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"May I speak with you?"

Ebrima Sanneh was walking to the road to catch a ride to work when a young woman approached him. “May I speak with you?” she said.

“Of course,” he replied, “what about?”

“I am told you help girls go to school."

It was true. Ebrima is one of GambiaRising’s Neighborhood Coordinators, who identify and qualify potential candidates from their community who are in need of support, usually those who have already dropped out of school for lack of funds. They get to know the students' situation, then help them apply, and if our budget permits and we are able to help them, monitor their (and their family’s) progress until they graduate or their family's situation improves.

From Student to Volunteer

I have known Ebrima since 2008, when he became one of two members of Peace Corps/The Gambia’s intern program. He and his siblings had moved to moved to the community of Sinchu Alhagi, about 5 miles northwest of Banjul Airport after their father, a shopkeeper in Basse, died. When it became clear that Peace Corps was not going to continue the intern program after my tour as Country Director ended, we offered to help him to go back to school and get a degree in accounting, which he did. Now working for the St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s P.E.A.C.E exchange program in The Gambia, Ebrima was disturbed to see a number of young children in his neighborhood still not attending school, even after the World Bank began subsidizing school fees in the lower grades a few years ago. On the radio, he heard talk of free education and school for all, but what he saw was different. So he talked with his neighbors, visited the children's families, and was told again and again that the subsidized fees were fine, but the cost of uniforms, supplies, shoes, books, etc. was still beyond their means. Besides, they knew that as their children moved through the grades, those costs would only rise. And the majority of the children out of school were girls. What, he was asked, was the point of educating a girl, anyway?

So Ebrima got back in touch with us. What could he do? We replied that our funds are always limited, but the place to start was to help students to apply for GambiaRising scholarships. So he got the forms, took photos, and got the parents to supply the information needed.

But he went further. Along with the applications, he submitted a proposed budget, broken down by expense category. And he asked only for the bare minimum, in order to help the largest number of children. To make the funds stretch further, he asked that we buy only the cloth for school uniforms, since his younger brother Omar, an apprentice tailor, had agreed to sew them as his contribution to the cause.

And thus, in 2013, began the Sinchu Alhagie neighborhood program, with Ebrima focused on his own community, understanding who is truly needy and who is not, and keeping impeccable records, of course.

Still, he was surprised when, on the road to work this fall, a young woman approached him and said “I understand you help girls go to school." But he knew what to do.

Haddy's story

In a series of discussions with the young woman and her family, Haddy’s tale unfolded. Her father had died. Her mother had remarried but her stepfather refused to spend any money on educating the daughter of his wife's first husband. And so, despite having graduated from 9th grade with such a good exam scores that she was eligible to go to the best senior secondary school in the country (Nusrat), Haddy dropped out of school. And “sat” for one year. It was after a year had passed that her stepfather decided she should be married, and found a man to “give her to” in marriage. Which is when Haddy set out to find Ebrima.

Despite her story being completely believable, and unfortunately not even that unusual, Ebrima felt he must check, and doublecheck it, so he made a series of unscheduled visits to the family’s home to be sure he understood their circumstances, before recommending her for support. "Someone in the family joked that I must want to marry the girl, because I came so often." Ebrima said.

Father Moses Drammeh, our national coordinator and holder of the budget, still needed approve any application for support (in the context of our annual budget), and we try not to interfere in this process. But there was no doubt that Haddy was deserving, and he was able to offer to support her.

The proposition we make to parents in these situations is this: Let the girl pursue her education. Let her continue to let her live with her family and share the family food bowl. But we will pay all the costs of her education: it will not cost you one butut.  We ask in return that you let her continue in school as long as she wants to and that we can support her.

And so today, Haddy is a 10th-grader at Nusrat Senior Secondary School. Where she deserves to be, studying in the science program.  And hoping, no, planning to be a nurse,… or a doctor.

When we commit to support a student, we commit to do so through 12th grade (and in a few cases, further). So we can accept new students only as others graduate, … or as we have new (or increased) donations. Fortunately, we had both this year, and so Haddy is back in school.

I dropped by to see Ebrima on my recent visit to The Gambia. When I arrive at his home, I was delighted to find 17 students waiting for me as well. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Dr. David Levine (“Toubabdoc”) came along and took photographs. Some of them are below.

If you’d like to “meet” Haddy, here is a brief portion of my conversation with her a few weeks ago:  https://youtu.be/lX2ud86ig3s.

In the month of December, additional year-end donations have allowed us to accept the appeals of yet more students, bringing the total in Sinchu Alhagie alone to 31. Nearly all of whom had already dropped out of school before we offered support.

This is possible only because of the generosity of Peace Corps/The Gambia's returned (and current) volunteers, staff, their friends, and their families. We have no paid staff, no foundation grants, just individuals opening their hearts and doing what they can to see that more like Haddy get to have the opportunity for a life better than they now expect, and closer to what they hope for. It takes so little to change a life.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

1500 Park Ave Apt 503
Emeryville, CA  94608

Ebrima with 17 of the Sinchu Alhagie students in school thanks to your support.

Above, Ebrima talking with the students in his front yard.                                                                                                                                                                                                       Below, twelve more of Sinchu Alhagie's students, from the thirty-one now in school in Sinchu                Alhagie thanks to GambiaRising's donors.

Fatou, grade 10

Mariatou, grade 7

Jainaba, grade 10

 Jabou, grade 11


Neneh, grade 9

 Awa, back in 6th grade after sitting for 3 years

Fatou, in school for the       first time (1st grade)

Ramatoulie, grade 7

Sainabou, grade 7

Ousman, grade 4

Fatou, in school for the first time

Fatou, in school for the first time