Arriving at Manchester airport in the early hours of the morning, I had expected to return home a week later with a changed perspective on life, having had the ‘Grange bubble’ popped by exposure to a country in which, for many, poverty is the reality of everyday life. While this was certainly the case, I think it would be fair to say that there are few members of this year’s group for whom The Gambia did not consistently exceed or defy our expectations.
Over the course of the week, we made three visits to the Darul Arkam School in Brikama. The welcome we received on the first of these, complete with marching band, was overwhelming. The headmaster, Mr Njie, made a speech which helped us to understand why our visit meant so much to them, in terms of what the Grange has contributed to the development of the Darul Arkam school, but it was the time spent with the pupils that was most revealing. The children were eager to talk to us, to hold our hands, to be photographed with us and play with us, and it was clear that our visit was not just significant in terms of what we might bring or do for them. That we had travelled so far to meet them and spend time with them was just as, if not more, important. The cooperation between all of us in the moving of bricks and clearing the site for the new section of the school exemplified the strong sense of community that the Grange has with the Darul Arkam School. The sadness of our final day at the school was just as telling – within the strong link between our two schools, real, personal friendships had been made.
Land Rover day was a particularly memorable one. Everywhere we stopped, we were welcomed warmly. To see the difference that a bag of rice can make to a family was a uniquely humbling experience. So was seeing a lady quite literally dance with joy when given a Grange branded ‘goody bag’, the contents of which - a few items of clothing, toothpaste, some stationery - would seem insignificant to most of us. Witnessing the impact of the efforts of the Grange community made us proud to be a part of it - it was hugely satisfying to see the textbooks finally reach the Gambian Ministry of Education.
Once again, I will echo my predecessors in saying that the Project Gambia trip has been truly life-changing. The shift in our perspective lies not only in our experience of a world beyond our own comfortable one, but in the attitude of the people we met every day. To the members of Team Gambia 2015, the word ‘Gambia’ is much more than the name of a country. It will always be associated with hospitality, generosity and happiness, irrespective of wealth or situation, and the sense of community. Our enduring memories of the aptly named Smiling Coast will not be what we have done for the people there, but how they strived to do what they could for us in making us feel so welcome. We would do well to incorporate a little of The Gambia into our lives at home.