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The School Year Just Ended - A Report

“Education is an escalator that can change the world….” – Nicholas Kristoff

Since its start, GambiaRising has been helping individual Gambian students to stay in school and get the education that they deserve. We limit our email updates to you to one per month and in them, we keep the focus on the girls (and boys), whose lives are being changed through our donors’ generosity. But as the Gambian school year winds down, we also want to give you a short report on GambiaRising itself, the program through which your support is changing so many lives.

It was a rough year in The Gambia. Ebola devastation in three nearby countries cut the tourist trade by 80%, and a poor harvest in several western provinces added to the economic troubles. Compounding matters, disputes over the country’s human rights record caused both Taiwan and the EU to cut their flow of development assistance.

As times got significantly harder during the last school year, GambiaRising expanded its impact in two ways: supporting more students in the lower grades, but also allocating more funds than ever before for students in grades 10 and above.

What allowed us to do both was the World Bank’s second year of subsidizing of school fees in grades 1 through 9. This direct-payments program enabled many students to enroll who were not in school before. The Bank's program substantially lowered the cost of school in the lower grades, but did not eliminate it, since they paid school fees but no other costs. This helped many but not the poorest of the poor (or those whose families did not believe in education). That is that is where we stepped in: providing uniforms, shoes, books, supplies, and in some cases, transportation assistance.  And In four locations, we went further: our volunteers visited the families of any student who was not in school and, when needed, offered our support. In the first year of the World Bank’s program, we added 68 new students in grades K-9 to our program; in the past year we added another 104. It is really heart-warming to hear the stories of students who are returning to (or starting) school three, four, or five years behind their peers – but in school at last!

Even though we dramatically increased the numbers in the lower grades, the now-lower costs of supporting each younger student meant we could also deploy the majority of our funds to the higher grades.This is of course not only where the costs rise dramatically, but also where struggling families who have had no education themselves too often say “Nine years is plenty.” Or for the girls, “It is time to find you a husband.”

And so it is particularly gratifying that we were able to give full scholarships to 114 Gambian students in senior secondary school, and to another 45 for studies beyond 12th grade. This included 6 students at the University of The Gambia (including 3 women studying IT and math), and another 22 studying to become qualified teachers at Gambia College.

All told, the generosity of our donors enabled 402 Gambian students to stay in or begin school this school year, 300 of them girls. These range all the way from the little girl who walked more than a mile to St. Therese’s in Fula Bantang every day with the other girls from her village and then walked home alone until a teacher noticed and told us, so we could offer her a scholarship, to one of the top students at the University of The Gambia, who, after winning a competitive award to study for one semester in the U.S., returned to The Gambia and is about the receive her bachelor's degree in Mathematics.

How This (and Even More) Got Done

I think of GambiaRising as a “D.I.Y.” organization, in that, while we have a team of highly professional people working on this program both in the U.S. and The Gambia, we have no paid staff. Frankly, we could not afford to hire the caliber of people who are working on this program, and this means not only that we are better managed than many organizations our size, but that our overhead is very low. (And since one donor still pays for all of that, 100% of other donated funds go directly to support Gambian students.)

Nearly all of that money is donated for scholarships, and if you are donating for scholarships, that’s where it goes. Every penny.  However, from time to time we have other opportunities too good to pass up, and have used other donations to "take advantage" of those. So when Kebba Sanyang found that most of the young children in Pacharr were not being allowed to walk the three miles to St. Therese's, he found an abandoned buillding and sent several teachers from St. Therese’s to teach there. And two years ago, when the leaders of the village asked if they built a new 4-room school, would we supply the materials to put on a roof, we said “Yes” on the spot. And so last year 120 children were in Pacharr's new school who before had not been going to school.  Then this year, when the alkalo of Njie Kunda made the same request, we said “Yes” again, and now another 100 will be enrolled in their new school this fall. (This is the beauty of the World Bank's program; the government no longer hesitates to approve new schools as long as they don't have to build them, since the World Bank subsidies rise with the number of children enrolled.)  And now our most important effort is underway: thanks to an extraordinary gift from a small group of donors, construction has just began on a new senior secondary school for Fula Bantang.

