We’re travelling again – back to The Gambia!

We’re travelling again – back to The Gambia!

March 18th – it was two years to the day since I was last at Gatwick Airport.  On this day in 2020 I returned from a volunteer trip to Morocco, cut short as the borders closed and the pandemic took hold, lucky to get a rescue flight home, and Gatwick was dark and deserted.  Now travel is starting to open up again and I was back at Gatwick, with Sallie this time, boarding a flight to The Gambia for our first post-pandemic volunteer trip.

And how good it was to be back!  Working together to set up and manage volunteer placements via Zoom has been far more productive than we could ever have hoped, but meeting face to face again is so much better!  It was a joy to be back in The Gambia, walking up the sandy track to Mary’s Little Lambs School, strolling along the beautiful beaches at the weekends, eating mangoes and bananas in a country where they actually grow – chickens, goats, donkeys, even the noise of the traffic made me realise how much I had missed the experience of actually being there!

the walk to school

There were many highlights to my trip – I shall just mention a few

I loved being back at Mary’s Little Lambs (MLL), renewing acquaintance with the teachers and meeting new ones, particularly Michelle, the new School Supervisor, and establishing a team of people to work with volunteers – Michelle, Lisong and Elsie – all with new ideas about how volunteers could usefully support the work they do, whether coming in-person or working online.

Elsie, Lisong and Michelle

I had heard much about the negative impact of Covid-19 on The Gambia – the complete shutdown of tourism has had a devastating impact on the country’s economy – but I was impressed to hear about their online learning platform, distributed to schools in areas with poor Internet access via USB sticks to plug into TVs – Michelle is a Jollyphonics trainer and has made videos to contribute to this learning platform.

I love the film we made of the school to show to prospective volunteers – and what a great job the head-boy and head-girl do leading us round their school – take a look here

A first for us was being able to do an in-depth review of work done by a previous volunteer.  By chance Joanne, a previous volunteer with MLL, was in The Gambia at the same time as us.  Her placement at the school had focused on strategies for learning through play and she had followed this up during the pandemic by making 10 Powerpoint presentations for teacher-training, all focused on practical strategies for helping children learn through play, which had been used in staff meetings during last year.  So Joanne, Lisong, Michelle, Elsie and I spent an afternoon reviewing this training – just how useful had it been in widening the teachers’ understanding of how children learn and giving them ideas for resources they could make to encourage different ways of learning?  This review was a real highlight for me – to see the teachers running off to their classrooms to bring resources they had made (even one teacher who swears she doesn’t know how to play but had made real use of her artistic skills to make some beautiful learning resources), hearing their stories about strategies they had adapted a bit to suit the children they teach, listening to the dialogue between volunteer and teachers, really brought home what a big impact this training has made – a really heart-warming afternoon.

Elsie and Haddy showing Joanne some of the resources they have made

Another first was the opportunity to participate in some sessions run by one of our e-volunteers while in-country.  Since we established e-volunteering back in 2020 I have attended many sessions with e-volunteers and local people while sitting at my laptop in the UK – this was my first chance to see what it was like from the point of view of people in-country.  Volunteer Mike is leading some e-volunteer sessions with a group of teachers from the school and the tourism college on the use of various forms of IT.  The main challenge of e-volunteering with The Gambia is their intermittent power supply and poor Internet signal – mainly caused not by lack of infrastructure but by the impact of Covid on the country’s finances.  It was so useful to see this first-hand – and I so admire the resourcefulness of the Gambians in overcoming these problems.  Power goes off – so meet somewhere that has a generator.  Internet goes down – plug in a dongle that gives you Internet for a short time through a pay-as-you-go sim card.  Signal is too weak for a whole group to connect at the same time – so link one laptop to a projector so everyone can see the volunteer projected onto the wall.  Zoom isn’t working – so connect via Whatsapp, on one phone if that’s all that will work and pass the phone round so everyone gets a chance to ask questions.  From the volunteer’s point of view – whole-group sessions are proving frustrating – so run some one-to-one lessons.  It feels like time is being wasted while everyone tries to connect – so prerecord some sessions so everyone has work to get on with.  We have always said the most important attribute of a good volunteer is flexibility – this experience proved how true this is – but most importantly no-one gave up and everyone is so appreciative of the work Mike is doing – everyone went out of their way to tell me how much they are learning.

Adama and Mike (onscreen)

So I think what I most loved about the trip was how much it reinforced the feeling that we are a real partnership – we have found ways to maintain genuinely useful support for each other during the pandemic – and now we can travel again we can continue to build these relationships face to face.  If you are interested in volunteering on one of these projects The Gambia is waiting to welcome you!  Take a look here:

https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/319/pre-school-and-primary-school-support-in-The-Gambia-(CDS)

https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/354/e-volunteer—early-childhood-development-and-teacher-training-in-The-Gambia-(EV)

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