Through Someone Else’s Eyes

gambia 171

It was three weeks ago today that our plane touched down at Gatwick Airport following a week of volunteering in The Gambia, but not a single day has passed without me thinking of the time I spent there.

What sticks in my mind most is one young boy whom I met along the way, called Samba. I first noticed him half way through the trip on a bright, sunny day, when he was sitting in the shade in an area we called The Roundhouse.

Samba’s eyes were flickering open and closed and he was rubbing them with the palms of his hands. He also sat with his hands over his eyes for much of the time, as if the sunlight were painful for him to look at.

Unfortunately I could not communicate very well with Samba, as I did not speak Wolof and he did not appear to know any English.

I asked one of the school teachers if he was blind, but she told me that no, he could see. I asked the two nurses on the trip, Charlotte Barnett, from benenden hospital and Nicola Norton, from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, what was wrong and they told me that they had treated his eyes while running the two day trial at the new BACE health clinic in the village of Bonsa.

They explained that his problems had probably started with conjunctivitis, but as this had been left untreated for so long, it had just got progressively worse. Eventually it could result in him going blind.

Thankfully, the BACE health clinic should be open and fully functional in time to save Samba’s sight and to help others like him. The plan is for the clinic to be up and running by July and an official opening and celebration is planned for November.

I am hoping that from July Samba, with the help of his family, will access the help he needs from the BACE health clinic. I am making a return visit to the village of Bonsa in November, as is nurse Charlotte Barnett and many others who were on the March 2014 volunteer trip and I hope that by then Samba will be running around, laughing and playing with all the other children and that next time I see him he will not be in pain, or uncomfortable, or jostled around by the other children, as he cannot see where he is going.

gambia 169

Having been touched by Samba’s story – and the stories of many others in the village –.I’d like to get some help for him and the other children and adults I saw who also had eye infections or problems with their sight. The best way readers of my blog could help with this at the moment is by donating money directly to BACE. Please text donate by texting BACE13 to 70070 followed by £1, £2, £5 or £10. Alternatively see the BACE website for others ways to give.

Currently I am working with the charity to see if an eye project in the village of Bonsa would be feasible in the near future and I’m working with BACE to this end. They are considering if this could work alongside the many other important activities they already have underway and in the pipeline. There is so much they would like to do – but need more funds to be able to do it, so again, please donate, if you can. I am also seeing if benenden health and benenden hospital can offer any help with this, having funded my March trip to The Gambia, by way of a travelling fellowship, having donated many items to help set up the BACE health clinic and having been extremely supportive of the Someone Else’s Shoes campaign. 

Meanwhile I plan another blog, called Through Someone Else’s Eyes. I want the villagers to tell me their stories, as seen through their eyes. I want to know more about their daily lives, their struggles and how BACE and donations from the UK are making a difference to them.

So although this current trip is now over – and as I very reluctantly write this last blog post for Someone Else’s Shoes – my links with The Gambia and BACE have not come to an end. I am now a voluntary media officer with the charity, alongside my day job, being a PR officer with benenden hospital. I’m very much looking forward to returning to Bonsa in November and I’m trying hard to learn a few words in Wolof. I will be stating “maan wax Wolof”, or I speak Wolof on my next visit!

But for now it is “be benen yoon” (goodbye) to The Gambia – and “leegi leegi” (see you soon).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working with Look magazine

IMG_0387

At long last I can finally reveal that since September last year myself and trustees from the charity BACE have been working closely with Look magazine on our Someone Else’s Shoes project.

Knowing that the magazine often runs international humanitarian articles I approached them at the end of last summer to ask if staff would consider donating shoes – as this was just one item on the charity’s wish list of items they wanted to send or take to The Gambia.

The editor Ali Hall immediately got behind the project and gave us her support, along with other members of the editorial team and myself and a trustee from the charity, Laura Collier-Keywood, collected the shoes from their office in central London.

Many of the shoes went into a shipping container which BACE sent to The Gambia in November last year. Others were packed into boxes which the airline, Thomas Cook, kindly let the charity take on board, at no extra cost.

IMG_0279

Today Look has published a fabulous article about their involvement with the charity’s recent visit to the village of Bonsa, where their donated shoes were very much appreciated. Thank you so much Look! The article includes the charity’s text donate number, so I hope it generates lots of donations for BACE.

