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Posted - 31 Mar 2017 :  11:12:24  Show Profile Send Momodou a Private Message  Reply with Quote

By Dembo Fatty

This article is dedicated to my late uncle Mbye Camara and all the trail blazers in the education sector. As a little boy, I showed interest in learning and had an inquisitive mind which my late father exploited and decided that farming was not something I was going to be good at. Either because I never had the strong back or I was deliberately creating that character for myself so that they will send me away from my village, the end result worked. I was to be fortunate one day after a day’s work on the farm, my father told me that it was decided that I will move to a town called Kuntaur to attend school. I had no idea where Kuntaur was let alone how to get there.

All I knew was the dusty and very open village where technology of any sort had never touched. We lived a very basic life and almost entirely on what Nature had crafted. No running water, no electricity, no gravel road, no hospital or dispensary. Nothing. Very few houses had corrugated roofs and wives of such homes enjoyed an unprecedented attention during the raining season, when everyone would keep good relations with them so that they could bring a pan to collect rain waiter that was well coveted. With the wells so deep, water is drawn using horses and donkeys and water was certainly rationed such that a bucket of water was good enough for three boys to take a shower.

Every boy and girl in my village looked forward to the night of the 15th every month when the moon was brightest and the only source of light in the village. We sometimes read by the moon light. Because this was the brightest night, legend had it if a thief were ever caught on that night; he would forever be caught in the act. I guess it’s because the whole village was well lit by moonlight that thieves would take a day off on such nights and property owners could let their guards down on that night.

This was Gambia well into the 90s and this story is very common in many parts of the provinces. It’s not an isolated experience as I would later learn on my tour of the country with my uncle while he moved from school to school.

It is out such an environment that I would trek miles from my village to Lamin Koto and hop on a rusty lorry eastward to Kuntaur. Unfortunately, the road that the driver took did not favour us because it was not going to Kuntaur via FullaKunda which meant that we had to alight on the gravel road and walked another two kilometers, pass through the Mixed Farming Center and then to Fullakunda.

We arrived in the evening at the school where there were two quarters for the two most senior teachers and one quarter for the Headmaster. My late uncle lived in one of the quarters. The buildings were much bigger than those in my village and they all had roofs made of some material I never knew which I later came to know as asbestos which with hind sight , are cancerous and have been banned in many western countries. But hey, what do you expect from a village boy like me, innocent and trying my hands at everything new. I was there to learn and I remembered the advice of my brother and my parents that I was there to make a difference. I knew that if I never did well in school, there was only one option, marry early, probably four wives and with 20 kids and retire to a life of manual labour until the cows come home.

By that time I saw drawings in some of the Koranic materials being circulated with pictures of young children performing ablution from what appeared to be running water from a pole which i later came to know as a tap. That did not exist in my village and I wondered if that was fake or reality because I wished my village had such so that the back breaking job of drawing water for the animals and the women could be eased.

I always knew there was better life outside of my village but where, I did not know and so the very thought of leaving although made me sad to a point, was also a blessing because I knew my life was never going to be the same. Many of my friends never ventured away from the village for even 5 kilometers and some having never seen a river.

When we arrived at the school in Fulla Kunda, out came a man in his late 30s or early 40s because I could not tell and I was introduced to him. As usual my father advised me to work hard and make him proud something that I still live by. I sure promised him and was sad to see him return to the village walking his way back to the gravel road through the Mix Farming Center to hop on one of those rusty Lorries to Lamin Koto en route to my village. Reality then sunk in my head.

That evening, my uncle sat me on the back of a bicycle and we rode to Kuntaur to his mother where I spent my first night and later in the morning, came with the boys in the compound to Fulla Kunda. I remember some of them still. Pa Amadou Cham Fife Cham Essa Cham, Dickory Jawo, Ya Jai Cham, Malick Cham. And so on. Later I made more friends as we trudged daily to school for three kilometers one way.

Within a few months he was to be posted to Panchang to open a new school. I followed him there. My years at Panchang opened my mind to the difficult work of the teachers who are not recognized for what they do. The classroom block was a two room mud building not enough to house all the students. The stronger boys and the teachers would venture into the woods to cut palm leaves to make makeshift classrooms which were almost always blown away after a storm. Yet, we would rebuild another classroom block made of palm leaves with wooden poles as it’s pillars. The teachers were very hardworking and so was my uncle who had to take the unpleasant task of being not only a school administrator but also an engineer discussing with teachers and community in erecting our own classrooms. That was certainly beyond his terms of reference but in these parts of the Gambia, you either improvise your job roles or you will not make any impact.

Sometimes, when the rains start before the summer holidays, half of the students would not show up for class helping the family on the farms. My uncle would walk to these farms rounding up boys to come to class as if it was his duty to make sure students come to school. Certainly not rounding them up. But he knew the importance of education and how that could make an impact on the lives these young innocent fellows. He would argue with parents and some would even threaten that the kids were theirs and he cannot challenge them.

These parents were also innocent victims of the system who saw no benefits in sending kids to school. Farming was all they knew and if one not did not have big farms, then you were toast. The more hands on the farm the bigger the harvest. Education was an investment into the future which they had no patience for. They lived in the moment and so farming showed results within months while education could take 12 years or more.

One day, a parent came to school with a very young boy and asked my uncle to exchange the boy for an older brother in class because the parent needed help on the farm as if that’s how education was acquired. My uncle tried to talk him out of it and insisted that the older boy must be in school and he made it his duty to ensure he did.

