Led by Headmaster Paul Simon Mendy, I find myself in the classroom of the 6th graders at St. Martins School in Kartong, Gambia. Inquiring eyes are looking at me, followed by shy smiles. They’re seated two and two, in rows. All in blue checkered uniforms, black school bags and in black or red shoes.
“Students, do you like your new shoes and uniforms?”, asks the principal and turns to the class. “Yes”, they answer in unison, while one of the boys steals an extra proud look at the fresh, black Converse that adorn his feet. I smile acknowledgedly.
“This is Haddy. She’s from Norway and works for the company that sponsor St.Martin so that we can provide you with free Education…” Headmaster Mendy explains that for each exchange student traveling on the Explorius exchange programme, Explorius sponsor education for one student at St.Martins. This is done through their charity organisation “Aiducatius”. As a result; 752 of the 915 students at St.Martins can now enjoy free education. The aim and dream is of course to someday get enough donations to cover the cost of education for the entire school.
Education is crucial
As soon as headmaster Mendy has finished explaining who I am and why I am there, I ask the students if I may take pictures of them so that I can share my experience with the students in Norway and elsewhere. Without hesitation, a loud “Yes!” is released from two of the girls seated in front of me. They rally up and strike a pose. It all happens so fast that it takes me a quick second to register what’s happening. The whole class bursts out in laughter, as if I don’t know what I have just got myself into. “Girls will be girls”, I think to myself, as I could not help but to be in awe of these fabulous girls, serving pose after pose without instructions. After the unprompted photo session, I make my way around the classroom, catching more of the authentic moments. Some of the students are shy and hide behind each other, while others have their heads deeply buried in the books.
Headmaster Mendy explains, “Education is very important in The Gambia, and for most the only way out of poverty. With the support from Aiducatius, St.Martins is in practice the only school in the country who really offers free education. Even if the average gambian no longer pay “school fees”, you still have to cover the cost of uniforms, exams and school books. All necessities for attending school in The Gambia. In addition, it’s expected that students sign up for extra tutoring to excel - which is what any student strives for, and with that comes “private study fees”. Knowing that St.Martins has the opportunity to cover these costs for the students, we are able to give the students the opportunity to fully focus on their school work, as well as releasing the families of the financial burden of putting a student through the educational system”.
His words hit me hard- especially coming from a country like Norway, where parent’s financial concern for education up to university level is so to speak non-existent. Even if one was to struggle to make ends meet there are endless possibilities. Whilst in The Gambia, there are children who risk never going to school just because of the family’s financial status.
A sea of light blue checks
The headmaster takes me to the in-house tailors on campus, and it’s quite clear that we’ve arrived in the midst of a uniform distribution. The entrance is packed with students, coming and going in every direction. In theory I’m quite sure they’ve been told to form a line and wait their turn, but there’s this weird thing with teenagers and taking orders. Somewhere between deliver and receive, it always goes wrong. I’m giggling at the cluster in front of me and the poor teacher who’s desperately trying to register the students. Immediately my mind takes me to another place, and the cluster in front of me is far too familiar. This reminds me of my own students on departure day at OSL airport, Gardermoen. This could’ve been them and that poor teacher could’ve easily been me. I give the teacher a sympathetic smile before I head into the tailor.
“Lady, have you come to collect your uniform?”, an unison male laughter fills the room, as I jokingly laugh with them and answer,“Yes!”.
I’m glad they have a sense of humor, because the ask at hand seems far from a joke to me. With my eyes and mouth wide open, I feel like I’m about to drown in a sea of light blue checks. The room is literally stacked with uniforms everywhere! Oblivious, the headmaster has already caught my reaction and is laughing at me. He explains that one of the things they’ve also been able to do with the support from Aiducatius, is to have an in-house tailor on the school premises. In doing so. all school uniforms are equal and yet again, the parents are freed from another obligation.
As I observe the men hard at work, I notice that they all have their specialties. One is responsible for sewing shirts, another one is sewing pants and skirts, while a third group is busy measuring the students. The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”, comes to mind, but in this context; “a group funny tailors to dress them”.
Just like home
We leave the tailors and make our way through the schoolyard. We meet some pupils on the way and they greet the headmaster politely, while he high-fives and jokes with them. He knows the names of each and everyone of them, and there is no doubt that the headmaster is a popular man amongst the students. It’s heartwarming to see how he genuinely cares for them.
We continue in the heat. The sun is at its peak now and the school area is huge. It is probably not by chance they have left some of the mango trees to stand around, as they throw some necessary shade. In the middle of the pitch there is a large volleyball net. On the far right of the square, bikes are stacked up against each other. The vision takes me back to my own elementary school in Norway. There’s not much that separates the two; common areas, playgrounds, bicycle racks. Classrooms.
“So what do you think about our school? How’s it different from yours?” I look at the headmaster and smile. It’s just as if he just read my mind. “It’s not! It feels the same. It might be a bit colder in Norway, but the school atmosphere is exactly the same”. And just like any school in Norway, this is also free.
- Written by Haddy Jammeh
Select Program Coordinator, Explorius Norway