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Change, at least for some

I started writing this letter on the plane home from The Gambia, my heart full with seeing so many lives changed by the generosity of our donors and the incredible hard work of our growing team of Gambian volunteers. And I will try to keep it not too long, but there is much to tell.

First, a high level view of the first year since the departure of strongman President Jammeh. The broad coalition of parties that joined together to back Adama Barrow for President each expected and got a role in the new government. As a result, few of the new Ministers were appointed for their expertise, but rather for their party affiliation. So the level of competence in Banjul has not risen since the return of democracy, and is unlikely to do so. Already, the Minister of the Interior has been removed (but not arrested) after what is presumed to have been attempts at bribe-seeking. So in terms of change, not much is getting done in Banjul.

BUT the good news is that foreign governments are determined that this fledgling democracy not fail. ECOWAS armed vehicles can still be seen here and there reminding everyone that the neighboring states stand behind the elected government. And aid is beginning to flow in, some of it sophisticated and targeted. Ambassador Pat Alsup told me that USAID, long absent from the country, has begun planning a comprehensive assessment of the health system. The USDA has begun implementing a five-year cashew value-chain project that includes Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The U.S.-funded Millenium Challege Corporation has selected The Gambia for a threshold program that most believe will be starting in the range of $50 million, based on the improvement in human rights and democratic institutions. And a U.S.-led forensic accounting team is leading the search for Jammeh's ill-gotten wealth both in The Gambia and abroad. Meanwhile, the EU are others are reportedly funding the govenment's chronic budget deficit.

And best of all, people are not afraid. It is hard to know how this ripples through a society, but the era of looking over your shoulder seems to be gone. OK, the new government is not sure how it feels about being criticized by both the opposition and the public, and has shut down several demonstrations. But when they arrested a popular university professor for criticizing them, several hundred students showed up at the police station and stayed until the professor was released. That is definitely something new.

And the businessmen I met with are energized in a way I have never seen. Construction is everywhere, and investment funds are available for the first time in more than 20 years. A new private television station is even on the air.

Some of the construction projects were begun under Jammeh, and seem ill-planned. Is it really a good idea to build an Islamic Conference Center in the middle of the tourist center of Senegambia? The Qataris apparently thought so, and it is nearly complete. Is it a good idea to build ANOTHER $50 million Conference Center less than a mile away? Apparently Jammeh convinced the Chinese that it was. And gave them 2/3 of the land in the charming Bijilo Monkey Park to bulldoze for the project. But only the bulldozing was done under Jammeh, and the project is proceding under the new government.

So, as with all development, some will be regrettable, and some will be helpful. Business friends described plans for solar farms, for significant upgrades to the phone service and internet. And the urban economy is definitely picking up. Many of the hotels were sold out when I was there, and I stayed in my first Gambian AirBnB.

Sadly, I did not hear any talk about funding schools, or education. Indeed, this week intermittent teachers' strikes broke out around the urban areas. Teachers have not had a raise in more than ten years, while costs of living have doubled.

Do people have more money in their pockets?  If they have a job in construction or tourism, yes. Bankers, yes. Import/export, yes. But if they are upcountry, or out of the economic cycle, trickle down will take a long while to reach them, if ever. And aside for the cell phone service, once you leave the city, you still go back 100 years.

At the bottom of the economic ladder, no change at all

That's the big picture, and it is important long-term.  But GambiaRising is focused on those at the bottom of the economic ladder - those whose future will be stunted forever, starting now, unless they have support to go back to, or stay in, school. At the lower grades, where costs are low, these are most often orphans or the children of single mothers. There are not going to be fewer of these in the near future. At the higher grades, where costs increase and school is out of reach for more and more, rising expectations are actually increasing the numbers of young people who seek and find one of our Community Coordinators to plead their case.

We have always used 100% of the funds we raise each year to support students, but this year we used 120%, which we were only able to thanks to 14 year's-end special FaceBook fundraisers and a returned Peace Corps volunteer now working at Google who got us a one-time opportunity to be part of Google-Gives week (Google double-matched every dollar she raised). We hoped to use these over the next five years, but needed all of it to keep up with this year's needs.

So we squeaked by, but I have no idea how we will keep up next year. A record 32 donors did not renew their support this year. Whether that was because it seemed like we were "doing well" and didn't need the funds as before, or because of the myriad natural disasters that occurred during our Back-to-School campaign, the effect was the same: we had less to do our work. Friends who know better than me say that to have more than 75% of our donors renewing is nothing short of miraculous, but I am not hardened enough yet to be able to get out of my mind the children we couldn't help because we didn't raise more.

