First blog entry by our Founder, Magda, reflects on her passion, first encounter with the Gambia, and how the Behati Foundation was born.
About this time last year, I was heading back to the UK from my first charitable trip to The Gambia. I’d been in the country doing what I love best, learning more about the lives and needs of the people in the villages of Nianija district, and distributing donations, that the local children and families so desperately needed.
Most people reading this probably won’t have heard of Nianija. It’s well away from any tourist locations and far from the capital, Banjul. In fact, describing the Nianija district as remote seems like a gross understatement; the district is one of the most remote areas in the country, and one of the poorest, even by African standards.
I’ve experienced poverty first-hand when growing up in Poland and even before completing my MA in International Development, I made my life’s purpose to giving back. I spent my entire career working in the UK with those most vulnerable to poverty with a determination to move to international development and make the world a fairer place to those who need it most.
Equipped with first-hand experiences and what I thought was in-depth knowledge of the developing world, I set out for The Gambia thinking I was prepared and that nothing would surprise me. I was wrong.
The trip had opened my eyes to a totally new world. The sheer, merciless poverty I saw in the villages of Nianija left me shocked and broken-hearted. Nothing could have prepared one for the scale of the problems for the people I encountered.
In Nianija I saw hundreds of school-aged children not in education, mainly due to poverty, with boys working in the fields and girls looking after homes instead of being in school.
Those who did go to school often dropped out early. They were too poor to buy a uniform, a backpack or even a pen and notebook. I encountered students going barefoot, wearing dirty and torn clothes either too large or too small; I saw schools with no books or blackboards; overcrowded and multi-graded classrooms, as there aren’t enough teachers or resources to teach children at the level they need.
Some schools were built by local communities using dried mud and roofed with materials people can find. None had electricity, sanitation or access to safe water and almost every school I visited had classrooms roughly constructed from dry grass and scavenged wood sticks. This poor and inadequate infrastructure means dangerous environments, not fit for learning, are the standard.
The picture in terms of wider infrastructure in the villages was no better. Whole villages have no access to sanitation or clean water, only shallow boreholes serving hundreds of people, highly vulnerable to contamination. Others must rely on the river to access water.
I had encountered previous projects, such as water pumps, feeding programmes and attempts at improvements in education, had sadly been abandoned or fallen into disrepair due to a lack of sustainability. Thousands of people relying on themselves with no to little access to external support.
My most heartfelt and painful moment, however, happened while an 8-year-old child fractured his wrist. As the only party with a vehicle, we were asked if we could take him to the nearest healthcare centre. Even by car it was more than an hour before we arrived there, and the healthcare centre was nothing more than a dried mud hut. It was completely unsterile, with no medical equipment or medicines, no trained staff and no running water. With the nearest hospital hours away by car this was the only medical support available to the villages for miles around.
There I witnessed five men hold the little boy still while his fracture was set, without anaesthetics or even the simplest of painkillers, with a splint made from a dirty piece of cloth and some sticks that one of the men had gathered outside. This is all they had available.
It’s in The Gambia that I experienced my most heartfelt moments. To witness poverty on that scale changes your perspective and it is a powerful reminder of what it is to be human, and what truly matters in any human life. and I was reminded that poverty is not anyone’s fault. Being born into poverty, or wealth, is simply a matter of luck.
And even though the people in the villages had so little, I was always welcomed into their communities. I was fortunate enough to speak to many children, parents, teachers and local leaders and hear directly from them what their challenges and needs are. It was imperative for me to avoid having the negative impact of a “white saviour”, and instead, support the empowerment of the local people to help resolve existing social issue.
Equipped with this new knowledge of what the people in the Nianija really need, and not what I had thought they needed, I returned to the UK with an even greater determination to help fight poverty in this poor, remote and neglected part of the world. I decided that my involvement would not end with this one-off visit, and I realised that alone I could achieve very little.
That is how Behati Foundation came to fruition.
Our plans for the future are ambitious and stretching, but for now the absolute priority is to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for the Kerewan Sitokoto school and local community to reduce absenteeism, lower the risks of infections, illness and preventable deaths, and to protect them from COVID-19 pandemic. We will also continue with our flagship programmes of responding to food crises and continue delivering learning materials, in response to children’s needs.
Along with existing and new supporters, and the communities I met in The Gambia, we will play our part so that families and children can have the chance of a better life, the chance that everyone deserves. But we can’t do everything ourselves.
To deliver these plans, we will continue to rely on the generosity of our supporters, for which we are immensely grateful, seek new supporters and partnerships across other organisations and individuals.
As a reminder, here’s a snapshot of my first visit and the impact it had, thanks to the generous donations of our first supporters:
- Delivered a supply of basic medicines and health supplies to the health centre east of Faraffeni to improve access to badly needed resources and improve treatments.
- Distributed rice and oil packages to the people of Kerewan Sitokoto to help manage a food crisis.
- Donated over 100 backpacks filled with learning materials to the most disadvantaged students enabling continuous learning.
- Sponsored daily meals to over 100 students across the district. That is almost 20,00 meals served to ensure children do not go hungry.