A wonderful example of how someone with drive and a dream can achieve so much for so many people.
Today we’d like to share a very inspiring post by Marion Christmas MBE. This is a wonderful example of how someone with drive and a dream and of course, the support from her friends and family, can achieve so much.
“I’ll build you one.” The words slipped off my tongue so easily. Little did I realise what a profound effect they would have on my life and that of my family and friends. So what do they mean? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Hampshire Venture Scouts visit The Gambia
"I have been involved in Scouting since the day I took my son Paul to join Cubs with the 2nd Bentley Scout Group. I had no intention of joining myself but a few years later there I was as Akela. With two sons involved and my husband Michael as treasurer I can say we are a true Scouting family.
Hampshire is a great county to be involved in Scouting, for young and old alike. Over Christmas and New Year 1989/90 Hampshire Scout Expeditions ran an expedition to The Gambia, West Africa. My eldest son Paul was one of thirty Venture Scouts aged from sixteen to twenty, plus leaders, who would spend six weeks camping up country in a small mud hut village called Jiroff. Their task was to build two classroom blocks in conjunction with Action Aid, one at Jiroff and the other at a larger village called Soma, some 15k away. Bearing in mind there was no electricity or running water only well water, no supermarket, no B&Q and no communication it was quite a task. Each team of Venture Scouts were allocated a Gambian Venture Scout to be their local guide and translator. So for six weeks they worked and lived together and great friendships were formed. It was a very emotional time when they had to leave. Our Ventures decided there and then that they would raise funds to bring the four Gambians over to the UK to an International Camp, Hampshire Venture 1, to be held at Rushmoor Arena in 1992.
Gambian Venture Scouts visit Hampshire (and steal my heart)
The young Gambians duly arrive at Gatwick, literally in the clothes they stood up in. They came from very poor families and would not have travelled far from their village before embarking on their trip to the UK. They were to be in the UK for four weeks and an exciting, challenging, programme had been arranged for them. I was asked if I would give them ‘home hospitality’ for two nights prior to them returning home I said yes, and the moment they walked through the front door they stole my heart.
These were young men who stared poverty and hardship in the face every day. They were very thin. They did not have jobs as there weren’t any. Three of them were the first born in their families, traditionally named Lamin, and they told of the responsibilities that fell on their shoulders to provide for their families. They spoke excellent English and were politically aware of what was going on in the world. At home, on a shared radio, they would listen to BBC World Service, Focus on Africa, daily. They had all been to school but only when their parents had enough money to pay the fees. Lamin Jarjue was exceptionally bright and wanted to go to University but financially it was impossible. We had a lot of fun in those two days and I asked them what they would like to take back with them. I thought they might choose a small radio or a pair of trainers but they said “A Scout Centre, like Ferney Croft in the New Forest” and then the words slipped of my tongue, “I’ll build you one”. Their faces were a picture but nothing compared to my husband’s! They flew home the next day. Why did I say “I’ll build you one?” I asked myself. It was such a stupid thing to say. I had never built anything in my life and more to the point I had never been to Africa. Anyway not to worry, they have gone now and they will probably forget all about it.
A promise is a promise - fund raising begins!
Three months later the letter dropped on the doormat. ‘Dear Mom, .........and we have told the District Chief and the Village Chief and everyone in Soma is praying for you and waiting for you to come to build the Scout Centre’ From your sons, Lamin Jarjue, Lamin Manjang and Lamin Kinteh. There was no going back. A promise is a promise.
The Gambia remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. Mortality rates for pregnant women and infants is not good to say the least. Malaria is the biggest killer. Yet despite the hardships the Gambian people are lovely. They are welcoming, friendly, fun and amaze me how they cope with what life, unjustly, throws at them. They live only six hours flying time away from my comfortable life.
Fundraising for the project was not easy and I’m not surprised. Why would people want to trust me and my ‘Lamins’ when we were so inexperienced. So for many years I was on my own begging, borrowing and, not quite stealing, to get the project off the ground. Communication was difficult and sending money safely was expensive and slow. My youngest son Mark came with me on my first visit in 1995 to buy the land. The heat and the wonderful aroma that is Africa hit us as the door of the plane opened. The airport in those days was a series of old huts and we had to carry our luggage from the plane. The ‘Lamins’ were there to meet us and we hired a cab to take us to our hotel for the night before travelling up country the following day. The taxi broke down 40 metres from the airport and that really was a taste of things to come.