Our work with the magazine had to be kept quiet until after they had published, but now we can tell whoever we like!

IMG_0444

And while it’s a fab article, which is very much appreciated, I just wanted to say that the trip was about so much more than giving out shoes to women and children. This was just a very small part of what was going on when 22 volunteers visited in March. The main purpose of the trip was to paint and decorate the charity’s new health clinic and to run a two day trial there. The real stars of the show were the chair of the charity Tracy Barnett and the two nurses who treated more than 150 local people, Charlotte Barnett and Nicola Norton.

So if you haven’t already got a copy, go and buy this week’s Look magazine quick, while stocks last! And please consider making a donation, however small. The details about making a text donation are in Look and can also be found on this blog.

 

 

Missing our Gambian friends

IMG_0521

The group of 22 BACE volunteers who travelled to the village of Bonsa in The Gambia have been back in the UK for just over a week – and we’re all missing our Gambian friends very much.

I think I can safely say that for all of us our visit to Bonsa was a life changing experience, which will remain with us forever. Most of us have now gone back to work, or back to school, or have returned to our normal routines, but we all seem to have left a little part of our ourselves back there.

I’m trying to keep a little of what I learnt during the week with me. I’m trying not to get stressed over silly little things, like traffic jams or running late. I constantly remind myself how lucky I am and how easy my life is.

But what probably sticks in my mind most is the warm and loving people I met on the trip, along with how grateful people were for anything we did for them or gave them.

On our last day on the project our Gambian friends, who are employed by BACE, said a few words to thank the volunteers for their efforts and there was not a dry eye in the house.

As we sat outside BACE’s Favour Preparatory School, once the children had finished for the day, our Gambian friend Frances Mendy said: “This community is in need of help. Without you these children would not be able to speak English, to read, or write. I am overjoyed every time I see new faces come to help. It amazes me.”

IMG_0233

Some of the volunteers are keeping in touch with their new Gambian friends via Facebok and email and also via text messages and phone calls. However, not only can communication be expensive but it is sometimes impossible, as the internet connection in The Gambia can be a little hit and miss to say the least!

But one message did get through – loud and clear – and again it was from Frances, via Facebook.

He said: “I will take this opportunity to thank all volunteers who endeavoured to spend their precious time with us in the Gambia. I must say it was really awesome. We wish you were still with us.

“We love you all, our BACE family, especially the trustees who have be there since the beginning to provide and organise trips to visit us.

“Jerre Jeff, sunu mboka ak sunu harit nyi – thanks so much our relatives and friends.”

Never go anywhere without a tissue!

gambia 189

The chair of BACE, Tracy Barnett, has been reflecting on the charity’s latest volunteer trip to The Gambia.

In this guest blog she shares her thoughts: 

Having returned home from another amazing week with a group of 21 fantastic individuals who all played a part in making this volunteer trip the success it was, it’s only now I find the time to read the letters and emails of appreciation and really understand just how much this week once again has meant to so many people, both in the UK and the Gambia. 

When we arrived with the group at the hotel they quickly realised that yes, it may look like paradise on the outside, but once in their room it was very basic compared to what they would normally be used to. Most keys fitted all rooms, the doors did not shut very well and often there was no water to shower and frequent power cuts, but as always the staff were very friendly, supportive and happy to see the BACE charity students back with them for a week. It always makes me smile when they call our group “the students” as the majority of us in this volunteer group were over the age of 40!    

A student still to me is a young person in education but I suppose in reflection we are students because we are constantly learning every day about The Gambia, the people, the culture and their way of life.

gambia 157

The Gambia is a hodgepodge of different people, different religions and tribes, yet they all seem to get along! So the challenge for us during the week, as always with every trip, was to work together as one team, support and watch out for each other, be patient and tolerant, smile and have fun. It makes me feel so proud when so many individuals from all different walks of life, education, social class and religion join together to embrace the Gambian experience and the Gambian way of life with open minds, all working to achieve the same goal.

