A new BBC ALBA documentary Feachdan Ionatain / Jonathan’s Army is a moving film that portrays the very real trials and rewards of outreach work in the third world, where workers must somehow prevail in the face of daily frustration and discouragement.
Ten years ago Jonathan Maciver from Stornoway visited the small, predominantly Muslim, African country of Gambia with his brother Scott and some friends. So moved were they by the obvious spiritual and material needs of the people there that they felt compelled to try and help on a long-term basis.
Unusually, they decided that the most efficient way to help the people was to set up their own charity, and so The Gambia Partnership was born.
Without staff at home and with only a handful of contacts in Africa, they set about developing working relationships, supporting Christian education and also fostering the kinds of micro business that can transform lives in impoverished West Africa.
Over the decade since the contacts book has grown and a structure has gradually emerged that has allowed the work to flourish - predominantly by financially assisting children through an education in the small network of independent Christian schools that exists in the country. But the Partnership supports children according to their needs and irrespective of their religion – the poorest always come first.
The work has prospered greatly, transforming many lives along the way. As the work has grown though, so have their ambitions, and three years ago they began to look for the right location in which to build a brand new school. Providence eventually lead them to the idyllic rural village of Kabakel which has a population of around 700, and having established a strong rapport with the village rulers, they’ve since been overcoming the the hurdles that must be cleared before such a build can even begin.
Now though, they are ready to begin, and Feachdan Ionatain / Jonathan’s Army follows Jonathan as he takes a group of volunteers over to Gambia to try and get the school built in Kabakel.
One such volunteer is Roseann Macleod from Lewis who went out to Gambia with Jonathan in November 2014 for a week. Roseann used to work with Jonathan who initially approached her back in 2013 looking for any contacts for a possible container to be taken over to Gambia to form part of the school.
Roseann said: “It is a real honour to be part of Jonathan’s project and I was so inspired by the many friendly people I met out there. One boy in particular, whom I took under my wing when out there and named Murdo (aged five and who features in the film), was not wearing a school uniform, did not speak at all and was not integrating with anyone.
"It transpired that he was disowned by his mother and therefore nobody was paying to send him to school, which is the equivalent of 20p a day. Now Murdo is with a new family and attending the local school in a nearby village and thriving.
“The story of Murdo is just one example of the many needy children in Gambia. I am also keen to help the women out there and I am looking forward to heading back out this November for two weeks. One of my objectives is to help set up social enterprises for women including a tie-dying business, where they have the capabilities of doing so they just need some guidance on various aspects including fabric choice and methods for selling goods to the tourist trade.”
The film takes a look at what sustains them in the face of such frustration, what they really hope to achieve and why on earth do they do it all.
Feachdan Ionatain has been produced for BBC ALBA by Corran Media and is being transmitted on Thursday (October 1) at 9pm.