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.

Can anyone speak Wolof?

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As a fund raising initiative attaching personal messages to canvas bags, to be given to school children in an impoverished village in The Gambia, seemed like a good idea at the time.

What’s more the messages were written in the native language of Wolof, which seemed like a really nice little touch.

The canvas bags were kindly donated by a local businessman/business boy/entrepreneur (he’s only 17), who had heard about our project and wanted to do something to help.

My daughter came up with a cracking idea to sell the bags for 50p each, at a fund raising evening she organised at her school and to attach parcel tags to the bags on which people could write a message to the recipient. Wilkinson’s in Folkestone kindly donated the tags.

We looked up some Wolof words and phrases on the internet and the idea proved quite popular (as was the fund raising evening at Folkestone School for Girls in Kent which raised £340).

On the tags school pupils, parents and teachers who attended the fund raising evening wrote a range of Wolof phrases – hello (na nga def), my name is (maa ngi tudd), you’re welcome (agsil) and how are you (jam nga am).

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But now comes the hitch. While one canvas bag doesn’t weigh much and takes up hardly any room in a suitcase, 50 or so bags is another story. And as we’ve promised people that their bag will go to a school child in the village, we can’t now go back on that, so some how they have got to be squeezed in, despite problems with volume and weight.

My employer, benenden hospital, also donated canvas bags, but luckily I had the good sense to send those in the shipping container which the charity sent to The Gambia at the end of last year.

This is not my first packing dilemma (there’s also second hand shoes, footballs and 500 miniature teddy bears in my case) and with a few days still to go before we leave, I’m sure it won’t be my last.

Wish me luck!

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Pillow case sun dresses

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Over the weeks and months that I have been preparing for my forthcoming trip to The Gambia there has been one thing in particular which has surprised and amazed me  – and that is just how kind and generous many people are.

Since putting out an appeal for aid back in the summer of last year, I’ve been given all sorts of items, from second hand shoes, redundant hospital equipment and pens to teddy bears, football shirts, footballs and toothbrushes.

Then last week I received an email from a lovely colleague at benenden hospital who has very kindly put her newly learnt sewing skills to the test – and has made a bag full of sun dresses, out of old pillowcases, for me to take to children in The Gambia.

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When I saw the colourful creations I was truly touched that someone would go to so much trouble to make these for children on another continent, children she doesn’t know and will never meet and yet whom she wants to do something for.

The talented stitcher, Mandy Farris, bought a sewing machine only last summer and saw the pattern in a sewing magazine. On seeing the appeal for items for The Gambia she thought they would be perfect – and they are. Mandy wanted to do something to contribute to our trip as she went on honeymoon to The Gambia 24 years ago and was touched by the people and the poverty.

The dresses are absolutely lovely and I can’t wait to get some lovely pictures of children in the village of Bonsa wearing them, they are going to look delightful.

Thank you Mandy!

 

The “bear” necessities

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And so for my next packing dilemma – how on earth do I cram 500 miniature teddy bears into my suitcase, along with the second hand shoes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, school bags, footballs and other aid that I’m also planning to take to The Gambia?

I’d be grateful for any packing tips – as alongside these items I’ve also got to squeeze in my own luggage, although I’m beginning to think that this is going to be an impossible task.

The miniature bears were a kind donation from my employer, benenden hospital, who are not only funding my trip – but who have also given much aid and support to the charity I will be working with which is called BACE.

The teddies donated by benenden will be given to children who use a school which has been set up by BACE, in an impoverished village called Bonsa. They will also be given to families who will use a new health centre which BACE has built, which will be partially open when I visit in March.

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benenden hospital regularly gives old and redundant equipment to developing countries and last year the hospital gave BACE hospital beds, mattresses, hospital screens, surgical packs, catheters, bandages, office furniture, toys for the waiting room, aprons and many other items to help the charity set up a new health clinic.

Much of this aid was sent to The Gambia in a shipping container at the end of last year. Some of it will be transported in my suitcase when I travel in just over a week, other volunteers will also be taking aid in their suitcases and thankfully the airline is allowing the charity to put several boxes of aid in the hold, free of charge.

So as my suitcase is not only full, but bursting at the seams, my own luggage really will have to be reduced to the very bare necessities.

 

 

Three and a half weeks to go!

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In just three and a half weeks I will be on my way to The Gambia with my suitcase full of second hand shoes.

Also crammed into my suitcase will be teddy bears, canvas bags, gardening tools, pens, chalks, plasters and paint brushes.

It’s not the usual kind of luggage I’d be taking on a trip abroad, but then this is not a typical trip.

Luckily I’m used to trying to travel light, having backpacked across Northern India at the end of last year, but with all the aid I am taking on this trip I will be lucky to squeeze in a pair of flip flops!

Aside from packing there are other last minute things to think about too. I’ve already got my malaria tablets and next week I’ll be having my yellow fever jab (ouch!).

Meanwhile donations of aid are still coming in, from staff at benenden hospital where I work, from pupils at Folkestone School for Girls where a fund-raising evening was held just before Christmas and from members of the Rising Mercury Society, who are friends of the hospital. Donations which have arrived today have included felt tips, bars of soap, sanitary towels, bubbles and colouring books.

Now I have to get these to the charity behind the trip, BACE, who will pack them into boxes which the airline has kindly agreed can go into the hold, at no additional cost.

Over the last few weeks a lot of the aid has been tucked under my desk at work, so it’s great to finally clear it away and to know that it will soon be delivered to the people it’s intended for.