05 September 2009

A Bittersweet Return to Njau L.B.S.

My friends Liam and Gez joined me on this visit to The Gambia in April 2007. It was fun to share some of my Peace Corps experience with them, and it's always fun travelling with people who take notice of things that you may not see as readily.

My old boss in The Gambia, Ousainou Touray, moved to the UK shortly before me. We talk frequently, and we were able to get periodic updates on Njau Lower Basic School. Ousainou served as Njau's headmaster/principal for five years. Since Ous and I left, there have been 4 or 5 headmasters in the last two school years. So we had an inkling that all was not well. In addition to presents for his family, Ous gave me a couple of footballs for the school.

The day after I arrived in The Gambia, I came to Njau to try visit the school before it closed for Easter holidays (Gambia, 90-95% Muslim, dutifully observes even the most obscure Catholic holidays like Ascension). We went up to the school on Friday and met the students on the way as they'd been sent back (Gambian schools tradionally close a day or week early before a holiday). We continued and checked out the school and the (vegetable) garden. Eventually the new headmaster came over from his quarters. Liam wondered why I didn't give Jallow the footballs but, as he didn't seem terribly enthused, I elected to wait until the PTA chairman, Mot Hoja Ceesay, turned up as planned. I left the footballs in his care.

Mr. Jallow, myself, Mot Hoja Ceesay in the school garden

The school grounds weren't in very good shape. The roof from Grade 3 had blown off, and the furniture/class was relocated to my beloved library, the door to which was left unlocked as the keys were lost. The school garden wasn't as big as before, but did seem fairly well irrigated. After a few more minutes we headed off.

As my former Njau L.B.S. colleagues returned for Easter I began to learn more about Mr. Jallow. It turns out he was the headmaster of Buduk L.B.S. southeast of Njau. He was caught selling the school's World Food Programme supplies so he was transferred to Njau (Gambia's Dept. of State for Education doesn't fire people for stealing students' food).

On top of being a criminal, Mr. Jallow also got on very poorly with his teachers. One, Sheikh Ceesay, is a Njau native and lives there with his family. Due to conflicts with Jallow, Sheikh moved to Buduk's school, even though it meant spending the week away from his family and rent a food bowl. I was unable to see one of the two remaining teachers, the Ustas (Koranic teacher), as he had left early after an argument with Jallow. My little brother Alhagie Sait's teacher had not returned since the Christmas holidays. The lack of teachers and classroom means that a couple of classes now come in the afternoon.

One good thing to come out of Njau L.B.S.'s current travails is that it's helped me better appreciate Ousainou and the work he did at the school. I always knew he was cut from a different cloth than many headmasters and education authorities, but this visit reemphasized some salient points:

- Ous had a great rapport with his teachers. They were welcomed into his quarters for after-school lunch and ataya, and by and large work attendance was very good.

- He got on really well in the community, and knew just about everyone in the area. He also helped some compounds through the lean months. (Although this too was a misappropriation of WFP stores, it wasn't for personal gain. There was still plenty for the students, and whatever's left at the end of the year gets pilfered by the regional education office.)

- Ousainou also worked quite hard. He organized outreach/"sensitisation" in Njau and surrounding villages. He also spent a lot of holiday time visiting NGOs and prospective donors, in order to get funds for school improvements (library renovation, water pumps). The roof from Grade 3 would definitely have been restored.

Ousainou Touray and I in London. April 2009

Throughout my visit, many people noted how much Ousainou was missed and how the school was struggling. As disappointing as the school's state is, it helped me appreciate how much was accomplished by Ousainou.

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