In any event, to those who did renew their support, or even increased it, and to those who joined us, thank you so much.  Each one of these young Gambians is a child of God, and deserves to have an education. And they certainly will not have that chance without our help.

Now let's turn to the great news: what the funds we have are making happen on the ground:

Upcountry: real change where we are working

Our mission is to give as many young Gambians a chance to stay in school as we can. Since 2008, we have been supporting upcountry students in an ever-widening circle around Fula Bantang, especially teen-aged girls. This was made really difficult by the fact that no school in the area went beyond 9th grade. A targeted campaign led by now-deceased donor Jon Vallee led to the building of a senior secondary school in that community - the biggest project we are ever likely to undertake. So my first full day in The Gambia we headed upcountry, arriving in time for dinner. (My "hotel" while in the Central River Region is a mattress on the floor of the school's new admin building - an upgrade from the hotel I used to stay in since there is not only reliable electricity but also hot water at the school.)

Around 9 PM, I walked over to the teachers' quarters at St. Therese's and heard voices coming from one of the junior school classrooms. Inside I found 15 senior secondary school students in a dimly-lit classroom. A young teacher was teaching algebra to students who had come back to school after dinner for extra work. Three years ago, most of these students would have stopped school after 9th grade, and they are determined to squeeze every ounce of learning they can out of their new opportunity,

Next morning I walked around the campus of the new school. The classroom blocks have been built one year at a time, and the 12th grade rooms are now open. So are the science labs. The walls of the technical labs (woodworking, metalworking, vocational trades) are going up. And next door, the foundations were being dug and bricks made for the Home Science building (cooking, sewing, etc.)  You can see a short video of the campus here:  https://youtu.be/jpQB0ziSjmc

It was truly wonderful to see all 9 classrooms of students in action, not to mention seeing students in the new science labs. Of the more than 200 students in the school, 70% are girls.

The next morning we headed to Njie Kunda, about 4 miles from Fula Bantang. Three years ago, this village had sent us a list of 100 children from there and surrounding villages who were not in school because it was too far to walk to Fula Bantang. "Help us build ourselves a school for Nursery through 3rd grade," they said, "and then the children will be old enough to walk to Fula Bantang for 4th grade and beyond."

We supplied cement, roofing materials, blackboards, wood framing, and benches, and the community built themselves a school. Starting with Nursery and 1st grade, and last year our special Project fund doubled the number of classrom and added teachers' housing, and latrines funded by Water Charity.

But the community under-estimated the demand.  Instead of 100 students, there are now 224 studetns in Njie Kunda Lower Basic school.  120 are girls. The total cost of building this school was $18.64 per student. That's less than the cost of a scholarship for a city student for one year!  What about uniforms? Look closely at the photo below, and you'll see that those who can't afford them, still come to school. What about school supplies? Look at this video: all the teaching is done by rote: https://youtu.be/EtN0WScMMCM  This community, far off the road (close to the Senegal border) has found its own way to educate all its children. With a little help from their friends.

And so it continued. We interviewed students, greeted mothers, discussed next steps in each place we work. We visited the school built with our support in Pacharr, the school improved in Dobong Kunda in collaboration with Board member Maggie Daniels. In an important initiative we proposed last year, Peace Corps has now assigned three AGRICULTURE volunteers to schools, to work on school farming and agriculture innovation programs. The Gambia is still dependent on the annual rains, and I have seen first-hand what happens when the rains fail.  But implementing new farming techniques will come easier if introduced through the schools. And before the climate gets more erratic is the time to do it, not after. One of the new Peace Corps volunteers has been assigned to Fula Bantang, and another to nearby Janjanbureh at Armitage Sr. Secondary School, where we saw two large fish ponds and a poultry house recently constructed by the school's new farm manager.

Of course, GambiaRising remains primarily a scholarship program, and I spent a good deal of time greeting students new and old. Our weekly FaceBook posts will feature many of them in coming months. But another important objective was to continue the evolution of GambiaRising into an enduring organization that is not dependent on any one person for its continuity.  Every year, we make progress, and I would say that this year we made a leap.

