Approximately 101 kilometers away from Banjul lies a centuries-old village on the north bank of the River Gambia, and just a stone’s throw from the frontier with Senegal.
It is a match day in Jajari village, and the local coach is finding it difficult to put together an 11-member football team capable of winning their much-needed derby game, let alone draw a crowd to cheer the boys up during the game.
The once bustling settlement is now largely deserted by its youth, thanks to irregular migration, which continues to draw young people away from the village to Europe.
The story of this exodus is a daily lament in the village, where hardly a day goes by without the mostly elderly residents harping on the challenges they are left to grapple with.
The phenomenon known as back-way migration has claimed the lives of many rural youths, with many more stranded in detention centers en route amidst harsh conditions.
Discontent due to joblessness and the slow pace of providing alternatives to subsistence farming has fueled the exodus from the village.
Thus migration is all too common in Jajari, where the village youths have long migrated to urban settlements in the country, during the dry season to find work – usually menial jobs – and would return during the rainy season to do farming.
Families in the village survive on subsistence farming, in an environment which offers little hope for a brighter future.
Despite the growing awareness of the dangers of traveling without proper documents to Europe, an increasing number of youths from the village are still embarking on the hazardous journey.
“All our youths have gone. This has caused a great havoc on us. We have lost a lot of our youths to the sea, and we still do not know the whereabouts of some of them,” Sambou Marong, a community leader lamented.
“Our agricultural production has reduced over the years, and some families have even stopped farming because they have nobody to work on the farms.
“Even to dig graveyards during funerals, we struggle to find able-bodied men. Sometimes we do it ourselves,” said the old man who looks like he is in his 80s.
Yet for every young man who leaves for Europe, there are the wives, children and care-giving parents left behind, and who have become used to wondering if this would be the last glimpse of their loved ones.
Just last week, the village was plunged into panic when news broke that some Gambians migrating to Europe died, while trying to cross the high seas.
Looking mournful and desperate for news from those who have left, the families in Jajari suffered in silence without any reliable source to confirm if their sons were involved.
Then news came in through a village WhatsApp group on the following day. It confirmed that the tragedy involved four boys from the nearby village of Alkali Kunda, three of whom died and one survived.
However, after years of deprivation in Jajari, there is now light at the end of the tunnel. A UK charity is now providing a new lease of life for the youths still remaining in the village.
The Morgan Clark Foundation is addressing the root causes of the exodus by equipping the village’s future: the children.
The charity built the village’s first nursery and primary schools, and provided scholarships to the pupils. This first development infrastructure in the village has brought joy and hope for a brighter future.
“When we first started the schools 11 years ago, 350 students were enrolled on the same day. Those kids could have been idling at home with absolutely no prospect of being educated.
“The closest schools are kilometers away, and the kids cannot trek,” said Bakary Jammeh, the country coordinator for Morgan Clark Foundation.
According to Mr Jammeh, some parents of the migrants had spent their last Dalasis on their sons, some of whom are still stranded in countries in West and North Africa along the land routes to get to Europe.
“We were concerned about the migration situation in the village, and we want to provide a solid foundation for the children, and opportunities for the few youths remaining here.”
Morgan Clark opened a lodge in the village to provide jobs for the youths through community-based tourism. The lodge employs 15 people, including a migrant returnee who co-manages the facility.
Three teachers are employed at the village nursery school. “Education can put an end to this back-way problem.
“I think the youths in the village migrate because they are uneducated and unskilled. The school has graduated some students who now serve as role models for the pupils,” said Almamy Trawally, the head teacher supervising both the nursery and primary schools.
Presently, a total of 251 pupils attend the village schools; and, these are not potential irregular migrants; since they aspire to become doctors, lawyers, bankers and so on.
The foundation plans to build a technical and vocational school in the village, and has already bought teaching and learning materials.
This initiative is aimed at providing skills training for the village youths, who when they qualify will be given a start-up capital to establish their own enterprise such as carpentry or welding workshop.
Sambou Marong, who offered his plot of land for the schools to be built, has two of his sons waiting to be enrolled in the technical school when it opens.
“The technical school will really help our youths. They always complain of unemployment, but when they learn skills, they will be able to create jobs for themselves and take good care of their families,” he declared.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old Sherriff Jammeh is one of the few young men changing the narrative, and inspiring hope in Jajari.
The foundation sponsored his teacher-training at the Gambia College, and then employed him to teach at the community’s primary school.
“I consider myself the luckiest person on earth. As a qualified teacher, my future is now brightened, and I am very useful to my community,” he said in an interview.
Thanks to his outstanding performance at the village school, the Gambian government has since transferred him to a bigger school, called Maka Farafenni Lower Basic School, with promotion as the headmaster.
“Almost all my friends have gone to the back-way. I used to consider leaving too, but with this opportunity I have been provided, coupled with the hope my community has in me, I am determined to stay here and motivate others,” he added.