As with every good story - mine starts with wine. Cramped on a tiny plane en route to sunny Gambia with 6 hours of staring into space ahead of me, I glugged the vino and ended up chatting to a lovely chap called Mark. "What do you want to do in Gambia?" he said. "I want to visit schhhooools! But we have no idea where to go." I squealed through red wines lips. "Ah, I know the perfect person to help - I'll put you in touch with Sandy" he said. Bingo. And it all starts from there.
9.45am SHARP I am stood at the front of our hotel with a bag full of stationary that I had bought from Pound Land in anticipation of my school trip. A few minutes later a green open topped car pulled up and a British lady jumped out dressed head to toe in purple. Excited to see her, I flung myself onto the back of the truck and started my barrage of questioning. Sandy was a lady from London, an ex-social worker who met her Bob Marley loving husband in Gambia and been married for 5 years.
We drove for about an hour and half through villages, past schools and farms. We stopped off at a village to grab a drink and have a quick pit stop and the only way I can describe it is BROWN. Brown dusty roads filled with brown rusty shops, brown donkies carrying brown wooden carts. But the one thing that lit up this dull picture is the sparkle from everyone's smile and the eagerness for everyone to say hello. Every kid waved as we went past and I keenly waved back.
We soon pulled down an uneven road and around a sharp corner and we drove into a huge (brown) space. Amongst this sat five single story white buildings, a water well, four green tin cabinets which I later found were the toilets and a token few chickens roaming around the place.
As we approached closer, we could start to see lots of little faces popping up at windows and out through doors. And before we knew it, we were surrounded by dozens of little cheering kids as they all poured out of the classrooms to greet us. The teachers arranged a large circle around us and two large empty bottles were brought out which they frantically started banging them with sticks. My heart melted when a sprog no older than 5 came into the circle and started stamping around doing a traditional tribal dance and was damn good it at it too. As the drumming sped up, so did the stamping and it was only a matter of 5 minutes before Jack and I were pulled into the circle and chaos erupted. But we felt well and truly welcomed and once everyone had calmed down they all toddled back to the white buildings to continue with their classes.
There was one main teacher who kindly showed us around, and we skipped through classes peering in at what was going on. Most of the walls were brown (!) and furnished with some form of limp times tables poster, there was a normal amount of desks as one would expect in a classroom, a blackboard and a teacher. They were being taught English, Arabic and Maths and the desks looked oddly bare but I later learnt that without being furnished with any writing material, the kids just had to remember things in their heads.
But what struck me the most was how united all these pupils were, if one person had a drink they wouldn't think twice about sharing it with everyone. I saw one girl drinking out of an old mustard bottle but still waved it in front of me asking if I wanted a sip.
After our grand tour of all the classrooms, the most petrifying moment arrived - I needed the loo. I had spied four grim looking portaloos in the corner off the grounds and they didn't look inviting to say the least. I finally plucked up the courage to ask Sandy if I could nip off and she armed with a toilet roll and a watering can - it wasn't the most promising start. So the toilet was only a couple of foot wide and featured nothing but a large hole in the ground and a lot of evidence of people missing the hole surrounding it. Luckily, all my squats in the gym paid off and I was in and out faster than lightening. Sandy stood outside to ensure I didn't fall in and told me that these toilets were only recently installed by her and her charity. "What did they do before?" I asked. "You don't want to know" she said. She was right, I didn't.
Our time at the school was closing to an end and kids were starting to vanish off home back to their compounds. I was EXHAUSTED and it took me a while to digest everything that had just happened. These kids own nothing, barely have a text book between them and must like the colour brown. But they are grateful to have an education and are polite, gentle and appreciative. But more importantly, they are a unit. Despite the fact they may not have shoes, I don't think these kids will ever feel lonely. All the girls, no matter how young they are show the maternal gene and look after everyone around them. If one kid falls over, another will pick him up, dust off his graze and send him on his way.
Gambia itself was a great country but nothing will ever compare to my day with the kids. It was so good it actually turned into two days where I dragged my darling boyfriend back with me for another day of chaos armed with a few boxes of text books, chalk and a couple of footballs. I have definitely learnt that you should be so grateful for everything you have but I've got to say I have come away admiring every person at that school for their loyalty and care for one another, no matter the circumstances. Oh and I have also learnt that drinking on the plane doesn't always end in tears.