The Gambia

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The Gambia, West Africa, is a small sliver of a country situated around the Gambia river which snakes through the centre of Senegal. It was the centre of the slave trade and the country of origin for the story "Roots". The only real industry is peanuts, Tourism along the 45 miles of Atlantic Ocean beachfront is still in its infancy with only six hotels of any note, occupied mainly by Dutch and Scandinavian tourists who scandal the Muslim locals by going topless (and sometimes bottomless) around the pool and on the beach. There was a military take-over almost a year ago but to all intents and purposes it is a peaceful reign. The capital is Banjul, a dusty little city of about 45,000 inhabitants. The people are kind and very friendly and seem to accept their lot in life. 95% are Muslims with a few Catholics, Baptists and Anglicans.

The description of my project was "To help the Girl Guides of The Gambia become financially self-sufficient in all areas of their work". Guiding, mostly through the schools is very strong in the Gambia with over 5,000 girls currently attending meetings in both urban and rural areas. The Guide leaders are all School Teachers.

For several years Girl Guides of Canada (through C.I.D.A.) have been subsidising The Gambia Girl Guides to the tune of $45,000 a year. 1995 was the last year of this funding. With this money and other help they were able to build a Skills Training Centre for young women. Incorporated in this centre, a small guest house and conference hall were build as income-producing modules to fund the Skills Training Centre. The literacy rate for women in the Gambia is only 15%. ( For men it is 45%.)

The non-residential centre caters to young women who left school early, perhaps through pregnancy or inability to pay for the uniform and young women who have never been to school. Between the hours of 8.00 a.m., and 2.00 p.m., over 200 students are taught basic English, life skills including family planning and S.T.D., simple maths and small business management, sewing with hand and treadle machines, crafts, batik and tie and dye, cooking, nutrition and table service and, for students who can already read and write, book-keeping, typing and Pitman's shorthand.

The girls come from rural and urban areas, many travelling long hours by bus or bush taxi but the drop-out rate is amazingly low, The desire to learn enough to make an income and be a useful member of society overpowers the difficulties of lack of good transportation and opposition from the men in their extended family, most of whom do not understand the need to educate the girl child.

Ramu the Chief Guide Commissioner and an incredible lady, appointed four trainees to work with me. These four ladies were all school teachers and had been granted paid leave to work with me by the Minister of Education, (a lady of great ability and determination). My trainees were also guide leaders and commissioners and mothers and all were second or third wives. They wore an endlessly changing array of traditional dresses and head coverings, flowing colourful garments, elaborately trimmed with ribbon and lace. I called them my flock of beautiful tropical butterflies, which they just loved and never got tired of hearing. They had a wonderful capacity to laugh and enjoy simple pleasures and were thirsting for knowledge.

We ate lunch together every day out of one large bowl, always rice and vegetables, sometimes with fish, and very occasionally with meat. They ate with their right hands but in deference to my lack of manual dexterity, provided me with a spoon and fork. During meal-times they shared the trials and joys of their daily lives with me and each other. Jumping between Wolaf and English with an ease that constantly astonished me, they never left me out of the conversation for very long.

The work to be done was extensive. So many areas were crying out for help that I hardly knew where to start. At the end of my time there I was amazed to realise the amount of work we had got through. The Guest House was spruced up and named The Rosamund Guest House in honour of the first Guide Commissioner. A brochure designed and rate cards were printed on my computer. All guide book publishers were sent information and rate cards. By the time I had returned, three had confirmed that they would be including this information in their next edition and one informed us that they had already put the guest house on the internet. Hotels and airline personnel, along with the U.S. Peace Corps office were visited and they all promised to send guests seeking low cost ($12.00 a night B & B ) accommodation.

The meeting hall was decorated with five very large abstract design batiks, which we waxed and painted with dyes during the weekends. I designed a podium and flip-charts which were constructed in redwood by boys at the Junior Achievement school. The raised platform was transformed into a full stage with a proscenium arch, full stage curtains, backdrop, flats and wings. A small storage room off was converted into a dressing room. As soon as they get some lights and a small sound system, (which I am trying to get donated) it will be one of the finest performing arts centres in The Gambia. We called it The Ramu Hall in honour of the current Commissioner.

The guest house lounge, renamed the Vero Hall and the cafeteria, renamed the Harriet Cafe, were up-graded and, along with the Ramu hall, became the Kanifing Conference and Social Centre, offering a full range of services for meetings, parties and work-shops, including both on site and off site catering. A five page brochure was designed and sent on computer disc to Springfield Printers in the U.K., who printed 1000 copies at no charge to the Girl Guides. A local publicity campaign was initiated and by the time I left, the Centre had a number of bookings and was regularly sending food out to local business meetings.

The Girl Guides of Ontario sent a container of craft items and some old computers, printers and books. Nothing matched and it took many, many nights of work to sort through everything and set up a small computer training room. Finally, discarding the old Commodores and an IBM Screenwriter, a behemoth with 12 inch floppy discs, I was able to connect five 286 computers, one even had a coloured screen. I purged all the old programs and files out of the computers, including a lawyers file of over 3000 Kitchener residents' wills, and I installed Dos 3.0 and Word Perfect 5.1. I taught Dos and WordPerfect. 5.1 to ten or twelve ladies twice a day, using a manual and keeping one step ahead of the class by reading under my mosquito net by flash-light every night! By the time I had left most of the ladies had a good handle on the computer and those darn F Keys, although I still don't remember them all. Windows and my mouse get me through at home! All this by a lady who was not even computer literate five years ago. Thank goodness for my laptop Help program.

