Last week, the 72-year-old Nick announced that he is stepping down as volunteer director. In this edition of Bantaba, he told the Editor-In-Chief of The Standard, Lamin Njie, that he wants people to live their lives without malice against anyone. He is also emphatic in his call for a better world. Excerpts:
For more than 30 years, you have tirelessly pioneered educational and development work in Gunjur by way of links between the people of the coastal settlement and those of Marlborough. What is your assessment of the state of things as you bow out?
I would like to start by clarifying two important points:-
a. You must be clear that this has not been a solo effort but has involved a huge amount of work by many people both in Gunjur and in Marlborough, all of whom have risen to the challenge and recognised the rewards of bringing people of different cultures and faiths together in harmony to build a more peaceful, prosperous and just world.
b. Your question suggests that the benefits of the link have only accrued in Gunjur. This could not be farther from the truth. We estimate that some 16-1700 people have exchanged between our two communities. For those young and older people like myself who have had the privilege of living with families in Gunjur over the past 33 years, our lives have been changed. We have met with a kindness and generosity that it would be hard to match. We have been enriched personally and in many cases professionally by the experience of living in Gunjur. Many young people from Marlborough who have lived in Gunjur have gone on to a career allied to international development.
One of the biggest regrets that I have is that it is now impossible to obtain visas for young Gambians to come to the UK and this has undermined everything that we stood for. Right from the start of the relationship between our two communities, we made it clear that we in Marlborough had as much to learn from the people of The Gambia as they might have to learn from us. Fundamental to that learning has been the exchange of people, always living in each others’ homes and compounds so that we really get to know each other on a very personal level. Now, tragically, it is a one-way-stream of human traffic from Marlborough to Gunjur and not in the other direction. This makes me very sad.
This interview is coming four days after the ghastly events in Paris. The relationship that we have between our community of Marlborough and the predominantly Muslim community of Gunjur gives us a particular responsibility to stand up together and make it clear to the world that the events of Friday 13 November had nothing to do with Islam, a religion of peace. Your poet Lenre Peters, who was a close friend of mine, once wrote a poem about our Gunjur Marlborough link entitled in Wollof “Japante Loho” which roughly translated means “Holding hands”. That’s what we must be about, holding hands across the faith and social divide and showing everyone that it is our common humanity that is central to everything that we stand for.
The Gunjur-Marlborough link is still going on strong. The partnership has not only brought about positive change in the lives of people in Gunjur but has also seen more than 1,600 young people pass through its exchange programme. How significant is this?
It is a remarkable tribute to the people of Gunjur that so many people from Marlborough have wanted to come and live in that community recognising that it is a life-changing experience. Life-changing in the sense that you will never see the world in the same light again… Life-changing in the sense that it causes you to ‘hold a mirror up’ to yourself and reflect on your own life and style of living and recognise that in Gunjur you experience a social wealth that in ‘the West’ to a large extent we have lost. Life-changing in the sense that it will stimulate you to bring about change… For those Gambians that have lived and worked with us in Marlborough, there is no doubt that similar changes have taken place and they have taken advantage of the experience to further their lives and that of their families in many different ways. This is why we feel so sad that we can no longer provide the opportunity for young Gunjurians to come to Marlborough.
What other tangibles can we point out as direct result of this link?
It would be easy for me to point to tangibles in Gunjur, buildings that have been built through the link whether a five classroom block at the Lower Basic School, a Market place in central Gunjur, a Pre-school. But I would strongly argue that it is the intangibles that are more important. Marlborough is situated in the County of Wiltshire, just as Gunjur is situated in the Kombo South District of the Gambia. The educational wing of MBG is the Wiltshire Global Education Centre (WGEC) which works with schools in Wiltshire to bring a global dimension into the school curriculum. The link with Gunjur provides a wealth of opportunities to bring the world into the classrooms of Wiltshire schools. The Director of WGEC has brought many teachers on study visits to Gunjur over the years and this has resulted in approximately 30 schools in Wiltshire that now have partnerships with schools in the Gambia, a programme led by the excellent organisation GOWLA (The Gambian One World Linking Association). This means that children in the schools at both ends can undertake joint curriculum work, they can Skype each other and work together online, thus beginning to understand the global dimension of the world in which they live and will work. Another important tangible has been the advocacy work we have undertaken with British politicians.
Gunjur generously hosted a visit by my Tory MP Claire Perry and her daughter for one week in 2013. For an MP, soon to become a Minister, to experience living with the Touray family in Gunjur without access to piped water or electricity and beginning to understand the concept of development and the needs of an African community was a vital learning experience. Likewise we have had many students from UK who have undertaken research on particular issues which we have been able to feed back to Government Ministers.
