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Friday, 6 September 2013
Plymouth-born teacher Debbie Williams has given up her comfortable lifestyle to live in an African mud hut with no water, electricity or sanitation.
Debbie was born at her family home in North Hill and taught modern languages at schools in and around the city, becoming Head of Languages at Notre Dame.
For six years, she also owned a dress-hire business called One Night Stand.
Debbie said: “I had a good lifestyle: a house, a car, travel, money to spend on hairdos, pedicures, shoes, handbags and eating out six nights a week.
“But I was not able to have children, and had a dream of being surrounded by children and having a massive family.”
The trip that changed her life came in 2005 when she helped lead a trip to The Gambia with 16 Plymouth College students.
She was struck by the friendliness of the people and the poverty in which they lived: no modern facilities, insect bites and malaria, a lack of variety of food. She saw women carrying heavy pots of water on their head, and setting off for a day’s toil in the rice-fields with a baby strapped to their back.
But most of all, she realised how the people were held back by illiteracy and lack of education, and resolved to do what she could to help.
On the same trip to Kerewan Samba Sira, she met a builder called Modou Fatty, who was also involved in local projects; they fell in love and were married two years ago.
She was welcomed into his family, despite the fact they are Moslems and she is a practising Christian, and now she is a vital part of the big extended family she has always longed for.
Debbie said: “I am trying to improve literacy and numeracy in the village, which is still living in the 17th century.
“I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but through education they can have the freedom to make choices and hope for the future.”
Debbie is trying to help in practical ways by building a classroom, a nursery and a library in two villages.
She is also providing sewing machines so women can start businesses, donating gardening equipment such as a tiller and a chainsaw and encouraging local people to set up small gardens where they can grow and sell banana plants.
In the coastal village of Mediana, 250km away, she has built a round hut for accommodation and a school costing £2,500.
She hopes it will become a base where students can come during their gap year to share their knowledge and skills with local people.
Meanwhile, in her home village of Kerewan Samba Sira, she is enjoying becoming a valued and respected member of the community.
Debbie said: “We in the educated West don’t realise how much we know, and people ask me for everything from medical advice to checking their homework.
“There are very few books here and little to read.”
Debbie’s husband speaks fluent English and three local languages, two of which she is learning – and though life is hard, there are compensations.
The lights fail when frequent petrol shortages mean the generator cannot run – but there is no rent to pay, no utility bills, no work treadmill and no stress.