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    Six 'toubabs' in The Gambia

    In February, 7 VUB students- and ex-students sat ‘in the belly of the bird’ and flew to the smiling coast of West Africa: The Gambia, the smallest country in the region. A country surrounded by Senegal on three sides and the Atlantic ocean on the remaining side with the River Gambia running through it supplying the fertile wetlands with sweet water all year long. A country that lives up to the promises made in holiday booklets about it’s joyful, smiling citizens and endless beaches filled with palm trees. But we didn’t go there to enjoy the burning sun and various tastes of Benachin alone.

    By Kilian Adriaenssens

    The Gambia

    The Belly of the Bird

    Since last year, the VUB has a partnership with the University Of The Gambia, UTG for short, currently the only public university in the country. Within the framework of this partnership several students from The Gambia will come to the VUB in September to study here for one semester with the help of EU funding. In return VUB students will take a 6 hour flight to Africa to participate in a Summer School during the summer holidays. Besides that, the UTG is setting up a new Student HUB combining their first separate library with a study space comparable to the SGC from the VUB. It will be completely furnished by second hand furniture coming from renovated VUB-offices. In addition to that hundreds of computers are being shipped to the UTG with the help of Close the Gap Belgium which will be installed in the HUB for student to do research, tasks and papers. During the Easter holidays VUB students from Computer Science will then go to help install the computers and train the staff.

    To strengthen the ties with the UTG and help develop the programme between both universities, 6 students, including myself, flew to The Gambia together with Jimmy, a native Gambian and initiator of this project who is currently doing his PhD at the VUB. After shaking hands with what seemed to be half of the population of Gambia we got to work and held workshops with the UTG Student Union, attended meetings with staff and policy makers and co-organised the very first Student Conference. During that event UTG students debated with the authorities of their university after attending small focus groups lead by both a VUB and UTG moderator.

    Breaking stereotypes

    In the beginning of my stay in The Gambia I met with Siyat from Education for all, a global movement led by UNESCO aiming to meet the learning needs of all children. He told me a story of struggle, but also one of persistence. He told me that he always had to work hard as a kid to help and provide his family. One day he said to his friends: “I want to go and study. I want to get an education and to do great things for my country.” His friends laughed, “You will never make it, it will cost you too much money.” Siyat rubbed is chest and laughed, “You will see.” He started knocking on doors. Worked hard every day to pursue his dream and before he knew it he was studying at the university: Development Studies.

    His dream didn’t end after his graduation. After getting his degree at the UTG, The Gambia was too small for Siyat. He applied for studies across the sea and got accepted in a university in Germany where he studied Global Political Economy. Having pursued his dreams, or even more that what he could ever have dreamed of, Siyat didn’t choose to continue his dreams abroad, but decided to go back to his homeland to inspire young boys and girls to do the same: pursue their dream, regardless of their constraints.

    Inspiration also came from the University of The Gambia which we visited frequently. I met with a lot of students: young women and men, studying law, medicine, journalism, social sciences and more. In every discussion, students would take into account the gender equation. During a workshop about critical thinking and freedom of expression with students from the Student Union my colleague moderator was presenting his new student magazine when one picture appeared on the screen. The title was ‘Gossip’, a piece with the latest funny stories and well, gossip. My colleague from the UTG proudly continued with his presentation when one of the young female students present in the room halted him. “Can you go back to that page about gossip?” She said with an urgency in her voice. My friend and colleague scrolled back in his magazine and stopped at the page where two girls were depicted. “Why do you show two girl whispering when you’re talking about gossip? That’s a stupid stereotype!” A couple of female colleagues joined her. “Boys can gossip too! They will just not admit it!” Some of the boys in the room laughed, others tried to defend their gender, in vain.

    At first sight a simple, innocent conversation but it was the passion of that student that filled my heart with joy. A student that wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be female stereotypes in the next publication of their magazine.

    Sometimes, inspiration also comes at the most surprising of times. When we were sitting in the car to return to our residence, two women were presenting a talk show on the radio about girls and education. The guest on the radio stated that the empowerment of young girls is about having the right prospects: “Young women shouldn’t be taught that the next big step in life is marriage. Young girls should be empowered to do things themselves, get a job, go into business. Get to a point where they can take care of themselves and they don’t have to depend on anybody else.” She continued: “If people tell you the next big step in life is finding someone that will take care of you, you might start thinking: ‘why do I work so hard to just being taken care of and stay home in the end?’ No!” She cried. “You are your own responsibility and your own future.” The radio host continued: “Yes, if you want to get married one day that’s wonderful. Do so, have a family. But you should be able to accomplish a dream in a way that it is fulfilling to you.” With those words I got out of the car and I stared along the long boulevard in Serekunda with the busy traffic, the sun setting at the horizon and I felt inspired.

    The collaboration between the UTG and VUB is only at its infancy and the projects mentioned above are only a part from the entirety of the project since every semester new propositions to the project are made. Once VUB students will be sent out to the UTG to study abroad, I’m sure they will be as inspired as I was by The Gambia and it’s lovely people, their different culture and longing for connection. And I am sure the students from UTG arriving at the VUB next semester will be inspired by our small country just as much, and in return we can get inspired by them.

    The Gambia