OBSERVER's JULY 22nd BUS BEGINS TOUR: Exploring 15 years of exponential progress
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
On July 22nd, 1994, The Gambia took onto a revolutionary path; a path that would change the course of the history of this country.
It saw the birth of a new nation; a nation that would be rebuilt on the foundation of an altogether new meaning of patriotism, consciousness, self-esteem, self-reliance, peace, love, unity.. This was all born out of what has turned out to be an unimaginably ambitious scheme to revolutionise the country's development trend, giving a rather deprived people a much needed sense of direction.
It is called the July 22nd Revolution.
Today, a decade and half after the emergence of this epic evolutionary transformation, the popularity surrounding the Revolution continues to entrench deeper in terms of its corollaries. At no point in the history of this country has there been more exhibition of determination, nationalism and a genuine sense of direction by Gambians than in the past quarter of a century.
The reasons are quite enormously obvious - today, more than ever before, Gambians feel a genuine sense of belongingness, thanks to their newly found esteem, the embodiment of which is none but the figure behind this gargantuan shift in the reality of Gambian life, President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh.
15 solid years on, it has gradually become a matter of near impossibility to highlight the development strides The Gambia has attained in just a few publications, thus requiring the Daily Observer to go at it in a unique way, through what we call the Observer July 22nd Bus.
Our mission is to cruise throughout the length and breadth of the country, highlighting the AFPRC/APRC government's development achievements under the leadership of President Yahya Jammeh from the word go, exploring 15 years of veritable progress, reaching every single settlement that has something to show.
The Observer's July 22nd Bus will take us from the North Bank Region, through the Central River Region, the Upper River Region, Lower River Region, Western Region, right to the Greater Banjul Area, and the accounts of the people themselves, the direct beneficiaries of these projects, will explain it all.
In this first part of the 21 parts series, the Observer July 22nd Bus is in the North Bank Region, commencing its journey in the sprawling town of Barra, Lower Nuimi. Please see centrespread.
North Bank Region, Barra Town
When President Jammeh took over the mantle of leadership of The Gambia, it was at a time when the country seemed to be plummeting, despite the reality surrounding the rapid advances in technology with the resultant revolutionisation of development in all aspects in the rest of the world.
In The Gambia, infrastructural development, electricity and pipe-borne water supplies, medical care as well as affordable and reliable education for all had been a distant dreams for generations of Gambians prior to July 22nd 1994. These, naturally, from the onset formed core parts of the AFPRC/APRC government's development agenda.
Barra is described as a twin town to Banjul. Apart from it being a port town, Barra is strategically placed in that it serves as a transit point for many people living or coming into the country. People come from as far as Senegal, Guinea Bissau and even Guinea Conakry.
The people of this town today feel extremely indebted to President Jammeh and the APRC government due to the fact that its significance has not been ignored as part of government's gigantic plan of transforming the whole country into a city state. At present, construction works on the highway linking Barra to the rest of the region is at the completion stage.
This is expected to prop up the enhancement of the already proliferating business activities that have been wholly inspired by other developments in the form of an enormously built edifice at the ferry terminal, which will considerably change the look of the town as a point of entry. Already, the provision of 3 ferries criss-crossing between Banjul and Barra has made traveling through northern Gambia the most appealing to people across the country.
The ongoing construction work on the road linking Barra to Kerewan will, on completion, marks the end of a major road infrastructural development in the entire north bank region. There is also the Barra-Amdallai road, and expansion works along the Kerewan-Farafenni stretch are in high gear.
Today, uninterruptible electricity and pipe-borne water supply form part of the buzzing business and other human activities that have kind of re-awoken Barra and its adjoining settlements like Essau. Whatever you can think of in Banjul in terms of human needs, is now available in its twin town of Barra. Most natives of the town now prefer commuting to work in places like Banjul and the rest of the Greater Banjul Area. A line-up of buildings housing financial institutions such as Access Bank, Trust Bank and Reliance Financial Services is another indication of how much Barra has evolved in terms of a promising business environment.
