By Nicole Crockford, Ella Tingley, Meg Kneller and Molly Hord

In February, a group of 42 Oathall Community College students and staff went on a trip to The Gambia – a small country in West Africa. It was the first trip of this kind that Oathall has run, and is all thanks to Miss Murray, who worked tirelessly to organise it. 

The journey was a long and exhausting one; we began our journey at Oathall Community College at 7 am on 11th February, and didn’t arrive at our accommodation until 3 am the next day! Even though we were all tired and the Gambian airport was stressful when we arrived, everyone remained in high spirits as the day went on, and all represented the school outstandingly. 

 

One of our main reasons for going was to support the charity Football 4 Peace. The purpose of this organisation is to bring peace into football for all and to use football to teach the 5 values; respect, responsibility, trust, equity and inclusion. During the trip, we ran 5 sessions and 1 football tournament with over 200 Gambian children aged from about 3 – 18 years old throughout the week. “Seeing how happy everyone was to get stuck in with the dancing and other activities was so heartwarming and inspirational, we need to spread such enthusiasm back around at home,” said one Oathall student. “Circle circle was definitely a highlight!” commented another, and some of the students are now doing it in their PE lessons.

Oathall students initially participated in the sessions but by the end of the week, we were leading the activities and led the football tournament on the final day – despite the 42°C heat! It involved organising teams, fixtures and keeping score – but the hard work was worth it when we could see how much those children loved it. Everyone, students and teachers included, had a joyful afternoon and it was a great success. Most of us just like to hold sleeping babies. 

We were not used to the conditions – playing on a massive field of sand in 40°C heat – but the thing that was the most overwhelming was the joy in the children’s faces. Some of the children didn’t have shoes and their clothes were in threads. It made us realise that these children were delighted with very little and that we take material things for granted and always want more to be happy when actually we don’t need those things.

As well as the football sessions, the group engaged with many different activities, both to help out in the community and to learn more about the culture, in the local area, all with lots of enthusiasm. These included visiting the Gunjur Museum, where we saw a range of artefacts relating to The Gambia’s history and were told about the medicinal properties of all sorts of trees and plants; having a guided walk in the Bolong Fenyo nature reserve, where we could see some crocodiles, and visiting two markets in a nearby town – Brikama. “It was such an amazing experience seeing everyone in the market, they all wanted to talk to you and say hello”, wrote one student, when reflecting on their experience that day. The first market, where the locals go to buy and sell goods, was incredibly busy, and sold a huge range of things, from fruit and vegetables to second-hand clothing, to handmade bracelets, necklaces and souvenirs.

Here, we all bought local fabrics, too, which we had made into an outfit of our choice. The second was a craft market, where local traders sell their work to tourists. There was so much choice, and students bought a range of items there, for example, bowls, djembe drums, art and wooden sculptures.  We also had to barter with the stallholders for the best price – an experience which was new to most of us! 

When we went to each place in The Gambia we also did bus karaoke and it was so nice just driving in the minibus and the locals just waving at you even if you didn’t know them. This would never happen in England. The locals also call each other brother and sister which is something we don’t do in England.

Some of the best parts of our experience in The Gambia, however, were the opportunities we had to help out in the community. As well as taking part in Football 4 Peace sessions, we also helped the ladies working in one of the women’s’ gardens. There, lots of the local women work long hours growing food to feed their families and sell on at the market. They grow vegetables such as peppers, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and even mint! In groups, we helped the women with some watering; we had to pull the water up from the wells in heavy buckets – a task which tired a lot of us out!  There were monkeys that tried to steal the food and the dog that they had was small so they had to get the children to get rid of them. Three-quarters of the food they grow was taken to the market and the rest is taken home to feed their own families. It was nice to see a group of strong women working together to help the community.

We also visited the fishing village and the mosque which is 900 metres away from the lodge. It was so nice to see how everyone was working as one community.

We also visited some nursery schools, to run activities for children. Though some were hesitant at first, we all led the children confidently, with activities that most of us had created at home before we left. These ranged from colouring-in to identifying colours and shapes. We also went to a compound and saw how they cook.  Miss Gyngell was excited at this and wrote down the recipe so she can cook it at home and teach it to other students in food technology lessons. Good luck!

In our free time at the lodge, we spent time in the pool, playing volleyball together to cool off.  We played a lot of card games (now everyone hates Uno!) and spoons got very competitive, (well let’s just say we didn’t use spoons.)  We also sat together in the shade or went to the gym area to play football. We also spent some time being taught the local language – Mandinka – by local members of staff. We all learned greetings, numbers and lots more. Ask any of the students to count to ten – or higher – and they’ll surely show off what they know! Having had lessons in two groups, Alagi’s quiz at the end of the week led to a bit of friendly competition, with Miss Murray’s and Miss Gyngell’s groups narrowly winning by 2 points! 

Miss Murray also did either a 5km run or aerobics in the mornings that some of the students joined in and sometimes even the staff at the lodge joined in.

Every full-on but fun day was followed in the evening by a form of entertainment that allowed us to just relax and let loose. These ranged from dancing along with a band to watching contortionists and even having a couple of lessons to learn how to do some traditional djembe drumming. To begin with, many of us were hesitant but the African dancing soon became a highlight for a lot of people on the trip. Even Mr Blackholly showed us some moves! We all grew as a group, and, by the end of the week, many of us couldn’t wait to get dancing. All of us pretty much loved the dancing because you wouldn’t get judged at all. It was so normal to randomly dance.

Before the trip took place, students participated in a sponsored walking marathon, which raised an outstanding £1800 and this has gone towards supporting many people in The Gambia. Mr Blackholly organised this event. All of the money raised – from both this event and students’ fundraising – was split between deserving causes: including sponsoring children’s education, buying food for families in need and providing malaria treatment to the local health post. Not only this, but students had been busy collecting old clothes, books, stationery, toys and sports equipment to take out there too, which was greatly appreciated by those who received them.

As you can see in the picture, we donated all sorts of items – and a lot of them too! One student said, “Although this was now old and useless to us the Gambians were so overwhelmed with everything they had been given.”

We also went to different compounds to donate food like rice, sugar, oil, tea and toiletries and they were grateful and they were about to cry. The rice was 50kg which can feed a family of 20 for around 2 months. The compounds were just different from the England houses. There was only one room to sleep in and you would be lucky to have a well , the fences are made from barbed wire and old pieces of wood.

Finally, we would like to thank all of the teachers who came with us on the trip for making it such an amazing experience, all of the members of staff back at school who worked hard to make it happen and, of course, our parents and carers who have supported us and made it possible for us to go. We’d also like to extend our gratitude to the staff at the Gunjur Project Lodge, especially Alagi, who made our trip incredibly special. To everyone involved in organising the trip and making it such a memorable experience, we say, “A big clap; another one; ANOTHER BIGGER ONE!” Everyone had a fantastic time that I’m sure will stay with us forever!