Back home: vetting Abdulay

Before I got into the business of building a school with Abdulay, I wanted to know more about him.

Lorenzo gave me the number of Eva.

I called Eva and learned how Abdulay came to have 5 drivers and a camp. Eva and Roberto from Madrid went to Gambia in 1998, used Abdulay as their driver, and built a website for him when they got home. Eventually, the website started getting hits. Then a flight from Gran Canarias opened up, Abdulay got more and more clients. And that’s when he started building the bungalows. Now Abdulay is in his 60s, almost blind, with two wives and 26 children.

The word I got from Eva and Lorenzo is that in Gambia, everyone you meet wants one thing: to leave Gambia. they said is it rare to find someone trustworthy, who cares about people, and who won’t leave Gambia. Abdulay is a bird-in-hand. He’s a good person and he handles logistics well.

Abdulay passed the vetting process. So I was ready to move ahead with the school in Sarenyanga! I called Abdulay up. He said he’s already gotten funds from the family I met in his camp. Noooo! That annoying family? I can’t work with them!

I pouted to Lorenzo. He said forget destiny. There are loads of schools I can support. Good advice. Meanwhile, back to work. Gambia on the back-burner.


Our drivers

In Africa, I learned that tourists use drivers, not public buses.

My driver, Abdulay, was no longer a driver. I was rather surprised to find out that he was a businessman with 5 drivers, and a newly built camp with 5 bungalows.

Abdulay and a driver Suliman picked me up in Fass Chamen and took me in one of their 4x4s to Janjanbureh, with the 5 boxes on the roof. Next morning we delivered them to schools off the beaten track. The second school was just what we were looking for:  a new school in a town called Sarenyanga, created by the townspeople, with only a bit of thatch for walls. Is this my destiny? Abdulay promised them help to build the school. I said nothing, yet.

Two days later, my niece and I took a beautifully crowded bus back to the capital.

In Gambia

Yes, this is why I love travelling. Everything new, swarming kids with big smiles. Not long before I got that my classic images of Africa: termite mounds and baobabs.

At Fass Chamen, the nursery school built by Lorenzo and Correcaminos. The highlight of our visit to Gambia was just sitting in the schoolkeeper’s compound, eating a rice dish from a communal bowl (the men’s bowl), and watching the activities in the compound: the woman sifting the peanuts and whacking the stick next to her whenever a goat would start investigating the peanut sack.

My idea had been to do a little tutoring. By the end of the second day in Fass Chamen, we learned what to tutor: practice writing letters.


I brought my 2900 pencils (yes, I got a bit carried away) and all Teo’s sport shirts that he’s been given to Lorenzo’s house on Calle Moralidad (next to Calle Fraternidad, etc.). He got 4 boxes, added scissors, toothbrushes/paste, old clothes, a few toys. He said “these two shirts are better — use them to thank someone.” We weighed the boxes and he taped them up well. The guy’s got lots of experience.

I did the rest of my packing. It’s been a while since I’ve gone backpacking in new countries. Memories of my sister’s hand-me-down backpack from 40 years ago. Memories of sewing tire rubber onto the worn-through soles of my Birkenstocks.

I packed my “Out of Poverty” book by Paul Polak. This follows my beliefs (one line: “donations don’t bring people out of poverty”). But it’s good to follow what Lorenzo says. Don’t question until I have experience. So I load the boxes in my car, and leave Lorenzo’s basement just a bit emptier.


Pencils. For the 5 boxes I will take to rural schools. I went to the “chino” nearby. Pack of 5 for 85 cents. No, too expensive. How much if I buy 1000 pencils? You’ll call tomorrow? OK, here’s my number. 12 cents a pencil. 30 cents a pencil. Why is Europe twice the price of the USA? Aliexpress, the Chinese Amazon: 16 cents a pencil. Getting better.

Then the girl from the “chino” called. 6 cents a pencil! With an erasor tip! It’s a deal.

Donations, round one

Lorenzo said get to know the country on your first trip. He also talked about bringing boxes with school materials and used clothes. I thought of my Dad, who saw the futility of donating food in Peru 60 years ago. He got into family planning. And then I was born, very planned. Hmm . . . taking boxes. But then I saw Lorenzo’s basement, full of donations — people feeling good about giving. Then Lorenzo said what Gambians need, that is not in his basement. Pencils and notebooks. I’d have to buy that. Hmm . . . but if I buy in Gambia, that helps the Gambian economy more . . .

One thing leads to another

3 years ago, I got the idea for an outdoor art museum in a ruin with a view. Working on “Arte Okupa” got me into learning about graffiti and street art. That got me into — tracking street art on google maps. That led me to a small town called El Tablero, where I met someone from Correcaminos, a group who built a school in Gambia in 2015.

Over the years, we gave a % of profits to a Haiti microcredit group called Fonkoze. But Africa is tantalizingly close to us, and I’ve never been there. What’s more, my kids have never experienced the “developing world”. A Gambia guidebook has been sitting unused on my shelf.  So I called Lorenzo from Correcaminos and planned a trip for Adrian and me. My niece was working for us in Barcelona, so I got a ticket for her too.