I met my sponsored child Kumba in November 2015, on my first visit to The Gambia. The meeting was very emotional. I came to The Gambia without any expectations or preparations, and this proved to be very useful. I came to the yard and heard an unknown voice from somewhere: "Kumba, Kumba, come. Mother is here." That was the first shock. Wait a minute, who's mother came? Well, Kumba has a mother, a person who gave birth to her. What I soon found out was that I was also her mom. And that was the first thing I learned in The Gambia. A child can have a mother who gave birth to him, but "mother" will also name the person who takes care of him. So sometimes I have to explain this very carefully to the sponsors. I tell them that I spoke to the father of the child, but I get back the answer that the child does not have a father because he died. And I immediately remember going back to Gambian terminology. In this case, the father is the one who takes care of the child.
When we welcome guests at home in Europe, it is normal to let go of all our chores and dedicate our complete attention to them. That was the second thing I, as a sponsor, soon found out was not the case in The Gambia. The Gambians greet you, in a way, let you know that they have "detected" you, and then calmly dedicate themselves to the tasks they performed before. That was a big shock to me. So what's going on now? Don't they like me? Am I bothering them? And it turned out to be just the opposite. They are glad you came to visit, and so they leave you alone. You can sit where you find a place to sit. It can be a piece of trunk, a bucket, a brick, etc., and you sit and rest. And they usually don't intrude into your privacy. Sure, you talk if you want to say something, but you don't even have to.
They like to offer their food when it is made. Sometime around two in the afternoon, it's time for their main (and sometimes only) cooked meal. My first experience eating with a Gambian family looked like this; they brought a plate of rice and sauce to me, gave me a spoon, and left. I noticed that in one corner of the yard, everyone was crouching around a larger container and grabbing food from it with their hands. I felt excluded and sad. Maybe it's not right for me to eat at all? And again, my thinking turned out to be completely wrong. They showed me respect in that way. Well, later, when we got to know some of the families of children, sponsored by my acquaintances, better, I was, of course, invited to a shared dinner. Despite my first reservations about eating together and with my bare hands, the invitation was always gladly accepted. I think they're just happy for you to get involved in lunch that way. And no, I've never had digestive problems, if that's what you just asked yourself. I often get asked if I'm not embarrassed to eat with people who already have nothing. No, I'm not embarrassed as I see the joy in their eyes when they see that I like to get involved in their family ritual. When I leave, I discreetly hand over the lunch contribution to the hostess, and we are all satisfied.
Sponsors are in an interesting position, actually. We take care of our Gambian children, and with each sponsorship, one child more gets access to schooling and a better opportunity for a brighter future. But the more times I come to the Gambia, the clearer one thing becomes to me. Rule number one: Don't promise anything. Sometimes sponsors complain to me sincerely: "They keep wanting something, they keep wanting something from me, and they keep having new demands." And when we talk things through thoroughly, we always come to the same conclusion. Too much was promised; too much was given with ease. Even we, who are sponsors, have our own financial constraints that perhaps our children's families cannot understand. And usually, they face these demands when the sponsor, full of emotions, richly fills the family of the child with gifts and money, and then one day decides that this has to stop. And then the problem arises. It is much "healthier" to be moderate in making promises. Above all, when we have already promised something, we must fulfil it 100%.
When I became a sponsor, there were about 200 children in the program. It was much easier to follow up with these 200 children. However, the number is growing, and now there are almost 600. All tasks from the European team related to the sponsorship program are performed on a voluntary basis. Simple records are a thing of the past. In 2020, an online file-sharing system came into use. The vast majority of sponsors have gladly accepted this system and are also using it. If they notice that they have not received a photo for a long time or that there is no school report in their folder at the end of the year, they kindly warn us via e-mail. One of the European volunteer coordinators makes sure that the Gambian coordinator responsible for a certain area visits the child and obtains a school report from his guardian and photographs it. It usually runs smoothly, but it takes a lot of time because life in The Gambia is different and slower than in Europe. Sometimes, however, it is hard for sponsors to imagine how things really are, so we have to add a bit of our free time to explain why it took so long to send the expected documents. Fortunately, there are only a few such cases.
