Three students from The Gambia seek life-changing education at STAC

By Celine Grajo
September 5, 2017

The Republic of the Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa, just shy of twice the size of Delaware, surrounded by The Republic of Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia is also one of the poorest countries in Africa, with 48 percent of its people living below the poverty line. In such a country, many possibilities are wiped away by financial instability. Still, there are those that fight hard to do more than survive. They fight for their communities; they fight so the future can have a chance.

Of the two million people living in The Gambia, half can read and write, with disparities in gender, region, and residence. The physical distances between the rural villages and the nearest schools are nothing compared to the depths of perseverance and financial fortune needed to complete each year. The real value of an education, though, cannot be condensed or fully defined by years of schooling and grades. It is not something tangible or easily gained. Rather, it is an opportunity at a better life, and the ability to change the world.

Three students, Awa Jarju, Adama Jarju, and Penda Jallow, are determined to achieve this dream despite the challenges they face, the most pertinent being financial and cultural limitations. UNESCO reported 96 percent of Gambian youth attended primary school, but only 75 percent went on to attend secondary education. Often, students are taken out to work side jobs to help their families. About a third of The Gambia’s GPD comes from agriculture, so almost always these jobs include manual labor, such as farming or fishing. In 2014, 36 percent of children 5-14 were part of the work force, a fact that prompted The Ministry of Education to instate stricter child labor laws for The Gambia. They also brought in special teams like the Department of Social Welfare and the Child Protection Alliance to combat such problems. But with the constant threat of poverty, malnutrition, and disease, parents disregard these laws and children continue to work. However, as rainfall has gradually lessened and the environment has continuously suffered, many families are failing to yield enough crops, and thus, waste away in the dry seasons. Frequently, women would be wed to family friends in order to lower living expenses. But the worst cases of child labor reveal human trafficking and sexual tourism damaging scores of African youth.

The Starling Sponsorship Program sought to remedy this financial worry by allowing an American family to pay for a student’s annual tuition of $60. This donation was to help with books, uniforms, exam fees, and anything else needed for school. Of the 16 in the program, Penda, Awa, and Adama passed the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Exam. Still, they wanted to excel. So they reached out to their former ESL teacher and Director and Founder of the program, Ashleigh DeLuca, and shared their ambitions of obtaining an American education.

DeLuca, who attended Hong Kong’s International High School, graduated with a communications degree, and then went on to explore and volunteer all over the world, understood this ambition. She had spent her entire adult life devouring different experiences, hoping to make an impact on everyone who came her way. DeLuca created a campaign for more than just raising funds. She believed in these students and their dedication, and made it a mission to share them with the world.

Adama, Penda, and Awa are driven and intelligent young adults intent on lifting their communities from poverty, choosing career paths that would boost health, employment, and economic productivity in their country.

But due to its halting poverty, The Gambia is vulnerable to many infectious diseases. The proper medical attention for such diseases is either unaffordable, or unavailable. Mortality runs at 238 for females, 287 for males, and 62 for infants per 1000 live births. Though life expectancy has risen to an average of 64 years, The Gambia is still crumbling without access to better healthcare. Inspired by the devastating loss of her schoolmate Binta, Penda is on a quest to “establish better ways of getting health services out to rural villages like my own. I want to help build more health facilities, find a way to provide more medicine and create a fleet of travelling health buses that can drive through the villages in the countryside and provide healthcare services wherever they stop.” In this, she hopes to ensure the health of children like Binta so they can grow and contribute to society in their own unique way.

Awa plans on becoming a successful businesswoman and building a massive hotel chain in The Gambia. As a young girl in a culture where gender dictated roles and responsibilities, Awa did not understand her Grandmother’s advice to marry instead. “Awa, this ambition of yours’ is only meant for men,” she said. “You don’t need such a high education as a girl. Pray, instead, that you find a husband who will own these hotels.” Although they hurt, those words did not stop her. Awa, who had seen many of her female friends drop out of school, believed women were destined for more than familial duties – that they could help change their country and deserve their place among men. Awa went on to win many awards for her hard work, and is now attending business classes at University. Proudly part of the 46 percent of literate females, compared to the 64 percent of literate males, Awa wants to create jobs for all her fellow Gambians, as well as those from other countries and cultures.

But with only 18 percent of the population having access to the internet, there is a divide between this small country and the rest of the world. Adama, a passionate computer-ist, seeks to fix this fact. His interest in technology was sparked in Grade 9, when he first laid eyes on a television screen. His goal was realized when he was shown the television show Scorpion, where the protagonist was a computer genius who constantly saved the world. Adama wishes to bring better computer literacy to The Gambia by building sophisticated computer science labs and better cellular towers. This would help expand knowledge beyond one’s village, and soothe their curiosities about the world. He also looks to supply “better computer education to the police forces, armed forces and civil service in the hope that this will eradicate at least some of the corruption in our country.”

Under former President Yahya Jammeh, an authoritarian air filled The Gambia’s lungs. For 22 years, this tyrant’s ruthless and misguided beliefs infuriated human rights groups, newspaper outlets, and the average person alike. Such political hostility pit tribe against tribe and military soldiers against citizens. By keeping information from the public, covering up the murders of innocent migrants, journalists, and activists, claiming to have a holistic cure for AIDS and infertility, and warning to behead the homosexual population, Jammeh threatened human life as a whole. After months of refusing defeat, the threat of martial intervention released The Gambia from his oppressive reign. The 45,000 who fled the chaos slowly came back to home soil.

Dunya munoy maccoro. It means “the world is about helping one another.” For Adama, Awa, and Penda, this phrase is more than just a saying. They live it everyday, deeply desiring to ensure that their community is well-cared for and their futures guaranteed. But without education, there is little to no possibility of change. That is why these students are choosing St. Thomas Aquinas College as their number one priority out of the six colleges they were accepted to! Awa, Penda, and Adama are asking for your help in their fundraising campaign so that they can return home with their newly acquired skills, and lift their families and others like them from poverty. Perhaps the old cliche of brotherhood is too idealistic, but these adults have worked amazingly hard for this opportunity and plan to exhaust every option they can. But, among so many other obstacles, opinions of religion and politics claw at the back of their minds.

“There’s a lot of anger and hatred going on all over the world, especially in our country. aiming a lot towards the Muslim community,” DeLuca reflects. “My students are all Muslim. I think [the fundraiser took] on more meaning for me as I watched the elections, because it’s my way of showing the Muslim community we [have no hatred towards them]. And I also just want for these three kids an opportunity, for every eyeball that reads this article. I know there are a million other things pulling at people’s purse strings but I need people to take a second and imagine: If your kids were in this position, if God forbid, you needed help…Five dollars, ten dollars, no one’s going to miss that money. But these kids would. It would change [their] lives.”

Times have been very chaotic for the world lately, but there is one thing that holds true in every country, island, and community: the preservation and enhancement of life is what matters the most. American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is your chance, and theirs, to make a difference.


Please visit to learn more about Penda, Awa, and Adama.

Please donate what you can to the future of this world



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