Pacharr Lower Basic Cycle

       (Grades 1 to 3)

      Njie Kunda Lower Basic

  Fula Bantang Sr. Secondary

Here’s what we know:

Life is not going to be easy for most young Gambians. But with so little support from outside, it can be far better than it otherwise would have been. Some students we support will become doctors and nurses, and more will become teachers. Of course, many will be subsistence farmers as well.  But they’ll know how to read, to write; they’ll have studied agriculture; they’ll speak English as well as their native language, even a little French. They’ll know about their country’s culture and history, and they won’t marry and have children until they are 19, 20, or older.  They will have fewer children, who will be healthier, and their income will be higher.  Some will have lives that we might envy – not on the western Fast Track, perhaps, but meaningful and rich in other ways.  Education is as close to a silver bullet as can be found in international development. And unlike large-scale projects, it doesn’t fall apart over time; once given, it can never be taken away.

And our mission remains:
• Focus on supporting students who without our help would not be able to stay in school.
• Use 100% of all donated funds directly for student support.
• Build the capacity of the organization
 both on the ground, with  Gambian volunteer educators and collaboration with Peace Corps, and in the U.S. in communication and fundraising.
• Support more students each year, through an expanding group of repeat donors.

This is possible because of the commitment of our supporters.

A child who drops out of school this year because we held some funds back for the future, may have no future. So we keep only a small emergency fund on hand, and deploy the donations we receive as they come in. And that makes us enormously grateful for the loyal support  of our recurring donors. Knowing that we can count on your monthly, quarterly, or annual donations is what allows us to keep our funds deployed and not hold them back. We are still a small program. In the last year, 92 people donated $100 or more to GambiaRising.  49 of these made monthly contributions of $12.50 to $50.  (Nearly all new donors were returned Peace Corps volunteers, their friends, and their families.)

All told, donations for scholarships totaled just over $45,000 last year. With this, we changed more than 400 students' lives at 84 different schools.

As we turn our attention to the new school year, we are so hoping that we can count on those who have been supporting students through GambiaRising to continue to do so. I really hesitate to use the words “we” and “our” in writing this update to you, since I see GambiaRising simply as an efficient and honest channel between you and the student(s) you support.  It is really all about them, and we seek to be effective conduits.

There are so many well-meaning organizations sending clothes, books, and other goods to west Africa (although it pains me to think how much of their funds go to pay shipping costs). We focus on something that is in even shorter supply and which we can send very efficiently: money. Money targeted where it will directly change a person’s life and that also doesn't create future dependency. We try whenever possible to put a face on where your money is going and what it is doing, because the students are what everything is about. They were simply born in the wrong place, and they deserve an education. We are not changing the conditions in which they live, nor shortening the distance they have to walk to get to school, nor lowering the ever-increasing heat of the west Africa sun. But you and we together are giving them a chance to grow up, learn to read, write, learn about the world, spend time with their peers, gain self-esteem, and in many cases, a career - to simply have the things that as Americans we take for granted as basic human rights. They, and others on our too-long waiting list, are counting on us.

On behalf of these wonderful young people, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your continuing support of them and their dreams.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee
GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave.  PH 1
Emeryville, CA  94608

P.S. Special gratitude to all those who tirelessly work on behalf of these students:

  • Father Moses Drammeh, National Coordinator,
  • Kebba Sanyang, who manages upcountry programs,
  • Lamin Cham, liaison extraordinaire,
  • Yaya Sonko, Kunta Kambi, Matthew Gomez, and Ebrima Bah – whose work creating student profiles allows us to tell their stories to you. And Unique Solutions for their invaluable support when we were giving up hope of being able to transmit videos except on airplanes.
  • Dawda Faye and the Catholic Education Secretariat who provide liaison to the public schools in their system, with the invaluable support of the Catholic Education Secretary, Dr. Emil Kujabi

And of course, all the Peace Corps volunteers past and present, who, along with their friends adn families, are the backbone of our funding. Special thanks to our Board of Trustees and Development Committee: Bjorn Betzler, Brian Carroll, Marnie Florin, Cat Janda, Joanna LaHaie, Rebecca Spotts, Stephanie Stawicki, Mark Strohbehn, Kate Kendall, and Stephanie Starch. And our first GambiaRising Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, currently serving in The Gambia, Terry Fletcher. You can read more about this wonderful team at www.gambiarising.org/who-we-are)