“I couldn’t save my daughter’s life, but I can save others.”

Inspirational Marketing Consultant Faye Smith explains how the death of her 12 year old daughter, Gabi, from Non Epileptic Attack Disorder, led her to dedicate her life to helping others – as she  follows her daughter’s dreams to help save lives.

It’s New Years Day and my body is fighting off seven tropical and more humdrum diseases. MMR at 53? Really? I can’t lift my arms above my shoulders and I ache all over. I also hate injections. But I steeled myself to pay this small price to go to Africa in January with my friend and inspiration, former deputy head and award-wining Geography teacher- turned social entrepreneur Ken Dunn.

How Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder changed my life forever

When in March 2013, my twelve year-old daughter Gabi died suddenly of a rare trauma-related condition called Non Epileptic Attack Disorder, drowning in the bath one Saturday morning- my life purpose, my priorities, my reason to exist, changed forever in that instant. It is something only another bereaved parent can truly understand, and I have met many of those in recent years for mutual support and understanding.

Trying to explain that sea change to others, the metaphor I use is the last scene of that epic movie ‘Titanic’ with Kate Winslet as the heroine. If you have seen the movie, you will likely remember the powerful final scene as Rose (Winslet) lies dying at a ripe old age, remembering her lost love Jack who sacrificed his life for hers in the icy waters of the Atlantic. The camera pans around her cabin where the viewer sees many framed photographs of all the things Rose achieved in her life which she and Jack had dreamed of doing together. She couldn’t do those things with him, but she could live her life for Jack, in his honour. That is how I see my life now.

So, widowed two years before Gabi died and with my son having graduated and living happily in London, I find myself prioritising life very differently and looking at how I can best serve others in her memory. I couldn’t save her life, but there are other mums across the world who will see their children die before their eyes if people like me don’t step up and out to educate and share their resources.

My trip to Africa

Emboldened by a two-month sabbatical from work to explore Australia solo in 2016, an adventure I had promised we would have together, and inspired by my son’s volunteering in Tanzania and Kenya, I am heading to the Southern African mountain kingdom of Lesotho in January this year.

Just before she died, Gabi had changed her career goal from Tudor historian to children’s doctor, so she could help children like her. I am now heading to one of the poorest countries on earth, entering via one of the world’s most unequal countries to save lives in honour of her dream.

My guide will be Dr Ken Dunn, who founded the charity Africa’s Gift. Ken will be leading me and my co-workers, a group of interesting and keen retired folk from University of the Third Age in East Yorkshire. We shall be planting trees to stabilise the soil and ensure our trip is carbon positive, working on a teaching farm adjacent to a church and schools, helping in nearby schools and creches and seeing how we can support a sewing enterprise.

Running a social purpose communications and management consultancy where I have been supporting small business start-ups for more than a decade, I am particularly excited to see what skills I can offer for community development. I love Ken’s ethos that we are working in partnership with local people- not doing things to them.

Ken, fresh back from development work in Malawi, started our first group briefing understandably enraged at a recent Christmas advert slogan which urged: “Don’t buy what you need, buy what you want’. He explained:

“The work we do will always come from needs expressed in the community by health practitioners and community leaders.”

Saving lives and cutting carbon emissions

Enterprises are springing up because thanks to a cooking innovation called Wonderbag we will be demonstrating in each community we visit, women are no longer time poor. Examples are start-ups producing washable sanitary pads for girls starting school and craft production. We will work alongside these dynamic women entrepreneurs and be welcomed into their communities. We are not seeking trauma, but we may well see and experience things that will disturb us, so each evening we will have a ‘download’ talk in the lodges.”

I think the area I am most excited about is showing women how to save their lives by using an award-winning environmentally- friendly revolutionary cloth slow cooker called a Wonderbag.

Endorsed by celebrity chefs including our own Jamie Oliver, I will be spending my Christmas holiday learning to cook with one so I can demonstrate its simple life-saving brilliance to every community I come into contact with. Ken explains:

“Every bag is a carbon mitigator. In the UK we use 10 tons of carbon each, more if we drive a car and fly on holidays. Last year, Sheffield Hallam University Masters students conducted research into Wonderbag’s impact, showing extraordinary results – comments from locals such as: ‘this bag saved my eyesight’ and ‘thank you for giving me my life back’. Independent research carried out in Rwanda shows each bag activated saves an astonishing 1.6 tons of carbon being released.”

This fantastic development, recognized as one of the top 50 world-changing innovations, is changing and saving lives in Africa, by reducing the amount of time spent stirring the pot and collecting fuel wood, as well as cutting the amount of water required by 80%. The Wonderbag works as a slow cooker; once food has been brought to the boil, the pot is removed from the heat source and placed into the insulated bag to finish cooking. The King of Lesotho holds the role of Ambassador of Nutrition across the African Union, so he is a huge fan of the way Wonderbag keeps all the nutrients in the food, rather than escaping with the steam as water levels are topped up.

The dangers of open fire cooking – and the lives they cost

Over 3 billion of the earth’s population, 50% of humanity, still cook on an open fire. 4 million people across the planet die annually from indoor air pollution causes because of inhaling burning fossil fuels. Half those deaths are children under the age of 5 years. Six people every minute, one every ten seconds. Such open fire cooking can also cause terrible burns and even blindness. In just one refugee camp in Darfur, over 200 women a month were being raped while walking up to 10 kilometres a day to find firewood. These women are experiencing over 200 times smoke inhalation recommended safety levels. And Wonderbags allow girls to go back into schools instead of pot-stirring.

That is, only if they have black school shoes. Lesotho was formerly a British Protectorate and school uniform policy means no education without uniform and black shoes.

To solve this problem, Ken has come up with ‘Happy Feet Days’ in schools, a fun, easy non-uniform day for feet, where pupils bring in old shoes of any sort to be sold in the markets of Accra which generates money for school shoes. Shoes are sold at an affordable price to local African traders once they have been cleaned, sorted, mended and distributed by locals- all helping the economy. Only high boots, slippers and wellingtons cannot be sold. All school shoes are allocated through the Malealea Development Trust.

Me and the team are asking for donations any rugged or trekking shoes/ boots and black school shoes- particularly for girls, to squeeze into our cases.

I certainly never dreamt as I grew up in my nice middle class family, that by my forties I would have lost my husband, our family business, home and my daughter, but in finding something I can do for those who have far less than us, I know I will gain an essential sense of global perspective. As Charles Dickens said, ‘no one is useless who lightens the burdens of another.’ Happy Christmas everyone.

To find out more or join Ken on a life-saving trip, visit www.africasgift.org

To sponsor a Wonderbag for £35 I can place into the hands of a family to save their lives https://www.africasgift.org/make-difference-your-armchair/sponsor-wonderbag/

Further reading

Faye has also shared Gabi’s battle with non-epileptic attack disorder in an earlier piece: https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/people/girl-12-drowned-in-the-bath-after-a-fit-probably-triggered-by-the-trauma-of-her-dads-death-508483.

You can learn more about the disorder here: http://www.nonepilepticattackdisorder.org.uk/non-epileptic-attack-disorder/