It was the holiday of a lifetime when Marsha Jones made her first visit to Africa 20 years ago - and it turned out to be a life-changing trip. Marsha, landlady of the Old Ship Inn in Brighouse, fell in love with the Gambia and has been going back at least once a year ever since.
But she is no ordinary holiday maker. Not for Marsha the luxury resorts, swimming pools and manicured lawns of the Gambia coast. She believes in travelling away from the tourist hot-spots to find out about the ordinary lives of Gambian people.
“It’s a magical place and the people are wonderful - happy, friendly and content with so little.
“They are very family-orientated and community spirited ,” said Marsha.
“I have noticed a big difference in the 20 years that I have been going there. Living conditions for ordinary Gambian people are improving and roads and medical facilities are better. Most people are well-fed but the main health problem for children is malaria.”
Since she started making regular visits to the country, Marsha has been a big supporter of education projects, has been involved in building a nursery school and regularly takes books, writing materials and educational equipment crammed into her holiday luggage.
“Most families want their children to get a good education and attend school but it is beyond the reach of many. It costs £25 a year to send a child to school in the Gambia - which is nothing to us but is a lot of money to them.”
Marsha is delighted that she will now be working with the Big Smile Project Gambia which supports education, health and food projects and collects clothes, books, sports and IT equipment to send out to the Gambia.
She has put up a display of photographs in the pub and plans to start collecting items to take out to the Gambia.
“The customers have been very supportive so far and interested in what I’ve been doing. There is so much to do out there and all donations will help.
“For me helping out with projects in the Gambia is a long-term commitment. I have made a lot of friends out there and I get a fantastic welcome every time I go.”
A keen Norwich City supporter, Marsha has been at the Old Ship since last autumn and loves life in the Brighouse town centre pub.
“We get Leeds United and Huddersfield Town fans coming in to the pub and I just love all the football banter. They know I’m mad about Norwich City so there’s usually plenty of joking!”
Marsha, aged 38, is also a self-taught magician, specialising in close-up card and coin magic. She performs professionally at corporate and business events as Marsha Jones Magic.
“I mingle with the guests and surpise them by performing a few tricks in front of them. They’re usually caught out because they expect a magician to be a man! I also do a few tricks for the customers from time to time and they love it.”
The last time Marsha was in the Gambia she had more than 200 beaded braids put in her hair - a painful process which took more than eight hours - and she is planning to raise money by having them cut off in the pub in the near future.
“I think about the Gambia all the time. It has a special place in my heart and I’m really pleased that I’m going to be working with the Big Smile Project to improve people’s lives.
“You only have to go about 10 or 15 miles away from the tourist resorts to see how people live. The government there likes the tourists to see a sanitised version but that has never interested me.”