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.

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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My Gambia shopping list

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This time next week I’ll be working in The Gambia, painting, plastering, bricklaying, gardening, taking photos and writing – so it’s time to do a shopping list of what I need to buy before I go.

The charity I’ll be working with, BACE, has helpfully sent all volunteers a list of “essential items” which they really should pack. Imodium, toilet roll, bags in which to put used toilet roll and wet wipes are top of the list, which is a bit of a worry!

I guess that is in case the local food doesn’t agree with people or in case they pick up a germ along the way.

I’m hoping the local food will agree with me, as it sounds quite delicious. We’ve been told that breakfast will be bread and fruit and that at lunchtime local people will be cooking for us, with dishes usually being rice in a tasty sauce and sometimes chicken.

In case the local food doesn’t appeal or worries those who have anything less than a cast iron constitution, volunteers have also been advised to take Marmite, vegemite or peanut butter with them, so that at lunchtime they have something to put onto the freshly made bread. Volunteers are also advised to take a few cereal bars and biscuits too.

The shopping list also includes insect repellent, bite cream (as I’m told I will definitely get bitten) gardening gloves, a paint tray and roller, a sun hat (as apparently there is little shade where we will be working) and a travel kettle if I can find one, so that I can have a tea or coffee before what the charity tells me are some very “early starts”.

A good paperback did not make it onto the list of “things to pack” unfortunately, but a beach towel did, which suggests I might be getting some time off to relax and soak up the sun. Fingers crossed!

Good home needed for mobile phone

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Once again I have been pleasantly surprised by people’s generosity and their desire to help villagers in Bonsa, in The Gambia.

I’ve had quite a few offers now from fellow bloggers asking if there is anything they can do to help with our appeal. The bloggers are from across the UK and from abroad, total strangers who are eager to do something to help, which is very kind of them. All aid coming on this trip is now more or less packed, so anyone wanting to help at this stage could do so by giving a donation to the charity I’ll be working with, called BACE.

I’ve also been given a mobile phone, by a friend. The phone belonged to her late mum and she wants to see it go to a good home. I will ask the chair of the charity to suggest a suitable recipient and then hope to get a personal message back to my friend, saying thank you and explaining how such donations can make a difference to people’s lives.

This time next week I’ll be in The Gambia, along with the rest of the team, a total of more than 20 volunteers. I think we’re all starting to feel just a little bit excited!

(Pictured are children and staff from the Favour Preparatory School which was built by and is run by BACE).

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.