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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BACE health clinic opens for trial run

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Today the newly built BACE health clinic in the village of Bonsa, in The Gambia, was open for the first time.

BACE held a trial run at the clinic, opening one treatment room, as volunteers continued to paint the rest of the building. The clinic is still without windows, doors, steps and a lot more, but that did not stop villagers forming a long queue outside.

Two nurses from the UK, Charlotte Barnett from benenden hospital and Nicola Norton, from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, saw more than 30 patients who had a range of ailments. Two patients had signs of malaria. Others had ear infections, eye conditions, foot infections, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and other problems.

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Fatou, who visited the project yesterday, returned to have her infected foot washed and dressed for a second time. We were pleased to see she was wearing the shoes we gave her yesterday and that her foot was already looking a lot better.

People had walked for many miles to attend the clinic and sat and waited patiently until it was their turn, even though some of the elderly, an expectant mum and several children looked quite poorly. It made me realise just how much we take healthcare for granted in the UK.

Charlotte and Nicola helped people with the aid of interpreters and a book of Wolof phrases, one of the main languages in the local area.

Two visitors to the clinic ended up helping out. They were Joe, who is an intensive care nurse in The Gambia, who is working closely with the BACE project and Ebou Bah, from the Medical Research Council, who had heard about the clinic and wants to give his support.

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Meanwhile other volunteers were helping children at the Favour Preparatory School to decorate canvas bags, which were donated to BACE. The children were then able to take the bags home to their families.

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Tomorrow the clinic will open once again. Work will continue on completing the health clinic, as will efforts on the garden project, which is not easy when watering newly planted seeds means many trips to and from the nearest well.

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.

Gambia – The Smiling Coast

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Having set the alarm clock for half past midnight to get ready for our journey to Gatwick we finally arrived at our accommodation at four in the afternoon

The good thing about our long journey was that it gave the 22 volunteers time to get to know each other and as we flew the chair of the charity also told us a little about the Gambian education system and public health.

We learnt that some children have to stop going to school because they can no longer afford the fees. For primary school children the lack of a pound could mean their schooling could come to an abrupt end. For secondary school pupils if they cannot find the fifty pounds they need to continue their education then they have to leave.

We also learnt that malaria and malnutrition are two of the biggest reasons that life expectancy is low.

For us volunteers our hard work starts tomorrow, beginning with an early 7am start, so we’re all off to bed very soon.

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.