Getting to know Lisa and her family.
When I first started working for Serenity Holidays (which includes The Gambia Experience) back in 2005, I was very excited that I would get the chance to visit West Africa. I knew little about the area but was eager to learn.
The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa and one of the most politically stable but it is also one of the poorest. However there is a thriving tourist area by the coast although, with a few exceptions, most tourists never venture far inland.
For some years I had sponsored a girl in India and even though I had visited her country I was not able to meet her as she lived in a very remote area. When I started my new job I decided to sponsor a child in The Gambia, which I did through the charity, Friends of The Gambia Association (FoTGA). She is called Lisa and she was 6 years old. She lived in Brikama, outside of the main tourist area but still within relatively easy reach, with her mother, father and 8 brothers and sisters.
It wasn’t long before I had booked a week’s holiday to The Gambia. I can remember how excited I was as our transfer coach drove us to our hotel and how the locals waved cheerfully as we passed. I was keen to take in everything: the dusty streets, the hustle and bustle, the brightly coloured dresses of the ladies and the fruit stalls by the roadside…
I had arranged to visit Lisa at her school. When we arrived the children, smiling and laughing, quickly surrounded us, but I couldn’t recognise anyone that might be Lisa. We went to her classroom and she was told to come forward. It wasn’t the happy meeting I’d hoped for. She was obviously very shy and completely mortified to be singled out like this. After chatting with her teachers we left with Lisa and drove to her compound to meet her family.
This was the first of many such visits both to see Lisa and her school. 7 years on, I have lost count of the times that I have been to The Gambia, whether for work or on holiday – usually a bit of both. Of course, I always visit Lisa and her family. Although she is still very shy she doesn’t look terrified any more! I always take lots of photos and all the children enjoy it as not just her brothers and sisters but many of the neighbours’ children all want to see what is going on and have their photo taken.
Even though English is The Gambia’s official language, away from the tourist area not many of the older generation, including Lisa’s parents, speak English. Lisa’s family belong to the Mandinka tribe and my efforts to learn a little Mandinka have failed dismally so we still need someone to translate for us. Watching Lisa grow up has been an amazing experience. I can’t believe that she is now 12 years old. I always enjoy hearing from her whether it is a copy of her school report or the occasional photo and letter. I have many happy memories of spending time with Lisa and her family including a very amusing cooking lesson in the family compound but there have been sad times too such as when her eldest brother died.
Even though Lisa moved to another school some time ago I still visit her old school (as well as her new school which is conveniently just next door). I’ve been back so many times to Lisa’s village now that when we drive through the labyrinth of streets I hear shouts of “Kathy, Kathy!” (rather than “Toubab, Toubab!”) long before I get to Lisa’s school or her compound.
I’d certainly recommend sponsoring a child in The Gambia, especially, if like me, you return regularly having fallen in love with this colourful little country. You could even make it your New Year’s resolution - Friends of The Gambia Association.
On behalf of everyone at The Gambia Experience, I’d like to wish you a happy and healthy 2013.