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Pacharr gets a school

The first time I visited Pacharr, I didn't see it. 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. Not knowing (or perhaps not caring) about a Peace Corps rule against driving at night, we found her compound and met in pitch dark in the electricity-less village with a single candle for light.

I still had not seen Pacharr when Stephanie called me in 2008 to propose a student for a scholarship offered by an old friend and mentor of mine. The young man she hoped to get support for was working as a goatherd to earn money to go to high school, and he turned out to be the first upcountry student supported through what has now become GambiaRising.

Fast forward to late 2010, when Kebba Sanyang, Principal of St. Therese's in nearby Fula Bantang and now GambiaRising’s South Bank Coordinator, visited Pacharr and saw 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 one 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 wait until they were older to start school. And, Kebba knew, far too many would in fact never attend school. 

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 not let it go. 

Finally, in the summer of 2011, Kebba found an abandoned building in the village, asked for 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 thanks to Dr. Kujabi, the Catholic Education Secretary, 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) gave land for a new, less make-shift school building, and the community began building three new mud brick classrooms and an 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, understanding that the home-made mud bricks of the current school were not likely to last too many years, a permanent school buiding for school.

Original classrooms, and new classrooms being added,

... and teachers' living quarters,

... and a school well too.

This is truly a transformational development for the community of Pacharr.  And its children.

It all started with Kebba asking the question, “Why aren’t these children in school?”  And not accepting the answer.  And then, rather than solving the problem, mobilizing the community to solve it themselves, ... with a little help from their friends.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee

GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave PH 1
Emeryville, CA  94608