Since 1984 we have been sending three to five "skill-less" gap-year volunteers to teach for a whole academic year in the middle school in our link community of Gunjur in The Gambia. They live with Muslim African families in a community with no electricity, no access to clean water, no public sanitation system. They learn Mandinka, the local language, learn to eat with their right hands and mark written work by candlelight.
I would make two points. First, they are welcomed by the Gambian Ministry of Education, which recognises that they have a real contribution to make and are not displacing Gambian teachers. Many of them discover skills they did not know they possessed. The headmaster assures us that in the national league tables of examinations Gunjur school has improved as a result of the contribution these young people make.
Second, the experience changes their lives. Of the 56 volunteers who have taken advantage of this scheme, eight are back in Africa, having graduated and developed their skills, working for voluntary organisations. For example one woman has been working for three years in the slums of Cape Town helping marginalised HIV-positive women to develop income-generating projects. Many others are in the "caring professions" in this country.
It would be a tragedy if these young people felt they were not able to take a gap year - a tragedy for them, a tragedy for the community of Gunjur and a tragedy for this country, which desperately needs young people who have a global view of the world and are committed to serve those who are less fortunate than themselves.
Dr NICK MAURICE
The Marlborough Brandt Group