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City of Banjul
Monday, July 15, 2024

Village Keepers

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By: Monica Rae (Co-Founder of The EMMIRA Foundation)

Who are the keepers of a village? I ask myself this question as I navigate the bumpy roads of Gambia, also known as ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa.’ This is my fifth time coming from the United States to this tiny country on the West Coast of Africa. No longer a visitor, I can navigate the markets, police check points and cows that cross the road at impromptu times. I honk my horn for the goats to move and park outside a private primary school in Brufut. Today I am here to teach phonics and reading to the level 2 class and to show students where their new library is.

I stand beside her. This girl of 5 years. She is shy and wants to talk but doesn’t know what to say. She touches my leg and points to the books on the shelf. I give her one and she smiles. Another child calls out “Tobab” (white lady), I smile and remind them my name is Monica. Some of the students ask me to read them a book while others want to sit by themselves and turn each page like there are treasures to be found. I repeat the process for a few hours, with dozens of children as they come in and out of the crowded room, now home to their school library.

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As a writer and teacher, I have a passion for books.  I spent countless hours in my school and community libraries as a child (even now as an adult). While there are numerous supplies a student and school needs for quality education, books are essential to a child’s imagination.  A book’s innate purpose is found in the questions it answers and the dreams it inspires. So, it pains me to see children who do not have access to books. Unfortunately, this is the case for many schools in Gambia.

The average Gambian earns less than 500 dalasis a day (less than $10 dollars). With high costs of petrol, food, and technology many Gambians are forced to choose between a child’s school uniform or multiple meals a day. New shoes, car repairs and preventative medical care are all luxuries.  In many schools there is limited access to crucial resources like desks, whiteboards, computers or up to date textbooks.  Schools lack the funds to make necessary improvements, including paying teachers a fair salary. Unfortunately, without sustainable changes by the government and communities this cycle of inadequacy continues.

Recently, I was asked why I loved being in Gambia. I enjoy many aspects of life in Gambia from the beaches, wildlife, fresh fruit, to constant sunshine, but it is the people who make it home. A people so fearless and full of hope in the face of adversity. Together they have become a thread of support and strength necessary to rise above their misfortune.  I see creativity and resilience in their faces—not defeat.

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Communities such as Brufut, are an example of this, as they take it upon themselves to improve access to quality education.  Private schools such as Gambrit International School and Aja Fatou Bah Memorial School (AFBM) in Brufut, are working hard to build schools where families can take a more active role in improving their child’s education.  And it is my longstanding passion for learning, paired with our fondness for the people of Gambia, which inspired the formation of our foundation.

In 2022, The EMMIRA foundation was formed by myself and my husband Alhagie Barrow (native of Brufut).  Named after our daughters Emma and Samira, our goal is to partner with schools to create libraries and provide education materials and school resources to teachers and students.  Nine months ago, we began partnerships with two primary schools in Brufut—Gambrit International School and AFBM School.

I arrived in Gambia with my daughters in March of this year, eager to distribute the supplies, teach in classrooms and begin filling library shelves with books. We are grateful for all the donations that allowed us to provide over 1,500 reading books, 180 story books, First Aid kits for both schools, over 30 teaching workbooks, teaching aid and hygiene supplies and white boards for four classrooms.  We are thankful for the collaboration with Yahya Darboe at AFBM and Amina Ceesay and Abdourahaman Jammeh at Gambrit International. Our partnership remains ongoing as we continue to build the libraries with necessary literature for nursery and primary grades.  Further fundraising and evaluation will help us provide schools with more classroom aids, student supplies, and technology improvements.

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It was a privilege to spend time teaching english and math in classrooms and getting to know the teachers. One morning at AFBM School, I sat outside under the large tree where students and faculty gather.  A young male teacher and I spoke about phonics and spelling methods for his classroom. He was one of many teachers at both schools who came prepared and determined, regardless of the limited resources, to teach the students. We discussed the teaching styles found in Gambia and the United States. He paused. And said, he encourages his students to ask questions and while he may not always have the answer, he will help them find it.  I leaned back in my chair as the hot inland breeze swept beside us—and smiled. He understood. Teaching is about learning and learning is about asking questions. 

Who are the keepers of a village? I continued to ask myself this question during my month-long stay in Gambia. In a village there are shopkeepers, tailors, religious leaders, teachers, health workers and government officials. There is a rhythm to the movements of time and people.  Communities function on the premise that we are interdependent and that our abilities serve a purpose to one another. All this is true!  So, one might assume that these adults are the ‘keepers’ of the village. But they would be wrong.

The keepers of a village are its children.  The future rests solely in their hands. They hold the potential to bring about necessary change while taking care of the natural resources and traditions of their people. Children learn to make a difference in their community by watching and repeating what the adults around them are doing.  It is not our job to tell children who to become, it is our responsibility to make sure they are equipped with the confidence and resources to succeed!

The EMMIRA Foundation is excited to be a part of these efforts. Our daughters and I will arrive again at the end of this year with suitcases full of books and supplies and plans for a continued partnership with two schools in our favorite village, Brufut.

If you want to make a donation or follow our efforts, please contact The EMMIRA Foundation on Facebook, Instagram or by email: [email protected]

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