Byrd Elementary School teachers recently were asked to remain after school for a workshop.
That turned to be a friendly trick by principal Russell Gunter and first-grade teacher Jodia Lintner.
To the faculty members’ surprise and delight, when Lintner adjusted a screen, their former colleague Sarah Andrea was speaking to them via the Internet through Skype.
For the past five months, Andrea has lived in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer and will remain there well into 2014.
The Byrd teachers cheered and waved a lot, grateful for the chance to see their friend.
“We’re very close,” Lintner said, “not only teaching together, but at church. Sarah has an adventurous spirit and a missionary’s heart. It was surprising not to have her in our life every day, but I’m grateful to be able to communicate with her through Skype.”
Andrea’s assignment is to train teachers. During the last week of January, she and another volunteer directed a literacy workshop for practicing teachers at The Gambia College.
She wrote in a letter to many friends that she and another volunteer, Jo-Jo, concentrated on read-alouds to help the teachers become more prepared for teaching content and implementing literacy in math, science and social studies.
The daughter of the Rev. Fred Andrea and former Aiken County Solicitor Barbara Morgan, Sarah taught at Byrd Elementary School for several years after college. Then she embarked on this life-changing mission that resulted in moving to the West African country for 27 months.
Why did she do it?
In her first letter to friends and family months ago, Andrea described her fulfilling life in Aiken, but said she felt the need to make a change.
“I knew I still enjoyed the teaching profession, but wanted to branch out in a big way,” she said in her letter.
After some research, Andrea decided that the Peace Corps was the best choice. There would be other volunteers and staffers who could help her get through the transition process. During her training, Andrea worked on learning Pulaar, the most prevalent language in The Gambia.
Her monthly updates since her arrival are filled with information and moving stories in detail that one might expect from a dedicated teacher. She lives in the village of Koba Kundo, which has no electricity or running water. The residents rely on a communal tap, and Andrea has learned to carry water on her head.
She had fully expected peace and quiet at night, but was stunned to discover how loud the village is.
“Animals roam everywhere,” Andrea wrote. “Chickens, donkeys, goats, cats and dogs are everywhere! Roosters start cockadoodling about 4 a.m. and never stop during the day. Donkeys bray all the time, and goals run around chasing other animals ... Kids roam around, just like the animals. Wherever we go, kids swarm around us.”
Andrea was charmed by a naming ceremony in the village, which usually is held seven days after a baby’s birth. This time, the volunteers were given their own ceremony. Her host sister, Maimuna, asked Andrea to wear her own wedding outfit – which Andrea describes as a Disney-like bubble gum pink top, with the skirt embellished with flowers, sequins and more.
Her Gambian name is Sira Bah, named after her host mother. All the children call out “Sira” when she walks out her door.
Gambia has made some strides to move toward modernization. Still, those in the rural areas like Koba Kundu have limitations they’re trying to overcome. Early on, Andrea was dismayed by the seeming indifference of many of the teachers she is working with.
Yet she is so often enlightened by those around her. Andrea soon discovered how much Gambians try to help those who are less fortunate. An older man sleeps next to a tree in the village compound. Her host sisters call him crazy, but the family continues to feed him and invites him to stay.
“My family also feeds a younger boy, Saibo, who is mentally handicapped,” Andrea wrote. “This is common for Gambia families, to take care of people in the community.”
Soon after her arrival in Koba Kundo, she decided to take a run, one of her favorite activities and had missed it. The men in the village often run as well, but it’s rare to see the women exercising. Andrea quickly learned that it’s totally inappropriate for women to show their knees in public.
But the heat was draining her, and she emerged outside one day with black Nike shorts about three inches above her knees. The reactions ranged from laughter, stares and shouts. Andrea won out to keep wearing her shorts.
“At this point,” Andrea wrote in October, “I can only make it about 30 minutes, but I’m happy with that. :) Be proud, Ginny Busbee.”
And no doubt Busbee was. She’s a veteran Byrd teacher, and Andrea is special to her.
“She’s a great person and a big inspiration as a teacher,” Busbee said following the Skype visit. “Sarah is one of my running buddies, and we would meet after school sometimes. I miss her a lot.”