Lately it seems that every time we turn on the tv there is another advert for a charity such as water aid and startling images of desperately starving and sad faces of African children, these adverts are intended to pull on the heart strings and they do. I do to a certain extent agree with the showing of these adverts and I know it probably creates such a lot of much needed funds but unfortunately it can also make you feel that every child in Africa has permanent tear tracks on their face.
Two years ago I was lucky enough to spend some time working with the WYCE ( wonder years centre of excellence) charity in The Gambia and it was the most fantastic experience I have ever had. It wasn’t a holiday but it was still one of the best holidays I’ve ever had if that makes any sense!
I found out about WYCE through reading an article in a workplace magazine written by a man from Swansea who had recently been to work with them and within a few weeks of reading it had booked the flights and reserved a room at the working lodge. Flights to The Gambia aren’t cheap and by the time you added in the necessary jabs,malaria tablets and food and lodge it was probably about the same price as a luxury all inclusive holiday but it was going to be a far cry from luxury.. Cold showers and no electricity were a slight worry for me! But still if I could go back and swap this trip for a 5 star hotel in Barbados I wouldn’t. I’m not going to tell you that it changed my life but it definitely changed the way I think about certain issues.
From the moment we arrived at the rickety little airport in The Gambia we felt welcomed, another volunteer and Malang our guide (and protector) for the duration of our stay greeted us literally with open arms and ice cold water. It took us around an our hour to get to the village of Madina Salaam and as we pulled into the lodge several of the local children lingered nearby shouting toubab (white man) and smiling at us.
We were shown to our room which to my relief were basic but quaint with everything we would really need and the basic rules of the lodge were explained to us.
The next step was for us to be taken to the centre of the village and introduced to the elders who had to accept us for us to be able to work there. Luckily for us they did, although this was an extremely surreal experience. We met what I suppose would have been the mayor of the village in a tiny one room hut ( which we would later discover was the height of luxury compared to the rest of the homes there ) where he lived with his three wives and a number of children! A girl of around 4 sat just outside slicing a mango with a huge machete which I would have been afraid to hold myself!
The villagers were very welcoming to us and were just slightly bewildered as to how myself and A had been together for two years but were not married and even more astonished that I was in my mid 20’s with no children.. Different worlds. The next day after a lovely breakfast of pancakes cooked for us by the fabulous WYCE chef Ensa we were put to work helping in the school (me) and with heavy lifting.. man stuff of course.
We took a number of school supplies over with us ( 1 whole suitcase full) generously donated by friends/family.
We also took a big bag of modelling balloons which went down a storm with the children even after they had burst the remains were kept in the childrens pockets until the day we left which was incredibly touching.
The children of Madina Salaam have nothing in the way of toys, TVs etc but they are the happiest most content children I have ever met. They all hold each others hands as they walk to school and share fruit with one another and just smile all day long! We were told not to give personal items or presents to individuals so as not to encourage jealousy which we abided by but it was hard as we did grow close to some.
I could probably write all day about all our different experiences there so I will try to limit it!
Above is a coconut tree plant which we each bought to plant outside the new school building, as they grow they provide much needed shade for the children during playtime. Looking forward to going back to see it in a few years!
Above is Andrew enjoying a traditional Gambian meal which I helped the ladies of the village prepare. Everyone sat on the floor to eat together and it was a strange, messy but fun experience.
Me with a lovely little baba .. Everyone wanted us to hold their children! I was never going to refuse a baby cuddle. It seemed to astonish me daily seeing very small children carrying smaller siblings on their backs but it seems a way of life there .
Painting the new school building was a longgg process as the paint was extremely watered down but fun!
To sum up. We had a once in a lifetime experience in Madina Salaam and I would love to go back when Izzy is older to show it all to her but maybe wait a while as it got up to 50 degs Celsius whilst we were there. WYCE are doing an incredible job of increasing and improving education, skills and employment possibilities in The Gambia and anyone who is looking for a more meaningful holiday could not look for a better place. http://wyce.org.uk/
I hope you enjoy reading and understand I am not making light of the very real problems that many people in Africa are experiencing every day but to share some happy news about some very special people in a magical village called Madina Salaam.
One final pic to end.. The lovely Bindu: