Hello from Sierra Leone!

Hello from Sierra Leone!

Sarah Hubbard tells us what’s been going on at Sierra Leone’s National School for the Deaf.

Time has been flying here in West Africa, and work has been progressing. As of now we have painted almost the entire inside of the school! It’s a wonder what a fresh coat of paint can do for a place. We have chosen some bright new colors for the corridors and classrooms and even had some new wooden strips varnished and put up. Check out the before and after shots:

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With just a few more rooms to got we should be done with the interior in a matter of weeks (though the phrase “No hurry in Africa” has never been more true)!  We still have plans for more building renovations, including skylights to brighten up the dark rooms, some new chairs and desks for the classrooms, and  maybe even a paint job for the outside.

We have also been having sign language classes for the teachers, and are doing our best to keep everyone motivated and practicing their sign language. We will continue the classes until I depart in August and, depending on a few factors, they may even be able to continue after that.

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We are also in the process of arranging for three of the teachers in Freetown to travel to Makeni (a three to four hour drive) to attend a certificate course in teaching deaf children. If all goes well, we will continue to send more teachers.

Though the rains are truly setting in here in Freetown, we are doing our best to keep progress moving! The rains are really bad in July and August so we are trying to get the necessary outside renovations done before then.

Thank you again to all who are helping me here in Freetown, back in the States, and especially to Sound Seekers for making it all possible!

Much love from sweet, sweet, Salone.

Kerry’s marathon

Kerry’s marathon

Kerry Downes, an audiologist at St. George’s Hospital NHS Trust in London, ran the London marathon for Sound Seekers and raised over £2,000 in the process. We asked Kerry about all the training, fundraising, and of course the big day itself.

13902925013_d4b8922bf9_bHaving done a half marathon and a few 10 km runs over the years, I’d always wanted to do a full marathon – so when the opportunity came to run the London Marathon for Sound Seekers, I jumped at the chance. My trip to Sierra Leone in November was still fresh in my mind, so I knew just how important every penny raised would be. However the task of raising £2000 in 10 weeks was initially as daunting as the run itself. Working as an audiologist definitely helped as patients and colleagues were particularly interested in the work that Sound Seekers do. While most money came from donations, a cake stall at work and a raffle with prizes donated from local businesses together raised nearly £500. I also emailed the local papers around the area I’d grown up, and they kindly printed articles about my trip to Sierra Leone and fundraising efforts. I was overwhelmed by people’s generosity. Huge donations came in – from colleagues and patients to my tennis coach 20 years ago and even strangers!

Training had its ups and downs. Running after work in January in the cold and rain wasn’t ever going to be fun, and I suffered from the common runner’s injury ITBS syndrome fairly early on – meaning a few weeks off in my already tight 11 week training window. But my distances slowly increased and my knee eventually healed. I’d only managed 17 miles before the big day, I quite simply ran(!) out of time, so was quite nervous about not finishing.

The sun shone beautifully on the day and the supporters were even more amazing than I’d anticipated. My family came down from Yorkshire and many friends in London came along to support me along the route, I even spotted Emily from Sound Seekers at mile 15 thanks to her good set of lungs screaming my name! Miles 20-25 were seriously hard, but the miles crawled by and at last I was turning that corner by Big Ben and heading down the Mall to get my medal.

Whilst fundraising can be daunting, I’m so glad I did it for a cause close to my heart as it made the run all the more meaningful (and something to concentrate on in those moments of pain!). I reached and even exceeded my £2k goal, and will remember the day forever.

Elizabeth and the Kansenshi Basic School in Ndola, Zambia

Elizabeth and the Kansenshi Basic School in Ndola, Zambia

Lucy (Sound Seekers CEO) brings us up to speed on work in Ndola, Zambia

One of the best things about my job is the opportunity to get to know people in the seven countries where we have projects, and being able to enrich these relationships with each visit. The most fun aspect of this is revisiting schools for the deaf, where I can reconnect with children who I haven’t seen for a year or so, and who with any luck remember me and my sign name ‘bell’, which involves miming ringing a bell.

