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What a time to visit The Gambia!

Hope is in the air.

“#The Gambia Has Decided” billboards and T-shirts are everywhere.  Some tourists have returned, and diplomats and businesspeople fill the better hotels.

Already the new government has re-joined the British Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court. The new Minister of the Interior toured the infamous Mile 2 Prison, then invited the press to do the same. And then followed up by releasing nearly one hundred prisoners. Aid agencies are lining up to pitch in, including several American agencies previously barred from working there because of human rights abuses. The EU seems ready to act as well; a rental car agency owner told me that all fifteen of his SUVs had been hired long-term by the EU as of April 1st (they reportedly now have only six.)

Although several thousand Senegalese troops remain, it is the Gambian police who are staffing the checkpoints.

There are growing pains, to be sure. When the University of The Gambia’s holdover administration bought eight new vehicles for themselves, the faculty went on strike.  It is a new day, the faculty believe, and the administration must be held accountable. 

Yet of course, nothing tangible has changed for the average Gambian. Just possibility.

Cell phone service was notably worse than in previous visits. The national phone company had inserted itself between the high-speed internet cable from Europe and the other service providers, then had had 70% of its revenue looted by former President Jammeh. Who can blame the other phone companies for not investing? Now the race will be on to build better systems, but only after the old structure is unwound, which will take time.

Until this year, we have flown below the political radar and limited ourselves to meeting with students and educational leaders with whom we work. This year, in addition to former colleagues and current staff and volunteers at Peace Corps,we also met with business leaders, U.S. Ambassador Pat Alsup, Permanent Secretary of Basic & Secondary Education Baboucarr Bouy, and Professor Pierre Gomez, Dean of the University’s School of Arts and Science. Each one of them expressed cautious optimism, fully aware of the steep hill to be climbed, and the deep financial hole left by the exiled President Jammeh.

Small Projects for Immediate Impact

GambiaRising continues to focus on scholarships for students who would not be in school without our support. But when a donor offered matching funds for a one-time campaign to fund small school improvement projects to celebrate the return of democracy, we had to say "Yes." Twelve projects are underway, including solar lighting for night-study classrooms at four rural schools. Here photos of Before (candles and flashlights) and After (solar-powered light) at St. Matthew's school in Kaimoh:

New classrooms are also being built at three schools. No one project will cost more than $800, as we contribute only materials, and the communities supply the labor.

An abandoned classroom at St. Peter's is getting a new roof.

With 176 students, 2 classrooms at Njie Kunda were not enough, even with 2 shifts. So they build a grass shelter.

But with our support for supplies, the community has begun building 2 new classrooms ($700 each.)

GambiaRising's Volunteer Team

Nearly all of GambiaRising’s Community Coordinators and collaborators gathered in Westfield while I was there. There were 16 of us in all. The dedication of these Gambians is what allows our precious funds to go so far. Three American-founded programs, who fund their own activities but to whom we offer logistical support, also joined us and met our expanding team. I am hopeful that more collaboration will ensue. A few days later, we met several more collaborators from the Upper River Region, where our coverage has now extended past Basse.

Students Need Our Help More Than Ever

As usual, meeting the students supported by our donors is such an emotional experience – they are so brave and so happy to be in school and with such high hopes for their future.  And yet I can’t help also to think about the ones we are still turning away for lack of funds. (One of our Coordinators is telling his applicants "Be patient; it takes a few years to get support.")  Most of the new students we accepted this fall were not in school last year; some had been "sitting" for several years.

So it was really heartwarming to meet students like the S----- family. When their father died, his extended family contined to support his four daughters' education, for a time. But their willingness to support the girls as they grew older diminished over time, and the breaking point came when the oldest, Salimatou, graduated from 12th grade and refused to be “given in marriage.” Their uncle immediately cut off support not only for Salimatou and her mother but also for her three sisters. All four were out of school last year. Their mother searched the community for support for their education, and visited our Community Coordinator several times, finally bringing all her daughters with her. And at year's end, we received new donations that allowed us to fund Saneba, Jaka, and Fatoumata's return to school this January. 




And then last month, we had accumulated enough additional funds to enable Salimatou, the girl whose refusal to compromise her dream had caused the trouble, to begin a course in management at the University of The Gambia's Management Development Institute.

Here's a link to a short conversation our Coordinator had with Salimatou: https://youtu.be/WpTylKQv95E. And another to my conversation during my recent visit: https://youtu.be/U4fVV5YbIQU

What a difference our donors' support has meant to these and to so many young leaders of The [New] Gambia.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

1500 Park Ave PH 503
Emeryville, CA  94608

P.S. Jon Vallee, Rest in Peace

When Jon Vallee first met Kebba Sanyang, he dropped in on St. Therese's school in Fula Bantang unannouced at 8 AM. All week, Jon had been visiting schools in The Gambia to which he had donated bikes through various programs, to see how they were being maintained and used. Unlike the other schools, at St. Therese's the bell rang at 8 AM, the children hurried to class, and the Principal strode out to see who the visitor was. "I want to see the bikes I donated," Jon said. Kebba produced a list of bikes, the students they had been loaned to, then showed him each bike, and told him the plan for upkeep over summer holidays.  And a beautiful partnership was born.

Over the next few years, while GambiaRising focused on scholarships and direct support of students, Jon teamed with GambiaRising to improve St. Therese's school itself. He funded the repair of the school's pump, then the renovation of the teachers' kitchen to save fuel and produce less smoke, the building of a wall for a cashew orchard for the school, a poultry house, and several new units of teachers' housing. But when he learned that he would live less long than he had expected, Jon talked with Kebba and with us about upping the ante, in a big way. 

St. Therese's only went through 9th grade. After that, students had to move to another town if they wanted to stay in school. And while GambiaRising's scholarship program funded dozens of St. Therese's students to do just that each year, too many did not go, and those who went suffered from the stress of living with strangers or distant relatives, and of going to large schools where they knew no one. So the idea was a big one: build a senior secondary school in Fula Bantang. 

With Jon and his wife Libby providing the cornerstone funding, we began raising a fund for a discretely-funded project: to build such a school. Two of our original donors offered to match Jon and Libby. Others pitched in and/or made pledges. And when we had enough pledges that at least the minimum configuration could be built, we started. First, teachers' housing was built. Then the 10th grade classrooms, which opened in January 2016, followed by the 11th grade classrooms which opened in September. 

The school is not fully funded, but it is getting there. Three buildings are complete and a fourth, the school's labs, are underway. Construction of the 12th grade classrooms will start soon.

As his health failed, Jon took great satisfaction in seeing this dream come to fruition step by step. At one point the school asked for permission to name the school St. John's but Jon would hear nothing of it. So St. Therese's Senior Secondary School is its name, sister school to the elementary and junior high school next door. When complete, it will be able to educate up to 500 students, and is already transforming the lives of those who now have a chance to graduate from senior secondary school. 

Jon was 62 when he lost his fight with mutiple systems atrophy, a rare brain disorder. Everyone who knew him misses him very much. What a legacy he left!