Through Someone Else’s Eyes

gambia 171

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.

gambia 169

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_0495

IMG_0520

I am already missing Tida and her sisters:

IMG_0476

Karen will miss having her hair done:

IMG_0492

Amber is missing the children:

IMG_0468

Gardening will never be the same again for Chris and Nicola. Their efforts grew quite a crowd in the village of Bonsa:

IMG_0487

I think The Gambia and its beautiful people will remain dear to our hearts for many weeks and months to come, if not forever.

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?

canvasbags 001

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).

canvasbags 011

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!

canvasbags 004

My Gambia shopping list

shoplist 002

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!

Pillow case sun dresses

sundresses_003

 

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.

sundresses_009

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

teddycase 003
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.

teddycase 008

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.