It does not matter how many times I explain during the week that everyone at some point will experience what we call a “Gambian Moment” when the heat, the pride, the people and the simple way of life in West Africa compared with our own catches up on them. For me, it starts when I land in the Gambia, then when I see our Gambian friends, the first day on site and then every day when I see some of our amazing volunteers way out of their comfort zone picking up a paint brush, digging, mixing cement, playing with the children or just sitting and speaking to the local community and embracing the way of life..  

In fact my worst Gambian moment is when I get home and can relax my brain just a little for a few days and really reflect on the week and what once again has been achieved by so many people. I have learnt now never to  go anywhere without a tissue, as often talking about the charity and the achievements made by so many in such a short period of time bring the tears to my eyes.  I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the BACE trustees and our team in The Gambia to thank you all for an amazing week and we all look forward to seeing you back with us very soon.

By Tracy Barnett, chair of BACE, who is pictured at the beginning of this post with Ebou Bah, from the Medical Research Centre in The Gambia, outside the new BACE health clinic in the village of Bonsa.

Thank you benenden

gambia 070

Thank you to benenden hospital and benenden health for making my trip to the village of Bonsa, in The Gambia, possible.

By way of a travelling fellowship benenden paid for both myself and benenden hosptial nurse Charlotte Barnett to go on the week long trip. They gave us the time off and donated many items.

The benenden health teddy bears, of which we had hundreds, went down well in the health clinic. They were given to young patients to distract from the fact they were about to be prodded and poked, or given a nasty tasting medicine.

They also kept children amused while other family members were being treated.

gambia 126

Football shirts donated by benenden health and the York City Football Club were also popular:

gambia 080

As were the footballs, also donated by benenden health and York City:

gambia 133

Each year benenden hospital gives redundant or old equipment to developing countries. At the end of last year and the beginning of this year it gave this equipment to the charity we were working with, BACE. Much of it travelled to The Gambia in a shipping container in November 2013. This included hospital beds, hospital screens (which were used during our trip as temporary doors!) surgical packs, catheters, hand saniters, bins, chairs and much more.

Here is one of the beds which was used when the clinic opened for a trial run:

gambia 082

Thank you benenden for all of your support!

 

Doing so much, with so little

alan

Today is a guest blog from Vicar Alan Everett, from the Parish of St Clement and St James, in London, who was a BACE volunteer on last week’s trip to The Gambia, along with his wife Julie and daughters Charlotte and Emily. Alan is pictured above, painting.

The family mucked in with working with the children at the BACE preparatory school, lifting and carrying anything that needed to be moved and mainly they were part of the painting team, putting finishing touches to BACE’s new health clinic in the impoverished village of Bonsa. The Everett’s earned the respect of the entire team as they carried on working despite all going down with stomach upsets. They will also be remembered for the amount of white paint they had in their hair, on their faces and on their feet!

Below are Alan’s thoughts about the trip:

The dirt track to Bonsa in south west Gambia seems to go on forever. As we made our way deeper into the bush, our jeeps lurched alarmingly into deep gullies eroded by rainy season floods. If nothing is done, the route will eventually become impassable.
jeep
The villagers of Bonsa and similar bush villages are deprived even by Gambia’s very basic living standards. Before the founding of BACE’s nursery school, local children were usually unable to pass the entrance exam to the nearest primary school. And imagine walking nine miles under the blazing sun – while desperately ill – in order reach a clinic.
Just when we’d given up expecting to arrive, the jeeps wheeled into the compound. The initial impression is of harmony and nurture. Behind white washed walls, decorated with pencils, we discovered the nursery building, a house and a small vegetable garden. The school wall is painted with a simple mural of children holding hands.
On our first morning, village women were waiting to greet us, with drumming and dancing. Children stood solemnly with their teachers, ready to sing to us. Volunteers from our group joined in the dancing – with varying levels of self-consciousness. And many were visibly moved when the children sang – with gusto – a variety of songs, including, ‘You are welcome in the name of the Lord’, and ‘Ten little Africans’.
IMG_0208
We then moved onto the adjoining plot, which was purchased last year. Tracy, the BACE chair of trustees, wept when she saw how since November the villagers had worked tirelessly to clear an acre of wild scrubland. Women with buckets of water on their heads moved back and forth from a distant well, striving to irrigate the parched earth.
In the far corner, we caught our first glimpse of the newly built health centre. Over the following four days, volunteers painted the clinic, weeded and planted in the nursery garden, and decorated canvas bags with the children. These are to help raise funds.
The clinic was open for two trial days, to discover the main health needs. On the first day, two nurses from the group saw around 50 patients, assisted by volunteer interpreters. There are five main tribal languages in the region; the elderly and very young have a tenuous grasp of English. On the second day, they saw a hundred patients, as word spread about this wonderful new facility. Had the clinic remained open, numbers would no doubt have continued to rise dramatically.
Gambians waited patiently from 8am in the morning, for up to five hours, some of them having walked several miles. Common problems included sickness and diarrhoea, dehydration, ear and eye issues, wounds and high blood pressure. High blood pressure might seem an unexpected diagnosis on ‘the smiling coast’, but poorer Gambians eat very little apart from rice. A low starch diet to reduce blood pressure is simply not an option.
IMG_0308
One boy constantly shielded his eyes with his hands. Without treatment, an easily healed eye infection can lead to blindness. His is just one story.
175
By the end of the second day, the two English nurses were exhausted, having seen and where possible treated a hundred and fifty patients. Others were given advice. Health information alone can do a great deal. When the clinic is up and running, there will be a delivery room, and the nurse team will be able to call in outside help.
The good news is that during our visit a head nurse from the village was appointed. As a trained midwife, he already helps to deliver the babies of local women. And as a Muslim, he will work within a mixed Christian and Muslim staff team, to demonstrate a spirit of active cooperation between the faiths.
IMG_0514
 Many of the children are barefoot, wearing torn, stained and ancient clothing – one small boy was enveloped by a massive T-shirt proclaiming International Women’s Day 2009. But the extreme levels of poverty failed to dampen their high spirits. They responded with great excitement to the work on the clinic, grabbing unguarded brushes and rollers – often splattering themselves with paint while ‘helping’.
IMG_0304
When given lollipops, their usual response to begin sucking without removing the wrapping. Lollipops were a new phenomenon. Empty plastic bottles of water, discarded by the volunteers, were carried away as a prized possession.
Besides helping to alleviate considerable need, BACE has already done much to promote community cohesion. The villagers clearly love their project. And there is a small but very capable and highly committed team of Gambians, helping to sustain and develop the work.
There are no overheads from the UK end. Volunteers pay for their own visits, and take out much needed supplies. Every penny given gets through to the people who need it. An extraordinary amount has already been achieved, for a relatively small amount of money.
So what lies ahead? A water borehole (£8,500) is urgently needed. The clinic cannot open without water and without proper irrigation the crops will not grow properly. This will delay the feeding programme. Solar panels will power the borehole, and provide electricity 24/7 for the clinic (£7,000 still to be found).
Last Lent, the parish gave just under £8,000 to BACE. Within the first week of Lent 2014, over £5,000 has already been given. This is a fantastic result, but we can do better. If the parish can reach £8,500, a film clip in which I can be seen dancing at the welcome ceremony will be made publicly available. Technology permitting, it will go on our website home page.
If the parish can reach the target of £15,500 – to pay for both the borehole and the solar panels – then I will wear African dress throughout Lent and Holy Week.
Thanks for all you have given so far and keep those donations rolling in!
To find out how you can donate to help BACE continue with their good work visit http://www.bacecharity.org.uk
By Alan Everett

Goodbye Gambia

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to our Gambian friends as the team of 22 BACE volunteers flew back to the UK.

There were tears at the school and the site of the new health clinic, tears at our hotel and yet more tears at the airport. I’m sure there will be more in the days to come as we all reflect on the past week.

I’m already missing so many things – the lovely people we met along the way, the simple way of life, having breakfast and lunch with more than 20 people every day and even  the daily peanut butter rolls at lunchtime.

We will all miss the close relationships we formed with local people during the week.

IMG_0495

IMG_0520

I am already missing Tida and her sisters:

IMG_0476

Karen will miss having her hair done:

IMG_0492

Amber is missing the children:

IMG_0468

Gardening will never be the same again for Chris and Nicola. Their efforts grew quite a crowd in the village of Bonsa:

IMG_0487

I think The Gambia and its beautiful people will remain dear to our hearts for many weeks and months to come, if not forever.