Speaking to the Observer July 22nd Bus crew, Abba Hydara, secretary general of the Barra village development committee, recalled that in the past, outsiders were always tempted to blame the pathetic shanty nature of the town on the people. "But,' he said, "thanks to the visionary leadership of President Jammeh, whose benevolence lit up the streets of Barra for the first time, the story is now totally different for the people." This, he said, has enhanced the greatest boom the town has ever experienced. And at the grass roots level, there are the petty traders whose lives continue to receive major boosts in terms of access to basic facilities such as electricity and water supplies for their small businesses. Presently, a number of business canteens are being erected within the vicinity of the ferry terminal, alongside renovation and expansion works of the car park (garage), the market, and a whole list of others.
As in the rest of the country, the women in Barra constitute the majority of petty traders and their stories everywhere is the same. They take care of the children's school fees as well as the feeding of the families. Women like Elen Saine, an ice block seller for about three years, have had their lives changed for good. "Thanks to the Rural Electrification Project, business is now going fine, unlike before, when we used to cross to Banjul in search of ice blocks. Now we do not need to go to Banjul for that," she said.
Elen, like the rest of the people who engage in this kind of business, depends entirely on her business to take care of all her basic needs, like payment of schools fees for her children and clothing. All Elen looks forward to is the well-being of the president. She prays that the Gambian leader continues to carry on in his "patriotic duties."
Fatou Krubally, a fruit juice seller, said that "electricity came when things got tough for me. My husband had passed away, leaving six children behind. I used to cross on a daily basis to Banjul as there was no steady electricity supply in Barra. Apart from the energy we used, there was the agonizing cost of crossing to and from Banjul. But the coming of the Rural Electrification Project has made it possible for us to operate our businesses without having to go to Banjul." "This president is really a president of the less fortunate, particularly the women," Fatou remarked.
Isatou Ceesay, a soft drinks seller, said they only started realizing huge profits when they there was a steady flow of electricity, thanks to the Rural Electrification Project.
Essau is just in the outskirts of Barra, sharing quite a lot in common with the latter town. Prior to the coming of the July 22nd Revolution, access to higher education was a major constraint for the entirety of the people of the North Bank Region (NBR). There was absolutely no high school in the whole region before 1994. Fortunately, education formed a key part of the priority areas of the Jammeh administration. Consequently, a number of high schools were built, and among them was Essau Senior Secondary School, built in October 1995.
Being one of the first schools built by the AFPRC government in the North Bank Region, this school has been serving many villages, from Amdallai in the Lower Niumi District to Sitanunku in the Upper Niumi District, and a number of satellite villages in the area, relieving parents here of the burden of having to hassle to secure wards for their children. David MS Gomez is the principal of Essau SSS. President Jammeh, he said, has brought education to the doorsteps of the people of NBR by building many upper and senior secondary schools in the region. Gomez cited a number of other schools in the area such as Berending and Albreda senior secondary schools as examples of some of the high schools built by the government.
He recalled the days when the people of region struggled to send their children to Armitage Senior Secondary and other far off places in the Kombos, as a result of which very many people could not pursue their educational dreams, because they could not find places to stay. Essau SSS, with an enrollment status of 341, of which boys formed the majority, has 9 classrooms, providing a conducive learning environment with well equipped computer, physics, chemistry and biology laboratories, alongside a wood workshop. The school has a highly sophisticated solar lighting system.
Under the Rural Electrification Project Phase One, a project that President Jammeh has maintained close to his heart, a number of new power plants have been established in strategic places across the region, supplying electricity to some of the most remote of settlements in the country, putting The Gambia among the few countries in the region were such amenities are available to people in the rural setup. And also in all the villages in this region, there are solar powered water supply systems, ensuring 24 hour water supply for people who had been accustomed to fetching unsafe drinking water from deep and poorly dug wells. There has also been quite a rapid expansion in education at both the lower and upper basic levels as well as the senior secondary level in this region. Today, within every 3km you can find a lower basic school, and in every 5km you can find an upper basic school.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature in the northern half of the country today is the classic stretch of road that runs across the length of that half of the country, connecting Essau to Kerewan, under the name of Taiwan Highway, then extending from Kerewan, through Farafenni, up to Laminkoto, under another nomenclature, July 22nd Highway.
This is arguably one of the most beautiful of roads in the sub region, and some say on the whole continent. As a matter of fact, this road, which forms a key part of the APRC government's infrastructural development plans, has every characteristic of a standard road, just like you can find anywhere in the world.
