PAGEANT - "Education is the future"
Mahmoud Achten Nursery School
In February 2007 John Emery and Jane Bull with two friends visited the Gambia for the first time. On their first morning all the official guides were already out and about, so the security guard introduced them to Bobo, the cigarette seller across the road, who took them to Banjul market. In common with most visitors to the country they had booked a tour with the tour operator which included a visit to a school selected for sponsorship. Later that day they chatted to people in the hotel who had visited the Gambia several times and advised that it would be more worthwhile to visit a school with no sponsor to provide funds. Their new friend, Bobo, knew of such a school in Fagikunda a suburb of his town, Serrekunda , and arranged to take them there the next day in a local taxi. It was quite an eye-opener for these rather naive visitors used to western standards of education. This is Jane and John's story:
First Visit - February 2007
As we approached our destination down an unmade road we passed several children carrying containers of water on their heads. The school shared the compound with a pigsty and the perimeter fence consisted of dangerous barbed wire. There was no gate so we, and presumably the children, had to climb through the wire to get in.
The school consisted of one decrepit building with 4 rooms, only two rooms were in use, each capable of holding about 20 pupils.
We could not help but be impressed by the Headmaster's obvious sincerity and commitment to these children. We left the few writing materials we had brought with us and went away with our heads full of thoughts. Our main concern was that the school site was rented - what security of tenure did they have? Back at the hotel we were fortunate to meet Pippa and Ian, the founders of Pageant, a charity supporting education in The Gambia, who had come out to visit their projects further up country. Their advice was to find out more about the rental arrangement, take one small step at a time - toilets being a good one - avoid spreading ourselves too thinly and get proper costings before committing ourselves. Off we went to meet Bobo again and with commendable speed he visited the school and came back with estimates.
Having satisfied ourselves by taking advice from those more experienced in these matters that the estimates were reasonable, we sent a message to the Headmaster to say that, provided he could reassure us that the school site was on a secure lease, funds would be forthcoming, and we returned to England. Several emails ensued in colourful, if at times almost incomprehensible, English with details of meetings with the owners of the compound who had promised not to sell the land from under the school. Finally John decided that it was time for a leap of faith and he would go ahead. By the far the most difficult task was persuading the bank to send the money to the correct account, but they did give us 500 biros for our next visit! Eventually the Headmaster emailed us to say that he had received the money and work was going ahead. Emails continued to arrive, followed by a pause in communication while the Headmaster recovered from a bout of malaria.
Then in December he wrote to say that the toilets were built but he had forgotten about a roof and doors! Another visit to the bank, and later we learned that they were completed but would not be operational until we had seen them. We didn't quite know what to make of that!! We and our friends made plans to return in February 2008 and sent emails to Bobo and the Headmaster to say that we would visit at 11.00am on Monday 4th February. What would we find...?
Second Visit - February 2008
It was with some trepidation that we all approached the compound in our hired taxi. The first thing we saw was the barbed wire fence, the second - a gleaming corrugated iron roof. The relief was palpable. The Headmaster, his wife, Maria and Bobo were all there to greet us (oh, the wonders of electronic communication!) and there was the toilet block. It was a very emotional moment for us all - especially when we learned that their latest grandchild had been named John in his honour! The padlocks on the doors were ceremoniously removed and we were invited to inspect, but not to test....!
Water had been brought to the site but was not yet connected, and a water tap was planned. Afterwards the Headmaster revealed that while construction was underway he had on many occasions stayed until late at night to ensure that the locals did not steal the building materials. His wife confirmed that he works all the time for the school, and she also now teaches there.
- The building is desperately in need of a new roof which will involve repairing the walls. An estimate is being prepared for this.
- The dangerous barbed wire fence needs replacing.
- More of the children currently attending need to be sponsored so that they can provide income for the school - even £20 a year will help with uniform, tuition and food at midday. Because they take in so many children whose parents cannot pay, they are unable to feed the children or to pay themselves a salary, let alone employ a teaching assistant.
- They are desperate for more teaching aids and materials to provide stimulus for the children, as well as play items such as footballs.
Why this school?
During our first trip we visited two schools on our tours from the hotel and were impressed by what had been achieved with the sponsorship provided by tour operators and individuals. Can we do the same for this school?
We have been moved and humbled by the dedication of the Headmaster, Abdoul Kassim Mahmoud and his wife Maria. Their commitment to the education of these children in such difficult circumstances at tremendous personal cost, both in terms of time and financial sacrifice, is amazing. No doubt there are countless schools in The Gambia in similar or far more straightened circumstances. We, however, can only describe our personal experience, and sensibly concentrate our efforts on helping this school which has touched our hearts. We hope this is just the beginning of the help we can offer with the support of friends and other benefactors.
Pageant has been informed that Jane and John are no longer involved in helping Mahmoud Achten Nursery School. Regrettably, Pageant no longer has any direct involvement with this school.