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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

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.