Dales volunteers and charity step in to repair children’s playground in the Gambia

The playground before the repairs were carried out.

The playground at the only school for the blind in the Gambia has been repaired thanks to a cooperative effort between Rug Aid, based in Reeth, and the charity which introduced it to the Gambia.

When Heather Ritchie, of Rug Aid, returned to the Gambia in February to run more workshops for the blind she saw how the playground had been damaged when building work was carried out in the compound of the Gambia Organisation for the Visually Impaired (GOVI) last year.

She immediately posted an appeal for funds on her Facebook page and stated: “Devastated to find the blind school playground in this state. [Usually] we could hear the screams of delight.”

She said later: “The children normally play there after school. They don’t want to go home as they live in total isolation as they are blind.”

Her Facebook post was spotted by Pip Land of Aysgarth who is a trustee of the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia (FGVI).

Pip and her partner, David Pointon of Thornton Rust (a founder trustee of FGVI) had introduced Heather to the Gambia and GOVI in 2007.

David explained that when the charity was set up in 1998 the school was housed in a small tin-roofed extension to another school. “We raised the money to pay for the construction of the school and other buildings and to provide the children with the playground.”

He returned with teams from the Dales which delivered minibuses, equipment and helped to maintain the playground.

When the charity’s chairman, Phil Feller, visited the Gambia with his wife, Joan, in November last year they too were determined to see the playground repaired and authorised FGVI’s Gambian representative, Lamin Saidy, to find a welder.

But then came the chaos that followed the elections and the welder was among those who fled.

He returned in February and it was agreed that Lamin Saidy (who designed the playground)  and Rug Aid would cooperate with the playground repairs.

So Heather and her daughter, Chrissie, were able to watch the transformation taking place.

Heather rents one of the buildings on the GOVI compound that FGVI had built. It is well  cared for by Ernest Faal, one of her first blind rag rug makers.

He manages the project when she is not there, does the marketing and has encouraged the school children to learn rug making.

There were about 30 men and women a day attending the workshops this time, some with their babies.

“We are very proud of them,” Heather said.

Children play in the repaired playground.

While she was helping them, drawing patterns, hemming, and sorting fabrics out, Chrissie was giving mobility training including how to use the white canes they had brought from England. She also trained teachers in how to help the blind and visually impaired.

Even though they were so busy they found time to assess some of the other needs of the school. Between 2009 and 2011 FGVI worked with the UK Parliamentary Football Club to provide the school with a goal ball court. Sadly that court is now badly in need of repair.

So supporters of Rug Aid are now trying to raise funds for that. It is planned that this and other repairs at the school will be carried out as another joint Rug Aid and FGVI venture.

For Heather and Chrissie their last day in the Gambia this year was the best. A Gambian TV company visited the workshop as it was making a programme entitled The empowering of women and disabilities in The Gambia.

It was fascinating to hear the blind women say how their lives had improved with the Rug Aid project. They had money to spend on food, clothes and medicines and it was a great help with supporting their families.

“This was the culmination of ten years work for us all. We came home very exhausted but happy and satisfied with our two weeks of hard graft.”

Heather Ritchie with the rugs.