I had a truly incredible weekend. I had previously met one of my boss’ board members, a computer engineer from Norway who has grown increasingly interested in Gambian issues over the past few years. Marit and I met at the YMCA last week while visiting the ICT Training Center and we exchanged contact information (as a side note, Africell has had full service everywhere I have gone, even in the rural areas…take note AT&T). She comes back to The Gambia every few months to see how her projects are holding up. On Friday, she stopped by and asked me if I was interested in getting out of Kanifing (my area) a little bit. I said absolutely, and met her at her hotel on Saturday morning.
We drove to Nema Kunku, a small, very poor village not far away. There, she helps to facilitate the growth of a farm with a British couple and their children, who live there full time. On the farm, local, unschooled children can come drop by any time of day, and 15 at a time are allowed in to learn mathematics and spelling on five iPads stored in a trailer. Some of the others are drawn to the two huts housing large collections of legos and duplos nearby and then about 15 more children are allowed to come inside to do what the farms primary purpose is: teach effective and efficient farming techniques. The British couple, Mick and Jenny, used to have a farm in Brittany, but uprooted their family to come here, to a mango farm in The Gambia. Soon, they will be starting free summer programs for kids, and more farm education classes for adults. They use solar power and other specialized techniques and help keep the kids productive while their parents are hard at work at their own farms or businesses. The farm makes incredible mango jam and mango chutney, and a type of green powder harvested from wispy looking plants that apparently serves as a mega-superfood. Any requests please let me know! I will definitely be back to the farm and the jam was incredible!
After we couldn’t eat any more jam, we traveled to another village, called Lamin, which is also the name of about 50% of the men I have met in The Gambia. Apparently, it is traditional to name your first son, so I can only imagine the confusion in grade school. In Lamin, I had what was probably my most incredible experience since getting here. Marit introduced me to a woman named Yassin, the founder of a program called Starfish Girls. I was curious about the name, so she explained with the following story, copied below from the Starfish website (www.starfishinternational.org).
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a girl picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the girl, he asked, “What are you doing?” The girl replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “My daughter,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the girl bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, she said…,
“I made a difference for that one.”
And Yassin truly is making a difference. We sat in a circle in a small courtyard of a one-room building, while each girl introduced herself and said why she loved Starfish, part of their Saturday program. The goal of the program is to empower young women and teach them to follow their dreams “even if your culture is telling you that you cant.” The girls, many of them from very poor families, are encouraged to work on their public speaking skills, their service to their community, and most importantly, their confidence and self-respect. I strongly encourage watching the videos and reading the articles that can be found on their website. Hearing the obstacles they had to overcome to reach even basic levels of schooling was something I had known existed in this country, but these girls brought it to plain view. The way they interacted with each other, clearly respected such an educated Gambian woman as Yassin and embodied the stressed characteristics of “Nobility, Independence, Courtesy, Knowledge, and Service” was truly inspiring. As I was leaving, they were watching a video of a paraplegic man talking about what it’s like to fall and to get back up, and that somebody always had it worse. It was truly a striking moment realizing these girls were being taught that they didn’t even have it hard, that they should have compassion and empathy for the next person, and to be thankful for what they have received in their lifetime.
Sunday, I was privileged to meet another of Marit’s acquaintances, a young woman named Sambo, who came from a truly sad story. The daughter of a blind man and a physically disabled woman with four struggling younger brothers, she had asked for some help on her English speech for school. We sat together for about four hours, and it was amazing to hear her story and discuss her motivations to keep up with her education. Her ultimate goal is to become a UNICEF ambassador and work to stop gender-based-violence.
Since then, I have been back at the YMCA, working to prepare for our summer training program, which starts in a few weeks. I have been visiting schools, making forms, creating a curriculum, and getting very excited for the kids to come! Until then, I will be continuing to visit schools to promote ICT training, and helping teach business owners ICT classes in the morning and 9th grade ICT programs in the afternoons.
This weekend truly opened my eyes to where I am, and I strongly encourage everyone to visit the very well constructed and up-to-date Starfish website. They have photos of each girl, their dreams, and lots of amazing photographs, entries and videos about their activities.
I miss you all and have a wonderful July 4th! Maybe Marquis and I will convince some people here to celebrate with us…or just sneakily decorate the YMCA hostel with lots and lots of red, white and blue balloons. I wonder if they sell fireworks anywhere around here……….