And so it was that in September, I found myself again at the unit for deaf children at Kansenshi Basic School in Ndola, Zambia. The last time I visited Kansenshi was during International Week of the Deaf in September 2012, when Sound Seekers supported a clinic at the school for ear care and hearing aid fitting. We were lucky to have with us a photographer, Emma Case, who took lots of beautiful photos of the children, including the award-winning (not really, but should have been) photo of 7 year old Elizabeth Zimba, below.

Elizabeth looking thoughtful

I’m happy to report that many of the children at Kansenshi appeared to remember me, and my cockles were warmed when Elizabeth greeted me with a big hug! I organised with the head teacher, Mabel, a screening of Emma’s photos from 2012 for all the children. A room full of over-excited deaf children is a very noisy and entertaining place – they found seeing themselves on the big screen absolutely hysterical. I had asked Mabel in advance of the screening to invite Elizabeth’s mother along, firstly because I wanted to give her copies of the beautiful photos of her daughter, and secondly because I wanted to understand more about what life is like for a deaf child in Zambia, and Elizabeth seemed the obvious place to start.


Cecilia and Francis Zimba have six children, and Elizabeth is number four. Cecilia says that when Elizabeth was about one and a half, she noticed that she wasn’t communicating in the same way that her other children had. Elizabeth also has a very distinctive appearance in that she has blue eyes and some streaks of grey hair. Medical professionals in the UK have seen photos of Elizabeth and conclude that it is highly likely that she has Waardenburg Syndrome, however Cecilia Zimba has never heard of that. To her and the rest of the family, Elizabeth has always simply been deaf and unable to speak, and as a family they have had to learn how to interact with her so that she is not isolated. The efforts the family has gone to (Cecilia has been learning sign language through her church and Elizabeth’s siblings have picked up signs from Elizabeth herself), and the fact that Elizabeth is enrolled at a special unit for deaf children means that Elizabeth is luckier than many other deaf children in Zambia, and sub-Saharan Africa more generally. Many of Elizabeth’s fellow pupils at the unit for deaf children in Ndola are young adults, even though it is a primary school. This is because deaf children in poor countries often start school much later than they should, either because parents don’t understand what is wrong with their child in the first place or because they have subscribed to the commonly held belief that deaf children cannot be educated.

On visiting Elizabeth at home, it is pretty clear that despite being the only deaf member of the family, she is usually at the centre of things. During my short visit, she commandeered my attention by extravagantly showing me around the small family home and making absolutely certain that I had a good look at her various school exercise books by pushing them under my nose. Elizabeth’s family is very poor – as the photos below show. There is no running water in the household, sporadic electricity supply, and Elizabeth shares a bedroom with an older sister and aunt – all sleeping together on some thin mats and blankets that barely separate them from the hard floor. Five years ago, Elizabeth’s father had a stroke, leaving him partially paralysed and limiting his earning capacity; now, the little income that the family has comes from selling chickens and grocery products in their community. When I showed the pictures below during an assembly at Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury, the week after I returned from Zambia, the children’s eyes were as large as saucers.

It is sobering to remember that had Elizabeth been born in UK, her deafness would have been identified at birth and it is highly likely that she would have been fitted with a cochlear implant, maybe even two (like many of the pupils at Mary Hare). As a result, she would have had a good chance of developing speech and language, and her horizons would be significantly broader than they are now.


5. Elizabeth's bedroom
6. Family kitchen
7. Washing up
8. Dining room

Despite the difficult conditions that they live in, I was at pains to emphasise to the children at Mary Hare that Elizabeth comes from a happy and loving family, and Cecilia and Francis Zimba are doing their best for all of their children. Their eldest sons, aged 23 and 19, are both still in education and keen to pursue careers in medicine and engineering respectively. Elizabeth is clearly bright and hopefully will continue to do well at school. Since my visit, the Sound Seekers team in Ndola has fitted her with hearing aids. Although these won’t enable her to develop speech overnight, she will be able to pick up more sounds, especially loud sounds. This is not trivial – deaf children are very vulnerable pedestrians, and hearing aids will help Elizabeth hear a large truck approaching from behind when she couldn’t before. They may also help her pick up more sounds when she’s dancing, Elizabeth loves to dance.

