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.”

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

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!

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.