I have mentioned before the high proportion of children in the Gambia, and since the new school term has started I see them every day in large numbers leaving home in the morning, smart in their uniforms, some still with a bit of breakfast in their hand, or waiting at one of the roadside stands for half a bread roll filled with pasta or beans to take with them in a piece of newspaper. (When you buy bread from the local shop it is usually folded in a piece of newsprint and it seems they receive large bundles of unsold English or American newspapers for wrapping, as one day I might be reading about a gang of thieves in the UK digging a tunnel through a railway embankment in order to steal from a cash machine at a supermarket in Manchester, and the next I might be scanning special deals on used cars from a garage in Florida, USA).
About 60% of Gambians are under 24 years of age (nearly 40% are under 14), and this youthful population is very visible on the streets. There are here in the urban area a large number of different schools from nursery age through junior to secondary school level, and if a student can afford the fees he/she can then proceed to MDI (Management Development Institute), GTTI (Gambia Technical Training Institute), UTG (University of the Gambia) or one of the many private colleges, or skills training providers here in Kombo.
And there is the rub – “if you can afford the fees”. A nine month higher diploma course at GTTI will probably cost around 20,000 dalasis (£400); fees for a term at basic secondary school will cost around 1,500 dalasis (£30) with a little more for uniform and books/materials, and although by western standards this seems chicken feed, many ordinary Gambian families simply can’t afford to send their children to school. I know many of my neighbours who have managed to pay for some education for some of their large family, but where the majority have to stay at home for want of funding. Some are lucky enough to be sponsored by a charity or on occasion by a “toubab” with whom they have made friends, and the number of requests from youngsters to “pay my school fees” simply because my skin colour marks me out as a rich westerner increased as the beginning of term approached. But which ones do you support? Those in most need? Or those who might achieve most? I have to harden myself to them all just as I do when approached on the street by one of the multitude of needy cases who are trying to sell me yet another bag of peanuts or bunch of bananas, or simply asking me for a bit of small change to help feed their family.
There are so many people living in poverty in the Gambia, but I remind myself you can’t help them all. Some of the needy are very obviously so – cripples on the roadside with a begging bowl, or mothers with young under nourished children outside the supermarket, but I also see some “regulars” at Westfield transport interchange each day who stand by the van door jingling a handful of small change and mumbling a litany of prayers/blessings. Rightly or wrongly I view them as professionals, and while they may well also be living in poverty, I don’t see them in the same light as the rest – and as a result although when I first arrived I used to give at times, I now exclude them from my list. This may seem very hard, and sometimes as I sit in the van waiting for departure while an elderly man shakes his hand in the doorway and calls down the blessings of Allah on those who give him the equivalent of 2p, I think he must think me very mean, but as the bulk of the other passengers also ignore him, I think he is probably as inured to refusal as I am used to refusing. I think too of a good friend of mine at home who regularly gave generously to various charities and as a result used to receive ever more frequent requests through the post, usually accompanied by some heart rending photograph of a small child or an animal in obvious need and distress, or by a small penny coin asking him to send it back with some more (a practice which really annoys me as I think of it as a kind of emotional blackmail!). He found it very hard to refuse any request for help, and I now find myself taking the advice I regularly gave to him – “Concentrate on the ones you know and support them if you wish on a regular basis, and ignore the rest”.
A kind of donor fatigue sets in and I pass the roadside beggars on the way home as they call “Hello. How are you”, knowing full well that what this really means is “Can you spare a bit of small change?”, and instead of putting my hand in my pocket I simply reply “Fine, fine. How are you?” and carry on walking. So, my friend, I hope you will understand and forgive my callous indifference.
But back to the children.
The population is growing at about 2.5% annually and there seems to be little birth control. I see posters at the road side advising use of a condom (although this is advocated as a precaution against HIV), and I am aware of at least one family planning organisation in the Gambia, but their message doesn’t seem to be very widely received. Perhaps it is because this is a broadly Muslim country where women are expected to be sexually available and submit to their husband as required, and if a child results it is seen as the will of Allah. Equally if that child dies early due to malnutrition or disease, (or survives to adulthood with no education or skills to enable him/her to support themselves) this too is seen as Allah’s will, rather than as a foreseeable and preventable tragedy. Large numbers of girls become pregnant at an early age and on average each one will have four children, so I believe the problem will only increase with time. In many compounds the number of extended family to support is increasing while at the same time prices of basic goods are steadily rising (this has been quite apparent in the eight months since I arrived here), and the number of wage earners and level of per capita income is not keeping pace.
The youngsters themselves are lovely kids and round Mamakoto Road where I live I am regularly greeted by shouts of “Marteen, Marteen!” as I walk through the dusty alleys on my way to or from work. The boys are football mad, (as are most young Gambian males) and spend hours kicking a raggy looking ball around, but apart from that they have few toys and so the younger ones improvise, using a flip-flop as a ball in a kind of catching game, or a sardine tin pulled by a string as a substitute for a toy car. The smallest of all sit in the alley and build little sand heaps or play with whatever comes to hand, and while I get regular calls to “Buy me a football” (or “Minty, minty” from the younger ones), they are happy just to be recognised and acknowledged with a handshake or slap of the palm, or lifted up and swung round in the air if I’m feeling more energetic.
As they get older the boys start hanging around on street corners with their peers just as they do at home, and I guess the girls get more involved in the domestic chores of their family compound, spending hours preparing and cooking food for the family, doing laundry, or carrying water from the standpipe down the road. So the hereditary roles are carried forward to the next generation and many of the girls can look forward to the same life as their mothers while the boys learn to sit brewing endless pots of attaya and talking with their friends. (As they get older this becomes “decision making”). It is very difficult to break the age old mould and although there are plenty of young girls at school (the enrolment rate is slightly higher than for boys), on the whole they don’t have the same educational opportunities as they tend to leave school earlier to take up a domestic role. Nearly twice as many boys as girls go on to secondary education but many of the youngsters of either gender who do so then drop out between the ages of 15 and 19 possibly due to a perception of low returns on education or sometimes simply due to lack of funds. In the rural areas this drop out rate is higher and again this may reflect a lower income than in the urban sprawl by the coast.
It is a problem that needs to be solved, as without education the youth of this country will continue to underachieve due to lack of skills in the job market whether at home or overseas. So many seem to think a ticket to Europe/UK or the United States is the solution to their problems but I don’t agree with this as it seems to me their lack of qualifications puts them at an equal or even greater disadvantage in a more developed country overseas. One of the phrases I hear from Gambians on a daily basis – “It isn’t easy” about sums it up, and meanwhile the population continues to rise……….