By Miko Alazas, Communications Officer at IOM The Gambia
Seven months after a fatal shipwreck off the coast of Mauritania which claimed the lives of at least 62 Gambians, survivors and their families continue their fight to recover against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After the shipwreck, we returned home with a lot of stress. Our families were involved 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,” Bah said.
One other way survivors like Bah put distance between themselves and that earlier tragedy is by coming together to support the Gambia’s COVID-19 response efforts through soap manufacturing.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), in partnership with health authorities and community leaders, kicked off a soap making project in July, by 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 Peace building 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 skill 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 Gambia-Senegalese border, with limited access to hygiene products.
With survivors and their families working together, the initiative also aims to promote community-based mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) among survivors.
A series of activities including group discussions and psycho-drama reenactments were integrated throughout the soap making 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,” Bah said; that some of them may go even further with the soap making activity during the pandemic.
Trained MHPSS Ambassadors also oriented their 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 (VDC).
“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,” Dr. Simeonette De Asis said. De Asis said this initiative forms part of strengthening the sustainable and holistic reintegration of returnees, a project funded by the UN Peace Building Bund and implemented by IOM in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (itc), the UN Population Fund and the World Health Organization (WHO).