Rising at 7:00 am to take children to school may seem like a regular activity for many. But what about bringing ALL your community’s youngest children to school, on a donkey cart no less?
Every morning, children from the Sinchou Demben village in central Gambia meet Malang Demto. Stick in hand and a smile on his face, he leads them to the closest elementary school, located approximately three kilometers away. Mr. Demto is a farmer who for a little over a year has also overseen the village’s ‘school bus,’ the donkey-pulled cart he drives to Sare Babou.
It takes just under an hour for the cart to make its way through the bushes with 10 children aboard, and reach the school at 8:00 am, on the dot, for the beginning of the morning classes. The same scene unfolds in more than 125 villages across rural Gambia as small children clamber their way onto the distinctive mint green donkey-pulled carts during the morning sunrise.
Although more children are enrolling in schools in The Gambia, nearly 30% of school-aged children still do not attend classes. The donkey cart program is a small part of the Government’s broader education strategy, which seeks to boost equitable access and improve quality of education.
In a concerted effort to reduce inequity, the government abolished school fees and increased the number of communities that have schools within three kilometers from 83% in 2013 to 95% in 2018. More construction is planned over the next five years to close the gap and further reduce the distance to two kilometers.
The donkey carts, which are placed in rural communities, are designed to transport children in early childhood development programs as well as first and second year students (ages 3-8) who find the three kilometers walk too cumbersome.
The initiative, which is community- managed, with support from ‘cluster monitors’ who oversee groups of schools, helps ensure that children attend school daily and helps allay parents’ concerns that their little ones can make the long distance safely.
The World Bank, which has engaged in The Gambia for many years, supports improved quality of teaching and learning and equitable access to schools through the Results for Education Achievement and Development Project, financed by a grant from the International Development Association and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in 2014.
A new project, the Education Sector Support Program, also financed by the World Bank and GPE, was approved this March. The continuation of the donkey carts initiative is one piece of the approach.
It was a former Permanent Secretary, having come from a rural village himself, who dreamed up the donkey cart initiative as the government sought to find low-cost options to facilitate enrollment, especially for young children, as part of the growing focus on providing access to quality early childhood development. Donkeys, a common means of transport in The Gambia, were a natural, yet innovative, choice and different communities across the country were enthusiastic about the idea.
An initial pilot revealed that while the original carts were an effective means to transport children to school, these were too heavy and needed to be redesigned. As a result, a lighter 2.0 model of the cart was launched in 2015. Built with locally-sourced materials, the revamped carts handle more easily, have a seat for each child, and incorporate important safety features such as a gate and easy-to-grab handles.
Currently approximately 2,000 young students in rural communities across the country rely on about 200 donkey carts as their daily mean of transportation to and from school. An additional 100 donkey carts will transport 1000 more young children in the next phase of the project.
The per child unit has dropped to about 10 cents per day, and the carts, having been designed with locally sourced materials are easy to repair.
Adama Jobe from the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education oversees the coordination of the donkey cart initiative and the dialogue between communities and the ministry. He regularly visits the schools and explains the process: “First, we planned to determine the communities in need, did a consultation and developed guidelines. Then, money was put in the school accounts, and head teachers and school management committees bought the donkeys.”
These committees continue to manage the donkey carts in consultation with the local communities. It is the collaborative process that has made the approach successful.
In the city of Medina Manneh, between Banjul and the country’s northern border with Senegal, the school received three carts to help transport children from the villages of Fafanding and Sam Njoben, each located approximately three kilometers away.
Kebba Sonko, the school headmaster, explains that the carts transport about half of the schools’ two early childhood development classes – roughly 30-35 children between the ages of 3 and 6 – while the other half that lives less than one kilometer away, walks to school. The link to the government’s expanded early childhood development plan is critical, since not only are children who benefit from quality ECD programs more likely to enroll on time, but they show higher levels of attendance, completion, and achievement once in school.
In The Gambia, where 38% of children do not start school at the official age of 7, quality early childhood development is not only important for its developmental benefits, but also as a critical entry point into school.
Caring for donkey carts is ensured by community-selected volunteers who can benefit from the animal and the cart when it isn’t being used as part of the project, by for example, transporting goods.
Drawing from the ministry’s guidelines, Lamin Jabarteh, a school headmaster developed a set of rules to manage the carts. The school management committee is a key reason why this program runs so smoothly, as it is the first point of contact between the Sare Babou village and the school – and the village Kholo or chief.
“In a community it’s joint work, it’s not a burden to us as long as we’re part of the community” says Ali Balo, the school’s other “bus” driver from the Sara Adama village, who brings his son Musa to school on his cart along with the other children.
“The initiative is something we can be proud of as a ministry,” says Mr. Jobe of his enthusiastic team, as he walks along behind a donkey cart, “Children want to go to school and we support them. The donkey carts have really made a difference.”