I’m walking down Rothenbaumchausee, an avenue of mostly 19th century villas that make up one of the most groomed parts of the free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg. Everything is orderly, even the trees, which recently turned a lush green with the early days of spring, seem to stand to attention lining the road as if they are trooping their colour. If there are people, I do not see them and at least, they try hard not see me. Cars crawl passed as if afraid of making any noise. Spotlessly clean, their shiny chassis gleam with the rays of both the sun and the wealth of Germany’s second city. I have miscalculated the warmth of the day and dressed too warmly, my shirt hanging untucked and sleeves all over the place, as I struggle to carry two old cardboard boxes. Their thin sides already tearing and splitting with the bulk of the amass of textbooks that I’ve been given, and as I start the short walk down to Dammtor station and my S-bahn train home, I hope I can make make it. I start to cuss, but stop. “This is just the beginning,” I remind myself: in just a few days I will be carrying these same books and perhaps, much more through the streets of a hotter, much busier West Africa. I miss that anarchy and long for it now, “this’ll be my penance” I tell myself, but for what, I can’t decide, and look on.
Yesterday, on a whim, I sent out an email to friends and colleagues in the city, asking them to donate materials for ‘a school in Africa’. Which one and where? Luckily nobody asked. I didn’t know! It had just seemed like a good idea at the time – this is how many of my adventures begin! I’d been invited to go to Senegal to give a talk at Africa TESOL, a conference for English teachers from across the continent and as I would be there for less than a week, I would be travelling very lightly. That was what had led me to come up with the idea of using up my baggage allowance, by collecting enough school materials to fill one of those huge suitcases that just took up space in the cellar and bring it along.
The first to answer my plea was George at Intercom, a very popular language school in one of those villas I mentioned. She’d posted something in the HELTA (Hamburg English Language Teaching Association) Facebook Group asking for suggestions for where to donate old books and when I suggested lugging them across to Africa, she invited me over immediately.
“It all starts here!” she said as I set out from her building onto the street the next day, grasping two full boxes of what I thought might be appropriate: a whole series of Headway and In-Company, a Wallace and Grommit video, something about writing business emails… George was right, there on 25 April, a las cinco de la tarde, it did!
“Are you going to the Gambia?” asked my trusty friend Wilton Mills “I know someone there!” And that’s how I got to be in touch with Alhagie. As I found out much later, Wilton didn’t just ‘know him’, he had also happened to have funded this Gambian’s complete education and healthcare since he was a little nipper in a rural village, allowing him eventually to graduate and train as a state nurse. Now as a consequence, at 35 years old, Alhagie says he is able to pass on this kindness and take care of his own family.
Looking at the map, I see how small the Gambia is – a tiny land, the smallest in Africa, that slithers along the River Gambia.
“It’s a tongue!” says Yusufa, a student in my ‘immigrants’ class at Berufliche Schule für Medien und Kommunikation (BS17 to its friends). He’s from Serekunda, an urban sprawl near Gambia’s capital, Banjul. He has a point. Looking at the county’s profile, I can see it looks just like the Atlantic Ocean is sticking out a Jerry Mouse like tongue at the Tom Cat of Africa. Other than its coast, Gambia is completely surrounded by Senegal.
“It’s perfectly do-able” Yusufa continues “you can go there from Dakar in eight hours!”
I check Google maps and see that a round trip would be about 600 km. “It’s nothing” he reassures me. After crossing the sea from Africa to Italy, Yusufa had walked the rest of the way to Hamburg.
“How long will you go for?” he asks.
My answer seems to pain him. “Two days, maybe three!” There is a momentary lapse of reason.
“Yes, but you can do it… if you want!”
“ But is it safe?” I aske. Many have since asked me the same question - first world stereotypes die hard. “What about Boko Haram?”
“They are not there. Christians and muslims live very peacefully together in the Gambia. It is very safe, but be careful, when they see your white skin, they will find ways to get money out of you!”
With over a third of its population of 1.7 million surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day, you can hardly blame them.
