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Pacharr Keeps Getting Better

On my recent trip to The Gambia, while I was meeting with Kebba Sanyang and some teachers at St. Therese's School in Fula Bantang, I was told that I had a visitor. So much is going on in the region these days, with two new community-built schools built with support from GambiaRising donors (first in Pacharr and then in Njie Kunda). Both of these schools will in turn feed students into St. Therese's for the higher grades. And while in the past, 9th grade would have been the end for most students, starting this year, all of them will be able to attend the brand-new senior secondary school that GambiaRising donors are building next door to St. Therese's Basic Cycle School (see FB SSS for more about this). 

Our focus this trip was on meeting students, and inspecting the new Njie Kunda Lower Basic and the new senior secondary school, which is by far the biggest project we have ever undertaken. With our time limited, we didn't plan a formal visit to Pacharr. But even in the dark, I recognized our visitor as someone I had seen before; he was the first teacher hired at Pacharr, and I recognized him from the videos I had seen of that first year's classes. He had come, not to ask for anything, just to greet us, and to give a progress report on the school. When he started talking, I couldn't believe my ears; so despite the dim light, I pulled out my phone and started recording.  https://youtu.be/AM3bWlX7qEs

Here's the incredible news he had to tell us: with the governments' addition of two new classrooms, there are now six in total. When the school first opened in 2011, there had been 111 students. But school enrollment now exceeds 300, so even with six classrooms, they have gone to double shifts. The government has provided 9 teachers (3 of whom are living in the new teachers' quarters at the school.) 

But, he continued, the school and community aren't satisfied. they are now mounting a campaign in nearby villages to enroll even more students in the "catchment area" around the school. And who can doubt that they will.

This is truly a transformational development for the community of Pacharr and its neighbors. Not to mention for the children. If you'd like to hear more, I have another short video for you. As a do-it-yourself organization, we don't have skilled videographers on staff. We use cell phones to capture moments. While visiting students at Brikamaba Senior Secondary School with Kebba Sanyang recently, the Principal there asked Kebba about the new school he had seen while traveling past Pacharr. As Kebba began speaking, I turned on the camera to capture him tell this remarkable and inspiring story. You can hear that here: https://youtu.be/HxMen5eeIUg.

And if this is the first time you've heard of this remarkable project, or if you're someone who loves reading an inspiring story more than once, here's a bit more history:

Pacharr School: Home-Made Success

The first time I visited Pacharr, it was too dark to see. It was 2007 and as the new Peace Corps Country Director I was trying to visit every volunteer, staying too long at each place, and running later and later as the third day of our trek wore on. So when we arrived to visit Peace Corps volunteer Stephanie Stawicki, it was well after dark in the electricity-less village, and we met with a single candle for light.

I still had not seen Pacharr by daylight when Stephanie called me in 2008 to propose a student for a scholarship offered by an old friend and mentor of mine. The young orphan she hoped to find support for had graduated from St. Therese's Upper Basic Cycle School in nearby Fula Bantang, had been admitted to the best senior secondary school upcountry (Armitage). and was now working as a goatherd trying to earn money to pay for it. This young man became the first upcountry student supported through what has now become GambiaRising.

Fast forward to late 2010, when Kebba Sanyang, Principal of St. Therese's and now GambiaRising’s South Bank Coordinator, visited Pacharr and found a village filled with young children - on a school day. “Why aren’t these children in school?” he asked. Because, he was told, the 2-1/2 km. from Pacharr to Fula Bantang was too far for the youngest ones to walk. And three of those few who had walked to St. Therese’s had recently been killed by a car on the South Bank Road.  So Pacharr’s children would attend the local madrassa and/or wait until they were older to start school. But, Kebba knew, far too many would in fact never attend school. "Why not have a school in Pacharr?" he asked."We have written to the government many times about that," but we get no reply," he was told.

When I visited Fula Bantang in January 2011, Kebba and I brainstormed about solutions. Could we buy a small school bus (too expensive, not sustainable). How about a wagon pulled by a motorcycle (it’s still going to break down and can't bring enough kids). Maybe a fleet of donkey-carts to transport the childen?  Kebba would just not let the subject go. 

So Kebba organized and led a team to take a census of the number of children in the village. Finally, in the summer of 2011, Kebba found an abandoned building in the village, got permission to use it, and asked the Catholic Education Secretary to allow him to send two teachers from St. Therese’s to teach there. And when the temporary school opened in September, to his astonishment and delight, 111 students enrolled.

OK, there were no desks. There were hardly any walls. But there was a roof. There were children. And there were teachers.

And Pacharr had a school. Teachers taught; children learned. Kebba visited the school and made a short video of the classrooms, which you can see HERE and HERE.

Based on that initial success, Kebba worked with village leaders, to convince the government to provide teachers directly to Pacharr for the following school year. The villagers added a patchwork third room to the temporary school and the Pacharr Lower Basic Cycle School was official.  

Clearly this was an idea whose time had come, and momentum began to build. The alkalo (village chief) agreed to give land for a new, less make-shift school building, and the community began building three new mud brick classrooms and a school office on that land. The walls were finished by June 2013 but they did not have funds for the one thing that couldn’t be made by hand: a roof. When I spoke with Kebba around that time, the first rains had just started. The walls, made of mud, were at risk. The next day we wired 7,680 dalasis to buy corrugated sheets and nails to roof the four new rooms. (That cost a total of $224.) The roof was finished before the rains and in September, 2013 the Pacharr Lower Basic school opened its new doors.

The Pacharr School is clearly visible from the South Bank Road.  So imagine my delight when we drove by in November 2014 and saw new construction under way there. Kebba had called earlier to say that that Gambian Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education had just awarded contracts to dig a well for the Pacharr school. And to build staff quarters in which its teachers can live. And, since the school was getting over-filled, a permanent school buiding for school.several new classrooms as well. Meanwhile, behind the school, two latrines were being built, funded by a GambiaRising donor.

Original classrooms, and new government-built classrooms

... and teachers' living quarters,

... and two latrines were built too.

(These latrines were built through the generosity of a GambiaRising donor.)

All was not perfect, however. There were benches for only half the students. A few of them sat on cinder blocks, one on a broken table chair, and the others sat on the floor.  "Where did the benches come from and why are there not enough?" I asked. Kebba explained that he spent time winning over the operator of the local madrassa who would be losing students to the new school. Kebba arranged for him to be hired as the Islamic studies teacher for the new school (a government-mandated position, only for Muslim students), and he had in turn donated his now un-needed benches to the school. "That is remarkable," I replied. "I am sure we can find funds to provide enough benches for all the rest."  And we have now done so.

In the end, this is not simply a heartwarming story. It is an example of what can happen when a dynamic educator works with a motivated community... AND they have a bit of financial support from outside. Each of these three factors are a necesary component.

And it all started with one visionary and stubborn educator asking the question, “Why aren’t these children in school?” Then not accepting the answer. And after that, rather than solving the problem, mobilizing the community to solve it themselves, ... with crucial access to financial support from abroad. All in all, we have contributed less that $3,000 to this project. That's less than $10 per child. But the funding was one time; more children will come every year. Where else will you find that kind of return on your investment?

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave #503
Emeryville, CA  94608

Kebba Sanyang and Pacharr Lower Basic Cycle School