Understandably, every sponsor can't wait to see their child's school report at the end of the year. And our promise is that we will deliver it. However, I must also explain that obtaining photos or copies of the school certificates here is "a bit harder" than in Europe. The school year ends on various dates in different schools. Let's say somewhere in June. And that's when we start with "claiming" certificates. More or less successfully. It often happens that the child's guardian comes to collect the monthly allowance of the sponsor, but he simply says that he has the school report but that he forgot it at home again. And another month goes by. It is quite possible that the school report has not been delivered even in November. Another problem is that for the 2020/2021 school year, quite a few schools have not even issued reports, and this is quite difficult for our European mentality to grasp. But it is a fact. In 2019/2020, there were even no certificates at all because of the Corona.
Often, the sponsors ask me to make a video of the child, say something about himself, explain how the family lives, how they live, etc. It is a whole project on its own. First, the kids don't understand why I'm filming them. They freeze and do not utter a word. Then let's try a guardian. Words are stingy, they don't know what to say, and then the sponsors are disappointed. I would like to explain that there are not so many things going on in the lives of these people because their financial capabilities for it are limited. Sometimes the only special thing is that their child goes to school. When you ask them how they are, the most common answer is: "I'm fine" or. "We're fine." Of course, I understand when the sponsors are disappointed and that the information seems sparse to them. However, the biggest novelties in their lives are when someone is born, gets married, or dies. Very crudely said, but unfortunately, that's how it is.
The next problem that arises sometimes is that the sponsors are not happy with the photo. For example, they want the whole family to be photographed. They sceptically comment that maybe it's not the right child in a photo, etc., etc. Children live in different parts of the Gambia, and sometimes the journey to their home itself is a bit tiring. Sometimes you agree on the phone that they will be home to visit, but after driving there for an hour on an unpaved road, they are not at home at all. Let me also say at this point that transportation to the family is not free. It is necessary to rent a taxi and, of course, pay for it. Then the adventure just begins. You come to their home, take a picture of the family, and all the neighbours' children join the photo. But you don't have the heart to drive them away. And then there are the questions again, who exactly are all these kids, and you don't know... When you go home, the mother tells you that the father is not there because (for example) he is at work in Senegal. And then, of course, the question arises, who was the man who was photographed next to him. And you find out he was just a neighbour. Yes, we have already experienced everything possible… The situation is a little easier now, as five local coordinators are employed by the association in The Gambia, and three of them obtain photos and certificates.
If you think you will go unnoticed in The Gambia, you are wrong. Even your white skin will attract attention. However, the attention will be even greater if you come without your partner. This deters some people from travelling, but there is no need for it. It is best to move around the country with some company. On the street, you will often be asked how you are, where you come from, what your name is. It's best to be kind and responsive because mostly, people don't mean anything bad. Sometimes, however, the next question arises if you would like to be accompanied. One very determined NO will suffice. And if one NO is not enough, another - even more determined - will be.
I get a lot of questions about security. I still think the Gambia is a safe country. However, I can ask you if you would walk around alone at night in the centre of Tallinn or Belfast? Probably not. So, there is also no need to walk alone around the Gambia at night. However, we can also contribute a lot to security by wearing decent clothes and not showing off our belongings. The wallet can be hidden, and there is no need to show off expensive clothes and jewellery. The Gambia is a Muslim country, and excessive display of bare skin is not desirable.
Immediate excessive confidentiality towards the locals has never proven successful. Let us keep in mind that we come from a completely different environment, from a different social system, and do not understand many things. It seems to me that even after six years since I've been coming back, I know less and less. Each time a new dimension opens up, and new things that I felt I mastered then turn out to be completely misunderstood. Of course, all Gambians are very friendly, they love to talk, but it is right to understand that (just like in our home environment) we are dealing with different people and that there is nothing wrong with that.