Money was a sore subject right now. Just a couple of weeks before my credit card had been blocked by the bank for no good reason other than it had been hacked, and my bank, whose name shares an adjective with the country, was making no effort to get me a new one anytime soon. When Jim Faulkner came to my office to make a donation, I was in the middle of a call to its helpdesk, whose operatives, strangely, all seemed to be South African. When I had mentioned that I need the card to go to Africa, they had taken a vested interest and asked inappropriate questions. They were very sorry but there was nothing they could do to unblock my credit card, ever! Appointing him on the spot to my Rechtsanwalt, or lawyer, I passed Jim the receiver and asked him to find out why. Try as we might, there was nothing we could do. I would have to travel with cash, to the place that Yusufa had warned would ‘get money out of me as soon as they saw my colour’, and even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website had warned about the notoriety of pickpockets in this region.
“Why are you doing this?” Jim asked.
It was a good question and also one that I hadn’t yet thought about.
I could have said something about how I cared about people in under-developed areas, how I admired people like John Lane in Gibraltar, who I met just before the war in Darfur had started, busy loading up his truck with medical supplies to drive through Sudan. Or how, Alma and I on our recent visit to Uganda, had met an Italian lady on the Equator, with two children and some huge suitcases. “We try to visit a new African country every year” she told us, each time they did so they filled a big suitcase with things for the locals. But if I was 100% honest with myself, it was probably not their benevolence that I admired most, but their adventures that I envied.
While trying to organise everything that same trip to Uganda, at the end of 2017, a series of small events had begun to make things fall into place. I’d spent hours of googling, and was getting increasingly frustrated trying to find any information about the aim of our trip – to see the gorillas in the Impenetrable Forest. The guide books too weren’t very helpful either. Then, by chance, I struck up a Whatsapp conversation with someone at a lodge that we had only intended to visit as a stop over to somewhere else. Didan Atukunda provided all the information I needed. We remained in regular contact until the time of our visit, and Alma and I ended up cancelling our first plan and staying longer with him. Never once did Didan tell me about the project he was also involved in – The Loving Hearts Primary School. When we got to the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, the extremely beautiful but also impoverished area, where Didan’s lodge was located, or new friend remained humble. It was onnly when we decided to leave the premises and go for a walk one evening that everyone we met started to tell us about Didan. He was their ‘best friend’!
The Loving Hearts Primary School, is a sponsorship funded school for orphans and needy children. When Didan, himself an orphan, inherited a piece of land, he began to set up the school. Initially, there was a lot of interest from overseas, but when donations had been made interest waned and children kept coming. Now with 230 children under his wing, Didan still refuses to turn anyone away. The classrooms are crowded and the teachers are desperate for support. I only learnt about this much later, however. When we said goodbye and were leaving the area, satisfied that we had achieved this tourism goal, we drove past children working in a nearby stone quarry, it was no pretty sight, but still I only wondered what we could do. The clincher, at least for me, came unexpectedly on the streets of another town, Masaka. I had spotted some huge fruit for sale along the roadside and was keen to try some. I found out that it was called jackfruit, so I approached a lone teenaged girl sat on the pavement selling slices of this juicy flesh to passers by. When she wrapped tore a page from a book to wrap it up in paper, I realised what that book was – her old school books! A hopeless education, I thought. As a teacher myself, seeing that affected me very personally. I no longer thought that perhaps I should do something, but felt I had to, and more importantly, I wanted to.
Before I could tell Jim about any of this, Rebecca Garron arrived with her own childrens’ books and a big wooden puzzle. ‘Little things make big differences’ I’d said. The response from my colleagues and friends had surprised me, and over the remaining few days in the lead up to my flight to Dakar, several stopped by my office to give what they could. I’d asked for pens, chalk, books, games, paper, a list that Didan had helped me prepare. Others made donations, colleagues were pleased to clear things from their offices and even my own students brought things to take. With one donation I went out and bought a whole bunch of pretty note books, games and recognising the importance of music, even a pair of tambourines. Then, the most important of all, one of those nifty suitcase scales to measure it all. I had 45 Kg.