Kaira Konko Scout Lodge opens
So followed years of fund raising and it was the patience and trust of the ‘Lamins’ that kept me going. Finally Kaira Konko Scout Lodge was opened by the British High Commissioner in 1998. KK today comprises of a large hall, 8 double bedrooms (six are en suite), a bantaba (covered meeting and eating area), and a well equipped kitchen where our girls prepare tasty Gambian dishes. We have solar power as the electricity supply is somewhat unreliable. So the lodge is great for large groups as the hall doubles up as dormitory accommodation. We have our regular Gambians, including Government Ministers’, NGO’s, and families who may be making the long journey to a hospital or to see family. We are a welcome haven for backpackers. We never turn anyone away.
The Lodge is run by Lamin Kinteh, one of the three Lamin’s. Kaira Konko is now self supporting, a must for projects in Africa. Lamin is able to employ three of our older Scouts to assist running the Lodge. The Scouts themselves help with maintenance and running the garden. There are cashew, mango, paw paw, and lime trees. They grow bananas, sweet potato, cassava, corn and other vegetables. We have a well in the garden and it takes an hour of pumping twice a day to water everything. The produce is shared amongst the Scouts. They and their families often go hungry so we have a rice programme. We spend around £150 per month and Kinteh makes sure the poorest families get the rice they need.
Education is paramount
We sponsor many of our Scouts through school both boys and girls. Primary education is free but a child has to have flip flops or trainers, school uniform and pencils before being allowed into school. At middle and high school there are fees and books on top. We only sponsor those children who put something back into Kaira Konko and are motivated at school. It gives them a sense of pride and self esteem. Their parents are eternally grateful. Friday night is troop night and over 100 youngsters from babies to young adults swarm into KK, as it is affectionately known, to do their Scouting stuff. A campfire at KK is among the best experiences in the world. The children are not restricted to Friday nights. KK is their place and they come every day to play or just hang out with their friends. We run extra English classes in the evening to help them achieve at school. We rely on sponsorship to fund all we do and our sponsors in the UK are really our life blood. Every penny given goes safely and is spent wisely on the project.
Soma School Millennium Appeal
In 1999 the Soma School Millennium Appeal was launched. 1500 primary children in two shifts, one cold water tap with classrooms crumbling around them. Dame Mary Fagan, the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, became our Patron and launched the appeal to Hampshire Schools. We have just completed our 16th classroom and Dame Mary has visited Soma three times and supplied extra taps and a well. They simply love her in Soma and so do I! She has had the British Army build two classrooms and cajoled others into raising funds.
Teachers from Hampshire Schools, Hampshire Fire and Rescue, Staff from Treloar College, Groups of Explorer Scouts, Winchester University and others from Hampshire have visited and taken part in, and funded local projects. Wells have been repaired, houses rebuilt following the rains, a fire station supplied with a fire engine, land rover, uniforms and training, school libraries provided, new desks and chairs, a legal library for the Supreme Court, the list is endless. Over 500 people from Hampshire have stayed at KK and worked on projects in the community. We are so very good at what we do and we love doing it. What about Lamin who wanted to go to University I hear you ask. Through sponsorship Lamin Jarjue came to Farnborough College and gained his accountancy degree. His graduation was one of my proudest moments.
My journey has been simply amazing. I have got up to all sorts of mischief and am the honorary wife of the Village Chief and an Honorary Citizen of Soma. There have been tremendous highs and lows, so normal for Africa. I despaired in the early days of ever achieving Kaira Konko and it was the patience and total understanding of the young Lamins that helped me through. They are truly ‘sons’ to me and my husband and brothers to my sons. Now we are up and running things are so much easier but we rely on sponsorship to keep us doing all that good stuff so I can’t retire yet!
Our success in Soma would not have happened without Lamin Kinteh, MBE our Project Manager. He is trustworthy, hard working, totally honest, wise, loyal, and committed to serving the people of his community. He is a fine role model for the young people of Soma and Scouting. He and the Scouts at Kaira Konko have shown that given responsibility they can achieve great things. I am so very proud of them all." Marion Christmas MBE.
For more information visit Kaira Konko’s website.
Update March 2014
In March this year, I was lucky enough to visit the Kaira Konko Scout Lodge for the first time (that’s me on the far right). As a former scout myself, I was really moved by what Marion and supporters have achieved in Soma over the years.