Explore Your Country
Modou Lamin looked down warily at his plate as he struggled to eat his chicken and chips. “Can I use my hand,” he finally whispered to me.
Not only was it the eleventh-grader’s first time in a restaurant, it was his first time using a knife and fork and even his first time eating off his very own plate.
The amusing scene was just the start of the firsts Modou Lamin would experience at Explore Your Country, a weeklong Peace Corps initiative aimed at showing senior secondary students the higher education and professional opportunities available in their own backyard.
I brought Modou Lamin and his classmate Buba from our village in the West Coast Region, and they joined 19 other boys from all parts of the country for the program in the city. Girls attended the program earlier in the year.
Although The Gambia is only about 400 kilometers long, few people ever travel to the urban area known as the Kombos. And if they do, they often stay in typical compounds visiting family and rarely have the chance or money to venture out. This unawareness of the opportunities available in their own country is just one contributing factor to the youth, especially young men, trying their fate at “The Back Way”—an illegal and often deadly immigration route that ventures through Mali, Libya, and for a lucky few, eventually to Europe.
Explore Your Country tackled this issue while giving the boys an experience of a lifetime. Peace Corps volunteers taught the boys concepts ranging from work place professionalism, resume writing and job interview skills – information that is not provided in school. They learned the requirements to be accepted into each of the higher learning institutes in The Gambia, which helped them in setting goals for their futures. As we discussed these issues, we also talked about how the boys could support their sisters, girls in their community and future daughters to help them have access to the same opportunities.
Aside from the gaining a wealth of knowledge, the boys got to get on out there and explore their country. The boys each shadowed a professional Gambian doing their job. We took them on tours of all the higher education campuses: the college, the university, the technical training institute, the management and development institute and the hotel school.
But of course we had a little fun too. We took the boys to the beach where they swam in the ocean for the first time in their lives.
We visited the airport, the TV station and a radio station where each student went on the air.
When the boys saw that we’d be visiting Independence Stadium on the schedule, they couldn’t stop asking if they’d get to see the game. We told them there wouldn’t be time since there were several other stops to visit on the field trip. But when we arrived at the stadium, they were ecstatic for us to hand them their tickets to the national game vs. Mauritania. Surprise!
They even tried new foods! Ice cream was a hit. Pizza, not so much.
I had as much fun as the boys did just watching them experience new things. They all expressed deep gratitude for being part of the program, and it was one of those weeks where I thought, “this is why I am here.”