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The Back Way to Europe, ... and Those Left Behind

Much has been written about the crisis of mass immigration from Africa to Europe. And time and again, the tiny nation of The Gambia is mentioned in the stories. The Washington Post even dedicated an entire article to one Gambian village where most of the young men had gone, or tried to go:

"Tiny Gambia has a big export; migrants desperate to reach Europe": Washington Post

And while the most likely outcomes range from drowning to living in poverty far from home, the FaceBook generation makes sure that their photos tell a different story. Standing in front of the Colisseum or in Piazza San Marco for that happy photo, but sleeping where that night? GambiaRising has a YouTube channel called GambiaScholars to which we upload videos of students for our donors to see. Most of these are not available for public viewing, but for some we have removed last names and made them available to the public. Over time we’ve built a library of more than a thousand short videos. In recent months, we’ve noticed we have had more “viewers” from Italy than from the U.S. It sounds like homesick Gambians to me.

What is rarely mentioned is the fact that it is not a country’s poorest who attempt to migrate: it is too long and costly a trip, and too many people need to be paid along the way. This quest for a better life is rarely successful, and so it is mostly unemployed young men who try and make the journey, funded by their relatives. But when it is the head of the family himself who tries the trip, the result can be disastrous for those left behind.

And when there is no breadwinner, and mouths to be fed, the first thing to go is education.

While GambiaRising is still only addressing a small fraction of The Gambia's premature school dropouts (especially girls) with our small program, in the communities where we do have a volunteer Community Coordinator, our impact is significant. Our volunteers develop relationships with the local schools, who often call to tell them about students registered but did not show up. And then sometimes a mother just shows up at their door telling them they need help. 

It is always the mother (unless it is the student themself). There is no sign on the door, and The Gambia doesn’t have street names. But find them they do. One of our former students, Ebrima Sanneh, now an accountant by day, is one of these Coordinators. And among his appeals for support in recent years have been three families thrown into crisis by the loss of the head of the family to the Back Way.

In the summer of 2016, he introduced us to the Badjies. Their father, a carpenter always struggling to support his three wives and all his children, took what he could save and paid to try the “Back Way”. He died at sea. By custom, his younger brother “inherited” the family but wasn’t able to take them into his compound. The brother contributes what he can for the family’s food bowl, and all three women also go around as laundry women to keep their family fed. But every one of their children had dropped out of school, and the young ones never started.

The oldest, Ramatoulie, was about to turn 20 and had dropped out after 9th grade. Of marrying age, we knew we had to help her asap.

Her sister Tida, had dropped out after 7th grade. But she was then almost 17 years old and so also of marrying age. She also went to the top of our waiting list.

In all, 8 of the family’s 10 children had dropped out and 2 had never started. 

We try hard not to be one of those organizations that fundraises constantly. But our annual Back-to-School campaign that year produced enough to help some of the Badjies. A big boost came when a returned Peace Corps volunteer added GambiaRising to his wedding register. Using funds collected from his wedding plus our annual campaign enabled us to get 8 of the Badjies who had dropped out back to school in September, 2016. And this year, all 10 of them are back in or have started school.

The Sambous

Then came Dafaal Sambou. When her mother knocked on Ebrima’s door in the fall of 2016, school had already started. She told him that the family had not heard from her husband since he had left to try the “Back Way” in 2013. Her daughter had dropped out of school after 9th grade, and had been out of school for two years. Could we help? Our back-to-school funds were all spoken for, but Ebrima visited the family, verified her story, and Dafaal went on our waiting list. Then at year's end we received some new donations, and in January 2017, Dafaal went back to school, a 10th grader at Banjulunding Senior Secondary School. 

Then Dafaal visited again. Could we help her brothers too? They were aged 13, 11, and 5. One had dropped out and the other two had never been to school. First, we found the funds to send the dropout back to school in March, and this September, the other two went to school for the first time.

The Kebbehs

Next  were the Kebbeh brothers. Their father left for the Back Way in 2015 and has not been heard from since. His three children, ranging in age from 5 to 8, had never been to school. We prioritize older girls for support. But then we got an email from a man who had been chatting with a young Gambian on FaceBook and (surprise, surprise) the boy ended up asking for money to support “his education”. Wisely, this man did not send money to the boy, but contacted us. Our team met the student, who seemed more interested in FaceBook than his studies, and came back with a proposal: if you want to pay for the young man’s actual out-of-pocket needs for school, which was ¼ of what he had asked for, then might we use the rest to send the Kebbehs to school. He agreee, and all three started 1st grade in September.

Your Support is Vital

In business, you learn to distinguish between short-term and long-term liabilities (commitments). At GambiaRisng, it seems to us that while helping a child start 1st grade expresses a long-term intention to support them for at least 12 years, even one year of education is better than none. So when a new donor joins us, we use it to help new students to go to school. What allows that to work is previous donors renewing their support year after year. Otherwise, we need to use new donations just to keep our current scholarship students in school. It's that simple: donors continuing their support allows the donations of new supporters to support new children. Both are vital to our program.

Going to school is no guarantee of a better life for a young Gambian. But it is certainly a pre-condition.

Thanks so much for being part of GambiaRising, and of helping so many young Gambians have that chance.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee
GambiaRising Charitable Trust

1500 Park Ave., Apt PH503
Emeryville, CA  94608-3578