This stretch of road, by all indications, has come to serve as a vehicle for further development, enhancing the movement of people, goods and services. The accounts of the people in the region underline the significant change the road has brought to their lives. Another major road construction project, the Barra-Amdulaye Road, which is near completion, will link the two capitals, Banjul and Dakar. It will also boost the standing of Barra as a business hub.
In the Upper Niumi area, villages such as Aljamdu have a fair share of the development undertakings of the APRC government. The people here enjoy a solar powered water supply system, making accessible clean and safe drinking water to the people. The people of Tubakolong also benefited from Phase II of the rural water supply project, thanks to the Gambia-Japan friendship cooperation.
Albreda and Juffureh
Albreda and Juffureh are arguably the biggest villages in Upper Niumi. A village as big as Albreda, for instance, until 1994, did not have a senior secondary school. Apparently, it was among those which benefited from the spree of senior secondary school construction projects at the dawn of the Revolution. Albreda Senior Secondary School happens to be the first senior secondary school in the whole of Upper Niumi District; it is well furnished with laboratories, a library, a borehole - serving about 8 villages: Juffureh, Albreda, Mbata, Lamin, Sika, Pakau Saloum and Kembleh.
Mamadi Faal is the executive secretary of the Juffureh/Albreda youth society. His view is a sober representation of the entire youths of what are said to be twin villages. He recalled when they were of school going age, they were forced to leave their homes to go as far away as Armitage, in search of schools. ''But today all that has changed. We are the luckiest in the whole of The Gambia,'' he said, pointing to the fact that today they have primary, junior and senior secondary schools in the area, and the fact that present conditions guarantees the youth job opportunities within the area.
The government also built a minor health centre in Albreda, which serves a cluster of nothing less than 15 villages including Juffureh, with a population of approximately 11,200. The people of these villages previously had to travel kilometres on end to seek medical attention. The health officers at the post, as a way of extending their services to the population, cover some additional 6 villages - Sitanunku, Toba Kolong, Nuimi Lamin and Sami Koto.
The health center, which was opened in 2006, three years after commencement of construction in 2003, has about 12 beds, a labour ward, and provides all kinds of services except surgical operations. ''They always say they do not know how to thank His Excellency,'' Sheriff Senghor, nurse in charge of the centre, said of the people of the area.
Relaying the account of the people, Sheriff said they had been used to going as far as Essau, in some cases getting involved in hiring Gele geles to transport their sick ones, which cost them a lot and was dangerously unreliable. Youth leader, Mamadi Faal, recalled the enormous burden the people of the area encountered before the establishment of the health facility. Comparing life in the area before and after the advent of the July 22nd Revolution, he said ''we can now live like people.''Living standards, he added, have gone up, pointing to the rapid increases in telephone facilities, and water supply, among others, as catalysts for the evolutionary changes that are taking place in the area.
Water supply in Chila Village
The people of the village of Chila have also enjoyed a number of development initiatives. Among them are water supply in the form of hand pump, and a small health post for a sizeable community, which operates 24 hrs round the clock. "We are very delighted and happy with the Jammeh administration. All our major needs have been provided. We will continue to support the government," said Ousman Sillah, brother to the Alkalo of the village.
Alkalo Alhahaji Ebrima Sillah reiterated the essence of the president's back-to-the-land call, praising the efforts of the women in his village and their response to the president's call. He said that he has personally enjoyed support from the Gambian leader with regards to his farming activities in the village. This, he said, coupled with the general developmental gains of the village, makes them feel obliged to follow behind President Jammeh.
There are a number of other villages which had had health posts, but the total lack of the facilities that would allow for their effective operation, in terms of the services they provide, meant that the presence of these structures were as good as their absence. Kuntair Health Centre, for instance, had only two buildings at the takeover by the then AFPRC government. Apart from space constraints, the health centre barely served the people of the village.
Today, the hospital is well equipped to take care of many health problems, providing a number of services that were not available before the addition of a number of structures in 1995. Kuntair Health Center, with a large catchments area within the Jopkadou constituency, is now well equipped - it has enough beds and machines such as rapid diagnostic test machine and HB machine, which were recently acquired as part of efforts to enhance the service delivery of the health facility.