That response convinced me that what I was doing was right. Initially my only draw to the Gambia had been a ‘because it’s there’, but seeing how easy it was to use my influence to pool the people I knew to collect donations, no matter how small, I realised the potential of changing a lot of people’s lives. When I shared this experience with some friends who were also teachers, they agreed we could make a difference. Pete Rutherford, who had travelled extensively in Africa and knew what I was up against, Wilton Mills, a dark horse who has done more for others than he would ever admit, Helen Waldron, who was recognised for ‘sticking up for social justice’ agreed to join me in what I’d call Teachers for Schools.
Just days later I walked out of Senegal headed for the Gambia, followed by a man, his donkey and the cart which my suitcase lay on. Teachers for schools was going wonderfully. I had received so much that, even when exceeding my total weight allowance and stuffing pens and materials in my pockets (had anyone picked them they could have started a school) to get onto the plane from Hamburg to Dakar, I had had to leave things behind. In Senegal, I had gone all the way to the Gambian border by minibus and taxi, often with the case strapped to the roof with other baggage and some guy sat on top of it all. The road had regular speed bumps, three times as high as those I was used to, and each time our vehicle went over them that guy screamed to let us know he was there, and I could pick out, accompanied by the rattle of my tambourine. The man with the donkey was just one of many that had been happy to help for a small tip. For about 50 cents, I had hardly hardly had to touch the case at all. I had agreed to meet Alhaji on the Gambian side of the border, and he had been busy arranging visits to schools the following day. When Senegalese immigration stamped my passport goodbye, I didn’t even have to queue.
Then everything changed. At the Gambian passport office, I was told that I did not have the right paperwork. Since I had left Germany a new law had come into place stating that I would need my medical certificate. ‘They WILL find ways to get money out of you!’ Yusufa had said and I was not prepared to pay the 200 USD fine that I was now so kindly offered. I faced turning back in my tracks. It was dark and I had nowhere to go. A case full of school equipment that rattled like a sleigh each time it moved, I could hardly go unnoticed, and I noticed, those handy little wheels on the bottom of my suitcase had got clogged with sand from the road and decided to break.
Literally as well as figuratively, I had to see a man about a horse! He and his donkey had been waiting patiently to proceed but now I had no alternative but to retrieve my case and pay him.
‘Fifty dollar!’ he said.
Once again ready to cuss, I stopped myself. ‘Wait!’ I said, it began to dawn on me ’fifty Gambian or US…’
’Fifty Gambian Dalas!’
I got my phone out and made a quick calculation. Eighty five of our Euro cents! So the immigration official wanted… to give me a fine for… three Euros and forty cents? I went back and apologised. Of course I would be happy to pay the fine!
Once all of that was over I went to look for Alhagie. He was no-where to be seen. So I went back to the same immigration official once more, to ask, if perhaps, I might use his phone. He was very accommodating and pleased with his loot asked for no more money. My friend had given up waiting and was already on the ferry back to Banjul. I should wait for him to come back. Our misunderstandings behind us, Gambian immigration and I were now the best of friends. They gave me a chair so that I could sit and watch the movements of the border. They asked the inevitable football question, and rather than admit to the disgrace of not being the slightest bit interested in football, I gave them the ‘Ipswich Town, fair-weather fan’ spiel. It is very well rehearsed. When Alhagie, himself a Manchester United fan, eventually did make it back to collect me, I was very pleased to see him. Another taxi, a ferry and a private car later, I collapsed on my bed at the Rainbow Beach lodge.
The next morning Alhagie and I set off in a taxi to the first school, the Tujereng Lower Basic School, in Tujereng village. It wasn’t long until we left asphalt behind and drove for some time across sand to get to our destination. We were received by the Head Teacher, Mr Fadera, an older gentleman and despite being surrounded by lots of excited children, very calm. I started to shake their hands and say hello to each and every one. “We have one thousand and sixty five pupils here” Mr Fadera told me. I stopped shaking hands. The kids were between six and ten. The size of a small town primary school in the UK, the school was built in 1959 when the Gambia was a British Crown Colony. It looked like nothing much had changed since then. Some classrooms were out of bounds because the rooves had caved in, while those still in use looked very dodgy. Their ceilings, a single layer of asbestos cement supported by frail wooden beams so eaten by woodworm that I feared even touching a wall could lead to collapse. “Attention is a big problem” Mr Fadera told me. Not because of any hyperactivity disorders, but a simply because of the children’s way of life. “95% of them come from poor families and broken homes. After they have walked to school, many of them are already tired when they arrive, and often they don’t have any food.”
