News assistant editor Pete Wallace reports on events from Project Gambia 2016

A LITTLE over 12 months ago I was sitting in the final parents’ briefing at Ridgewood High School ahead of my daughter’s trip with Project Gambia 2015 to West Africa and heard for the very first time of the plight of the drought-stricken 4,500 villagers of Sintet, who were forced to spend six months of the year with no water during the merciless dry season, when their crude, hand-drawn wells grew barren and crops were left to wither and die – and of the terrible story of eight-year-old Mustapha Tamba, who fell to an horrific death while desperately trying to draw water from a parched village well.

I’d almost missed the meeting altogether after getting back from work late and only just making it out of the house in time to attend. Had I not scraped it there by the skin of my teeth, our Well Of Life appeal would never have happened. As it was, I got back home with my head spinning at the cruel, unnecessary injustice of such a tragic event and a determination to somehow do something to help prevent the likes of it ever happening there again.

It turned out to be one of the most important last-minute dashes of my life – a day later I was sat in assistant headteacher Bev Hodt’s office discussing the implications, financial and practical, of making their aim of providing a solar-powered water pump and farmland irrigation system for the village a reality.

The response we received from our readers was truly mind-boggling. Four short months later we’d smashed our £10,000 appeal target, work had begun drilling the borehole for the well and the seeds of naming the completed system in little Mustapha’s memory were sown.

We ran a competition among borough primary schools for pupils to design a plaque bearing the name Mustapha’s Well Of Life, were swamped with entries and the winning design was made and ready to take its rightful place some 5,000 miles away in a remote corner of a far-distant continent.

A year on from that first meeting and I found myself sat on the trucks with Project Gambia 2016, ready to embark on the bone-crunching, three-hour drive inland to Sintet to see the newly completed system in action. What none of us were prepared for was the day of such overwhelming emotion which lay ahead of us.

The welcome we received upon finally pulling into the village had to be seen to be believed; children mobbed us, women danced, sang, banged drums and blew ear-piercing shrieks on whistles, creating an absolute cacophony as, slowly, we made the short journey to the village’s farm on foot.

Amongst the pandemonium which followed, speeches were made, endless hands were grabbed and shaken and a village elder, bristling with pride, took us to one of the six stand-alone water taps which are now dotted around the 400 square metre farmland and turned it on. Fresh water, a day-to-day unappreciated commodity to us, but a priceless, lifesaving miracle they had never before witnessed, poured forth. Tears, on both sides, were choked back. Just.

As the chaos slowly began to subside and the crowds escorted Project Gambia volunteers back into the village for another round of dancing and singing, to the continuing heartbeat of African drums and those ear-splitting whistles, a scant handful of us who had spent the last 12 months working, planning and waking in the middle of the night with new ideas for fundraising hung back for one of the elders to bring Mustapha’s recently-widowed mother, Awa Badjie, to see the plaque which had been mounted in memory of her child, lost in such tragic, brutal circumstances for the sake of the want of such a basic requirement as a pail of water. She traced the words on the sign in the air with her finger as she softly spoke them aloud - "Mustapha's Well Of Life - Never Forgotten", her gaze lingering as she fought to hold back her tears with all the grace and dignity the harsh, cruel life she has lived has taught her.

Later, Awa and her family were given a 50kg sack of rice on behalf of Project Gambia and a sackful of now happily redundant Well Of Life appeal T-shirts, which had been used for fundraising events.

“Are you OK Awa?” I asked her as she stood, a little away from the still-celebrating crowds, overwhelmed by the generosity and love which a town thousands of miles away had shown for her son they had never known.

She took my hand in hers, blinked away another tear and replied in her broken English: “Yes. Today I am happy.”

This time, for both of us, the tears came.