UNTIL she touched down in Malawi, Olivia Giles’ only experience of Africa was a holiday to Cape Town: the beautiful beaches, the majesty of Table Mountain, good food, good times.
But when she arrived in one of the world’s poorest countries for the first time six years ago, the brutal nature of poverty in Africa became all too real – and she knew her plan to help amputees get the medical aids they needed to walk again was vital.
An Edinburgh lawyer, Olivia became a quadruple amputee 12 years ago when she caught meningococcal septicaemia which forced surgeons to amputate her hands and lower legs in order to save her life.
However, she says the indignity of people having to crawl on the ground or limp around on home-made wooden legs forced her into action in Africa.
Now the 48-year-old’s charity 500 Miles runs two clinics in Malawi with plans to open a third in Zambia, and she is aiming to raise £500,000 to help African amputees walk again – by getting Scots to sit down for a global dinner party on March 7.
The Big Dinner can be eaten anywhere and by anyone – as long as a £25 registration fee is paid and there is broadband access.
For all diners, including celebrities Fred MacAulay, Elaine C Smith and Hardeep Singh Kohli, will be linked up by social media and two short films about the work of 500 Miles will be broadcast to show how the charity is changing lives.
“When I lost my limbs 12 years ago I did a lot of work raising awareness about meningitis but by 2007 I thought I’d done as much as I could in that direction,” says Olivia. “I was well recovered from it – but I was still an amputee.
“Amputees are looked after in this country in terms of prosthetics and orthotics and I had a growing awareness that this wasn’t the case in other countries, particularly in developing nations. The thought of that, when I related it to my own fears of waking up in hospital and discovering what had happened to me.
“I found it appalling to think there were people in that position who were then literally left to crawl on the ground. So I started looking at what might be possible.”
Through her research she alighted on Malawi and Zambia, discovering that the countries had, in the past, reasonable standards of care for amputees funded by the UK and Norway, but that these programmes had dried up.
“The technical knowledge was still there, just not the devices. It seemed feasible to me to go there to see what was in place and how we could bring it up again. So I went out to Malawi in January 2008.
“It was quite a shock what I saw in Malawi and Zambia, and I wasn’t even in the rural communities on that trip. I was staying in hotels in Lilongwe and Blantyre, which were full of government workers from around the world and when I visited hospitals and spoke to amputees I did feel quite uncomfortable, like a white do-gooder. But witnessing the poverty first hand, seeing how people had to live their lives once they had lost a limb, it gave me a much better impression of what was needed and what we could offer.”
She adds: “People there lose their limbs because of poverty and poor health care. The most heart-breaking and avoidable cause is the lack of anti-biotics. There isn’t enough knowledge among the population about how to deal properly with infections from standing on a nail, or being bitten by an animal, and as a result by the time they get to the doctors all that can be done is amputation.
“But the biggest cause of amputation is road traffic accidents – poor vehicles, poor roads, a lack of lighting.”
Building relationships with ex-pats, officials in the ministry of health and other agencies was easy and she found that everyone seemed keen to get her help. However once she was back in the UK and progress was being made, red tape became a problem.
“Once they know you’re going ahead and will make an impact, then there are many more questions and hurdles to get over,” she says. “The plan was to build our own clinic in Lilongwe alongside the main hospital for the region, to offer prosthetics, to train staff with the help of the Malawi ministry of health, and while we would fund and manage the clinic, the staff would be employed by the ministry. It all took some doing to get agreement.”
Then in September 2008 Olivia had a stroke of luck. Asking for advice from Glasgow’s Lord Provost’s office she was offered a building kit which was all ready to ship. “They had raised funds to buy this building for Malawi, but the plans had fallen through. I was told I could have it. That was amazing,” she says.
“It was all in three containers which needed to be shipped out. All I had to pay for was the shipping costs and the flights of the builders from Glasgow City Building who came out to put it all together.
“Then I just needed a manager and that all fell into place as well, as a Norwegian lady who had worked at the prosthetic workshop in Blantyre in Malawi was keen to get involved, so we took her on.”
In March 2009, just 14 months after her first visit to Malawi, the doors of the 500 Miles Prosthetic and Orthotic Centre in the grounds of Kamuzu Central Hospital, opened and the first patients were admitted.
Since then a further clinic has been opened in Mzuzu in the northern region of Malawi in 2012, and in the six years of 500 Miles involvement in the country more than 5000 prosthetic or orthotic devices have been supplied to people with mobility problems.
“We have to constantly go out to make people aware of the existence of the service that is now offered so they can be seen sooner rather than later. In the past if they lived outside of town they had to be able to afford to get to town, to hospital, and then pay for what they needed.
“As a result people would try and fashion their own walking aids out of sticks, tied on with a bandage or whatever they had. It was very distressing to see, because they would make their stumps incredibly sore and painful, their knees would be permanently misshapen. While we do ask those who can afford it to pay for the prosthetic, the poor don’t have to.”
500 Miles pays £7500 per year to train the Malawi staff to be able to work with and fit prosthetics correctly, though they then go on the government payroll. The plan ultimately, says Olivia, is to hand over the clinics completely to the health ministry.
“The timescale was seven to ten years at the start, and it still is,” she laughs. “Eventually the clinics will be the government’s and we will help to raise funds solely for the devices, and we know how much they cost, so that should be a more simple matter. Our job there over the next seven years is to develop as much in-country income as possible so the funding gap is as small as possible.
“Now though we want to open a clinic in Lusaka in Zambia, run under the same arrangement with the government there. At present we just support existing services but we want to do more. If we can raise enough through The BIG Dinner that’s our aim, a new clinic, more access to devices and more trained staff.
“There is more we could do, physiotherapy, emotional support, economic support. In an ideal world that would be great, but what we can do is get people up on their feet.”
PLANS TO OPEN A NEW CLINIC IN ZAMBIA
SINCE the first 500 miles clinic opened in Malawi more than 5000 assistive devices have been supplied by the charity to those in need.
It is now attempting to build on that success and open a clinic in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.
Mubita Muyachi (pictured) and Kamayando Mushambatwa are just two patients from Mongu that received treatment this year thanks to the charity.
Olivia says: “Our role would be to kickstart the clinic – to erect the building and supply and fit the equipment and get the service running. We have trained a lot of Zambian clinical staff already but we would also train the administrative staff.
“The best way to bring what we have learned in Malawi to Zambia would be to place the Zambian personnel in our Malawi clinics for a period, where they will learn from their colleagues there.
“But of course, we would need a lot of money to realise our ambition – which is why The BIG Dinner needs to be a huge success.
“Every time someone registers to host a BIG dinner, that is another step towards realising our target.”
How to join the Dinner
The BIG Dinner works like this: arrange to host a dinner for family or friends in your home. Eat takeaway if you don’t want to cook, or guests could bring dishes. All you need to do is pay £25 to register for the event and your guests can make a donation on the night.
Then on March 7 you all sit down to eat together, and at 7.30pm and 10.30pm, switch on your laptop or tablet to watch two online broadcasts by the charity about its work. And you can also tweet your own dinner to @thebigdinner or post photos on the Big Dinner Facebook page.
“I wanted to do something everyone could take part in rather than throwing another fundraising ball, which only reaches a certain section of society,” says Olivia. “This is more inclusive. We all need to eat, we all need to walk. By having a BIG dinner, people can help people in Africa walk again.”
• To register for The Big Dinner visit http://bigdinner.co.uk/join