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Imerja makes a difference in Penyem

Many choose to go skiing with the family during the February half term - but this year I chose to accept an invitation to visit a small village in southern Gambia close to the Senegal boarder, and I persuaded my family to join me what turned out to be an experience of a lifetime...

The purpose of our visit was to attend the official opening of the new village health centre in Penyem which has been developed over the last 18 months with the support of Imerja through the Northampton Trustee Fund (NTF).

Imerja's first involvement with the NTF was to donate mosquito nets to the village to help stem the incidence of malaria, to which children are particularly susceptible. This subsequently extended to sponsoring the appointment of a full time medical professional to work at the new health centre - Dr. Musa Colley (right) is now in his second year of employment.

Much needed work to improve the fabric of the health centre building included a new ceiling, tiled floor and installation of solar panels and electric lighting enabling it to stay open after sunset as well as operate basic sterilisation and testing equipment.

This project was undertaken by students from Kingswood School in Corby, some of whom were also in Penyem to see the results of all their fund raising work first hand and meet their sponsored children at the village school, as well as taking part in the official opening itself.

Before making our trip we collected supplies for the health centre, managing to fill 12 bags and use the full 160kg of baggage allowance that was provided to us by Thomas Cook Airlines.

That's a lot of luggage to fit into one car, believe me! All of this was taken to the village on Thursday, our first full day in Gambia - a trip by Land Rover convoy with Kingswood via the town of Brikama where the tarmac stops and dirt road starts. When we eventually got to Penyem mid-morning we were greeted by the school children who lined the road and wanted to hold our hands and walk with us into the village as we approached, accompanied by drumming and singing. The noise was beautiful and we immediately felt welcome. The collection of luggage and supplies we had all brought was taken from the vehicles and placed in the village meeting area (thankfully in the shade of a large tree) in anticipation of opening. After a formal welcome and singing by the children a small selection of the luggage was unpacked and then the bags were taken to the school and health centre respectively in readiness for sorting out as part of the opening on the Saturday. As we began to open up the luggage it bacame apparent to those watching that it was not all medical supplies and school materials, and footballs donated by Wigan Athletic FC were greeted with a cheer as a welcome addition to the table!

After a tasty lunch of chicken, fish, salad and bread, the rest of the day involved a tour of the village projects and opportunity to see first hand some of the developments that the NTF has contributed to over the years. By mid afternoon the heat was well above the UK average for this time of year, and with our two boys obviously flagging we took the trip back to our hotel for a much needed sleep in readiness for more to come.... It was clear during the first day that existing cupboard space in the doctor's office was nowhere near large enough for everything donated, so thanks toa further donation from individual in Imerja, a trip to a cabinet maker the following day with the NTF (which also happened to be Gambia's National Independence Day) secured additional storage cupboards with extra shelving that were then delivered by Land Rover to the village on the Saturday - all aided by the logistical expertise of Dan-da-Man (yes, that is his real name!)

When we arrived back at the village on the Saturday we started by sorting out the things we had brought with us. As the accompanying photos illustrate when combined with all the extra supplies for the school and health centre brought by the Kingswood students there was a lot to sort out. Amid a period of chaos things were eventually sorted out and I am pleased to report that all cupboards are now full of items that are difficult or impossible to obtain locally - a massive thanks to all who donated materials to us prior to the trip, and making this such a success. The opening ceremony later on the Saturday involved a very warm welcome from Chief Kholley and his colleagues in Penyem followed by a series of speeches from invited dignitaries, notable village elders, neighbouring chiefs and elders, chair of the village women's committee, head master, teachers, guests and other visiting dignitaries (there were a few). Once the brass plate above the door was unveiled and the ribbon across the threshold cut we were invited to join in dancing as part of the celebrations (less said about that the better!) which was followed by a football match between the Kingswood students and village - the first time an all girls match had been played there. Despite their best efforts playing on a sand pitch in 30 degree heat, the Kingswood girls eventually lost 3-2, but put in an inspired performance. The whole event was filmed by Gambian national TV and we subsequently discovered from people coming up to us back in our hotel that it was broadcast on the evening news the following day - appears we are now (very) minor celebrities in a small west African country! We were also able to spend some time with two of my family's sponsored children, meeting their families and seeing thieir homes. This was a very special and humbling time, but one we will cherish and remember for a longvtine. After a long day with a full and hectic agenda the time finally came for us to leave - but I am sure we will return. The work of the NTF continues all year round, and there is still much more that can be achieved to build on the successful projects to date.

We are very grateful to the people of Penyem for their welcome and hospitality, and to those Gambians that have worked locally with the NTF in recent years to ensure the projects invested in are an ongoing success. A special mention to Dan-da-Man and his friendly colleagues who were fantastic in organising the logistics and general arrangements for the village visits - I would have been lost in the markets without them! And finally thanks to Andy Butler who with his wife Anne run the NTF on a completely voluntary basis - Andy organised the trip from Kingswood School with which we joined up for the visits to Penyem village, and helped to ensure our trip is full of wonderful memories.

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