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Thursday, December 2, 2021

The ‘backway’ exodus: Delivering hope to a deserted village

The 'backway' exodus: Delivering hope to a deserted village

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Approximately 101 kilometres away from Banjul lie a centuries-old village on the northern bank of River Gambia, a stone’s throw from Senegal to the north. It is football match day for Jajari village, but the team coach is finding it difficult to put up a 17-member full team for their much-needed derby and there is no crowd to cheer the boys.

A once bustling settlement is now deserted of its youth, thanks to irregular migration which continues to draw young people away from the village to Europe, without proper documentation.

The story of this exodus is a daily anthem in the village and hardly a day goes by without villagers harping on the challenges they are left to grapple with.

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The perilous irregular journey to Europe has claimed the lives of many youths and many more are stranded in foreign detention centres along the route.

Alamamy Trawally, the headmaster of both the nursery and primary schools

Migration is all too common in Jajari village. Its youths have long migrated to urban settlements during dry season to find work – usually menial jobs – and return during the wet season to till the land. Families survive on subsistence farming with little hope of a brighter future.

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Despite growing awareness of the dangers along the route to Europe, a rising number of the youths in the village are still keen on embarking on the journey.

“All our youths have gone. This has caused a great havoc in the village. We have lost a lot of our youths at sea and do not know the whereabouts of others,” Sambou Marong, a community leader decried.

“Our agricultural production has declined, and some families even stopped farming because they have nobody to work on their land. We even struggle to dig graves when someone dies because of the absence of able-bodied men. Sometimes we do it ourselves,” the octogenarian-looking man said.

Bakary Jammeh, country coordinator of Morgan Clark Foundation

Yet for every man who leaves for Europe, there are the families – wives, children and parents – who are left behind, wondering if they already had their last glimpse of their loved ones.

Last week, the village plunged into panic when news broke that some Gambians attempting to reach Europe died at sea. Desperate for news from those who have left, the families   bombarded the village WhatsApp group.

The following day, it was confirmed that the tragedy involved four boys from the nearby village, Alkali Kunda. Three of them died and one survived.

But for Jajari, there is now light at the end of the tunnel. A UK charity is now providing a new lease of life for the village’s remaining youths. Morgan Clark Foundation is addressing the root causes of this exodus by equipping the village’s future: the children.  

The charity built the village’s first nursery and primary schools and provided free bursary to the pupils. These structures, being the first development infrastructure in the village, have brought much joy and hope for a brighter future.

“When we first started the schools 11 years ago, 350 pupils were enrolled on the very day. Those kids could have been idling at home with absolutely no prospect of being educated. The closest nursery and primary schools here are kilometres away and the kids cannot trek,” explained Bakary Jammeh, the country coordinator of Morgan Clark Foundation.

Not only the distance, but some parents of these kids have also spent their remaining dalasis on their sons who were trapped along their way to Europe.

Students of the  primary school pose for a picture with smiles of hope

He added: “We were very concerned about the migration situation in the village, so we want to provide a solid foundation for the children and provide opportunities for the fewer youths remaining here.”

Morgan Clark opened a lodge in the village to provide jobs for the village youths through community-based tourism. The lodge employs 15 people including a migrant returnee who co-manages the facilities there. This number excludes the three teachers employed at the nursery school.

“Education can put an end to this “backway” travels. I think the youths in the village migrate because they are uneducated and unskilled. The school has now graduated some pupils who now serve as role models for others,” said Almamy Trawally, the head teacher supervising both the nursery and primary schools. 

At present, there are a total of 251 pupils. These are not potential irregular migrants, they are aspiring doctors, lawyers, bankers and so on.

Sheriff Jammeh, a Jajari native now delivering hope to pupils in the village

The foundation now plans to build a technical and vocational school in the village and has bought teaching and learning materials. This initiative is aimed at providing training for the youths in the village and gives them a starting capital to establish their enterprise workshops after qualification.

Sambou Marong, who offered his plot of land for the schools to be built, has two of his sons waiting to be enrolled in the technical school when it comes to fruition.

“The technical school will really help our youths. They always complain of joblessness but when they learn skills, they will be able to create jobs and take good care of their families,” he noted with optimism.

A 33-year-old Sherriff Jammeh is one of the few youngsters changing the narrative and inspiring hope in Jajari. The foundation sponsored his teacher-training education at The Gambia College and employed him to teach at the community’s primary school.

“I consider myself the luckiest person on earth. As a qualified teacher, my future is now brighter and I am very useful to my community,” Sheriff said.

Thanks to his outstanding performance at the village school, the Gambian government has now transferred him to a bigger school, Maka Farafenni Lower Basic School, and promoted him as headmaster.

“Almost all my friends have gone away through the “backway”. I used to consider leaving too, but with this opportunity I have been provided, coupled with the hope my community has in me, I am determined to stay here and motivate others,” he added.

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