For the thousand children, there were two toilets and just one source of water. One class I visited was using tin cans to learn about volume. The library, a paltry collection of books, was small and messy, its books as worn as the beams, had probably been there for just as long: a full edition of World Book from 1964, another entitled Science in the 1970s - I had worried that my copies of Headway would be a bit outdated! Then it was time for me to present my gift - suddenly the case that I had dragged from Europe, seemed very small. As we opened it, Mr Fadera looked at each item, telling me how useful it would be and expressing his gratitude for it. Before leaving, I recorded a video of Mr Fadera giving a personal message to Teachers for Schools. Our first mission had been accomplished.
The second school that Alhagie and I visited that day was a secondary school in the same village. It too had its fair share of problems: there were computers but no, or very poor, wiring and its headmaster told me, there was a lack of lab equipment for their chemistry and physics classes. Despite all of this, it seemed to be doing OK with the limited resources that it had, and the fundamental problems of the first, such as water, hygiene, sanitation and food were hardly mentioned.
On the evening before I left the Gambia, Alhagie invited me back for dinner at his brother’s home. As soon as I arrived and clambered out of the car, I was immediately mobbed by children. They had my absolute attention for the whole evening - we talked, sang, and played clapping games together. Though it felt like I was there for a short while, it had got dark, we had eaten, and there had been e several calls when the men had disappeared. I was later told we were there for six hours. There is a wonderful reward for sharing with others, no matter how simple the gesture.
On my way back to Senegal, I shared a car with two giggling catholic nuns on their way to a mission, t the driver, whose character made him seem much larger than life, loud and extremely funny man, and his wife. As he speeded us off to Dakar, he introduced himself as Mr Jallow, but told us that he ran a security firm called Uncle Sam, so we could call him that if we preferred. A muslim, he entertained us all for much of the journey, telling us animatedly while keeping one eye on the road, about the happy childhood he had spent going to church and learning about Jesus. Genuinely interested, he asked the nuns many questions about their faith and made fun of himself. He alluded to the voluntary work he was doing for people with kidney diseases, but again did not go into detail. I was careful to keep my beliefs to myself, but felt completely comfortable and enjoyed taking part in the banter. When we separated hours later, they all agreed to meet for the return journey and I was sorry that I would not see these people again. Where else in the world could this have happened I wondered.
I returned to Dakar convinced that Teachers for Schools could work, most importantly, on a grass roots level with a direct and very personal contact with schools. At the Africa TESOL Conference, I discussed the idea with my colleagues and their suggestions were equally inspiring and useful. Of course, other teaching associations, such as TESOL France, are doing some excellent work and when it comes to projects such as these, there can never be enough of them, and we should not let politics or religion get the better of us.
The best and most productive part of my going to Dakar, however, was meeting Sameh Mazouki, a DELTA Teacher Trainer based in Tunisia. Wonderfully inspiring, with so many ideas for creating an enjoyable environment where learning can take place fast, she showed us all how to make a data projector out of a shoebox. She also told everyone that she would be willing to go anywhere in Africa to train teachers. When I returned to Europe, Teachers for Schools started a crowdfunding campaign to send Sameh to Loving Hearts Primary School – three days we had raised our first goal of 1000 EUR for her flights. Proving that if we look hard enough, there really are some loving hearts out there.
Back home in Hamburg, I remove the money belt that I had secretly worn for the entirety of my trip to hide all that cash. I feel very silly. Not once had I felt in danger, even the incident at the Gambian border had turned into one of hospitality and good experiences. Those that had tried to get money out of me had been contented with very little, not once making me feel as though I had been cheated. “What was the Gambia like?” my friends ask me. “The people!” I begin. “The people were so wonderful!”