MASON COUNTY — Emily Thompson has strayed far from her Point Pleasant roots in the name of education.
Growing up in Mason County, Thompson graduated from Point Pleasant High School. Now in graduate school in Paris studying international public management, with an emphasis on African studies and human rights, Thompson has spent several months in the western African country of Gambia.
“I lived in the capital city of Banjul,” Thompson said. “I worked with women’s rights activists. They were very passionate and inspiring people.”
During her time in graduate school Thompson became involved, through an internship, with the human rights organization GAMCOTRAP, which stands for Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices. One of GAMCOTRAP’s aims is the prevention of female genital mutilation, otherwise known as FGM or female circumcision. FGM is a very common practice in Gambia.
“Gambia is one of seven African countries that haven’t banned the practice; in fact, it has a very high rate of around 76 percent. This rate is falling, but too slowly,” Thompson said, adding that lack of education is a major contributing factor of FGM’s continuing practice.
“There are a lot of misconceptions with FGM,” she said. “People believe it’s required according to Islam, but it isn’t.”
This is tied to another overriding issue in the country — education and literacy.
Lack of proper education for all has been a driving force behind Thompson’s own work so far in Gambia. Her major project has been in a Gambian village called Jarrol. This past fall Thompson helped set up the Jarrol Project, whose aim is to encourage children to finish high school, and help them to find the funds to do so.
Education isn’t free in Gambia, Thompson explained.
“Uniforms, books, tuition,” Thompson said, “All of it has to be bought. And although it’s nothing for us, it’s everything for them.”
A year’s worth of primary education for one student costs the equivalent of $20.
“We spend that much just going out to dinner,” Thompson said, adding that for a junior school student the cost is around $40, and for a high school student it’s closer to $120.
The upshot is that many children leave school before finishing.
“A lot of the kids do work to try to pay for their education,” she said. “They might sell fruit at stands or work other jobs, sometimes all night. Education is considered to be very important.”
Thompson talked about one mother in Jarrol, who was part of a polygamous marriage and lost both her husband and her co-wife, which left her with all the children of the two marriages.
“She’s a rice farmer, and needed some of the kids to help her on the rice farm. It’s one of the realities of life.”
The children had to leave school, which was too expensive, and work on the farm so that the family could eat, Thompson said. It’s realities such as these, and practicalities such as having to walk miles to school in improper footwear, that interfere with children’s abilities to complete an education.
Thompson is currently back in Mason County on break, and returns to Paris soon to complete her master’s, after which she wants to return to Gambia.
It has been a rewarding social and cultural experience for Thompson.
“The people are so welcoming, and I have tried to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible,” Thompson said.
“I plan to go back after grad school and work full time for at least a couple of years.”
For more information on the Jarrol Project, including information on how to contribute, visit the web site at www.jarrolproject.com.