Back in 2000 my husband, Martin and I, managed to get a cheap package holiday to Kenya, East Africa. This was a dream come true for me, as I had always wanted to see Africa and go on safari. We only had 1 week there but it was enough for me to fall in love with the people, see the level of poverty people suffer and knowing in my heart that I wanted to go back and make a difference. It was the 1st time I ever witnessed a ‘miracle’ , the type that came out of the bible. It was also the first time I witnessed a man cry because we had given him a pair of shoes and socks from Martin's suitcase. We had only taken 2 suitcases of children’s clothing, school items and balloons for the children. Really simple things but they were so so grateful.
Within 6 months we were back in Africa, not E Africa but over in the tiny country of Gambia, W Africa. This time we took 13 suitcases, the children and my sister. Within 24 hrs we had made a significant friendship that would last years and started visiting remote villages in the bush distributing food and clothing. We knew we would need to get away from typical tourist areas and go to the places where there was real poverty and where tourism didn’t really touch or influence.
One of the 1st families we met was a husband of 4 wives and 17 children! It was the 1st time I saw a little one lying on the sandy floor, severely malnourished and at extremely poorly. We were told the basic things that families really need are rice, oil, candles, but as time went on we added to that, flour, sugar, matches, pots and pans, various garden tools like hoes, spade, machetes, and buckets and so this is what we would buy from local markets.
Africans live hand to mouth daily, just trying to buy enough cups of plain rice a day to feed their families is a massive struggle. So when we discovered that many children were unable to attend school because they couldn’t afford the books, or uniform, or school shoes and how incredibly cheap it was back then, 25 pound [pound symbol doesn’t work on my laptop!] we knew we wanted to make a difference. We started with 2 little girls Seedy and Anna. Their home[compound] was horrific. No electric, water, sheets on the floor with no mattress, no furniture and all their possessions in 1 or 2 bags. All children in Gambia know that education is the way to change the direction of your whole family. For this reason most children will cry if they are not attending school.
So from the small humble beginnings of sponsoring 2 children and then the following year sponsoring another 2 children began a fledgling sponsorship programme. By 2004 we had around 11 children and I had taken my 3rd group of people to Africa. Word spread and within 4 years we had between 60 + children in different schools. Many people were travelling with me, eager to see what they could do to help a very impoverished people. We took nurses, builders, taxi drivers, many unprofessional people like myself which aged between 5 and 80 years old. We had so much help and really needed it too, especially now we were taking 70-80 suitcases now.
By 2008 the main bulk where we had been supporting a headmaster’s school and many orphaned children came to an end. We felt very strongly we couldn’t abandon these children and so started looking for a premises where we could open our own school. Jojo my best friend gave up her fiancée, job, security, her whole life basically and moved out to Gambia to start up our own school. We officially opened our gates in September 2009 with 2 teachers and a caretaker. There was a group of over 200 outside the gates all wanting admission! Seedlings Lower Basic School has now grown to 6 teachers for grade 1-6, an amazing headmaster, 2 caretakers, a cleaner, administrator, Islamic teacher and a Christian teacher. We now have over 130+ children and are running a food programme.
Some years ago I was told by a taxi driver as he passed his old school that he had bad memories of school. When asked why he explained it was because of extreme hunger he could concentrate on his work. I thought there is no way I want any of our children at seedlings to have bad memories of school so we started the food programme where each child will receive some tapalapa [bread roll] with some mayonnaise or chocolate spread and a cup of tea. Some children have even turned up at school with malaria just so they get this simple meal. Such is the level of poverty there.
In recent years our school has now received such recognition, we have been asked by the president for our children to line the streets in one of Gambia ‘s national celebration days, we are in Gambia’s top 10 schools and one of our ex pupils came 1st in the whole of the country for her exam results!!. We are so excited and proud of our staff for this.
Because of my failing health and using the loss of my legs, I am now in a wheelchair. I have not been able to visit Gambia for 3 years. This breaks my heart as I miss the children, the staff and the Gambian people. Gambia has been like my 2nd home for many years. I hope to return one day and just hope and pray that our school will continue to grow and provide the free education for many years to come. I also pray that our other projects deep in the bush villages continue too.
I wonder where we will be in another 18 years time?