Hawick man Billy McWatters made a remarkable connection on his holiday to The Gambia last April, writes Christopher Wilson.
Taking the advice of a friend who had previously visited the West African country, Billy sought out the guidance of the locals rather than go on one of the hotel- operated tours. Upon mentioning his plan to young Gambian soldier Francis Jatta, Billy was delighted to find out that the soldier was about to be given several days leave and would happily act as his guide.
Billy told TheSouthern: “This unusual method of touring the area certainly paid off as I was able to see far more of the country than a normal tourist would otherwise have seen.”
Part of the trip included a visit to Francis’s home village of Marakissa, a place where candles are used at night to make up for the lack of electricity. It was in this remote and unconnected location that Billy discovered a link to the famous Scottish and Selkirk explorer Mungo Park – an obelisk commemorating him on the River Gambia.
During his trip with the young Gambian soldier, Billy was amazed to hear of his guide’s ambitious plans. Despite coming from a poor family, Francis hoped to join the British Army. However, he told Billy that this was unlikely to happen given his circumstances.
It was at this point that Billy decided to step in and help.
On his return to the UK he put a lot of time and effort into helping Francis, acting as his sponsor to try to get the British High Commission to grant a visa to the young Gambian soldier.
Billy told TheSouthern, it was far from easy, but his efforts were rewarded when the visa was granted.
For the past six months Francis has been living in Hawick, turned from a Gambian guide to a Borders tourist.
As well as meeting many locals, Francis has also been a member of the Think Fitness Gym, a regular at Trinity Church and the Balcary Christian Centre.
Furthermore, he has been a guest at Probus and various Rotary clubs, as well as visiting the sights of Edinburgh, Glasgow and much of the Borders.
During all of his travels, Francis has kept his military ambitions on the go, undertaking the required tests and selection procedures for the British Army.
“The Army Careers staff at Galashiels have been of great assistance and extremely encouraging,” Billy told TheSouthern.
During the next week the dreams of this young Gambian soldier will be realised, as he starts his six-month army training at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.
He will eventually go on to join the Royal Scots Borderers, (1st Scots) Royal Regiment of Scotland.