First Stop, The Gambia
It’s safe to say that my first week of work at Disability Africa was unlike any other. On my first day, I arrived at Gatwick Airport just before 7am to meet Ric (the Director) and Tom (a new Project Development Officer, like me), we got on a flight to Banjul Airport, The Gambia to see how our project was going in Gunjur. This was my first trip to Africa and it was great to see the life-changing work that Disability Africa does.
As we arrived we were met by a number of people, including Jingal, our Project Coordinator. We travelled along some bumpy roads and were frequently greeted with friendly shouts from children of “Toubab”, a colloquial West African term for a white person. It was clear from the start of the trip that it was a friendly country and wherever we went people would shake our hands to greet us – including very young children.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Inclusion Centre, I had seen pictures, but I wanted to see it in person… and I wasn’t disappointed!
The building is striking, unique and spacious. When the plants and flowers are in and the painting is finished, it will be a beautiful building conveying a message to the community that these are the high-quality facilities that disabled young people deserve. The building should be complete by the end of June, giving us time to get things ready to open for disabled young people around the end of October.
The Medical Support Programme
After visiting the Inclusion Centre, we met the Medical Director of AfricMed, Dr Omar Jange, where we discussed ways in which AfricMed could help some of the young people on our Medical Support Programme (MSP). The programme is designed for disabled young people in Gunjur, who require medical treatment. While our main aim is to create a more inclusive society through play and education, it is also important to ensure that those who have urgent medical needs are supported. With this in mind, we discussed ways to ensure that an orthopaedic surgeon could perform operations in The Gambia on those who are part of our MSP, rather than travelling to Senegal, which is much more difficult and expensive. It was agreed that both parties would make sure that the children would receive the treatment in The Gambia – which was excellent news!
Sadly, while we were in The Gambia, one of the young people who is a part of the MSP was admitted to hospital. His bone had become infected from a previous injury and it needed to be removed from his leg. It is highly unlikely that an infection would have occurred in the UK, but the lower standard of hygiene and healthcare makes these sorts of things common occurrences. This reinforced our desire to ensure that there was a more permanent orthopaedic surgeon within The Gambia. Fortunately, the surgery was successful and Amadou, the MSP Coordinator, will do constant follow-ups to make sure he makes a full recovery.
We also visited the compounds of the children who are part of the MSP. The children have a range of impairments and some require surgery while others don’t. What might be the obvious choice of treatment in the UK, may not be appropriate for some of the young people in The Gambia. This is why it is important we develop strong relationships with medical professionals who know what the best course of action is.
Most of the children we saw had improved and were excited to see us. One of the young boys kept a tight hold of my hand as we sat and chatted, I thought I’d never be able to leave; while another had a grin from ear to ear until we left and the tears streamed down his face.
It is vital that their impairments don’t prevent them from living fulfilling lives and it was clear during our visit, that with our support, they are happy, healthy and will thrive.
Early in the week, we spoke to Anchu, she is in charge of our Finding 500 Programme, the main objective is to find 500 disabled young people, many of whom are hidden away due to the stigma around disability.
Anchu had a number of exciting proposals, she has been speaking to students in the local school and has been promoting inclusion to them, this has resulted in ‘inclusion clubs’ being set up. This is where non-disabled young people will be working with disabled young people to support them in whatever way they can in class and on days out, they will also be able to join in the playscheme when the Inclusion Centre is up and running. The children are supportive of the fact that they belong to one school and everyone is together, if the lives of disabled young people improve, then everybody benefits.
We briefly went into the Lower Basic School to meet the children involved in the Inclusion Club and the very supportive Deputy Head, Mr Tamba. It is apparent that he cares deeply about inclusion and his passion is rubbing off on the kids. Already there has been a large interest, with nearly 200 people signing up… If these young people can identify other disabled young people in the community, then we will be well on our way to supporting 500 disabled young people!
Over a glass of refreshing Wanjo, a sweet drink made from boiling the dark red flower from the sorrel plant, we spoke to a Physiotherapist. He was excited at the prospect of sending members of his physiotherapy department to work once or twice a week at our Inclusion Centre. The physio team will work in a specially designed room, which will mean that the disabled young people at the Inclusion Centre will be able to undergo physiotherapy sessions, these sessions will help strengthen the child and improve their condition.
The Inclusion Centre also includes a ‘soft play’ room where physiotherapy will happen. Often children do not enjoy physiotherapy sessions - but they do enjoy playing! Therefore, the soft play room will be a space for fun physiotherapy sessions to take place as our Play Workers will be shown exercises by Physiotherapists to do with the young people attending the Inclusion Centre. The Physiotherapists will also be able to show parents exercises that should be done to strengthen their child when they are at home. These opportunities aren’t widely available in Africa and will be truly life-changing!
One evening, when we didn’t have any meetings planned, we took the opportunity to walk along the lovely beach in Gunjur, bumping into very friendly locals on the way and admiring the colourful fishing boats.
While we were on the field trip, we were lucky enough to meet an inspirational mum of a disabled young boy who has cerebral palsy. Often in Africa, disabled people are seen as devils, cursed or just not ‘normal’. However, this mother recognised her child was like any other child that needed love and support, so she took a loan out so that she could become educated on cerebral palsy and so that she could take her six-year-old boy to physiotherapy sessions. She rightly said that it wasn’t possible for a human to give birth to anything other than another human. Her whole family was supportive of her and the young boy; it was great to see.
We hope that she will be able to come along to parent support meetings in the future so that other parents can learn from her experiences. The lack of understanding about disabled children is the largest barrier to their development, by providing some education, the stigma around disability will begin to fade away.
The week in the Gambia was the best induction to Disability Africa I could have got. It highlighted the essential work that we do, but it also highlighted the importance of having strong links with local people and organisations. All too often, NGOs and charity organisations set up with good intentions, but as the money dries up, they move elsewhere and there is no lasting legacy. Disability Africa seeks to empower communities and ensure that there is a clear exit strategy so that every project is a sustainable project.
Overall, it was a very interesting week. We had some really positive meetings and the project is progressing well. We are now nearing completion of the Inclusion Centre and it will be truly great for the young people attending when it is up and running. There are very few facilities like ours that exist in Africa… Disability Africa really is changing children’s lives.
Written by Mike, one of our new Project Development Officers