Computers are just starting to come into The Gambia so computer classes will be a big income producer for the school. I am trying to get some more computers donated, hopefully some 386's, along with training manuals so that they can run a full computer training centre. I designed a course program and fee structure, along with an advertising and promotion plan and even before I left the first classes of 10 were booked. We even had a request for private lessons from one of the Senior Ministers who had bought a laptop on an overseas trip and did not want anyone to know that it just sat collecting dust and looking important on his very impressive desk!

The sewing, crafts and tie and dye classes are very important, particularly for the illiterate, who can make a living in the craft markets patronised by the tourists. The problem is that every stall sells the same few things, most of which are poorly designed. As an artist I was in my element in this area and all the books and craft materials in my very overweight suitcases were drooled over (and left behind).

An unused classroom was converted into a design and sample studio, complete with hand-painted sign over the door.. Over 20 new product lines were developed with samples made by the teaching staff, who then passed on the skills to the students. These included children's dresses, ladies nightgowns, beach pareos (in a special design I called Gambios but which my ladies insisted on calling wrappers), Crocheted Rasta hats with long mock braids made from black wool, batik eyeglass cases, batik reversible vests, ladies un-lined jackets and a loose one-size-fits-all sun dress and jacket. I even designed and had a souvenir T Shirt printed, which we sold to the tourists on the beach on Sunday afternoons.

The Gambians make wonderful, strong baskets, totally unadorned. I showed them how to decorate them with ribbon embroidery, beads, sea shells and crocheted flowers I had a team of six students, I called them my basket friends, and every day I taught them design principals and use of materials. By the time I left they had produced a whole range of great looking baskets the tourists just loved.

It was important to produce items that local people would buy throughout the year so we made macramé pot hangers and purses (they had never seen macramé before and just went crazy over it). We also made braided rag rugs out of used clothes and odds and ends of fabric. As the whole of The Gambia is endlessly covered with a film of fine red dust during the dry season, these were snapped up by staff and local visitors. Crocheted toilet sets of tank and seat covers and floor mat were innovative and popular, as indoor bathrooms are a status symbol. Probably some of the buyers just wanted to impress their friends and did not even have indoor plumbing! I also designed a slip cover for a folding chair and we made samples to take around the local hotels, which generated quite a number of large orders and which will probably be an on-going income producer. I designed border patterns for tie and dye and showed them batik using wax crayons. I also taught them fabric painting with little bottles of commercial fabric paints sent in the container from Ontario. I think I can honestly say that the craft markets in The Gambia will never be the same since my work there.

An old storeroom was converted into a boutique where the goods could be displayed and offered to the tourists. Of course there was no money for shelves or counters but with whitewashed concrete blocks and boards, and fabric covered packing boxes we made a good display. Simple inventory control, cost pricing etc was also taught. Two tour operators who ran bus trips in the area agreed to include a stop at the school as part of their program. One uses the school as a refreshment stop, enabling the school to make a little money on the sale of soft drinks and snacks as well as the chance to sell souvenirs from the Boutique. Notices were made and put up in the tourist areas and in the local supermarkets and although it was a bit off the beaten track, quite a few tourists found their way by taxi or on foot.

The school had not held a graduation ceremony for over two years but we were able to pull one together the last Saturday of my visit. The police band turned out, along with several ministers and other government officials Brightly garbed mothers of the graduates and many past students added to the throng. The Conference Centre was officially opened by the lady Minister of Sports and Youth Services and computer generated Graduation Certificates, duly tied with red ribbons, were presented by the Minister of Education. At my instigation, the top student in typing received a portable typewriter and the top student in sewing, a portable sewing machine.

Although these items were much used and worn and probably would have been thrown out by a North American, they were received with great gratitude and many tears of joy by the recipients. Top students in other classes received gifts of small cooking utensils, writing paper and pens and small craft items, all scavenged from the container sent from Canada. A local soft drinks bottling plant donated pop and the cooking class made snacks. As I watched the girls in their best dresses walk across the red dust of that unpaved courtyard where the ceremony took place, I could not but help think "What a contrast to the expensive prom dresses, the limos and the fine hotel ballrooms, food and drinks North American graduates expect" Yet I don't think they could have been any happier than "my girls" were that afternoon.

The next day I was given a party in the same courtyard. The pot luck lunch and supper provided by the Guiders included the oyster stew I had grown to love while I was there, grilled grouper, lady fish and my all time favourite, shrimp in an avocado half with a Marie Rose sauce I had taught them to make when I first arrived.

Entertainment was provided by a three man drumming group who I joined on a couple of occasions. The Tribal dancing group of students and guiders was joined by many local children, drawn by the sound of the drums, who sneaked in and were afterwards given bowls of spicy rice left over from out feast. I was presented with two lovely local costumes and, to the sound of great cheering the name of the craft boutique was unveiled. The Barbara Boutique, its doorway framed in hand-painted vines and hibiscus flowers, is a generous tribute to one of the most interesting experiences of my life.

©2002-2012 Barbara Elias   

Contact: barbara@BarbaraElias.com

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