Minor emergency causes major heartache in Gambia

Published: 2 October 2003 0:00 CET

Gunnar Ström in Banjul

All the family had gone to bed that Sunday night, but Lamin Ceesay couldn’t sleep.

While rain was pouring down he thought about tomorrow, about his job as a gardener at the filling station, about his failing maize harvest and about how to provide for his family - two wives, five sons and two daughters - for another week.

Without a warning, there was a squall.

“There was a sound as from a big engine, the metal sheets of my home were blown away, broken wood fell down and the rain came into my bedroom,” he recalled.

“I took the two youngest children and ran out, then went back for the others. We stayed for a while in the compound, the storm had ceased, but we couldn’t go back. Everything was a mess. The small amount of food we had was destroyed by the rain, and I could see new cracks in the walls. The rest of the night we stayed with a neighbour. All ten of us shared a room.”

Lamin Ceesay doesn’t own the two mud houses that were destroyed, but he has been allowed to stay without paying any rent. If the owner decides to repair the houses, he will have to charge a rent that Lamin never can pay.

The squall that hit Manneh Kunda and several other villages up-country in Gambia lasted less than five minutes, according to the weather bureau. Thirty-eight millimetres of rain fell that evening. An estimated 1,600 houses were damaged or destroyed, and large quantities of rice were spoiled.

In total, some 8,000 persons were affected within a limited area in Upper River Division. Three people died and more than 100 were injured.

In a world of serious disasters, this was a “minor emergency”. The news about what happened has hardly gone outside the boundaries of this tiny country. No international organisations came. CNN was not there.

But the day after the destructive squall, Gambia Red Cross volunteers were on the spot, administering first aid, helping to remove fallen trees from roads and carrying out an assessment of the damage.

A truck with food and clothing was dispatched from the capital, Banjul. It was not much, but emergency stocks are very limited. Over a week later, this was the only assistance to have reached the affected population.

Now, more help has arrived. Based on the assessment carried out by the Gambia Red Cross volunteers, the Federation Secretariat in Geneva decided to provide at least 100 families with six weeks’ worth of food supplies.

What happened at Manneh Kunda is by no means unique. Every week, thousands of people throughout Africa – and elsewhere - are affected by what we call “minor emergencies” - flooding, fires or landslides.

For them, the local Red Cross or Red Crescent Society often represents the only aid available. But their help could go further if only National Societies were better prepared, with trained local emergency response teams and with an emergency stocks of what is most needed.

This is a top priority area for the International Federation, many of whose programmes are targeting at preparedness. For many small communities struck by “small disasters”, it is not only the fastest emergency response, it is also the cheapest. And it ensures that the initiative – and the responsibility - remains with the National Society.

Related links:

Information bulletin on Gambia squall
Responding to disasters
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