These teachers and school officials sacrificed everything including their own children's future to live in the Trench Towns of Gambia, the places that no one wanted to live, just for the sake of creating opportunities for those who would never have the opportunities of education. They stayed. They conquered and they produced results. This story is dotted all over in the provinces.

In the first batch of Primary 6, we were 11 students who sat to the Common Entrance Examination and four of us made it to High School and all us went to Armitage. My self, Musa Manneh Hassoum Ceesay and Mohammed Mbye. I believe the rest all had pass marks to attend Secondary School an achievement to be valued given the dire conditions education was delivered.

We had no library and our only source of books was the Mobile Library which made its rounds around the country every three months and sometimes we never see the truck for five months. The trucks were too old and would breakdown on trek never to make it upcountry. Every day you carried your only text book to school just in case the truck showed up and you could exchange it for another book. Later one, one boy came with the genius idea that we should do book exchange among ourselves and so we created a library of some sort. That worked and one could read more books while waiting and every day we brought our library books to school in case the truck showed up which I hated.

Teachers were poorly paid and sometimes the Pay Master would not show up for two months and yet every day, they walked to school to teach with the same fervor. My Teacher from Primary 4 to 6, was one Mr. Yaya Jatta from Foni Bondali I think, who would provide evening classes at school for free just to make sure we passed the Common Entrance. We were the first batch of the school and the same teacher moved with us every year until Primary 6 for consistency. Mr Jatta by that time was an “unqualified” Teacher because he had not attended the Teacher Training at the College but he was very god at teaching. Very neat, afro hair and very good writing skills and he still teaches at Serekunda Primary School and still loves his cigarettes. Entertainment was provided by one Mr. Sanyang who had a reggae selection cassette but his Burning Spear cassette was the most sought after which he never lends anyone. He insisted on being the Disc Jockey to protect his priced possession. I used to pretend to be not aware and am sure some of them will be suprised to read this here.

On one occasion the Pay Master did not show up for three months and the teachers were desperate to pay their debts and because I was living with the headmaster, I was close to many of them and would listen to their complaints and frustrations as to how the system had failed them and how people at the regional offices and the headquarters were enjoying life and they could not even be paid for their services. A marabou was called in by the teachers to check for them if the Pay Master had left Banjul and was coming to pay salaries. By this time, their patience ran out. They owed every shop keeper in the village and were ashamed to walk some dusty roads in the village so that the shop keepers would not see them.

The teachers called me without my uncle knowing about it and sat me in a room with a marabout who gave me a clear bottle with some liquid in it and asked if I could see a human being inside the bottle with a prayer bead which I could not see. If I had seen the man, then the Pay Master was on his way. To the disappointment of one of the teachers who I did not want to name, yelled that I must open my eyes wider because it was impossible that the Pay Master had not left to come and pay them their months of arrears. I guess I was right because the Pay Master had not left. This was confirmed by a Teacher who had just come from Kaur making a trunk call to the kombos to find out if the Pay Master was on his way. I guess the marabout was right.

Many of the teachers I met worked 30 years and were never confirmed in their appointments because the supervisory agency dropped the ball. We used to call it ‘retrospective confirmation”. They only get confirmed in the service after retirement.

In fact for many of these teachers, in order to have a personal file opened for them at the ministry, they were required to buy their own files inside which their official correspondence could be stored while no other category of public officials were required to buy their own file folders.

Just this morning I was reading a World Bank Report that by 2006 there were about 18,600 retiring public servants including the security forces and less than 10 of these retirees made a monthly pension of D2, 500. Almost half of the retirees made less than D250 of monthly pension. 800 pensioners made D50 a month. I guess those who made less than D50 a month had all died because I saw monthly pensions of D34. I can bet that majority of the retirees are teachers who most likely made monthly pensions of D250. This is the hard realities of being a teacher and we can do much better by these people. I am not just impressed.
These stories and many more have been the lives lived by thousands of teachers who paved the way for many like me to have education. They did it for country and asked for no recognition. Yet these are the people that we forget so soon and never celebrate. Many of these teachers adopted boys in the villages they taught and moved around the country with them so they could have access to education. My uncle had six boys by my count some of whom are now very senior public officials.

These trail blazers could have opted to not teach at all and for my uncle, many of his classmates became Ministers, Directors, Managing Directors and so on but he chose the path of selfless sacrifice to bring education to those who would never have had the opportunity. To live in communities where life was at a standstill and by staying, he was able to apply grease to the clocks so life could move again. He touched thousands of students in a span of over 40 years doing what he loved most, teaching. We need to appreciate our teachers more. They sacrificed so we could be educated. They retired with nothing but the consolation that they lived their lives in the service of humanity.

When was the last time you called a former teacher or even tried to reach out to him or her just to say thank you? If you stand tall, it’s because you stood on the shoulders of these teachers. Sometimes we need to be a bit grateful for the sacrifices of these teachers who were paid peanuts. Some of my teachers earned less than D150 a month and yet they stayed to give me an opportunity.

My hat off to all the teachers out there. If no one recognizes you, I do and I say thank you for all you did for me despite all the odds. I will forever be in awe of your sacrifices that I could not reciprocate. I was a teacher twice but each tour was a stint. Keep your heads high because when we all stand before the God of History, you will be rewarded like no one because millions owe you so much that on that day, you will be laughing all the way to the gates of Heaven and be recognized for a life of sacrifice for humanity and that you left this world better educated and strived to drive away the dark shadows of ignorance.

Sleep well uncle till we meet again.

A clear conscience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone
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