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Cambridge Rotary Club members helping to build communities in Africa





The Rotary Club of Cambridge and The Rotary Club of Cambridge Sawston have been heavily involved in an ongoing project helping a village community in The Gambia, West Africa.

John Martin in The Gambia with local volunteers
John Martin in The Gambia with local volunteers

The Bantaba Project (Bantaba means 'meeting place' in the Mandinka language) focuses on helping people to help themselves, strengthening communities through education and training workshops in order to tackle issues of illiteracy, health and poverty.

The project, started by long-term resident of The Gambia, Rose Dawson, has been responsible for building nursing facilities, workshops and a community centre for arts, crafts and education.

The Bantaba Centre is located in Saloum Daba, Madiana, about a two-hour drive - mainly on dirt roads - from the capital city, Banjul. Rose has been helped a great deal along the way by her younger sister, Irene Childerley.

Irene Childerley and John Martin in The Gambia with local volunteers
Irene Childerley and John Martin in The Gambia with local volunteers

Irene, a resident of Little Abington and a past president of Cambridge Sawston Rotary, said that her sister Rose first went out there in the 1980s and "just fell in love with it", adding: "She waited until her two boys were 17 and then left her husband and two boys and went to The Gambia [to live]."

Rose still calls the African country home but when she came back to the UK last March during The Gambia's rainy season, it was just when the pandemic was really starting to 'take off' and she decided to stay - at least until the world returns to some sort of normality.

Irene, who has played a key role in logistics, organisation and networking for the Bantaba Project, says that Rose - a former lecturer - has "always wanted to teach the people that have been left behind," adding: "There are schools out there but the problem is the expectation is that when they're 14, 15, they go out to work.

"So unless they're quite rich, they can't afford for the kids to go to high school - so it [the project] is really for those kids who have left school who've got no trade.

"It's really basic skills that will help them rebuild their villages and give them some employment."

Irene Childerley with members of the Rotary Club. Far right is Minyan Jobe, past assistant governor of the Rotary of the West Africa District
Irene Childerley with members of the Rotary Club. Far right is Minyan Jobe, past assistant governor of the Rotary of the West Africa District

Irene says Rose used her own money, and "did a bit of fundraising", to acquire some land which she gave to the Gambians.

"She started to build accommodation, hoping that teachers from the UK - or anywhere, because she knew a lot of Germans and Dutch people there as well - would come out and share their skills," explained Irene.

Irene first went to The Gambia in the 1980s, for a holiday, but says that many people stopped going during the '90s, largely because of the country's authoritarian leader at that time, Yahya Jammeh.

Irene next went again in 2013 and has been back every year since - bar 2020, of course.

In 2018, Irene invited volunteer and Rotary Club member - and Cambridge Rotary Club past president - John Martin, a retired builder, to come out and lend a hand with the building work.

To date, John has visited The Gambia - the smallest country in West Africa - three times. "I went out there and absolutely loved it," he said of his first visit.

"I said, 'If I'm going to do it, let me use local kids who can't get jobs'. They're pretty adaptable, the Gambians, because they have to be - there's no running water, there's no electricity, there's nothing right out in the bush.

Working on the Bantaba Project in The Gambia
Working on the Bantaba Project in The Gambia

"My first visit was to teach a group of youngsters how to make wardrobes. Everything had to be in hardwood because of termites and insects.

"They had only ever used nails before, so I introduced them to spirit levels, screws and countersinking.

"The second time I visited, even more youngsters turned up to learn. I helped them secure guttering and also roofed the building.

"I had such a great time, I will continue to visit and help until it is complete and functioning."

John continued: "Neil Whiteside from Cambridge 105, he's one of our Rotarians and he actually flew out there and did a programme for us on it, and he was very impressed with what we'd done on the site.

"He said, 'I'm in IT so I think when we're at that stage, I'll be able to get you the IT stuff so you can actually teach from here' - so FaceTime or whatever.

"So we're hoping we'll be able to not only get young teachers to go out there, but also to be able to teach them from this side of the water."

The Rotary Club of Fajara in The Gambia. Rose Dawson, Irene Childerley and John Martin with local volunteers. The man in the blue robes is the village chief.
The Rotary Club of Fajara in The Gambia. Rose Dawson, Irene Childerley and John Martin with local volunteers. The man in the blue robes is the village chief.

The next planned phase is digging for a borehole installing solar panels and pumping water to the centre. This will enable the kitchen, nursing room and toilet and shower facilities to be completed.

The building of the workshops and the community hall will be completed when funds are available - £15,000 would complete the buildings, making them ready to serve the community.

Visit the project's Facebook page at facebook.com/helpingGambians/ for more information. Donate at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/Bantaba.

Irene is keen to get in touch with any Gambians living in Cambridge. Email her at TheBantaba@outlook.com.

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Walking, litter-picking and burpees: Rotary Club of Cambridge South members take on challenges for charity

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