Fatou Banja stresses need for self-help. Making things happen in Gambia

WHEN she enters a village, Fatou Banja Camara heads first for the home of the alkalo. In the villages of the west African nation of Gambia, the alkalo is the traditional chief. To be successful in her work as a social development coordinator for Save the Children, Fatou must have his blessing.

Each day she visits six villages about one hour's drive from her home. Fatou spends one to two hours with women's groups that are setting up, or already running, community development projects that she has helped them devise and obtain funds for. These projects include farming, well digging, courses in basic numbers, and letters and in nutrition, and a few income-generating projects such as soapmaking and tie-dying.

Gambia is one of the smallest nations on the African continent. Its people, most of whom live in villages, have an average annual income of about $190. Drought and hunger are never far away.

In the upper Nuimi, lower Nuimi, and Jukado regions, Save the Children, a Connecticut-based relief and development agency, has been working since 1982 to help villagers increase food production, improve the health of women and children, and grow selective cash crops. ``Local leadership training'' is the top priority for development workers like Fatou, a health and nutrition expert.

Two years of professional training in rural development at the Pan African Development Institute in Cameroon make Fatou an exception in a nation where 97 percent of the women are illiterate. Recently, after a week of management training and briefings at Save the Children's home office in Westport, Conn., she spent a week at the Boston-based Education Development Center preparing a workshop she will give at a national seminar on Maternal Nutrition Education in Gambia this April.

During her stay in Boston, the snow was a foot deep and temperatures were frigid. This Gambian woman seemed completely at ease as she discussed her work, however.

How do you set up development projects in a village?

The process we [at Save the Children] advocate and teach villagers is the self-help approach. No one should analyze your problem for you. You should know what you should do to get rid of a problem, then look around you for what resources you have to eliminate that problem. If during that process you come up short an element, you can seek outside assistance to combine with what you have.

That is a process that really stays with the villagers. And that is why we spend so much time on organizing them. One institution that we have really reinforced in the villages is the Village Development Committee. It is responsible for prioritizing the needs of the whole village, and for finding resources and ways to alleviate these problems.

What role do you play in this process?

In each village I have contact people - they are the womens' leaders. When I come for a visit, these leaders will pass on to the other women what the activity of the day is. We get together and discuss, for example, that we want to have a demonstration on a food supplement. We need to know what measures we will take, what ingredients we will need, and how we will get those ingredients. The women themselves choose the day that I will return for the actual implementation, and we give the group leaders assignments so they know what they must bring.

Then we will discuss what are the other problems in the village, because their time is very much in demand and we try to capitalize on our time with them. Most of our time we try to spend on organizing the womens' group leaders to take responsibility to do things themselves.

Who chooses these leaders?

The women in the village choose their own leaders because they know there are certain characteristics needed and who has them.

What is the most challenging aspect of getting a village to work with you?

Work with rural people, itself, is very difficult because you have to show them that you have their interests at heart. Before they will work on things with you, you have to do something very practical that they can see and relate to the changes they are already experiencing.

What has working with Save the Children meant to you?

Well, it has really changed a lot of things. It has enabled me to implement the ideas I have. Before I worked with the [Gambian] Department of Community Development, I had a lot of ideas and plans, but no funds to execute them. Now, Save the Children is sponsoring programs that the villagers have identified and planned.

Most of your projects are targeted at women. Why? Do you have similar projects for men? What about for children?

The way our society is set up, you cannot get to the women without the men. You have to work through the whole community. We have income-generating projects with men involved, such as fishing. And, in the garden projects, both the women and men participate in the whole project, but with a division of labor. The backbone of our country is agriculture, so we have gardening projects at school. This way the children will not be thinking of going off to the city and working in offices.

Has the emphasis on women caused problems within the traditions of your society?

Yes, sometimes. For example, normally the women organize the income-generating projects and sell their commodities. But they will get all their money and give it to a man to keep it for them. And the man will use it for his own. Most of the women's programs are suffering because of the fact that women cannot keep account of their income and their expenses because they don't handle the money themselves and because they cannot keep records. Men can at least record things in Arabic, but the women have only their memories.

Are you working to solve this problem?

Yes. One of the most important things we do is develop a syllabus of the local language and train the women in it. We have developed these in three of the villages. That is the first thing needed because so many records must be kept for some projects.

But we have found that we cannot have our literacy class for men and women together. When a man and woman are in a class, when it is time to go the man says, `I am going to class. You stay here and take care of the children.' And the woman will stay. So, we are starting with women only and some of the men are very jealous and unhappy about this.

Are there any outside obstacles that hinder your work?

Yes. With these village development committees we try as much as possible to give total control to those people to determine their own development. We select the committees democratically: The villagers decide who leads them. And sometimes this conflicts with a particular parliamentarian who comes out of that village. When he opposes what I do, I tell him `Sir, it is not me, but the villagers who are doing these things. They want to have control over their own interests.'

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