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.
We 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.
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.