9. Elizabeth dancing

Sound Seekers is working with the main hospital in Ndola, Elizabeth’s home town, to establish quality audiology services. This includes training health personnel, providing equipment and organising placements of audiology and ENT professionals to support Zambian staff to upgrade their skills.


Thanks to our corporate partner Arco

Thanks to our corporate partner Arco

In early August Lucy and Stuart visited the Arco Ltd HQ in Hull and collected an amazing donation of £8,597.48!  This year Arco, the UK’s leading safety company, donated a portion of the profits from their hearing protection range to Sound Seekers and we are thrilled that they will continue to support us for at least another year.


Cameroon – Colder, rainier, prettier, cleaner and better even than I’d hoped!

Lucy (Sound Seekers CEO) blogs from a trip to Sierra Leone

Another African country where I’ve underpacked, thinking I was going to be sweating rather than shivering.  Unlike my Malawi trip, I’d remembered to look at the weather forecast this time, but forgot that weather stations are quite a long way away from each other in Africa. And hence not to be relied upon. So yet again, I have to sport my running trainers with my proper clothes, watch the water seep up my freshly-ironed linen trousers from the ankles upwards,  and wear my jumper in bed, with blankets stolen off other (unoccupied) beds in the room.


But apart from the chill, and glasses of wine being strictly verboten, what a treat. As a project, Cameroon has been at a standstill for too long, because we just couldn’t get traction with the Ministry of Health in the commercial capital, Douala. Then last year, Emily met Dr Everistus Acha, the ENT surgeon at the hospital run by the Cameroon Baptist Convention in North West Cameroon. He actually asked to work with us.  And if I would dare to venture that I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that “wanting” is the sine qua non of all development work.

IMG_2085We took a risk and sent one of Dr Acha’s nurses, Rephah Chia, to the University of Nairobi to do a year-long Audiology Diploma. This doesn’t make her a fully qualified audiologist, but she can do an awful lot: not least test hearing, identify problems, clean out wax, refer to ENT for further treatment, and fit hearing aids.  Rephah is great. Her flight back from Nairobi was two days late, and it’s a six-hour drive from the airport to the hospital, but she still came to work straightaway, without resting or catching up with her family.

The hospital is beautiful.  Here are some of the things that it has that British hospitals don’t have: Mountains. Mist. Lightning. Sodden chunks of cloud lingering on the hills. A chapel with a church service at 6.40am every day, with a choir rocking out and playing electric guitars.  People sitting in the walkways eating food from plastic tiffin tins, knitting, playing cards, and setting up backgammon tournaments.  Children doing gymnastics on the lawns, and washing drying on every hedge and wall. A market selling fresh fruit, and roast nuts – no vending machines.

Conor in consulting room Cameroon Oct 2013

A compulsory baby for (nearly) every patient.  Children in school uniform marching purposefully through the grounds on their way to and from classes.  I think I like all of this a lot. I also like how clean it was, and how patients pretty much looked happy, and how the doctors and nurses treated them with respect and tried to reduce waiting times. I liked the way the hospital administrator was organised and interested and kept the appointment we’d made to sign the contract for the project.

Conor Boland came with me. Conor is a UK audiologist who came as a volunteer.  Both my bags were stashed full of audiological equipment, including a Hi-Pro, an audiometer, a tympanometer, and a stack of consumables. The hospital had already cunningly set aside space and built a sound-proofed area, so Conor created an audiology clinic in one morning – good job, Conor!