In August 2015 I was accompanied by two students, one from Cambridge University and one from Oxford who did a study on people’s perceptions of the impact of climate change in The Gambia. They were told by different people that whereas 50 years ago there were more prolonged rains; meaning that people were able to gain three rice harvests in one rainy season, now the rainy season is much shorter and therefore only one harvest is possible and as a result, 90% of the rice consumed in The Gambia is imported (the importation, of course, itself leading to climate change). Likewise they were told that as a result of the reduced flow in The Gambia river, salination of the water has crept upstream meaning that less land can be irrigated from the river. We were able to send the report by these students to Grant Shapps MP, the Minister for Africa in the Department for International Development and ask the question, “what are we doing in the UK to encourage the use of renewable energy sources, (solar and wind) and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which is leading to climate change and here is the evidence of impact on an African country”.
What were some of the challenges you faced as director of MBG?
A constant challenge, which is becoming greater, is that of raising the funds to carry out the work. There have been times when I calculate that 80% of my time has been spent on fundraising as opposed to carrying out the work. This takes two forms. Firstly, we arrange fundraising events in Marlborough which can be very time-consuming with little return, or writing funding applications to charitable trusts which are sometimes rejected; which can be extremely dispiriting, particularly when you feel passionate about the cause for which you are trying to raise the money.
We also work in a very different environment now to that in which we were working 30 years ago. Another major challenge is the issue of health and safety and the administrative hurdles that we are put through. Before we send young people to Gunjur we are now subjected to undertaking risk assessments, covering ourselves with extra expenditure on insurance cover, should anything happens to a young person while in The Gambia etc. All this diverts us away from the work we want to undertake.
In an interview with Wiltshire news, you said resigning as director does not mean cutting all ties. In what ways do you intend to stay in touch?
How could I possibly cut all ties? I consider Gunjur to be my second home and I have so many friends there that I could not possibly just walk away and say “I am never coming back!” So I imagine that I will continue to make regular visits to Gunjur but making it clear that I am there purely for social reasons rather than professional reasons. I have also made it clear that, without wanting in any way to interfere with any new direction that a new Director wants to take MBG and the Marlborough Gunjur link, I am happy to be in the background giving advice and support should the new Director asks for it.
In retrospect, what were the defining moments as volunteer director and what lessons did you learn from them?
A defining moment was when we received in 1981 a letter from Hon Abdoulie Bojang, at that time High Commissoner for The Gambia in London, suggesting that we form a link with Gunjur in The Gambia!
Another defining moment was when our partners in Gunjur took control. When we set out on the link we made it clear to friends in Gunjur that we saw the relationship as one of mutual learning, that we in Marlborough had as much to learn from the people of Gunjur as they might have to learn from us. We did not see the relationship in terms of support for development in Gunjur because that immediately changed the relationship and put us in a position of power and control, “helping poor people in Africa”.
But after we had exchanged a few people between the two communities people in Gunjur began to say “But wait a minute! We have some real problems facing our community e.g lack of access to clean water; very low literacy rates particularly amongst women; high infant mortality rates from preventable diseases such as malaria and gastroenteritis; lack of access to capital to start up businesses”. At first we were resistant to becoming involved in a development programme and becoming an “aid agency”. But colleagues in Gunjur were persistent and said “If this is a true partnership you should be listening to what WE are saying just as much as we listen to what you are saying”. They were right! This was a defining moment. And thus we together formed the development agency TARUD which has been our partner now for almost 20 years and which has brought so many benefits to the community of Gunjur.
More recently, a defining moment was when 3 years ago people in Gunjur began to say to us “we have a major problem with unemployment amongst young men!” We came to recognise that in common with many international NGOs the focus of our work with TARUD had been on women’s development, a women’s literacy programme, support for income generating projects, health education etc. Now we were faced with the problem of unemployment amongst young men and stories of young men leaving through the ‘back way’ to Europe, and some drowning in the Mediterranean in their attempts.
So the focus of our work has changed to encourage employment and wealth in Gunjur both through sending young people (both men and women) to GTTI for training in a variety of skills and also giving loans to young entrepreneurs to start up or develop their businesses. We are thrilled with the success of this programme. The students are passing their exams and the entrepreneurs are paying back their loans which means we are able to recycle the money to give to other entrepreneurs.
Looking at your prominence and age, would you consider yourself a fulfilled man at 72?
I am not sure about the word prominence, but certainly it is thanks to the Gambian people and the many friends I have made, I feel very fulfilled. It has been the impact that the link has had on so many people’s lives that gives me that strong sense of fulfilment and gratitude for everything that I have personally gained from the link with Gunjur.
It has also been the way in which we have been able to promote community linking in the UK using the example of the Gunjur Marlborough link. A defining moment was when we published a ‘Toolkit of Linking’ which was launched for us by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the presence of three close friends in Gunjur. Our example has led to the formation of some 4,000 school partnerships, 250 hospital partnerships, 350 community partnerships between schools, hospitals and communities in the UK with counterparts in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.