Willow Wheelers’ trip to The Gambia - February 2016
Áine O’Donoghue, teacher in Willow Park Junior School
Since Willow Wheelers’ first ever overseas mission venture was to The Gambia in 1996, this year’s return trip had special significance. The group included Bishop Liam McDaid, students, parents, six Willow Park teachers and friends. Recovering after being hospitalized, Christy McDaid couldn’t travel. Denis Diggin stepped in to lead the group, aided by Thomas McManus and Pat Sweeney.
Andrew Sylva, a development officer with The Gambia / EU Cooperation and a former head boy of St. Augustine’s Spiritan school in Banjul, greeted us on our arrival. Bishop Ellison – himself a former Willow Park student – concelebrated Mass with Bishop McDaid to launch the trip. Both spoke of the important work carried out by Willow Wheelers and wished us well. The brightly dressed congregation and the fine singing of the choir added to the sense of occasion.
The following days were spent visiting schools, medical units and farming projects. The Sisters of Charity’s Care Centre, which accommodates homeless mothers and babies and contains a small hospital, relies on ‘divine providence’ for funding; it was delighted to accept boxes of medicines kindly donated by an Irish pharmaceutical company. In Kartong we saw the site for a new college for graduates of St. John’s School for the Deaf. Daniel Mendey, the principal, explained the need for further training and skill-development as few can move straight from secondary school to independent living or work. Students went from initial curiosity to joining in a football game with the visitors. We saw how the limited resources were used to provide a child-friendly environment in a school that has come a long way since 1978 when the late Pat Nolan, then a Spiritan prefect, used an old classroom to teach communication skills to deaf children. Today 25% of Gambian children with any hearing loss study here. We donated €2,250 for hearing aids and essential – and costly – initial assessments.
Ante-natal care and other health services are provided to six rural communities by mobile clinic from Bwiam. The mobile team monitors pregnant women, assists at childbirths, refers sick mothers to hospital and, to counter malnutrition which contributes to high infant and maternal mortality rates, runs feeding programmes. Sr. Monica, who leads the team, explained that reaching those who are at risk was not always possible since buses break down and fuel costs are high. The money and medicines that we brought will help the team carry out its vital work.
We were struck by how many people had been educated and influenced by the Spiritans. The contributions of Bishop Cleary, Fr. Flynn, Fr. Gough and many others are warmly recalled. Years ago, Fr. Jackie Sharpe founded a clinic in response to high maternal mortality, and set up Mariama Women’s Garden, which provides an income for abandoned and widowed women. A donation of €3,000 was our second time supporting the project. Seeing similar market gardens run elsewhere by women, we couldn’t help but wonder: ‘Were they influenced by Fr. Jackie’s example?’
Finally, a memorable excursion up The Gambia river to the birth-place of Kunta Kinte, central character of Roots, the TV mini-series based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book. Memorable but also disturbing as we learn about the slave trade. Returning to school, our first-hand experiences increase awareness of Spiritan mission overseas and help to make the Development Education programme ‘real’ for students, many of whom had kindly given gifts for the Gambian children.