Rephah was seeing patients by the next day: the first fitting of hearing aids in that hospital for a long time. I was most moved by a teenage girl who came of her own accord because she couldn’t hear her friends. Conor and Rephah worked out that one ear was completely dead, and gave her a hearing aid to boost the other one. She said that maths was her favourite subject. It was mine too, so I hope she can hear more lovely algebra now.

On the Friday morning, I left Conor to do a further week’s training with Rephah, and headed back to London.  This was a 24 hour journey punctuated only by stopping for a loo-trip and a bag of carrots on the road, like a big human-horse hybrid, and then a delicious glass of champagne with friends in Douala.  I am trying to forget the airport chaos and Air France departure holding pen, helpfully moistened by a leaking loo, and remember the energy and fun of the hospital and the Baptist missionaries there.  “May the Dear Lord be with you throughout this day”. Indeed. There are far worse ways to say goodbye.


Back in East Africa – land of the mouse kebab

Back in East Africa – land of the mouse kebab

Lucy (Sound Seekers CEO) tells us about her first trip to Malawi

My first time in Malawi. A huge welcome from the Bartletts at the ABC Hearing Clinic, who welcomed me into their family for the whole weekend, providing piles of pancakes and showing me round Lilongwe. The first time for seeing a roast mouse kebab (five little blackened corpses on a stick, which would make my cats feel like there was some justice in the world after all) and the second coldest I’ve been in Africa.  The first coldest was in the volcanoes in Rwanda, when I was woefully underpacked.  The same woeful underpacking had occurred this time, reducing me to wearing socks with sandals in a non-ironic way. And heating up a brick in the oven where I was staying, and taking it to bed with me.  Although I had a fairly comprehensive moan about it, it was a good reminder about how tough life can be for the people Sound Seekers are trying to help. I was only there for a week, freezing but healthy and full of beans – and then heading home to a bizarrely warm England. Going on outreach with ABC Hearing Clinic and Project Compassion was the fresh shock all over again of how poor people really are, and how early treatment could make people happy and pain-free so much sooner than the reality. I saw Peter Bartlett and his team carefully and delicately dig out huge plugs of rock-solid, dark brown earwax that had been keeping people in silence for years. It took an hour to pull out a red bead from deep inside an old woman’s ear, with so much wax grown round it that she’d been unnecessarily deaf for far too long.     I saw people queuing patiently for hours for ear infection treatment that would be sorted out in minutes back in prosperous England. And children so serious and hard-working that there was no chance of play audiometry, because they didn’t have any idea of an adult focusing on them and just having fun.

Clinic QueueI hope we can do a lot more in Malawi, and we have the exciting prospect of extending our work there. I would love to deepen the audiology service in Blantyre, building with Dr Wakisa Mulwafu, the only ENT doctor in the country. We want to be greater than the sum of our parts, collaborating with other NGOs. We’re gratefully accepting help from the ABC Hearing Clinic with supporting our sponsored audiological associate in Blantyre for a week a month (thanks, Rosanna!) and hope that we’re helping them by sending a HARK mobile hearing clinic to make more outreach possible.  The cold and the six hour wait in Addis Ababa airport are almost forgotten and forgiven when I remember the sun in Lilongwe, the poppadums bigger than my head in an Indian restaurant in Blantyre, and most of all seeing people hearing again after treatment. The brand-new Cadbury’s Dairy Milk flavour and the costumed dancers at the airport welcoming the inaugural direct flight from Kenya were pretty good too.


Volunteering in Ndola

Volunteering in Ndola

Earlier this year, Adonye Banigo volunteered for Sound Seekers in Ndola, Zambia. We asked him about his experience and what advice he would give to anyone planning to volunteer with Sound Seekers.

