A plea by a group of African Scouts for a building in their home country has led to a fundraising effort that has forged links between two far-flung communities Keeping a promise has changed thousands of lives and left Hampshire embedded in the heart of a poor African community.

When Marion Christmas MBE met a handful of Gambian Scouts and asked them what they would wish for if they could have anything in the world, she was surprised when they didn't reply with requests for clothes, food and money.

Instead, what this group of students just out of school in the village of Soma wanted was a Scout lodge just like the one they had visited in the New Forest.

Today, after years of hard work and tireless fundraising, the completed Kaira Konko Scout Lodge is an integral part of the Soma community.

It is also used as a base for the many Scout teams who visit the village - and is currently the temporary home to the team from Southampton University Officer Training Corps while they are here to rebuild a classroom block at Soma Lower Basic School.

It's a dream come true for Mrs Christmas, who received her MBE for services to the people of The Gambia.

The hope is that one day soon it will become completely self-sufficient - and its already well on the way, being used as accommodation whenever locals have guests visiting the village.

Speaking to the Daily Echo Mrs Christmas said: "I first became involved when my son Paul spent six weeks out there, camping in a nearby village where together with Action Aid they built a classroom.

"During that trip each group was given a Gambian Scout to act as a guide and the friendships made during that time became so cemented that the Scouts came here to Hampshire for a camp.

"They came over literally in the clothes on their backs. it was a huge culture shock for them."

During the visit Marion opened up her Hampshire home and provided hospitality for many of them.

"I was so very impressed with the way they conducted themselves, the way they spoke and their awareness of politics. I asked them if there was anything they would like to take home and expected them to say trainers or some item of clothing, but they said a Scout lodge just like Ferney Croft - the Hampshire scout camp in the New Forest - and I said fine, I will build you one."

Marion added: "It was the most stupid thing I had ever said. I had never even been to Africa before, I had no idea what I was taking on. I thought that they might forget and was kind of hoping they would."

Three months later a letter arrived from Scouts in Soma, including Lamin Kinteh, who now runs Kaira Konko, eager that Marion kept to her word.

"They were young boys then. They had no knowledge of what a bank account was, how you go about building. I just had to trust them. It was very hard fundraising. Nobody wanted to give to a project in Africa that had no plan, so I did it bit by bit.

The project didn't come to fruition without problems along the way - including upsetting the village elders of Soma, to whom money is normally given and distributed.

Problems In 1998 the then British High Commissioner in The Gambia officially opened the lodge, which has the backing of the vice-president of the country.

But any ideas that this could mean the end to relations between Hampshire and Soma were not realistic - because Marion - known by most of the thousands of children and young people in Soma as "mum" - wouldn't let it happen.

Apart from the Scouts' continuous involvement, this poverty-stricken region has found a place in the hearts of many people in the county.

Hampshire County Council, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, 457 Battery TA from Millbrook and a number of countywide trusts and dozens of local people are on board to make a difference.

Following the formation of the Kaira Konko Scout Fellowship, the county's Lord Lieutenant Mary Fagan volunteered herself as patron of an appeal with the county's schools who were tasked with raising money to go towards her Millennium Project to help the people of Soma and the Lower River Division.

The subsequent work at Soma Lower Basic School - including this latest project to rebuild a classroom block for the many hundreds of children - has followed.

Captain Nigel Hill, leader of Exercise Gambian Sapper and head of this team of 28 university students out here - decided to take on their challenge after being approached by Mrs Fagan.

Capt Hill said: "She approached the colonel of this unit but we didn't know what it would entail - we were not aware. We came out last July to assess the situation here and I filed a report and it was approved. It's a first for this unit, we have never done anything like it before. There have been so many people who have been involved from the outset who have helped make it possible. Soma has definitely found a place in the hearts of everyone here - the students have been so taken by what they are seeing.