I arrived at the Banjul airport on Monday, April 3rd, 2017. I was met by Fatou Y and Isatou, who I have come to think of as my leaders. Julia Rome was also there to greet me. I met Grandma Cindy, Julia’s cousin, who was leaving on the same plane I arrived on. I have known Julia Rome (also serving at Starfish) for 26 years. She and her husband, David, were my inspiration to come to Starfish. I met several mentors that evening, including Rene Moses, Jamil, Awa, and Fatou Ndure.

I also met many of the Starfish girls. They are all calling me by my new name, Grandma Suzy.On first impression, I am very pleased that the girls are so open, loving and friendly to me. They seem to know the adults who come here are safe and supportive and only want the best for them. The next day, I was honored with a welcoming ceremony were I heard for the first time the Starfish Pledge recited and the Starfish Anthem, sung. Such beautiful and inspiring words. One of the senior girls recited a favorite poem of mine, Our Deepest Fear. It brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Among my first assignments was assisting Awa (a Starfish mentor) in teaching the younger children who come four times a week. On the first day, I helped two young girls with two digit subtraction and simple long division. At 5 pm, three days a week, I have a group of 8 girls with whom I have been asked to form a Peer Counseling group.

The first week, we talked about vocabulary words and concepts such as peer, counselor, and qualities needed for a good peer counselor. I have become aware that a relationship in which a Starfish girl serves her peer as an informal counselor has the potential to strengthen both students. The Starfish girl who seeks counselling feels listened to and supported. She comes to realize that her problem is not unique and that together she and the peer counselor can talk things out and hopefully arrive at a solution. For the Starfish girl serving as the peer counselor, this interchange helps her develop compassion tempered with objectivity, patience, and the importance of confidentiality.

Above all else, I want the girls to understand that none of us solves anyone else’s problem, only guides, supports and encourages. It is also essential that the peer counselors understand that some problems require adult intervention. My vision for the program is to provide students practice in recognizing a girl who may be in distress and to allow the peer counselor the opportunity to practice the Starfish qualities of nobility, independence, courtesy, knowledge and service as they relate to helping their peers. I have been pleased that the girls in the class seem to be warming to the idea that by increasing their own knowledge on a perhaps unfamiliar topic, they can become stronger themselves and at the same time assist their peers in becoming stronger and more independent. I feel hopeful about the prospect of the peer counseling program continuing after I have returned home. .

On Thursday, May took me to the Craft Market where I scoped out gifts to purchase when I come back later in my trip. I took photos of jewelry, fabric bags, carved bowls, and serving dishes. I also asked to go across the road to look at the livestock market. I have never seen so many animals in one place other than the state fair in Kentucky where I live. Many of the animals are similar to those I see at home, such as the goats and donkeys. However, the cattle, which here resemble the Brahmin cattle of India, are markedly different in appearance from our short, wide-set beef cattle or the tall, rangy dairy cattle seen in the U.S. The sheep near my home are very woolly with docked tails, whereas many of the sheep I’ve seen here have coarse flat hair and long tails.

Saturday- the 8th of April- was such a full day. In the morning, Isatou took me to Banjul to buy fabric for a dress to wear to my naming ceremony. We found two fabrics I loved. One was purple with designs of sea creatures printed on it and the other fabric was a rich brown with a gold paisley print. That one is for a second dress. Later that afternoon, there was a Gender Workshop with all Starfish students, staff and invited guests. There were presentations and group discussions which centered on how best to contribute to a new Gambia, one favorable to all its citizens, male and female. I was struck by the idea that developing gender equity can actually begin at a very young age in students’ homes by teaching boys to take care of their own clothes, and to do other jobs that previously have mostly fallen to girls.

The final day of my first week was also very enjoyable. Fatou Y, Aunty Shelley (another Starfish volunteer) and myself spent the afternoon at Laybato beach. We had lunch on the patio overlooking the ocean. After that, we read and relaxed. I waded in the surf and looked for shells. Finally, the three of us went for a long walk up the beach. We had a good dinner at a new Lamin restaurant before calling it a night. There are so many more first impressions I would like to write about, but for the time being the others will remain written in my personal journal for another time.