The Aasha Project was recently invited to attend a Conference on the theme of drugs and corruption being organised by the National Youth Council of The Gambia. Being a project with experience in working with young people affected by drugs and gangs, it took up the opportunity with earnest. This was not the first time that the project was visiting the West African country; it had taken a group of young people for an inspiring residential experience there in June 2010.
The conference and festival is organised every two years in The Gambia and this years theme was around tackling drugs and corruption. The President of The Gambia himself, his Excellency Prof al-Hajj Yahya Jameh has taken a personal initiative to highlight the dangers of these two ‘menaces’. The message is simple: “a definitive no to drugs and corruption.” The Gambia doesn’t have a major problem with illegal drug trafficking compared to other African states. In fact, The Gambia is one of the most stable nations with crime at very low levels. However, recently there have been seizures of smuggled cocaine and heroin shipments hence the fear that drug smugglers could be targeting the nation and the problem could take root.
Throughout the conference opening ceremony, various ministers and distinguished Govt officials highlighted the dangers of drug use, drug dealing and also its link with corruption. The Vice President was in attendance and she officially opened the conference. She discussed her Governments approach to the issue of drugs would be one of “zero tolerance” and she highlighted some of the means of tackling the issue would be through:
• Positive peer influence
• Counselling and reintegration of users
• Role models for young people
• The creation of jobs
The Vice President welcomed the Aasha team and encouraged them to share good practice with partners in The Gambia.
The conference comprised of more than 200 delegates, mostly young people but also government officials and representatives from a variety of agencies. Aasha Project Manager delivered a presentation to the delegates covering the personal aswell as social impact of drug use and supply using Tower Hamlets as a case study.
Project Manager, Muhammad Rabbani: “The Gambian people have a great opportunity to learn from other communities that have seen and experienced the destructive effects of drugs. Thankfully, the problem is only an emerging one at the moment here in Gambia so by taking the right steps, Government agencies and NGO’s can prevent drugs from becoming an issue and destroying society.”
The weeklong conference visit also enabled the project to explore some other exciting initiatives including the development of a twinning partnership with a rural based youth organisation, Save the Youth Action Group. SYAG was set up by a former policeman who was affected by seeing people suffering from the effects of drugs, crime and poor circumstances. He set up this project that now works with a huge number of young and old to support people and help them to change their world. The Aasha Project was met with a beautiful display of cultural song and activities, welcoming them into the village. It seemed as though the entire village had assembled to greet the visitors including young people, mothers and children as well as the elders. One young person describes: “It was reality that poverty was around and no matter where you are it is not forgettable. Seeing their state of living made me feel immense level of gratefulness in my heart and mind…” A dialogue took place of sharing ideas and experiences. The young people of Tower Hamlets were then awarded an honorary citizenship of the village of Madiana by the village chief. During their visit to the village they also toured a development site of a poultry farm. One of the young people mentioned how the journey affected him: “I did not know the value of money until I came to Gambia. For example on the fourth day we went to a local school and there were about 30 students. The teacher told us that they pay 50 dalasi a month which is just over a pound! However, still the parents of those children can’t pay for some months.”
The Aasha Project will be developing partnership with Save the Youth Action Group amongst others so that a twinning process can take place that would provide even more inspirational experiences for LBTH residents but also support grass roots youth organisations in The Gambia through capacity building and training programmes.
On their journey, the Aasha Project met with the Honourable Sherriff Gomez, Minister of Youth and Sports. The Minister discussed some of the current issues that his misntry is addressing in The Gambia and shared ideas with Aasha on how a UK project could support local initiatives. Other partners that the project met with included the United Nations Development Programme, the National Disaster Management Association and the National Students’ Union.
One of the most inspiring experiences was to meet with a former heroin and crack cocaine user who struggled with the deadly habit for a large part of his youth. The Aasha project was truly inspired to see an individual of such character to rise above the challenges of drug abuse and to turn his life around. Lamin described how bad things were: “…I ended up in the ghettos of The Gambia. Drugs robbed me of my life as I knew it. When night descended, robbing and stealing was the norm. I would take money from my mum, from family and wherever I could find it. In desperation, I would break the door to my mother’s room to get access to money…”. Now, he has not only turned his back on that lifestyle but is actively supporting young people to stay away. His advice to youth here: “It’s important to have a vision, when you have one, it’s not easy to get distracted. Values are also important. When you have values to stand upon, they will guard you when you cross the line…Like Malcolm X said: “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
The Aasha Project continues to provide young people with unmatchable experiences that are great for character and personal development.
Aasha would like to extend its gratitude to the National Youth Council and Sports Councils of The Gambia for hosting the project and facilitating its needs. It would also like to thank members of Save the Youth Action Group and residents of Madiana Village for providing it with profound experiences and interactions with the special people of The Gambia.