UCL Medical Physicists and a science fan support women’s collective in Gambia

8 May 2014

A UCL field study on infant brain development, and a chance encounter at a science communication event in a London pub, have changed the lives of women in a rural community in Keneba, The Gambia.

Researchers from UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering and Babylab, Birkbeck College were visiting the Medical Research Council field station in the village of Keneba in rural Gambia to investigate brain development in malnourished infants. Field workers from the centre – which provides free healthcare for the region, as well as a base for collecting research data – explained the project to local mothers and asked if they would be willing to have their infants participate in the study.

The all-female team from UCL, led by Professor Clare Elwell (UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering) were overwhelmed by the response, and the efforts made by Gambian families to help their study. Many mothers and infants travelled for over an hour on unmade roads so they could assist the researchers, having seen the good done by the clinic.


The original garden

While they visited the village, members of a local women’s collective, known as the Kaafo, invited the researchers to come and see the work they had been doing to transform a barren patch of land into a garden. The main aim of the Kaafo is to engage in small scale communal subsistence farming and income generating activities of which gardening is the main activity.  The researchers were impressed with the dedication and hard work of the women in creating the garden, and the incredibly supportive response from the community in helping with the study, and asked if there was anything they could do to help the Kaafo. The local women explained that they had secured a larger plot of land and that they had started a subscription scheme to save money to enable them to start farming the larger plot of land. Funds were required to purchase items ranging from nails and fencing materials to a solar powered pump to supply water from a borehole. The team returned to London with plans to raise funds to help the Kaafo.

Some weeks later, researchers from the team were participating in a pub-based evening of science communication as part of the Pint of Science series. At the end of the talk they told the London pub audience of the Kaafo’s needs and asked for donations. Seeing just a few coins in the bucket city financier, Peter Brewer, a member of the audience, approached the fundraisers and offered to contribute a cheque for the whole amount.

Peter realised how much fundraising it would take to collect the amount in small bits, and was confident that through the community connections of the researchers the money would go directly to the people who needed it. Peter explained:

“I love events like Pint of Science where I can talk to real scientists and catch up with the science I love, and this seemed like a great opportunity to give to a community that were enabling that science to happen.”

Professor Elwell was welcomed back to Keneba on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2014 with her family to see the opened farm which has enabled the Kaafo to farm all year round and have the freedom to grow what they need.



The members of the Kaafo with Professor Clare Elwell

Nanyana Ceesay, the President of the Kaafo explained:

“This new farm is all fenced and it is fantastic. That is the number one difference we notice, we don’t worry about animals destroying our crops anymore. The second difference is the space, the garden is huge compared to the one we had before – it’s at least twenty times bigger. The Kaafo are now growing what they want to grow. Here we can farm all year round.  We have more freedom in what we can grow and how much we can harvest. We are very happy about these benefits. We’ve only started it just now but it’s made a huge difference and we expect even bigger benefits in the future. This has strengthened the bond between us as women. We are there for each other, standing for each other, and working together.”


The new solar powered pump supplying water from a borehole

The new solar powered pump supplying water from a borehole

Professor Elwell says:

“We were inspired by these women, who were working on an all-woman project like us. We appreciated their help and were inspired by their farming initiative. Peter Brewer’s donation has really changed their lives and that of their community.”

To listen to Professor Elwell’s full interview with the members of the Kaafo please see below:

The project currently being researched by Professor Elwell and her group uses an optical imaging technique investigate brain developing in infants. Previous studies using this technique have looked at infants at risk of autism in the UK – see a video here. In this stream of research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they are looking for key indicators of malnutrition so that aid can be given at the point where it will do the most good.

You can keep up with the work of the group via their website and via their Twitter feed @globalfnirs


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