Through Someone Else’s Eyes

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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.

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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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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!