VSO Project at the National Archives of The Gambia

By: Richard Temple, Senate House Library, University of London

By 2000, I had been working as an archivist for nearly a decade, beginning at Nuffield College, Oxford and then, after that, at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. In September of that year, I headed for The Gambia in West Africa to begin a VSO project at the National Records Service (NRS) in Banjul.

Warwick had generously given me leave of absence, without which I doubt I would have had the courage to leave for The Gambia.

My brief was twofold: To set up an appraisal system for the large backlog of Cabinet cabinet-level records, and also to write a guide to the National Archives of The Gambia.

In so doing, I was building on work by colleagues at the NRS and also the International Records Management Trust (IRMT). The IRMT had already been working for several years in The Gambia helping the NRS set up a records management system for central government. Andrew Griffin of the IRMT not only encouraged me to take on the project but, along with Anne Thurston, the director of the IRMT, was a constant support throughout.

I had been warned by VSO officials that my placement might be a challenging one. But within minutes of my arrival at the Quadrangle, the administrative centre of government in The Gambia, I knew things would work out. My Gambian colleagues, whom I met that day, were a delight to work with. The Cabinet files were in good order and in excellent condition, a testament to the NRS and also to the IRMT’s involvement in record-keeping there. So off we went.

The next eighteen months were immensely rewarding and enjoyable.

There were challenges: A rat scuttled over my foot as I was shown into the office for the first time, and there were differences in approach to the working day.

It was usually so hot – there was no air conditioning for most of my stay – that I used to repair to the reading room, where it was cooler. There I could work on the Guide in the afternoon without collapsing from heatstroke. At one point, VSO rang the office to tell me to stay put as there were rumours of coup. Fortunately these were unfounded and I didn’t need to miss the bush taxi home.

We were lucky not to have the problems with termites and other environmental problems that bedevil archives elsewhere in Africa.

One of the keys to contentment was reciprocal respect. I had much to learn from my Gambian colleagues and they, I hope, learned something from me. By the time I left, in March 2002, we had drawn up appraisal criteria for all the ministries and appraised hundreds of files. The Guide was two thirds completed.

My successor, Gemma Bentley, had a happy, productive time at the NRS too. Elizabeth Bahoum, my colleague in 2000-2002, now runs the NRS using the expertise she gained training in archives management in Ghana.

The archival heritage of African countries is as precious and as unique as it is anywhere else. I would urge any archives colleagues who have the chance to work there to seize the opportunity.

Many thanks to Stephen Rice for permission to use his photograph of the Government Quadrangle in Banjul, The Gambia as the featured image of this article.