Education In Gambia – Learning The Hard Way (Part Two)
In my previous post on this topic, I described the background of education in Gambia and my trip to the Prospects School Project in a village called Miriama Kunda. To get to the school I had to use an organised tour from the capital Banjul. In every village or tiny settlement we passed, children of all ages ran out to wave at us when they heard the truck coming. What worried me, however, was that many of them would then run after the truck getting so close to the huge wheels that I was seriously concerned that there might be an accident. Some just seemed to be chasing the vehicle for fun but many were asking for gifts and a few tried to jump up and grab what they could. Later I learned that, as tourist trucks become more common, a lot of children are staying away from school in the hope of picking up money or gifts from the passing tours.
Arriving at the school, we were led into a large walled compound and it was immediately obvious that several new classrooms had been built. Although there seemed to be no large centre of population locally, the school now serves 320 pupils from nursery age to Grade 6 – an impressive achievement given its small beginnings as a run-down nursery school. Miniature classroom chairs were laid out in the compound outside. The headmaster gave us a brief talk on the school then we were able to wander round the classes and talk to the pupils and teachers. The enthusiasm and energy of everyone there was infectious, but one could not help but wonder how the school coped with so many children and with so little in the way of resources. They were desperate for books, pens, and funds to keep them going.
It is well documented that schoolchildren all over the world perform better when well nourished. Some of these kids were anything but well fed and arrive at school with nothing to eat and no money. The school asks each child to bring 1 Gambian Dalasi (less than US$3 cents) a day to help buy food but only about 146 of the 320 children bring anything at all. Any money that is collected buys peanuts, peppers onions which, with oil and rice bought with charitable donations, are turned into a stew to provide a mid-day meal for all. The food was shared out among all and not just those who brought money. The hope is that, apart from improving nutrition for existing pupils, more children will be attracted to school by the feeding programme therefore increasing enrollment and retention rates.
It is hard to imagine visiting a project like this without being moved by the tenacity of all involved and the difficulties they face, from those kids walking miles to school on empty stomachs, to the dedicated teachers who also have to be fund raisers. Gambia is trying hard to make education a priority and to align teaching with the new skills that will be needed to meet a changing economy. But the country has a massive debt burden made worse by widespread crop failure in 2011. GDP is growing, but that means nothing to a hungry pupil with no food and no pens. Nevertheless, literacy rates are improving with approximately half the population being able to read and write. Gambia is now a growing tourist destination, especially for Europeans looking for winter sun; although the benefits of this are slow to reach those in rural areas. So, the future looks better than the past, but I saw for myself that, for now at least, most children in Gambia get their education the hard way.
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