David teaching a blind student at the GOVI school in Serrekunda, The Gambia, in January 2010
David Pointon, who died in May 2019 made several overland journeys to the Gambia between 2003 and 2010 to deliver vehicles and equipment to the only school for the blind, run by the Gambia Organisation for the Visually Impaired (GOVI). He was a founder trustee of a charity with the objective of helping visually impaired children in the Gambia. His travelling companion in late 2003 was Malcolm Garner (the Gambia Deaf Children’s Support Project – GDCSP).
Scroll down for his overland journey with the Dales Team in 2006, and for tributes to him by Phil Feller of what became the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia, and by Malcolm Garner.
For that first overland journey, completed in January 2004, David decided it would be a good idea to join the Plymouth/Dakar Challenge.
He said: “I thought it was one way of getting out there with support and taking a minibus for the school. There were three rules for the Challenge: spend under £200 for your vehicles; only spend £15 fettling it; and rules are made to be broken. It is a charity run and all the vehicles are auctioned in Banjul and the money went to Gambian charities.
“As I had a purpose for the minibus I didn’t care how much I spent on the vehicle and I didn’t put it in the auction – it was going to a Gambian charity anyway.”
He knew he wanted a four-wheel drive diesel minibus and early in 2003 remembered seeing such a vehicle which had been parked at the Wensleydale Rugby Club at Leyburn for a couple of years. It was also left-hand drive as it had been bought in Germany by a British serviceman stationed there who needed a vehicle suitable for a large family.
“His daughters had grown a bit and he had bought himself a small car. When he came to the club we had a look at it and drove it around the rugby field, and we eventually arrived at what I thought was a reasonable price.”
That vehicle – a Mitsubishi minibus – quickly became known as Mitzi.
Malcolm was among the friends he contacted when looking for sponsorship for this project. “I had known Malcolm professionally for well over 20 years. We served on the same special needs advisory council. Malcolm sent me an email back saying ‘Of course I will sponsor you – wish I was coming with you.’ He was recovering from prostrate cancer at that time which had been caught and fixed. As he was convalescing I sent him an immediate reply: ‘Why don’t you?’”
Advertising material was put on Mitzi and she began her travels around England as David and Malcolm collected donations.
And then she left England for good. “She wasn’t the quickest of vehicles so driving 600 miles down Spain in one day was quite interesting but we did it,” recalled David. It was in the south of Spain that they first met up with others on the Challenge.
The journey overland in 2003 was very different to those David took part in later because the road from Noadhibou to Nouakchott in Mauritania had not been completed. Instead the route took them through desert and across a long beach.
Below: Mitzi crossing the desert – click on the picture for more photos of that overland journey.
David said:”In our group there was a 43-year-old Triumph Herald, an old Mark II Cortina, a Lada and a Triumph 2000. The Lada never got stuck in sand the whole trip but the others got stuck quite often. As we had four-wheel drive we were pulling them out all the time and the clutch wasn’t up to it. When it went we had to reline it with the Triumph 2000 clutch lining.
“The repair worked which got us out of the desert but when we got down to the Senegalese border the thrust bearing went making the clutch pedal obsolete. The clutch was still working so we could still get drive. Changing up was no problem but changing down was not possible. So we went right through Senegal and into the Gambia without a clutch.”
It cost just £100 to fix Mitzi and then she was handed over to GOVI and spent three years as the school bus. When two school buses were given to GOVI by the Dales Team of 2006 David and Malcolm repossessed Mitzi. Since then GOVI has sold the vehicles delivered in 2006 and the children are now transported to school by a bus provided by the Gambian Government’s Integrated Education Programme (IEP).
David and Malcolm spent a lot of money on Mitzi to try and get her back into good working order. When Malcolm arrived in the Gambia in 2009 the minibus wouldn’t go and he had the engine replaced, but to no avail. So it was decided it was time to part company with Mitzi.
Overland with the Dales Team in 2006
It was in April 2006 that David introduced me to the idea of helping blind children in the Gambia. By then he had visited that country several times to help at the school for the blind as well as to deliver Mitsi. By 2006 Mitsi needed replacing and David had begun to dream of taking something bigger and better. I wrote a feature for the Darlington and Stockton Times about his dream and within a few months the Dales Team had formed.
The team consisted of David, myself, Ken Nicholas, Donna Parker and Hazel Townesend from Wensleydale; Ray Wright from Arkengarthdale; Charles and Elaine Wood from nearby Richmond; and Frank Whitfield from East Cowton near Darlington. By September three of the team (David, Charles and Ray) were able to travel to Germany to buy two Mercedes minibuses – a Sprinter and an MB100 as, for the Gambia, we needed left-hand drive vehicles. David likes Mercedes anyway, and the parts and expertise for them are easily available in that part of Africa.
(Above) When 100-years-old Kathleen Davies (who now lives in Bainbridge) heard about our adventure she decided to knit teddies for the children. Here she is with Ken. By the Sprinter are, from the left, Donna, Hazel, Pip, David and Ray.