The currency in The Gambia is the Dalasi. The exchange rate is currently between 58 and 60 D for 1 €. For 20 € in the exchange office, we get quite a nice pile of banknotes. So if a person has a bunch of banknotes in his hands, of course, it doesn't have much value. The general belief is that everything is very cheap in Africa. This is not the case. A person who comes from Europe and wants to live here quite comfortably must be willing to pay for it as well. It is a mistake to think that everything should be almost free. The money you spend here directly affects the earnings of the locals, which is not negligible. I'm not saying you shouldn't bargain a little bit, it's normal and expected, especially in the markets, and if you like it, you'll get a good price, but do it to some reasonable extent. Just because people are deprived doesn't mean we have to exploit them.
Sometimes someone asks me if it would not be better for the sponsors to stay with their families during the visit. Believe me; this is by no means a good idea. I've been a sponsor for seven years, but it doesn't even occur to me. I am happy to be able to visit them, to be able to have a meal with them sometimes and to eat a piece of watermelon together. But nothing more than that. Their living conditions are incredibly modest by our standard, and I can't imagine burdening my family with wanting to sleep with them. It is not uncommon for a family to sleep on the floor, or just on a pillow, to have no running water and no electricity, and this should also be considered.
It is also good to know that children come to school from different backgrounds. Many parents are illiterate and find it difficult to help their children if they have problems at school. Sometimes it even happens that the sponsor terminates the donations because the child has bad grades. This is a very bad reason to stop the sponsorship. Let me explain with a concrete example. The guardian of the child comes to ask for a sponsor. The child is photographed, posted on a website, and the child gets a sponsor. Then the child goes to school, does not get good grades, sometimes they're even very bad. At home, they are happy because the child goes to school every day; at home, they ask him how it was, the child is happy. Then comes the school report, and the grades are disastrous. The sponsors get upset that they should get help at home, that the child does the homework and studies, etc., etc. At home, they mostly do not speak English at all, and a lot of family members are illiterate. I'm asking you: In what way could they help? Termination of sponsorship, in this case, is an additional blow to the child. Because he doesn't understand what he's doing wrong. It is much wiser to continue with sponsorship and find another solution. If the sponsor comes to visit the child, it is good to visit his school and talk to the principal if any help can be provided. You can also ask the association if the coordinator can do this for the sponsor. Of course, it depends on where the child lives and where the school is in order to reimburse the coordinator for any transport costs in such a case.
On the other hand, I have sponsors who ask me if they can combine a child's visit with a vacation. Of course, you can. There are also beautiful hotels in The Gambia, where you can spend a week or two in a beautiful, clean environment, enjoy the beach and the pool, eat top-quality food and explore the country. You will also find a variety of restaurants, from Indian to Italian, etc. Also, you will find several bars that offer local food. In any case, a local provider is a good choice, as in this case, we directly support the locals. In this way, you can use the time of your annual leave, visit the child you're helping and see for yourself where he lives and where he goes to school.
Sponsorship, yes or no? Of course, my answer is YES. But not at any cost. We need to be aware that we are dealing with a completely different environment and a different culture than we are used to. We also need to ask ourselves why we became sponsors in the first place. Was it really a sincere desire to simply help one child make his or her entry into life a little easier, or whether our impulses are merely an affirmation of our own ego. All this is very important. And if we already decide to visit (which is, of course, very desirable), we do it with the awareness that we are going to another culture that will often leave us surprised and shocked. But that's alright. The benefits of being a sponsor are immeasurable. And even if it doesn't seem like it to us sometimes, it brings big changes. It may not bring instant solutions and big changes in the short term, but it certainly brings big changes in the long run.
If you are deciding to become a sponsor, if you already are a sponsor, or if you simply want to visit the Gambia, think about this:
"Let's not forget the reason for the decision to become a sponsor. Let's not forget that sponsorship is not about saving the world but about contributing our piece to the mosaic of long-term change for the better. One needs to enjoy the process, observe, explore and learn. The Gambia is a different world, completely different from Europe. And when we don't understand something, let's ask. And if we don't understand the first time, let's ask again."
Good luck to all of you who already are sponsors, to all of you who will become sponsors, and to all of you who were sponsors but are not anymore. Just about every one of you has added your piece into the mosaic. And one soul in The Gambia who picks up a school bag every morning and happily goes to school is grateful to you for that.