Q Why did you agree to volunteer for Sound Seekers in Zambia?
A Well, volunteering for Sound Seekers was sort of my idea. Sound Seekers provides a perfect combination of my chosen specialty as a doctor (Ear, Nose and Throat surgery) and my passion for improving the lives of children and adults in the developing world. I approached Sound Seekers in August 2011 and expressed my desire to volunteer, I also attended the AGM in December 2011 and saw some of the work being done. At the time there didn’t really seem to be any projects I could get involved in, until Emily Bell came along. And anyone who knows Emily knows how passionate she is about projects in the developing world. It was an interesting turn of events because I had got used to pestering Sound Seekers about getting onto a volunteer project; now I was having to explain to Emily that a year of volunteering was probably a bit too long for me! Next thing I knew I was jetting off to Lusaka. I was willing to go to any African country, really and Zambia just happened by chance, but I cannot emphasise how blessed and lucky I am to have visited such a beautiful country with amazing people.

Q How did it feel volunteering in an African country having lived in the U.K. for so long?
A It felt wonderful volunteering in an African country, it was easy to settle in and mix with the locals. I did voluntary work in Gambia and Senegal during medical school so I have had some experience of volunteering in Africa. I remember back then it struck me how different other West African countries were from my home country, Nigeria. Zambia was even more different, from the weather which distinctly lacked humidity to the tolerant calm people that always seemed willing to help. African countries are very unique with different healthcare needs, so I learnt the importance of targeting my volunteering experience to areas of most need.

Q What was the high point for you?
A The HARK! out-reach in Kanseshi Basic School for the deaf was an amazing experience. It was a busy two days where we saw many students and tested their hearing. What made it special was seeing how the students did not let their hearing and speech impairment affect their ability to interact. They were outgoing, confident and entertaining.
In a brief interlude during the day, we had a deaf musician perform and he got everyone on their feet showing off their dance moves. Emma Case photographed many of these fantastic moments.

Q What do you feel you gained from the experience?
A I learnt that even though I am still in training to become a qualified ENT surgeon, I have acquired knowledge and skills I can use to improve the lives of deaf people in the developing world. I gained more confidence and a feeling of self-worth, a contrast to life working in the NHS where one can feel insignificant and not appreciated at times. From all the staff I met in the different hospitals I visited in Zambia, I have gained a lot of friends who are like my family now and I know we will continue to keep in touch for many years to come.

Q How do you feel the work Sound Seekers does makes a difference in developing countries?
A Sound Seekers is doing significant work in developing countries and making a huge impact on many lives. The HARK! outreach service provides primary ear care to individuals in remote areas. The training courses funded by Sound Seekers are building local knowledge and expertise. The equipment we supply is aiding diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose and throat disorders. Now we are looking to set up local training courses in Zambia for ENT clinical officers, which will help boost the numbers of clinicians with ENT expertise in the country. I feel privileged to be a part of Sound Seekers and I hope more funding becomes available to help support our work.

Q What three pieces of advice do you have for other potential volunteers?
A Do it, do it, do it! Volunteering for Sound Seekers is an experience that will stay with you for life for all the right reasons. And because Sound Seekers is a relatively small organisation, it is personable and has a close-knit group of staff that will make sure you are looked after when you volunteer. If you don’t quite feel up to jetting off to an African country you know little about, there are lots of other ways you can volunteer by raising money locally through charity events, etc. Get in touch with the very nice Sound Seekers team for more info.

Q If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and why?
A I would eradicate poverty and the disparity between the rich and the poor because poverty is a common denominator in individuals in developing countries with poor health.

Q What are your future plans? Are there any more missions on the horizon?
A I have lots of plans for the future, but in relation to volunteering I have no further missions planned as yet but watch this space…

Kiwani’s International UK Brixton Branch fundraising concert

Kiwani’s International UK Brixton Branch fundraising concert

Kiwani’s International UK Brixton Branch are holding a fundraising concert in aid of Sound Seekers at 7.30pm on Friday 16th September.

The concert is being held at the Leighton House Museum on Holland Park Road, London, and will feature a piano and soprano recital by three incredibly talented soloists, who will perform a selection of music and songs from a classical tradition. Perhaps more interestingly, the programme will also feature work from the African-American composer John Wesley Work, and also a selection of Jamaican folk songs.

Tickets cost £35, or £20 for concessions, and include an interval drink.


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