I had a vision. A vision where we could share good practise and create opportunities for the visually-impaired worldwide.
This vision was shared with Dr John Patterson, Headmaster of St Vincent’s school for visually impaired in Liverpool. Together we are working to make sure dreams and journeys of peace came true for thousands of visually-impaired children.
As ambassador of the Sightbox Trust, my dream was to go back to The Gambia and spend time with visually-impaired children and young adults, developing their communication skills, confidence and independence.
A pleasure to speak tonight to Angela currently stranded in Gambia due to lockdown. She and her husband Nigel are oksy and are being supported wonderfully by the British High Commission
She’s been an amazing life changing ambassador for Liverpool. Stay safe x pic.twitter.com/YjPJ7lmlBe
— Gary Millar (@garymillar) March 24, 2020
So, having given up a full-time job, much planning and a programme put together, packed 120kg of equipment which included our clothing, held a bon voyage party to say farewell to family and friends, Nigel and I took off on November 9th, 2019 from Manchester Airport to Banjul in The Gambia for five months.
On arrival at Banjul airport, we were unexpectedly met at the bottom of the steps of the plane by VIP security. Bags collected and passports stamped, we were driven to where we would be staying for the next five months. Our accommodation was a two-bedroom bungalow, semi- furnished, in a secure compound with a 4×4 vehicle.
It did not take long to settle in amongst our friends and acclimatise to 11 hours of hot sunshine every day, as well as facing the challenges of daily water and power failure!
Many meetings were planned in our programme – this included meeting various Government Ministers, the British High Commissioner, the five Rotary clubs in The Gambia and visiting the compounds of local people and their families, attending gala dinners, being interviewed on TV and organising a hospitality night.
Sightbox was introduced to Start Now and GOVI (Government Organisation for Visually Impaired) in The Gambia back in January 2018 from a visit to St Vincent’s School for Visually impaired in Liverpool by Past Assistant Governor Rotarian, Minyan Jobe.
He could see how the educational tools through sport in the box would make a huge difference and empower the lives of the visually impaired in The Gambia; for example, mobility, confidence, independence, team building, friendship, education, and inclusion.
Through inclusion and non-segregation comes reverse inclusion as sighted and non-sighted students work together and, in time, become the trainers of the trainers.
This all leads to innovation and employment, as well as coming up with new ideas for the box which have not yet been generated.
We are now beginning to see not only the national exam results in mathematics improve but we are now also covering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 3,4,5,8, 10 and 17. All this coming from working with something which is so simple.
We have made various presentations during our five months here, which has included giving white canes, gym kits, projectors, laptops, hand balls with bells, and card games in braille.
The first eye test box is being put to use to help provide correct glasses for people with albinism and low vision. I spoke at seminars to make sure people with disabilities whatever they are, are not segregated but included.
It did not take long to settle in amongst our friends and acclimatise to 11 hours of hot sunshine every day, as well as facing the challenges of daily water and power failure.”
No one has a disability – it is an ability with a challenge.
The hand balls went into rural Gambia where four hubs for blind and visually impaired are being set up by Alieu Jaiteh from Start Now. Alieu is a Gambian winner of the Holman Prize Award. The Holman Prize is named after James Holman, a nineteenth century blind explorer, and is awarded to three blind or legally blind individuals who want to push limits and change perceptions about blindness around the world.
The first of these hubs opened on Saturday, February 15th in the Upper Rural Region in town of Basse. I drove the 350km to Basse to attend the opening ceremony and give a statement, before taking the first training session with the hand balls.
Downtime was also important in the planning so that we could explore the countryside and admire the birds, flowers, animals, and also sample the good food and wine.
My dream was certainly fulfilled and much, much, more but I am now going to share with you a challenge I had to overcome and one experience which really stood out.
For the first meeting at GOVI school, I noticed that there was only one sighted teacher at the school and, out of the 35 students, only three or four had some vision. This was something I had to overcome and overcome fast.
Angela, you have the passion, you have a strong heart, go and teach the teachers and children. I know you can do it, and they will love you for it, as you will be helping to change their lives.”
Luckily, 17-year-old Matida, a past Head Girl from GOVI, who I had met back in January 2018, had invited us to go and visit her and her family in their compound.
Matida has very, very, low vision and was so happy to meet us again. She has now been placed in a school for sighted children and is doing very well.
I mentioned to her my concerns over a small cup of hot condensed milk with mint and lemon grass, sat under the mango tree. Matida looked at me, took my hand and said: “Angela, you have the passion, you have a strong heart, go and teach the teachers and children. I know you can do it, and they will love you for it, as you will be helping to change their lives.”
To hear those words from a 17-year-old, who I had only met and taught briefly on my previous visits, was very touching.
I made a promise to her I would overcome this challenge and succeed – and this I certainly did.
The experience I have chosen to share is of one which took us to Dakar in Senegal. I had done some research and discovered the Mercy Ship, Africa Mercy, was docked in Dakar until June this year.
1 of 7 laptops presented at Start Now. Once programmed with NVDA the journey of inclusion continues#2020for2030 @DrJohnAPatters1 @SightboxUK @StVincentsL12 @garymillar @DFID_UK @lionsofficial @JohnHewko @SharonWardleFCO @Rotary1180 @Rotaryeditor @_silverandrose pic.twitter.com/C1gvB4C4MO
— angela (@angela78206168) March 13, 2020
I sent an email explaining who I was and what I was doing and asked if it possible to board the ship. After some time, I received an email to say that we could go on board the ship and have a two-hour tour to see the work that was being done to improve people’s lives.
As you can imagine this was an experience never to be forgotten. Meeting the crew, surgeons, patients and their families was truly amazing.
What made the experience of being on Africa Mercy even more special was that, as ambassador of Sightbox Trust, I was allowed to present the ship with a Sightbox to help all patients and families on board with sight issues.
This box will now remain on board and will travel wherever the ship goes.
The new Mercy Ship being built, with the help of Rotary and Inner Wheel, will also have Sightbox on board. What an honour for Sightbox Trust and also to be allowed to go on board any time I wish in the future.
This has certainly been one very special dream and one I will never forget.
We are safe, and well, and hopefully we will be able to say farewell to everyone we have met here.”
Having driven some 4231 kilometres, I was hoping to return on March 24th, but the dream has had a different ending.
Because of the coronavirus, our flight home from Banjul was cancelled.
Many tourists were able to get home with their airline, but our airline has left us here with no confirmed date of departure.
As there are few of us left here and to keep coronavirus at bay, the summer season closed a month early which has meant all of the hotels, bars, and restaurants are now closed.
This measure has also included closing all schools and universities in The Gambia for three weeks.
The airport is only open for emergency supplies of medicines and food.
With the help and assistance of Rotarians, we have secured accommodation until we can get home, along with extra medication.
We now wait patiently until we hear the sound of the plane that has been agreed to fly in to take us home or when the airport has been opened for normal travel, which could be a few months down the line.
We are safe, and well, and hopefully we will be able to say farewell to everyone we have met here, as this part of my dream was taken away from me.