Gambia Gambit

Gambian students in the Bachelor of Community Building and Design program engage in a design-build studio. The program is taught in part by Dalhousie faculty and graduates.
Gambian students in the Bachelor of Community Building and Design program engage in a design-build studio. The program is taught in part by Dalhousie faculty and graduates.

Text Grant Wanzel

Many Canadian architecture schools offer students the opportunity to study overseas—but Dalhousie University is unique in having helped establish an overseas program in West Africa, for West Africans. Inaugurated in 2007, the three-year Bachelor of Community Building and Design (BCBD) is offered jointly by the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI) and the University of The Gambia. The program was founded through a multi-year grant from the Canadian government and in-kind contributions from Dalhousie faculty and the GTTI.

The BCBD is not just any architecture school: it’s a school of urgent necessity. Here, design challenges don’t have to be invented. The Gambia serves as the subject of research and the site of action. At just twice the size of Prince Edward Island, the nation is Africa’s smallest independent state and one of its poorest and most densely populated countries. The Gambia River splits the country from end to end, structures daily life, and is a major life source. However, the river—along with rice fields, swamps and coastal areas—is also a major vector for insect-borne diseases such as malaria. The Atlantic is another immediate threat, as 78% of The Gambia is less than 20 metres above sea level. A one-metre rise will impact the majority of The Gambia’s mangrove forest, a third of its swampy areas, a fifth of its rice fields, and eliminate most coastal communities including the capital, Banjul. The Gambia also suffers from encroaching desertification and deforestation, the latter at a rate of 6% per year.

Within this challenging context, graduates are expected to be imaginative and resourceful bearers of practical, sustainable and culturally appropriate knowledge and skills. Those values are reflected in the BCBD itself: a co-op program, its building a repurposed vocational school, its “virtual library” composed of loan agreements with friendly institutions. Inspired by the design-build studios at Dalhousie, three-quarters of the curriculum is delivered through hands-on studios, workshops and on-site investigations throughout the Greater Banjul Area.

The program’s core faculty—Director Bertha Johnson along with colleagues Rohey Jobe and Isidore Jatta—were recruited in The Gambia and completed their qualifications at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning. Before leaving Nova Scotia, all three worked with Dalhousie professors to design the BCBD program. They spent the next year in The Gambia recruiting students, renovating an existing building, and preparing courses. The program graduated its first class in 2010, and has since seen four more classes and a total of 75 graduates.

A few of the program’s participants enter straight from secondary school, but most are mature students on scholarship from a diversity of employers including local governments, federal ministries, and the private sector. This fits with the objective of the program: to build capacity for the planning, design and construction sectors across the Gambian economy, so that the country improves in its efforts to build environmentally sustainable, healthy and culturally responsible communities and buildings.

Dalhousie continues an active involvement with the BCBD. Dean Christine Macy serves as an external examiner to the program, and visits each year to review student work and strategize with the Director and her staff. Recently, Canada’s International Youth Intern Program enabled nine graduates to spend five-month-long teaching and research stints with the BCBD. The BCBD’s successful establishment and its significant impact testify to the commitment of its faculty and the ambition of its students. Dalhousie is privileged to have helped found the program, and to play an ongoing role as witness to its remarkable development.

Grant Wanzel, MRAIC, is a Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning.