The Free Internet Cafe for the Blind & Visually Impaired, the first in the whole of Africa, which opens the World Wide Web, making The Gambia a leading light in Africa, with this technology by allowing free and total access to surf the net send and receive emails and for students to enhace their studies with the aid of this pioneering software. No more do they need to rely on a third party to read to them newspapers, magazines, books, letters and world wide information. - Sisawo Jobarteh and Simon Wezel say African People need help

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Sisawo Jobarteh and Simon Wezel say African People need help

African Pupils need help

A Dutch businessman is appealing to children across East Anglia to help improve education in The Gambia and lift youngsters out of poverty. CHARLOTTE ADCOCK reportsIT is sold by travel agents as the country perfect for sun lovers: a 'closer-to-home' Caribbean with golden beaches, exotic charm, luxury hotels and cheap international restaurants.Those perusing The Gambia section of the winter sun brochures carefully might also note a reference to the "minus points" — a quiet nightlife and "self-evident local poverty". For many, these are minor inconveniences, easily overcome by heeding tour operators' advice "to take extra care with personal security".

But any tourist who does venture beyond the pool and 18-hole brushed sand golf course may be shocked at the contrast between the hotel compounds and the poverty of the surrounding villages.


The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in Africa and conditions near the coast are better than elsewhere. Up-country, almost everyone has to scratch a living from the land, with little more than a mud hut or corrugated iron shed to protect them from the fierce heat and heavy rains.

There is no rail system and no television service. The country has one main road, one big bridge, one airport, one city and one cash crop — groundnuts. It also has a high rate of illiteracy.

While some 86,000 children attend primary school, less than a fith progress to high school or technical college. Many never receive an education at all because their parents are too poor.

A man in regular employment may earn as little as £5 a week but must provide everything from school uniforms to books, paper, pens and even the desks themselves if his children are to attend lessons. If funds dry up, it is the girls who are the first to leave school.

Those enrolled at school may find themselves in classes of more than 50, with no electricity, water or sanitation. Many village schools rely on makeshift

classrooms constructed from corrugated iron and grass, or the shade of a large Mango tree.

Teachers often have no access to typewriters, printers or photocopiers, and even basic materials like pens, pencils, rulers, chalk, exercise books and sports equipment are in short supply. Maths lessons are often reduced to pupils counting piles of sticks and leaves.

According to one primary head: "Facilities are either inadequate or not available at all, so the conditions under which the school operates are alarming."

His school in Kombo Central has 2,200 pupils but lacks any security. Most furniture is in a "deplorable condition" and the cooking, which is done in the open, generates so much smoke it "is affecting the health of our cooks and the food is exposed to health hazards".

New project to bring supplies to schools

His description, contained in a letter appealing for help, is just one of several that arrive every week at the offices of Dutch businessman Simon Wezel. For ten years, Mr Wezel, freight manager of a Witham shipping company, has been striving to raise living standards and help the Gambian people out of poverty.

He founded the Kingfisher Trust to further his aims and together with Terry Palmer, Clacton author of Discover The Gambia, and a fund raiser from Kettering, he has already helped re-equip a remote upcountry hospital serving 400,000 people.Project

As cuttings from The Daily Observer document, last year the Trust also shipped out six tons of school books, supplied 500 pairs of shoes to village children, and transported weighing scales for TB clinics across the country.

Two months ago, Mr Wezel launched a new project aimed at improving conditions in primary schools. In a letter sent out to 700 schools in Essex, he appealed to pupils to donate £1 and sponsor a basic education kit for a Gambian child.

His appeal, however, has fallen on deaf ears and the forms from 6,000 Gambian children who have already written asking for help are gathering dust.

"I have not had one single reply. I am devastated," said Mr Wezel. "We're not asking for a fantastic amount and in this scheme you know where the pound goes and the child it goes to."

He is determined not to abandon the project, and is now appealing to schools across East Anglia. The scheme, he argues, would not only benefit The Gambia but give British pupils the chance to make pen friends and learn about African history.

"With each pound we receive we would buy a pound's worth of equipment at retail value. We would pay trade prices and the difference would finance the transport.

"One child sponsoring another for £1 would do so much good for so little."


Sisawo Jobarteh is one Gambian who knows what advantages an education can bring. Six years ago, Mr Wezel offered to become his guardian and support him while he went to school in Essex. He is now working for a GNVQ in health and social care at Braintree College and hoping to return to The Gambia as a nurse.

"I don't know what I would have been able to achieve in The Gambia," he says. "The country badly needs help."

If schools do not receive assistance, the situation, letters from heads suggest, will remain grave. As one summed up: "In most schools parents are requested to provide furniture. If the child has none they will sit on the floor, bricks or sticks."

The Kingfisher Trust, a charity registered in The Gambia, can be contacted at Dunoon Close, Braintree, Essex CM7 6FN, (0376) 325610.

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