t takes someone with a distinct vision to attempt to change society’s attitudes - but for Gambian man Ebrima Trawally, doing so is both a vocation and a reality. As Project Manager for The Gambia Organisation of the Visually Impaired (GOVI), in partnership with Derry charity Children in Crossfire, Ebrima aims to engage with every blind and visually impaired child in his native country and coax them from the shadows and into mainstream education. Julieann Campbell reports....
Such disabilities are regarded with shame in the Gambia and the child is often hidden from public view and with a poor quality of life.
It may take years to change the attitudes and educational values of a nation, but Ebrima knows that all children have something to offer and is prepared for the long haul.
Ebrima explains: “We did a survey with support from Children in Crossfire and there are more than 750 visually impaired children in the Gambia and just one school for the blind – a day school in the capital with only a few students every year.
“The majority throughout the country would not have access to education if not for this - so there is definitely a need for this project. Gambia is not a big country, with under two million people, and so now we are trying to identify where these children are and we talk to their parents send them to school and then we train the teachers who will handle these children.
“We also only have one teacher-training college in our country, and our teachers don’t know how to handle blind and visually impaired children and we are starting special training right now and we need to continue that training.”
Ebrima knows that the children themselves are paramount.
“As well as training the teachers, we obviously need to help the children,” he says.
“In certain communities, disabled children are not cared for. Nobody cares. Sometimes the parents are very very poor and so education for that particular child is not a priority. This programme will help these children gain a little more respect and earn the teachers involved respect also.”
“We have to help the children get a uniform or Braille machines costing something like £400-£500 pounds. Every Gambian cannot afford that,” he goes on. “We don’t have computers like the classrooms here in Ireland and all those wonderful things - in the Gambia we simply do not have that. We have sometimes 50 or more in a class and teachers are trying to teach everybody. So now the teacher needs to know the teaching strategies and how to improvise when educating a blind or visually impaired child. They must be taught strategies that will involve every child in the classroom and not just those who can see.”
It is important to note that GOVI are not intending to set up any new schools in the Gambia but rather work with existing schools to meet the needs of these disadvantaged children.
“We are just trying to get these children into schools near where they live,” Ebrima says. “It was difficult getting people on board, but we try to educate people and change their perceptions of disability. That is what is most important.”
Ebrima also spoke of one case where a blind child was left to live in one room with a dog and eventually began to adopt the dog’s mannerisms. “But how do you convince parents to invest in their disabled child’s education? Well, we try to introduce them to role models like Richard Moore,” he added.
Children in Crossfire’s Head of Fundraising, Derry man John Ryan McLaughlin knows only too well the problems faced by the visually impaired youth of the Gambia. He is full of praise and admiration for his inspired colleague and knows this programme will be potentially life-changing for those involved.
“Children in Crossfire work in partnership, so we have found that the best way to use our resources is to work with local organisations overseas and empower them and help them reach their objectives,” he says.
“Basically, we work with existing schools so they can train amazing people like Ebrima in their jobs. Very often Irish people want to go to Gambia for a year or two but Gambians want to stay in their country forever, and to improve things for themselves to help make development more sustainable and that’s actually what we do.
“Most organisations like Oxfam, etc, work this way too, and it’s definitely the best model for development.”
“The project that we’re running is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) and aims to integrate visually impaired kids into mainstream education.
“When I have been in Gambia a few times with Richard Moore [founder of Derry’s Children in Crossfire] he often ends up in the airport with no watch! He has Braille watches, you see, and in the villages someone would tell him about a wee blind child and he often would give away his watch to them.
“We have found that these blind kids are often left in their houses so the village would be out celebrating and coming to see you, and the blind kids were kept out of sight and seen almost as an embarrassment,” Mr McLaughlin goes on.
“If you have hardly any money, you can’t invest very much in a child who is not going to be productive in adulthood, so we found that disabled children and blind children are being largely left out of society. We began focusing our resources on these most vulnerable children who need the help most.”
The final word goes to Ebrima.
“It is a great job, but very, very challenging,” he says.
“But it will be worth all the hard work as these children need our help.”