Working with Look magazine

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.”

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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!

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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.

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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.

Doing so much, with so little

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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.
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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’.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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 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’.
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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.

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I am already missing Tida and her sisters:

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Karen will miss having her hair done:

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Amber is missing the children:

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

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

Before and after

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This is what the new BACE health clinic looked like when a team of 22 volunteers from the UK arrived in the village of Bonsa in The Gambia.

Thanks to a lot of hard work by a dedicated team of painters and decorators the interior and exterior painting of the building is now almost complete.

This is the painting and decorating team:

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The vegetable garden opposite BACE’s Favour Preparatory School is also looking good, thanks a team of volunteers led by Chris Ventiroso and Chris Starr.

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Local children also helped out and to say thanks we gave them football shirts, which were donated by benenden health and the York City Football Club.

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Meet Samba – and Silva

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Samba isn’t blind – yet. But if he doesn’t get treatment for his eyes in the very near future he will eventually lose his sight.

His eyes cause him discomfort all the time. They are itchy, sore and painful and he rubs them constantly. He relies on his friends to help him get around.

UK nurses Nicola Norton, from Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Charlotte Barnett, from benenden hospital, have cleaned his eyes while working at the BACE health clinic which is in an impoverished village called Bonsa, in The Gambia. They have shown Samba and his family how to clean his eyes to help clear the infection but after they leave, at the beginning of next week, Samba’s eyes are likely to deteriorate further.

The two nurses think Samba probably had conjunctivitis – which is treated so easily in the UK. Samba’s eye infection has become so severe as it has been left untreated for a long time.

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Thankfully once the BACE health clinic is fully open, in July, its doctors and nurses will then be able to help Samba and others like him on a regular basis. Medics at the clinic will be able to treat eye infections and will educate local people on how to prevent them happening in the first place.

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This is Silva. He is the head teacher at the Favour Preparatory School, which is also run by BACE.

Today I gave him a mobile phone which was donated by a friend of mine back in the UK. She wanted the phone to go to a good home. As you can see, Silver was delighted with his gift!

Language barriers

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Today three languages were being spoken at the BACE health clinic in Bonsa, as a nurse tried to establish what was wrong with an elderly patient.

The elderly lady spoke Fula, a language used by members of the Fula tribe. However, her Gambian nurse spoke Wolof, English and Mandinka  and so he had to appeal for help from other patients who were in the waiting area. Luckily there was one other patient who was able to translate for him.

It’s a situation you’d be unlikely to find in the UK, but it’s one which will probably happen fairly frequently when the BACE health clinic is fully up and running later this year.

As well as struggling with the language barriers nurses also had to contend with noise, an overflowing waiting room and lack of space as the three nurses carried out consultations in a shared room, as work continued to complete the rest of the new health clinic.

Today benenden hospital nurse Charlotte Barnett, Stoke Mandeville nurse Nicola Norton and Gambian nurse Joe saw 88 patients, over the space of just a few hours. Today’s ailments included more possible cases of malaria, which the BACE clinic will be able to test for and treat when it is fully operational by July. For the moment the nurses just had to give what medication they had to hand, along with advice.

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As the patients were being seen other BACE volunteers continued painting the rest of the clinic, some did craft activities in the school with the young children and another group continued with the garden. The chillis are now ready to be picked and coming along well are aubergines, spring onions, ochre, cabbages, tomatoes, spring onions and lettuce.

Tomorrow BACE volunteers will be handing out second hand shoes, which were donated in the UK, to women and girls whose shoes are worn out or too small and to others who have none at all.

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Take a walk in her shoes

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Nine year old Fatou walks for 40 minutes to get to school. For the last three years she’s been doing the walk, twice a day, with a swollen and infected foot.

Today benenden hospital nurse Charlotte Barnett helped ease some of the little girl’s pain. Charlotte and a paediatric nurse from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Nicola Norton, washed Fatou’s foot with salt water, put dressings onto her wounds and then wrapped her foot in bandages to try to keep it clean and to prevent further infection.

Volunteers from BACE then gave her a pair of shoes, which were donated back in the UK, as the flip flops she was wearing not only offered her wound no protection, but they were also at least two sizes too small.

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During the morning Charlotte treated one of BACE’s Gambian workers too. John also has an infected foot. He’s had the problem for some time, but has not had it treated. Charlotte used salt water for the infection and honey soaked dressings, which had been donated by a medical company in the UK called Advances. While she is here she will clean and dress his wound daily. Fatou will also return for further treatment.

Today was the first day of work for the 22 UK volunteers who are working with BACE in the village of Bonsa. It was a 40 minute jeep ride for us to get there during which we only broke down once (!) just as a village tanja, or witch doctor, was marching by, brandishing a pair of machetes, smashing them together above his head as he walked. He was on his way to perform a ceremony to chase away evil spirits.

On arrival at BACE’s Favour Preparatory School and the site of the charity’s new health clinic we were welcomed by local women and children who performed dances and songs.

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Then it was time to do some work. Groups headed off in different directions to paint BACE’s new clinic, to sort out medical supplies and to work in the garden, planting seeds, digging beds and cropping beetroot, which local women were cooking by the afternoon.

Tomorrow the health clinic will be open for the first time, for just a few hours, as it is not yet complete. No-one knows how many people will arrive or what ailments they will present.

The main thing that volunteers can do to prepare is to make sure we are at the clinic bright and early, so it’s an even earlier alarm for tomorrow. Then on arrival we’ll be setting up tables and chairs and putting donated toys in the waiting room. We’ve also sorted donated shoes into different sizes ready to give those who desperately need them.

Leaving on a jet plane

Well, just a few hours to go until I’m jetting off to The Gambia, for a volunteering trip which was planned many months ago.

Amazingly I’ve managed to squash all of the aid into my suitcase and hand luggage – including hundreds of miniature teddy bears, deflated footballs, football shirts, sun dresses, an old mobile phone, canvas bags, toothbrushes and second hand shoes, along with my own luggage.

However, when it came to seeing how heavy the packed suitcase was I then hit a hitch – it wasn’t over the 20 kg allowed by the airline, but I picked the case up at an awkward angle and I’ve now put my back out!

Luckily for me I’d already packed some painkillers (just in case) and if it doesn’t ease, at least there are a couple of trained nurses on the trip! I’m going to The Gambia to help put the finishing touches to a newly built health clinic and it’s looking like I could be the one needing the medical assistance! Hopefully a few hours sleep and it will go back to normal.

Meanwhile, with just eight hours to go until I have to start my drive to the airport, my thoughts have turned to The Gambia, the people who live there and the lives they lead. Life expectancy for females is just 59 and for men it’s even worse, at 57 years. The 2010 maternal mortality rate per 100,000 births was 400 and more than three quarters of the female population have suffered female genital mutilation. They are all quite staggering facts and figures.

Malaria is also a problem in the country. Us volunteers are lucky enough to be armed with our malaria tablets, which we all started taking today.

My thoughts have also turned to the new health clinic which BACE has built in the village of Bonsa and to which we will put the finishing touches during our trip. Volunteers will be painting, plastering, bricklaying and gardening, as well as giving medical aid to local people and helping out at the school which BACE opened in the village a few years ago.

Personally I’ll also be seeing how hospital and medical equipment donated by benenden hospital and benenden health will make a difference to people’s lives, as well distributing boxes of second hand shoes which have been donated to the project.

Here’s hoping for a smooth and trouble free journey and flight.