Education In Gambia: Learning The Hard Way
On a recent visit to the tiny West African country of Gambia I took a trip up country to the Prospects School Project. The school is in a small village called Mariama Kunda near Serrekunda. I wanted to see for myself how the school system worked, how the children themselves were dealing with the challenges of education in a poor country, and also how much progress was being made following long term attempts to raise school standards throughout Gambia. Just getting to the school involved a 2 hour dusty ride over rough back country roads from the capital Banjul. But any thoughts of that being a hard journey were quickly dispelled on discovering that every day some of Gambia’s schoolchildren walk up to three miles each way in the heat and dust.
Gambia gained independence from Great Britain in 1965. Although relatively rich in agricultural and fishing resources, as well as a growing tourism industry, around one third of the population lives below the poverty line which is set at about US $1.25 per day. It is the smallest country in mainland Africa (about the same size as Jamaica) with a total population of almost 1.8 million. Agriculture accounts for approximately one third of GDP, but employs around 70 percent of the labour force. About 90 percent of the population are Muslim, while 8 percent are Christian with little conflict between the two religions. In fact, it was approaching Christmas at the time of my trip and my guide joked that, as Muslims liked to join in some of the festivities they had their own version which they laughingly referred to as “ChristMus”. If only such tolerance could spread elsewhere. It certainly had not reached as far as the young man who walked up to our open truck wearing a Bin Laden T-shirt and, as he stood just below me staring straight into my face, pointed an imaginary gun and said “I will kill you”. It has to be said that this was the only animosity I experienced in Gambia.
Technically, primary schooling in Gambia is free and compulsory. But given the high levels of poverty and funding problems, this is hard to enforce and deliver. Nursery and secondary education are not funded by the government. The government is aiming for a 90 percent enrolment rate, but in 2011 enrolment in Primary education was estimated at between 70 and 80 percent. This is, however, a major increase on the 1991 figure of 58 per cent. Gambia is now spending almost 20 per cent of public expenditure on education. But, on the ground, individual rural schools find themselves dependent on charities and donations from tourists and foreign supporters.
Until 2009 the buildings at Prospects school itself consisted of makeshift corrugated iron walls. There was no roof and the whole structure was unstable and dangerous. Equipment and facilities could only be described as basic and one of the major problems was, and remains, providing food for the pupils whose dietary and health situation was hardly conducive to good education. Absenteeism and drop-out rates were understandably high. Then, with donations from various sources, particularly from tourists the school was able to move to a new plot and begin building a new school from scratch.
My next article on Prospects School will discuss what I found there and the progress made to date.
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