Kerewan is the administrative town of the North Bank Region, but its people had never felt a sense of living in an administrative center that covers an area as vast as the NBR. In a region with absolutely no senior secondary school before 1994, there are now 9, providing the opportunity to its natives to attain affordable high school education.
This spree of massive construction of schools is going on alongside efforts for the improvement of conditions for teachers as well as child friendly initiatives; all being part of the policy requirement for the provision of education for all Gambians. Apart from payment of enticing allowances, government is also building standard staff quarters across the region - for instance in the villages of Illiasa, Challa, Touba Angalaise, etc., and there are more construction projects scattered within.
As part of its Education For All initiative, the APRC government under President Yahya Jammeh has ensured that girls between the ages of 1 and 12 do not pay a butut for education. This, coupled with a formidable school feeding programme, alongside the provision of adequate teaching and learning materials, has revolutionised education in The Gambia within the last 15 years.
Musa Suso, regional education director in the NBR, has served at education offices in all the regions. He recalls working in small, uncomfortable rooms with virtually no access to mobility. The situation today, he said, is the reverse. "President Jammeh has given much priority to education, and we have seen all the signs that he is committed to continue on that path," Suso told the Daily Observer, recalling the president's favourite catch phrase during the formative days of the revolution that 'for education, the sky is the limit.'
The Kerewan Bridge, constructed between 1998 and 2000, and officially inaugurated in 2001, is perhaps the most symbolic of structures associated with the AFPRC/APRC government under President Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh in the region. Quite a lot had been said about this tributary called Miniminiang Bolong, regarding the impossibility of bridging it. A common folktale has it that a dragon colonised the place, some how obstructing efforts to bridge it. This apparently served as some sort of a plausible reason for previous authorities not touching it.
The implications for this, were all sorts of unimaginable hardships for Gambians. But the newly emerging AFPRC/APRC government, filled with the urge to change the deplorable lives of Gambians, defied all the odds imposed by a rather deep-seated superstitious belief and did what was hitherto believed as impossible. The importance of this bridge is today felt throughout the region, and even beyond. The people, though, will for ever remain grateful to the man they call Baa Bili Mansa (Mandinka, meaning a ruler who bridges the river), whose intervention has put centuries of hardship behind them.
Just a few meters away from the bridge, there are remnants of buildings reminiscent of a harbour for what used to be an unreliabe ferry. That boat, apart from its unreliability, saw frequent accidents and deaths, in the accounts of the people. Travellers to Banjul from the inland had to get on the first bus in order to catch up with it, or else they were bound to spend the night stranded around the riverside. This, however, did not mean free crossing as you had to pay before crossing, despite all the hardship associated with it. "This is all part of the enormous burden President Jammeh has taken off our shoulders," remarked Alhaji Junkunda Fatty, who recalls once arriving at the ferry terminal at around 7pm only to return to his house and wait until the next day before crossing. But unlike old Junkunda Fatty, many other people who came from faraway distances were forced to spend the night around the riverside as they did not know anybody to stay with. "But today," he marvelled, ''I can pray Magrib (late evening prayers) in Banjul and be sure of sleep in Kerewan."
Junkunda Fatty, like the rest of the people who spoke to the Daily Observer, pointed to a number of benefits they have derived from the bridge, among them easy accessibility to distant medical facilities. "You had to stop over in Kerewan for a shower if you were travelling from the NBR, lest you were easily identified as a Badibunka," said Alhaji Foday Jawara. Dust, the villagers recounted, was there 'ID card'.
The words of the Alkalo of Kerewan Village, Alhaji Jikiba Fatty, summed up the unmistakable feelings of the people of Kerewan and perhaps the entire North Bank Region. ''Even if it was only the bridge that was constructed by President Jammeh, it would have been enough,'' he said. Just like the rest of the country, the people of Kerewan also enjoy water and electricity supply now.
The Kerewan Power Station, which was opened in 2007, supplies Kerewan and a number of other villages nearby including Salikenni, Suwareh Kunda, Saaba and Njabaa Kunda. The generator has a capacity of 220KVA, with operating hours of 9am to 2pm, and 6pm to 2am. Each of these villages is at least 80% electrified, all fitted with streetlights, a totally different scene from what obtained about a decade or so ago.
Observer July 22nd Bus Crew has a night stop in Kerewan. The journey continues today.
Author: Daily Observer