BANJUL, Gambia, July 25, 2020/ — Seven months after a fatal shipwreck off Mauritania claimed the lives of at least 62 Gambians, survivors and their families continue their fight to recover, now against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After the shipwreck, we returned home with a lot of stress. Our families were key in making sure that we move on, but the pandemic suddenly means no handshaking, no public gatherings,” said Abdoulie Bah. “I started a barber shop and always had friends and customers to keep me company.”
One other way survivors like Bah can put distance between themselves and that earlier tragedy: coming together to support The Gambia’s COVID-19 response efforts. Starting by manufacturing soap.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), in partnership with health authorities and community leaders, this week (21-25 July) kicked off a soapmaking project involving 20 survivors of the shipwreck joined by 20 community members.
The participants are residents of Barra, Essau and Medina Serigne Mass in The Gambia’s North Bank Region, where 85 per cent of those who survived the December tragedy originated, as well as those who were intercepted on a second boat a few days later.
With the support of the UN Peacebuilding Fund, community members are being trained by the country’s Department of Community Development on soap production. They are also promoting the activity as an added skillset and livelihood opportunity to meet the growing demand for hygiene products.
By the week’s end, participants hope to produce over 3,000 bars of soap, which will be distributed by health authorities in communities along the Gambian-Senegalese border with limited access to hygiene products.
With survivors and their families working together, the initiative also aimed at promoting community-based mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) among survivors. A series of activities – including group discussions, psycho-drama reenactments – were integrated throughout the soapmaking initiative, emphasizing the importance of peer support and social networks.
“Since schools are closed and business is not as usual, this gives us a change of atmosphere to engage in something meaningful. The whole process involves teamwork, which builds trust among participants from different communities,” said Bah. “Some of us may go even further with the soapmaking during this pandemic.”
Trained “MHPSS Ambassadors” also oriented families and community members on ways to attend to psychosocial needs.
“COVID-19 has put a stop to so many activities, so this initiative will serve as an alternative source of income. Integrating psychosocial support is also crucial – to encourage community members to help each other during this period,” remarked Babou Loum, a member of Barra’s Village Development Committee.
“This initiative has highlighted the resilience of communities amidst the pandemic,” explained Dr. Simeonette De Asis, IOM’s Migration Health Officer in the Gambia. “As we continue to mobilize returnees’ skills to produce various hygiene products and protective equipment, this was also a great tool for shipwreck survivors to recover from a tragedy and build a strong sense of community by meaningfully contributing to COVID-19 response efforts.”
This initiative forms part of Strengthening the Sustainable and Holistic Reintegration of Returnees, a project funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund and implemented by IOM in collaboration with the International Trade Centre, the UN Population Fund and the World Health Organization.