As a team we raised over £13,000 for this project which included what we put in the kitty to cover our travel expenses. We left England on November 23 and reached Banjul on December 11 after a fascinating journey which had taken us through Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal. In Morocco all of us especially enjoyed our short visit to Marrakech and the drive through the Atlas Mountains.
(Above) One of Ken’s great photographs from the journey – this was taken on the drive through the Atlas Mountains. Later he took the sun roof out of Rosie the MB100 so that he could photograph our descent to the desert. The ability to get out through that hole in the roof proved very useful on the ferry across the River Gambia as there was so little space between vehicles that we couldn’t open the doors. That hole also provided Donna and myself and great vantage point (below)
The most memorable moment for all of us was arriving at the school and receiving such a warm, wonderful welcome from the staff and students. We not only delivered the new school buses but also equipment like computers, a printer and a computer driven embosser. David made sure that these were soon “up and running”.
On a visit to the Gambia in 2008 Ken Nicholas helped Lamin Saidy maintain and paint the playground equipment (below).
The playground was constructed under the supervision of FGVI’s representative in the Gambia, Lamin Saidy, who had designed it. Over the years he did a lot to maintain the playground and the buildings.
For David’s overland journey to the Gambia in 2010 with a team from Wensleydale Rotary Club click here.
Malcolm Garner and the impact of that first overland journey to The Gambia:
I feel as though a part of my own history has died with him, as David and I go back a long way professionally, and then I shared with him one of the greatest adventures of my life – the drive to Gambia in December 2003 to deliver the Mitsubishi minibus to the School for the Blind in Serrekunda.
In our working careers, David was the representative for teachers of the blind and partially sighted when I was for teachers of the dear on an organisation called the Special Educational Needs National Advisory Council (SENNAC) which was actually far less important than its name suggests! Nonetheless we did some good work and organised a few national conferences which were interesting and sometimes influential.
It was through that contact that David got in touch in 2003 to ask if I (and others) would sponsor his journey to deliver the minibus to Gambia. I was impressed that he had set this up and wrote and said I would, and that I wished I was going too, to which he replied – “Well why don’t you. I need a co-driver.” Hence my involvement.
The journey was absolutely fascinating and exciting, including a complete failure of the clutch in the middle of our crossing of the Sahara Desert! The repair of that in the desert was an epic achievement and we made it to Gambia intact and were able to hand the minibus to the school as planned. The project and journey was all David’s idea and initiative and, to his great credit, he made the journey [several more times] with other vehicles to donate to work in Gambia. I know he is remembered in Gambia with enormous affection and gratitude and they too will be very sad to hear of his passing.
Above: David (left) and Malcolm with Mitsi on arrival in Banjul, The Gambia, in January 2003
This experience had a life changing impact for me as I was later to return to Gambia on a regular basis to try and develop health and education services for deaf children and adults, something which continues to this day. This has been a rewarding and fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) experience and I have David to thank for leading me in this direction.
David has left a very significant legacy of change for good among many pupils disadvantaged by limited or no sight, both in the UK and also in Africa, and also among professionals such as myself who have benefitted from his energy, initiative and enthusiasm. As such I will never forget David and will always be grateful for the opportunities and encouragement he has given me over the years.
Phillip Feller, Chairman of the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in The Gambia:
Thirty years ago David answered my appeal for assistance for the blind and visually impaired children of The Gambia. At that time David was head of what was then the Sensory Support Service of the Norfolk County Education Department.
Joining me in The Gambia David soon assessed the needs of the blind and visually impaired children there. His list was frighteningly long.
To mention a few: proper training for the few teachers who were working with the children; computers with special programmes to assist training; Braille machines and paper; tape recorders; and even a purpose-built school. At that time the few pupils attending a dedicated facility were housed in an annex to a mainstream school in Banjul.
David – with great enthusiasm – set to work with myself and my wife, Joan, to start meeting those needs. A charity was registered first as the Friends of GOVI (The Gambian Organisation for the Visually Impaired) and later as the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia. Funds were successfully raised for building a special school for the children at Serrekunda.
A highlight for David was the purchase of a minibus in 2003 and, together with Malcolm Garner, drove to The Gambia with urgently needed equipment. Subsequently he organised and led several other overland deliveries including that with the Dales Team in late 2006 and with members of the Wensleydale Rotary Club in 2010. The minibuses were then used by the school.
After several years of meetings with the Minister of Education we succeeded in obtaining an agreement that student teachers, as part of their training, would spend time with disabled pupils at St John’s School for the Deaf and at the GOVI School for the Visually Impaired (both at Serrekunda).
David worked closely with the Education Department and with the Integrated Education Programme headed by Nancy Mendy and her deputy Sarjo Bajinka.
Having just returned from The Gambia ( in 2019) I was unable to inform David that there were now over 300 visually impaired children receiving education and of Nancy Mendy’s latest initiative to recruit more teachers. This is a legacy that David could be proud of.
All I can say is: Thank you David for all your help and support over the years and for realising my dream of a future of hope for the blind and visually impaired children of The Gambia.
(First posted on the website of the charity of which David was a founder member and a former trustee.)