A second honeymoon turned into a long-term mission for education in one of the poorest parts of the world. Diana Hinds tells how two teachers made a difference. Photographs: Colin McPherson.When Vanessa and Paul Buckley, teachers at The Grange School in Cheshire, decided 12 years ago to go on holiday to the Gambia, they had little idea that they were embarking on a long-term mission to support the development of a struggling African school.
Vanessa, head of religious studies, and Paul, head of Latin and classical civilisation, had met at the Grange, a pound;2,515 a term independent school, and were recently married. The week-long Gambia trip was conceived as a sort of "second honeymoon", says Vanessa, but she was also hoping to use it to build her own knowledge of developing countries to enhance her teaching. "I've taught courses on world poverty for years, but I've never had any first-hand experience," she says.
Gambia seemed the ideal destination, combining easy access from Manchester, a six-hour flight and an English-speaking country. Sun and sand simply didn't come into it.
Arriving at their tourist hotel, Paul and Vanessa turned up on the first morning for the official tourist welcome. "We decided within the first five minutes we were not going to go on any organised trips," says Vanessa. "We wanted to find a guide who would take us off the tourist routes to see the real Gambia."
Along the beach they met Alagi Bojang, a young government guide, who agreed to show them some Gambian schools. But when Paul and Vanessa asked at these schools what they might do to help, they felt powerless in the face of requests for sets of microscopes and other technical equipment, all required by the Gambian government.
Then Alagi took them even further off the tourist beat to his home village, on the outskirts of Brikama. Here was the Kunta Kinteh School - named after the Gambian warrior and slave immortalised in Alex Haley's book Roots - where some of the poorest children were taught in borrowed classrooms by volunteer teachers. If children didn't possess a pen, they couldn't come to school.
"It knocked us sideways," remembers Vanessa. "We looked at each other and we thought, 'we could do something here'."
Back in comfortable mid-Cheshire, Paul organised an "O-Pen Day" at the Grange, asking pupils to donate pens and Biros. More than 2,000 were collected and duly parceled off to Kunta Kinteh - where many more children were soon turning up to be taught as a result.
Vanessa and Paul were back in the Gambia the following Easter. A link was established between the two schools, with support from the headteacher at Grange, and after fundraising efforts, a pound;3,000 container was sent out to Kunta Kinteh, filled with books and furniture, including Grange's old wooden desks.
February 1999 saw the first visit to Kunta Kinteh by Grange pupils. The Buckleys took a party of 20 Year 11s and sixth formers for a week, and have been doing so every February since. Pupils pay pound;800 for the trip, with many saving up for it themselves, and the fiercely competitive application process is decided by the Buckleys grading anonymous pupil statements about why they want to go to the Gambia.
"I want to learn about the culture in the Gambia and experience something different from here," says Ginny, 16, who will be going out next February. "We are all really privileged here and that could make us quite selfish. Going to the Gambia and seeing how they live will make us appreciate our lives a lot more."
Grange pupils spend several days in the Gambia visiting museums, villages and families to learn about the culture, before they are thrust into the life of Kunta Kinteh - sharing lessons, games, songs, drama and football.
James, 17, went out in 2006 and was most impressed "by the way they live. They live with their extended family. It's a stronger community than ours and people look after each other." Being an affluent, white European did not cause a moment's awkwardness, he says: "They just treat us like family."
Paul believes that the experience dispels for his pupils the myth that poor equals miserable. "These are the happiest people I've ever seen," he says. Links with the African sister school have become ever stronger. Over the past decade, the Grange has been able to pour pound;60,000 to pound;80,000 of its charitable fundraising into Kunta Kinteh, enabling the school to buy a plot of land, build two classroom blocks, buy a generator, install computers (old ones from the Grange) and equip a science lab. Alagi Bojang, the Buckleys' original guide, makes regular visits to the Grange and acts as link co-ordinator.
Chris Jeffery, headteacher at the Grange, says: "Our children are very lucky to have an education like this and most of them are materially lucky. We believe, as a school, that with this comes a responsibility for our children to use their talents in the world beyond the school. The Gambian project is very much part of our outward-looking philosophy."
There are many success stories, from both schools. One Kunta Kinteh former pupil is now a teacher there, while a girl who was to be married at 14 was able to stay on at school and is now a lawyer. At the Grange, the Gambian experience has enriched the life of the whole school and inspired many pupils to work in developing countries in their gap years. One former pupil who visited Kunta Kinteh is now in the diplomatic corps and another works for the UN.
Vanessa's only concern is that she and her husband do not have the time and money to take the Gambian project on even further, aside from the annual school visits. But the personal benefits for both of them have already been substantial.
"It's made a difference to me as a teacher," says Vanessa. "I can speak with first-hand experience about poverty and the ways poverty can be helped. I can pull out examples and stimulate interest, because I know the stories of individuals I've met, how their lives are and how they've been changed."
"It's changed me as a person," adds Paul. "It's made me more intolerant of trivialities in the education system here and more outspoken. I'm better equipped to focus on what's important in my teaching, as well as in my general daily life."
Creating school ties
Two flags fly over the Kunta Kinteh School in the Gambia, one the national flag and the other a flag of "togetherness", symbolising the close ties between Kunta Kinteh and the Grange School in Cheshire.
When Paul and Vanessa Buckley first visited the school, it had only 47 pupils, a handful of teachers who taught voluntarily in the afternoons in borrowed premises, and a chronic shortage of paper and pens.
Now, thanks to the Grange School, Kunta Kinteh has 1,000 pupils on the roll and its own plot of land, with two blocks of six classrooms, store rooms and offices. The buildings are made of brick, plastered and painted in traditional Gambian style, with verandahs and corrugated roofs. The pupils, aged from 11 to 18, are taught in mixed-age classes according to the standard they have reached. Some walk as far as 10km to get there.
No schooling comes free in the Gambia, but at Kunta Kinteh, those families that can afford to, make a small contribution. Because salaries are not high, the school attracts young teachers who generally do not stay more than a year or two. All subjects are taught in English and examination results in the Gambian national certificate are very good. Pupils can take agriculture, science, computing, French, geography, environment studies and business.
The Grange School is raising money to install mains electricity at Kunta Kinteh, so that it can make full use of its computers to teach science and technology. Once this is established, Paul Buckley hopes pupils will learn to grow crops on the spare land around the school, to give Kunta Kinteh an income. "Our aim is for Kunta Kinteh one day to be self-sufficient," he says.