'We couldn't do this

It started as a fishing expedition to the Gambia. Now

WORDS: ELAINE FURLONG

WHAT STARTED out as a fishing expedition 12 years ago has led to the transformation of thousands of lives in The Gambia.

It was in 2000 when well-known Ballybrazil man Joe Ryan, together with fishing friends Nicky Mcevoy and Tom O'mahoney from Waterford, travelled to the Gambia, one of the world's poorest countries, on a fishing holiday.

Their plan was to fish up the Gambia River for two weeks and live in the wild. The sights that unfolded before their eyes during those weeks have never left them.

The men came across a village on the north bank of Kassava, where they witnessed firsthand the poverty the locals endured.

'They had nothing,' explained Joe, who, after spending time with the local people, decided on his way home to Ireland that he had to do something to help the people in the Gambia.

'On our way home on the plane we spoke to one another and said we could not walk away from the situation. You would have to be a stone to walk away from it,' said Joe.

The three friends returned to the Gambia in March 2001, having decided that they would try to educate the local people in a bid to improve their lives.

'There was no use giving them money so we decided to try educate them and build a school and that was it,' said Joe. And so began the Gambia School Project. The following year Joe and his friends met with Wexford native Fr Seán Devereux in the Gambia, who agreed to co-ordinate the school project from the African side, with the men agreeing to fundraise back home in Ireland.

Just a few months later, in November 2002, and the men were back over in the Gambia again, where they started to build a school to educate local children.

The fundraising effort began in Wexford in late 2002 and in the space of two years the €26,000 required for the build was received through donations.

'We set up an account in the Credit Union and got the Credit Union to manage the account. Anyone who gave over €50 was sent photographs and an account of where their money was being spent and that made a real difference – the donations just kept coming then,' said Joe.

Horeswood National School then came on board, with the schoolchildren fundraising for the Gambia Project, and a valued link was formed between the two schools.

Building works on the Gambia School Project began in 2002 and in two years, using local labour in the Gambia, the school was officially opened in November 2004.

Comprising three classrooms, a store room and an office for the principal, the school is currently educating 76 out of the 130 children who live locally. It is staffed by three teachers, who have the same qualifications as a primary school teacher in Ireland, according to Joe.

However, once the school was built Joe and his friends discovered the first problem they needed to resolve – accommodation for the teachers.

According to Joe there was nowhere for the teachers to stay, which meant that school couldn't start any week until a Tuesday as it would take the teaching staff a day and a half to walk to the school from their home place. During the week they would stay with the locals in the village before returning back home again on a Friday.

'To get the teachers to stay in the school the next step in the development was to build accommodation for them,' said Joe.

For around €14,000 the volunteers were able to get a four-bedroom house built in 2006, as well as proper toilets for the school.

But on their next trip over Joe discovered some of the children were not attending school as their parents needed them at home to gather crops. To overcome this next difficulty a feeding programme was established in the school to feed all 130 children in the village.

'That solved that problem. Once parents knew the children were going to be fed they would send them to school rather than going to work,' explained Joe.

'They would be fed rice, fish and vegetables, but that led though to another problem. We discovered on the next trip, that the fresh water they were using was after being contaminated by salt,' said Joe, who explained that a salt water vein had seeped into the well and the volunteers noticed the severity of the problem when the children's fingers and toes started to become deformed.

'We got purification tablets to see would they work to clear out the well and that worked for a while, but the problem rose its head again so we had to sink a new well. When we sunk the new well the water was excellent and we then put in showers in the school for the children as well.'

Because the water in the village was now so

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