Last month, Mel and Dee Bixley went to The Gambia and visited many of the African Oyster Trust's projects. The following blog post is Part III of a series of articles based on extracts from Dee's diary. You can read the background to their involvement with the Trust, plus the first and second extracts from the diaries.
Friday 7th February
The first thing we spot as we arrive at the health centre is the ambulance. Chalo, its driver, proudly demonstrates how everything works, stopping long enough to have his photo taken.
Next we tour the very impressive clinic, meet the dedicated staff, visiting the laboratory, the wards and even the store cupboard!
It is now time for a special meeting, which we suspect is in our honour. The Chief of Jarra Centre is in attendance, the village Mayor, Elders and Imams, all gathered to give thanks for the ambulance.
Kira is thrilled that they are all here on time! We know that there were huge celebrations at the time the ambulance was brought to the village in 2011, so it is very kind of them to hold this meeting.
Through a translator, Fanding tells the story of the ambulance. Then the Chief, an Imam and another Imam speak. They are effusive in their thanks but also encourage us to extend our efforts! Indeed, the second Imam has a curious request. Mel whispers: “Has he just requested a trolley for fat people?” Yes he has. An irony, perhaps, in a country where so many are hungry. We are presented with ceremonial outfits and Certificates of Appreciation and we have the opportunity to present Chalo with a personal card and gift.
By now it is late morning and aware of my interest in psychiatry, Kira has arranged a visit to the nearby psychiatric unit. She has told me that in the whole of Gambia there is only one fully trained psychiatric nurse, and not one psychiatrist! So I’m not a little wary of what we will find.
We are met by the man in charge, who greets us warmly. A ‘traditional’ doctor, he is tall and flamboyantly dressed, sweeping ahead to show us several wards. In the last one a woman, psychotic when she was admitted following the birth of her baby, now lies quietly on the floor, shielding her face but eyeing us through her fingers. Lying nearby, her baby is completely covered by a shawl to keep away mosquitoes.
The doctor then ushers us into his office and Kira and he discuss how they can work together in obtaining psychiatric medication, never an easy task in Gambia. We learn afterwards that this is the first time the doctor has accepted the idea that his herbs do not help every condition. Now he is actually asking for help. We feel we have witnessed a significant breakthrough in what had seemed an intransigent situation.
Fanding has invited us for lunch at his compound and his wife, who we saw teaching at the school earlier, has come back to complete the preparations. We eat in the customary way from one shared bowl and it is a delicious meal.
Back at the health centre, a committee meeting is held outside, and we are invited to sit in. Following prayers, the proceedings are translated, perhaps for our benefit rather than for Kira. I suspect Kira understands rather more than she admits! But how she manages when they all speak at once in Mandinka, I don’t know.
As they move on to next year’s budget, the committee resort to further praying. Afterwards, Kira states that although she is grateful for their prayers, they must remember that it is their own hard work which has enabled them to make the clinic successful, both medically and financially. She says this in such a way that I feel mighty proud to be sitting next to her.
My mind wanders as the meeting continues and village ladies arrive for the celebrations to follow. One or two come through the gate and sit on their water carriers (later used as drums), waiting patiently. Outside, a group of young children play in the dust.
The celebrations underway, the women sing about village life, perhaps part of an oral history handed down through the generations.
Once there was no ambulance, they chant, and sick people travelled by donkey cart to hospital. When the drumming reaches a crescendo, more women and children are inspired to perform short bursts of an exquisitely rhythmic pounding of the ground.
Fanding pulls me up and shows how to reward the ladies’ efforts. The game is to give them notes of small worth but lots of them, which they tuck into their costumes. The money they raise will go towards village projects, such as the women’s garden, loudspeaker batteries, even pocket money for themselves. I hope so.
Mel is sitting next to the ambulance driver, Chalo, who has received some much deserved attention. His quiet mantra throughout the day - ‘Happy Happy Happy’ – will be a treasured, abiding memory for us.
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The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.