Gambia is The Smiling Coast
Gambia may be the smallest country in mainland Africa, but the hearts of the Gambians are big! No wonder they call it the Smiling Coast! From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by big smiles from everyone and shouts of “you are most welcome!” When I went through customs, the agent asked me how long I intended to stay. When I said, “just a week,” he said, “I’ll give you 30 days. A week is not long enough for the Gambia.” Boy was he right!
Although the heat was oppressive (apparently it was the hottest October in five years, who knew?), I was so privileged to be traveling to the Gambia on behalf of Power Up Gambia. Along with my executive director, Lynn McConville, and our intern, Mary Shimell, we were there to deliver three solar suitcases. The suitcases had been purchased thanks to the generosity of the Moorestown Rotary Club, the Moorestown Rotary Breakfast Club, the Garden State Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Camden, and the students at Clearview Regional High School.
I asked some of the hard-working professionals at Sulayman Jungkung Hospital, “what does electricity mean to you.” Every one of them had a one word reply. Life.
In the United States, electricity is something we take for granted. It powers our homes, our businesses and our schools. Lose electricity for even an hour and the average American will complain of food going bad, television shows unwatched and emails unanswered. Now compare that to The Gambia. In The Gambia, there is no reliable electricity. Imagine even in the suffocating heat and humidity, you have no air conditioning, no fan, no power for lights. Because so little of the country has power, there is no light pollution.
The clinics in the rural area operate 7 days a week / 24 hours a day. After the sun sets, it is so dark it is almost impossible to see your hand in front of your face. Now imagine trying to deliver a baby or perform surgery in that darkness. The light of a candle or cell phone is simply not enough to penetrate the enveloping darkness. It swallows you, it makes you invisible. And in The Gambia, the lack of reliable electricity can kill you.
Death seems more real here, you are closer to it and not sheltered from it as you are in the States. I was talking with a gentlemen who was in charge of vaccines who was in awe of the number of doses a typical American child gets. In The Gambia, vaccines are only given to newborns, there are not enough vaccines in the country to give booster shots. People in The Gambia regularly die from diseases we think of as minor – such as the flu, pneumonia and diarrhea. Tuberculosis and malaria – diseases we rarely have contact with – are a leading cause of death. Sadly, childbirth often proves deadly for mother and child.
But there is reason for hope. We are now halfway to our goal of Powering Up the Gambia! In addition, we are working closely with the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Health and NAWEC (the National Water and Electric Company) to build a 110 kw installation at Sulayman Jungkung Hospital. This project will provide not only the 3,000 people in Bwiam with reliable electricity at their hospital but will serve the many thousands who come to the hospital from the surrounding villages. A week long round of meetings provided valuable insight into the importance of the project to the government of The Gambia.
As I ended my week sitting oceanside with a cold Jul Brew Beer, I too was smiling. Although the customs agent was right, a week was not long enough to accomplish my goals, I was happy that I was able to experience this amazing country and be a part of a wonderful organization that is truly making a difference in The Gambia.