The Gambia, as I saw it
It’s very easy to miss The Gambia on a map of mighty Africa. The smallest country in mainland Africa is but a sliver of land, merely 500 km long, and 50 km wide. Small as it may be, two weeks in The Gambia during the summer of 2014, have left a big impression on me.
The first thing I noticed when I got to The Gambia, was how diverse its people were. Almost everyone I was meeting was from a different ethnic group, and invariably spoke at least four languages. Intermarriages among ethnic groups are very common in The Gambia, and it has been devoid of ethnic and racial frictions. Despite each individual belonging to the Mandingo, Wollof, Fulbe, Susu, etc. ethnic group, to be Gambian means that you are the product of generations of amalgamation that has blurred the differences, and made you a stronger “tribe”.
Life revolves around the serene coastline, and the River Gambia which dissects the country. The country gets her name from this river, which lies testament to it’s turbulent history. The River Gambia, as one of the most navigable rivers in the world, was the site for mass slave trade. Scores of people from across the continent were brought here by the British and French before shipping off to the Americas and the Caribbean. Old structures where slaves were housed can still be found doting the river, while the names of streets across the country are still named after British generals of the colonial era. The Gambia and Sierra Leone, which engulfs the country, were once one, until the end of the 19th century when the British and French started dividing Africa to further their colonial interests. The British wanted access to The River Gambia and carved out 50 kms of land on each side of it, giving birth to the land that is now known as The Gambia. The country gained independence in 1963, but colonial powers have left a lasting mark. Movement to and from The Gambia and the rest of West Africa continued, and have resulted in its multi-ethnic makeup.
There is plenty of sun and surf, nature parks and sightseeing in The Gambia. However, I took to rural communities and street markets to get a more insiders perspective of the country. The hustle and bustle of Banjul (capital city) and Serekunda (major center for commerce), quickly give way to a semi-arid landscape sprinkled with villages. With a population of less than two million, there are vast expanses of land between inhabited areas.I got the chance to drive through the length of the country, crossing the river by ferry on numerous occasions.
The purpose of my visit to The Gambia was to conduct an assessment for the introduction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in selected schools and hospitals in the country, on behalf of Hand in Health (HIH) and Books for Africa (BFA). My time there was packed with site visits to schools and hospitals, meetings with government officials and the Hand in Health team in The Gambia. In the process of doing that, I got the opportunity to crisscross the length of the country and meet some amazing people.
Our goal is to implement computer learning facilities in major schools across the country and to incorporate ICT in the school curriculum along with the Ministry of Education. We are also working with two hospitals where we have already established medical libraries, to adopt computer technology in record-keeping, doctor and nurse training and providing tele-medicine services. We will be piloting the project at the Nusrat School in Serrekunda, Armitage School in Janjambureh, Sulayman Junjung Hospital in Farafenni and the Bwiam Hospital. While conducting the technical assessment, I was thoroughly impressed with the work that has already been put in by teachers and doctors at these facilities. Despite access to very limited resources, both material and human, these institutions have already taken significant strides towards utilization of ICT in service delivery.
This trip would not have been possible without a very supportive team at home, namely Lang Dibba, Dr. Lamin Mbye and Megan Meyer. The trip of HIH orchestrated my entire trip and provided support from across the Atlantic. I cannot thank the HIH team in Gambia enough for accompanying me on my many excursions in country, and making me feel at home, very far away from home. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Musa Mendy (representative from Ministry of Education), Mr. Burama Dibba (HIH Gambia staff and communications engineer), Mr. Kebba Badgie (CEO of the Sulayman Junkung Hospital), Mr. Buba Faburay (Future in our Health) and last but definitely not the least, Ms. Isatou Ceesay (who is so amazing that I interviewed her for my blog). You guys are the lifeblood of this great initiative of ours, and your passion for promoting literacy in The Gambia, has left me truly inspired. I would also like to thank the Honorable Minister of Tourism, Mrs. Fatou Jobe, who paid for all my lodging and food while on the trip. I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Mrs. Jobe, and am happy to announce that she is the newest member of the HIH Gambia family!
Two weeks was too short of a time to explore all of The Gambia. Don’t be fooled by its size on the map – The Gambia is a diverse country full of some of the warmest people I have met. I know for sure I will be back. Until next time!