‘As a previous volunteer for People and Places both in situ in The Gambia and e-volunteering, I was only too happy to continue my involvement by working closely with Dianne and Lisong on a new training program to be delivered to Nursery School Teachers, promoting the Gambian Early Childhood and Development curriculum.
In 2020 myself, Dianne and Lisong held regular zoom meetings to develop the training program I have just delivered. Unfortunately the Covid pandemic did not allow for this to be implemented until this year, but it was well worth the wait.
Onto the training itself, well what an experience it was. Lisong in addition to owning Mary’s Little Lambs is also developing the Futures Training Foundation and it is under the FTF umbrella that this training was delivered. The course I had prepared was intense and completely different to any kind of training seen by the nursery teachers over there. As anticipated there were many adjustments to make as we worked through it. Initially it was planned for two 3 hour sessions each day. From day one this didn’t happen. It was necessary to move lunchtime back 1 hour 15 minutes to allow for 2pm prayers, something I had not considered. Notoriously Gambian people have little concept of time and whilst I was already aware of this, it did not prepare me for just how much time we would be waiting for people so we could begin. I will be forever grateful to Lisong for continually and persistently rounding the trainees up and bringing them back on task.
Each time I visit The Gambia I learn something new and this visit was no different. ‘Patience’ and there is ‘a song for any and every event and occasion’ was most certainly this visit’s lesson to myself. Throughout the 2 weeks my patience was tested by time but this is also a very much loved aspect of The Gambia for me. Ndanka (slowly) is now a favourite word for me, however Gawal (quickly) was my favourite word for them!
Many adjustments were made along the way as each day I would observe and assess the needs of the teachers whilst working with them and what was most important to them. Practical activities was most certainly a priority but in saying that a lot of new ‘academic’ knowledge was gained and retained by them, which was exceptionally pleasing. Each and every day brought a new song or several songs, which whilst initially frustrating was actually very important in terms of helping the teachers to get through the day. The songs also contributed to the strong bond and friendships I witnessed developing. The quieter members of the group grew in confidence and the more dominant ones relaxed, there was a very real sense of unity within the group of 19, who were of various ages and from varied backgrounds.
The trainees were an absolute joy to work with regardless of any mishaps we had along the way. Their enthusiasm, their unity and support for each other was incredible, they also did freely speak their minds if in disagreement with something, hence some good debates at times. Of course there was some reality checks in terms of the lack of resources to implement what was being asked of them but with encouragement and positivity, most began to see the benefits of the potential new way of teaching in early years and if I have managed to inspire even the smallest of changes, then I call that an excellent result.’
Heidi went to The Gambia in October to volunteer at Mary’s Little Lambs. Her brief was to focus on training on Child Protection in school and in the homes, how to manage children with autism and how to support families who are struggling to cope with their children. Here are some extracts from her report.
‘The following morning I felt confident with finding my own way up to the school. I spent the morning in the nursery. The boy they believe to have autism wasn’t in school so I just observed and helped out with the other children. There was one little girl that I wondered if she was on the spectrum due to her behaviour but later in my placement I realised that a lot of her frustration was mis-communication, she only spoke Fula and the other children either spoke Wolof and/ or Mandinka and unlike the other children, she didn’t know any English. I actually saw a massive improvement in her behaviour during my time there, I’m not sure how much was down to her getting used to the environment (as she was new to the school) and how much was down to the attention I gave her. One day later in my placement, I spent some time with her drawing, using a small chalk board and chalk, we drew a person together, she added hands and feet and I realised how much a lack of resources affects the children, if they could afford more staff, so that all the children had some one-to-one time, I think they would see a big difference in some of the children. This little girl blossomed with some extra support. One of her other problems was playing with the other children as she couldn’t tell them what she wanted, it became a thing every day during outside play, that she would take me by the hand and lead me over to the swings and I would help them all get a turn. One day there were so many that wanted a go, we all counted to 30 during each child’s go before swapping, so they were practising their counting and being lovely at taking turns, it worked very well but again, they need some guided support.
I spent the rest of the week observing in some of the Prep classrooms and on the Friday after school, which finished at midday, I facilitated my first training session with the staff on Autism Awareness. Although without electricity that day, some couldn’t see the PowerPoint on my small laptop screen. Without the ability to diagnose any children with children with autism / ADHD / or other learning needs in The Gambia, it is not always easy to tell but hopefully, having a general awareness will not only help them cope with an autistic child better but also any other children who may have a learning delay of some description. We had a good discussion about some of the children they have or have had at the school.
My second week at MLL, I spent some more time observing the older children, they have a child in Prep 3 and a child in Prep 5 who sometimes struggle to keep up with the class and understand some of the lessons. Halfway through the week a little boy walked into prep 5 looking up at the ceiling fans and I knew it was the boy with ASD, so I spent the rest of the morning with him. I let him lead our time, I copied his drawing on a chalk board by watching and then making the same marks in an exercise book, he thought this was quite funny. We then went and played in the sand, I allowed him space but he kept looking round to check on me, he’d briefly look, give me a massive smile and then carry on playing. He definitely has autistic traits but he’s fairly high functioning and he will give eye contact and interacts quite well when he wants to. I think he will cope quite well in mainstream school although again, I have to confirm, I am no expert. I spent the rest of the week helping out in the nursery and offering one-to-one time with this little boy.
At the end of my second week on the Friday lunchtime again, we set up the overhead projector in one of the classrooms, so I could deliver my safeguarding training, thankfully we had electricity that day. We had a really good conversation and most of the teachers had come across some form of abuse, whether it be overdiscipling or neglect – there was some discussion about things like lunch boxes not getting emptied and children coming in with the same uneaten food for days (you can imagine in that heat, what this was like). Some of the teachers were aware of sexual abuse in their communities. All teachers said they felt confident about raising concerns and it’s something that MLL seems to take very seriously, so I was really pleased about this.
I would undoubtedly recommend volunteering to other people – to volunteer abroad gives you such a different perspective on your own life, it was the most humbling experience. I walked into my home and couldn’t believe how much ‘stuff’ I own, it all seemed so materialistic and just too much but I am so much more grateful for everything and everyone in my life, it was a very worthwhile experience!’
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