St. Therese's Basic Cycle School in Fula Bantang is the top school in the Central River Region, and #3 in the country. But St Therese’s only goes to 9th grade. And the nearest high school is more than 10 miles away. A few students living two hours walk from St. Therese’s to the east, can walk 2 hours in the opposite direction to Brikamaba Senior Secondary School for 10thgrade.But anyone else needs to move away from home to stay in school – boarding with distant relatives, family friends, or just people they meet through other students.That is, if they go on to 10thgrade at all.
For students in their early teens, this adds considerable stress to the already stressful transition to a large senior secondary school (high school). This is especially true for the girls, in a culture in which they are of marrying age, and are at minimum expected to help with family chores such as cooking and cleaning. One measure of this problem is the students we have supported who have attended Armitage Sr. Secondary School. Armitage has two shifts – morning and afternoon. The morning students board on campus; the afternoon students have to find housing in the community. And 100% of the students we support in the afternoon program have had to repeat a grade and transfer to another school.
There are many reasons the students, particularly the girls, have problems living away from home at this time in their lives. In a culture where young teen girls are so often married off to older men at this age, these children are breaking tradition just by staying in school. Their fathers in particular, are often disappointed in them and disapproving. With this rupture, being away from more supportive mothers and women, can be devastating. The girls often show serious signs of separation anxiety and depression. One girl actually had a vision of a devil trying to stab her, telling her to return home to be married.
Couple this with the fact that the children living with "hosts" are often not warmly supported. Many of the hosts are responding to cultural expectations rather than genuine generosity. (They of course have problems of their own.) Some of the children are not adequately fed or given beds. One student was told to stop studying with a flashlight at night because it was disturbing the sleep of the others of the family who shared the bedroom.
Over the past year, we have been talking with Kebba Sanyang about how to better support the students in our scholarship program, and we have taken a number of steps; we have added supplemental food allowances for all, bought bicycles, bought beds, even contributed to a host family’s food bowl. But, he tells me, you are never going to solve these problems, for our students or for the students not in our program, as long as there is no senior secondary school within walking distance of their home. No matter how simple, no matter how poor, it is where they grew up, and they know it and are comfortable there. They need a local school.
He is, of course, right. As usual this year, I met with most of the high school students we support in our upcountry program on my recent trip. The glass-is-half-full viewpoint is that these young people are getting a tremendous uplift from being able to stay in school and that is true. But in nearly every case, if I probed a bit, I could see that the lack of a local school was taking its toll. And that does not need to be.
In fact, unlike our scholarship program, which only helps the most destitute, building a school in Fula Bantang would benefit nearly 500 students by the time it was complete, especially the girls. Plus, it would further expand the center of excellence that Fula Bantang has become, and provide a high-caliber education for upcountry students.
St. Therese’s is owned by the Catholic Education Secretariat, which built the school and now administers it on behalf of the government as a full public school: the government pays the teachers, who teach the national government-prescribed curriculum, but the Secretariat selects the Principal. The Secretariat owns a large plot of land adjacent to St. Therese’s. The Secretary, Dr. Emil Kujabi, has committed as much of that land as is needed to a new senior secondary school, and has been active in the planning for it. The Regional Education Officer supports this project and will pay teachers when it is open.
The school can be built in three phases: the first phase will include Grade 10 classrooms, and the laboratories required for those classes. Ideally there will be a full curriculum, with four tracks: Arts (what we would call liberal arts), Science, Commerce, Technical (more job-focused, with metalwork, woodwork, and home science curricula). An administration building and library will be built as funds are available.
The total project can be built for $277,000 including teachers’ living quarters and solar power. Since the project is phased, this means raising just over $90,000 per year. Several donors, long-time backers of improvements at St. Therese’s, have pledged $210,000 in total, which means both that we have to try to do this, and that we still have $77,000 to go. That's $40,000 for the buildings and $27,000 for solar and technology. Building this school will mean that the region around Fula Bantang and the lives of 500 studentseach year can be changed long-term if we can find the rest. ·There will be 8 buildings in the school. To close the $40,000 funding gap would take $5,000 per building, which is $1,250 per year (and $110 per month). ·There will be 20 classrooms (4 per grade plus 8 labs and workshops). To close the funding gap would take $2,000 per room, or $500 per year ($44 per month). ·There will be 500 students; that's $80 per student. Or $20 per year. · The solar and technology budget is $27,000; that's $9,000 per year. If you'd like, you can name a building (for $15,000) or a classroom (for $5,000). (E.g. the John Finley Building, or the Sandra Berenson Grade 10 Science room, for example. You can also be anonymous, or you could select another name (Nelson Mandela, Marie Curie).
The bottom line is that this is a tremendous opportunity to permanently change a region which has never had a school beyond 9th grade. Some of the most talented and committed people in the country stand ready to make this school a reality; if they have financial support.
Mike McConnell Managing Trustee GambiaRising Charitable Trust
Site plans and a video of the site follow below. As always, your donations are tax deductible under Section 510(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code; the tax ID number for GambiaRising Charitable Trust is 27-6775063.