dscn00013.jpgBack in 1993, when IF first came to the African continent, it worked together with a Dutch NGO and a local neurosurgeon who operated on children with Spina Bifida in Nairobi.
At that time we were organizing a training seminar on the handicaps we were representing. Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus are two complex handicaps, whereby care starts with the treatment of the Hydrocephalus. In order to do this a silicone tube has to be inserted which diverts the excess water under the skin back to the abdominal cavity. We call this device a shunt and this little thing was not available in Africa.
IF imported these shunts into Africa because without treatment the handicap for these children would have become much more severe.
The surgeon invited several people to this workshop. One of them was Geert Vanneste, who is an expert in Community Based Rehabilitation or CBR. The problem is that after insertion of the shunt not all problems have disappeared. Our first concern was to operate these kids sooner than later, so brain damage and blindness could be avoided. CBR was in a position to locate these kids on a timely basis and was in a position to ensure aftercare.
Geert gave an excellent lecture on how the local African health systems achieved CBR. Using a blackboard he drew a picture showing how CBR was to reach the local communities. This was a long chain of organizations and services. The higher up the chain the more luxurious the offices became. All the way from air-conditioning down to a broken electric fan.
However at the end of the chain he drew a mother with a handicapped child. Lonesome and without any help. Geert cried out that CBR should be community driven and completely free of charge.
He turned against the new NGO’s because they made the same mistakes as the first ones. He fought for paid CBR workers. They need training and if you do not pay them they will not stay on. The audience looked baffled. We at IF felt like one of these new NGO’s. In addition we had invited people from several ministries and the Dutch only worked with voluntary workers and did not invest in training.
The audience took note but the applause was meagre. During the break, a surly Geert retreated to one of the tables in the back. I joined him because I felt that this was a guy I needed. As a father of a child with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus how one could find oneself standing at the end of the chain with all your needs and wants.
 During the entire lecture I heard and felt how Geert defended these mothers. When a mother walks for hours carrying a child on her back looking for medical help, she is entitled to adequate assistance.
10 years have passed. IF now supports 7 projects in 6 countries and operates on more than 500 children a year. They take care of the aftercare and solve where possible complex problems with simple and affordable methods.
Geert has been instrumental in guiding these efforts. He has placed his expertise and his network at our disposal voluntarily. He also put Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus on the map at CBM. They all have been projects which started at the end of the chain; the needs of handicapped children in Africa. It became a project with many ups and downs. However, what we achieved will not go away and remain were it is. Together with Geert we intent to initiate new projects in order to ensure that children with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus are being cared for.
The first 10 years of our co-operation have been fascinating. Geert’s drive is fuelled by the people at the end of the chain. Not by ministries, not by donors but by the mothers with handicapped children in Africa. That’s why the IF 2003 award is for Geert Vanneste. He earned it. Congratulations.
Pierre Mertens
IF President
December 2003

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