room's size by around 30%, to overcome the problem of the inadequately sized room.

The final aspect of the project is to build a safe, water-supplied, hygenic base for the provison of school lunches. At present local traders (overwhelmingly women) sell meagre lunches under trees in the blistering heat, in the school's playground. The school's head and Council wanted sheltered accommodation to be built for the future safety and comfort of the saleswomen, and children, alike.


Construction of sheltered area for food vendors - at an advanced stage

Redbridge contacted a local club in the Gambia - Brusubi - based about five miles from Sukuta - to manage the project locally. All of this was arranged before I visited the country for 10 days at the start of March.

The first problem I encountered was that the original estimates upon which the project had been costed and funds raised, were almost two years old. Although a small contingency element was included, it wasn't large enough to account for the 35% increase in building material costs over the period. Some hard bargaining involving the local contractor, school management and the two Rotary clubs (Redbridge - the sponsor, and Brusubi - the host) negotiated a slight variation in the specification, while mainating the intergrity of the project, which enabled it to be undertaken - within budget.

The contract-signing ceremony took place in front of a local audience of around 50 people, on March 8th - International Women's Day. And how significant that was. two of the key signatories - the recently appointed school head and the recently appointed CEO of the building contractors' - were both women . This would have been unheard of, even a decade ago in The Gambia. They were flanked at the signing cermenony by Omar Jallow, President of the Rotary Club of Brusubi, and me - represnting RC Redbridge (see photo).


Contract signing ceremony. Left to right: Omar Jallow, President Brusubi Rotary Club, Marian Mendy, head teacher, Sukuta Lower Basic school, Jainbarr Sarr, Chief Executive Future in Our Hands (contractor), John Walker (Sohm Schools Support and Redbridge Rotary)

 Part of the hard bargaining over the contract embraced a tight timescale for its completeion. The aim is for the end of June.

Builders were on the site within a week of the signing and progress has been quite remarkable in the six weeks since then - as the photos in this blog show. I hope to be able to run an article in July featuring photos of all of the elements of the project, completed.


Framework contract - signed, sealed and being delivered!

But, in the meantime, a huge thanks to all involved in making the project come so rapidly to fruition.

These include the generous supporters of the Sohm Schools Support charity, whose funds launched initiative and the many arms of Rotary who have provided additional funding and are overseeing the construction process. 

And finally, huge thanks to the fine and thoroughly professional staff of contractors, Future In Our Hands, whose steady application is gradually bringing to fruition what, three years ago, was a casual conversation between me and the then deputy head of the school, about trying to transform it


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!