Organizing for the long-term

It is no secret that most non-profits spend much of their funds on salaries, offices, vehicles, and overhead. Many spend most of their funds that way - if you're running a hospital, it is hard not to.  But our mission is to enable as many young Gambians to go to school as possible. In country where only 1 in 30 of the poorest 20% graduate from high school, our work is unlikely to be finished. So our organization consists of Gambian professionals who are using all of their non-working time to manage a cause they believe in. And they feel privileged to do so. Were we to pay appropriate salaries, rent, and purchase a vehicle or two, we likely have NO money for scholarships. Although if we hired a marketing person our emails might be better-looking.

So many of our Gambian team gathered in Westfield for our annual meeting, and morale was high. Many of them had not seen each other since last year. One was at a funeral, another in the hospital, and several could not make the day-long trek down to the capital, but those were there would fill the others in afterward.  

Last year, I introduced the concept of franchising to the team: the idea that locally-managed enterprises, adhering to a common set of principles, could prove superior to top-down model. This year, I introduced what may be a useful analogy for day-to-day working: the internet. After all, the genesis of the internet was the fear that an enemy attack could wipe out any centrally-organized communications system. What we are seeking to build is an organization of locally-operating, intercommunicating Gambian leaders, united by a core set of principles, Which start with, fundamentally, doing as much good as we can do. So we talked about budgeting, the trade-offs and hard choices each were making. And how to increase our efficiency and effectiveness.

All funds will now flow through one bank account, to be disbursed by our Gambian financial coordinator to local Community Coordinators according to their budgeted spending levels. Each Coordinator will use the same chart of accounts and submit their use of funds reports quarterly to a Gambian accountant who will "roll" these up into a consolidated financial statement. In essence GambiaRising in the U.S. will raise funds, set policies, and provide oversight, but the on-the-gound,m day-to-day program will be managed by our Gambian team.

It will be more work for them, but everyone embraced the challenge.

They too, want GambiaRising to endure.

Each year, after our all-day meeting, we have a dinner with our team. Also, I have begun having a separate dinner with Peace Corps volunteers who are in town and want to learn more about our program. This year, we decided to combine the two. Acting Country Director Greg Kennedy and his wife Marguerite joined us as well, and the evening was as lively as I have seen in many dinners in The Gambia. (And of course, no donated funds were spent on the food!)  Our team really loves working with PCVs, and I think the feeling is becoming mutual.

I know I am in danger of writing a book, there is so much to tell.  Every student has an amazing story, every one feels so lucky to have this chance to get an education and be part of the future of the country. The difference between the lives they will live and the lives they expected to live is hard to over-state. I met more than a few mothers in my travels, and time after time they talked (in their native language) about never having been to school, or having dropped out after a few years, and how fervently they hoped their children could avoid their fate. I wish you could have been there. And I meant it when I said, "It is our honor to help; you and your children are doing the hard work."  

Now. with so many dreams and lives riding on us, we simply have to keep backing them, year after year.  And to expand the number of people doing so.

They didn't expect this, but they certainly deserve it. 

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

1500 Park Ave Apt PH503
Emeryville, CA  94608-3578

Mariatu Sarr has a scholarship to study journalism. What better experience than making short videos of younger students for us?

The 10th grade class in Fula Bantang is full of spunk! There are 86 new 10th graders;

68 are girls!

Mahana, named after one Peace Corps volunteer, is now attending a school organized by another (and both now GR Board members)

Ramatoulie is 18. When her father died, she dropped outl. Now she is back, in 8th grade.


Maimuna Baldeh graduated from UTG with a degree in IT in 2016. While working as a teacher, she has been an invaluable aide to Father Moses in record-keeping. But she also enlisted Ebrima Fadera, a classmate, to build a custom database for our student records that should be ready to test soon.

When the offices we borrowed to meet students closed for the day, the guard's chairs in the parking lot were a good alternative.

Want more?  Here are a few links:

A reading lesson at Njie Kunda: https://youtu.be/EtN0WScMMCM

GambiaRising's first girt scholarshp recipient girl was Outmou Jallow, who is now a successful shop owner:  https://youtu.be/PmPIhKN7hWs

The management team of GambiaRising in The Gambia have a heated discussion: https://youtu.be/9iYSH9zLvRw

Michelle Gomez is studying to be an auto mechanic: https://youtu.be/gP2_3jhCdRk

A mother of two students walked from Sare Ngai to say "Thanks": https://youtu.be/VHR2WgFu79w