For over ten years, Solihull Sixth Form College has annually taken thirty students to The Gambia in order to support, build and maintain a primary school in the capital, Banjul. This year I was fortunate enough to be a member of that team.
For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the 'Gigging For Gambia' event that took place a few months ago. Hosted by myself and Tim Senna, a local radio presenter, the gig night aimed to raise money for the trip; the more money we raised, the more we could do for the school and I'm proud to announce that the event raised above £400.
However, I can't deny that there's something slightly uncomfortable about the notion of a privileged white girl travelling to Africa to help build a school, especially when we returned to a hotel with a swimming pool each night. The fact is, in our globalised and ever-connected world, the question at the forefront of many people's minds is how do the privileged help the less privileged without posing as a 'white saviour' or creating an unsustainable hand-out? Having said that, it's too simple to look at the situation as something so black and white and the last thing I want to do is undermine the efforts of everyone who took part in the trip.
My college has been running this trip for over a decade and throughout that time, significant developments have been made to the school; our money has paid for teachers' salaries, who, on average, have an annual salary of just £400 per year, classrooms have been built, water pumps developed, teaching and meal resources supplied and this year, the toilets have been rebuilt to create a safer and more hygienic environment to cater for the school's 2000 students. I cannot pretend that this would have been achieved had my college not supported the school and now, with the school self-sufficient and sustainable, our search for a new project demonstrates the positive impact that such interventions can have.
Throughout our week in The Gambia, I was able to see first-hand the impact of the project on both the school in Banjul and my own college. Spending three days teaching primary school children, we were provided with an insight into an education system that is constantly strained and uncertain. Basic commodities that we take for granted every day are the difference between a prosperous future or not in The Gambia.
The students at the school had a different perspective on education. They were grateful, positive and enthusiastic - a far cry from many attitudes of students back in the UK, where education is often viewed as a chore, not a privilege. Yet the students in The Gambia were forced to be tolerant and cooperative in a classroom with little to no learning resources, toilets with open sewage, classrooms with not enough chairs and almost no personal attention from their teachers. In the UK, any one of these factors would be enough to cause public outcry - in The Gambia, the very existence of a school and moreover, the opportunity to learn, is an invaluable commodity.
So, why did I feel uncomfortable? I was fortunate enough to be born into a family in which could provide me with valuable opportunities and as a result, I have a responsibility in deciding what to do with that privilege: use it to help others or turn a blind eye to inequality. Opportunities like our trip to The Gambia are incredible ways for the more privileged in society to help others, and are a great chance to travel the world. The difficulties come in how we choose to portray ourselves back home and ironically, social media and blogging have huge parts to play in that. Naturally, my college teachers took photos of our students with the Gambian students, but I felt reluctant to snap photos of Gambian twelve year-olds and post them on my Instagram or Snapchat; I wouldn't take photos of twelve year-olds in a primary school in the UK, so why would I do this in Africa? For many, the decision to do so would not be a malicious one, but I think it's hugely important to remember why we travel to locations such as The Gambia and not to see projects such as this get lost in translation.
My college has successfully worked in The Gambia for the past decade with the purpose of helping to support a developing country and to provide an opportunity for their own students, who may never have had the chance to travel and engage in politics outside of the UK, to see the world. On these trips, we must not forget that for the children we help, whilst they do not live in the same disposable manner in which we do, The Gambia is their home, their norm and for the majority of time, they are happy. Whilst we have the right to support the country, we don't have the right to impose ourselves upon the country; we must not unintentionally degrade primary school students to an object of focus on our Instagram accounts.
With children throughout the week referring to us as 'Toubab', literally meaning 'white person', it's an awkward and unexpected sight when hundreds of Gambian students clamber onto the doors of our trucks whenever we entered or left the school. For them, we represent a world of privilege and wealth and for us, it's a clear indication that the narrowing of the global wealth gap cannot be a unilateral achievement and more importantly, the way in which we carry ourselves, matters. The Gambia trip was an experience I will never forget. It was an eye opener into not only my own privileges, but also a stark reminder that our actions do have consequences and if there is one goal we should all have in life, it's to make sure that we leave this earth having left more good than when we found it.
In other news from the week, don't drink Gambian Fanta because it will turn your tongue orange, never mistake a fan on your balcony for the sound of waves, and don't get 'Banjul Belly', because food poisoning is never fun and your vomit will be bright green :)
Photo taken in a monkey reserve, where one monkey peed on Maddy's shoulder :/
Me and the monkey having a moment
Anya before the Fanta...
Anya after the Fanta :)
Photo taken on a boat trip in the mangroves
The view from our bedroom
This is slightly gross, but taken after my first round of 'Banjul Belly'
A fishing market in The Gambia