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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!
By Alan Everett