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Every year, Ostend students are given the opportunity to do a work placement abroad in our sister city Banjul in The Gambia. Melloney studied at ZoWe Nursing School and worked in Banjul hospital for three months in 2022. This was an experience that changed her life.

Whatever your course of study, doing a work placement is often an essential element when it comes to preparing young people for the job market. Completing that work placement abroad is an additional test of independence and self-fulfilment. That’s also what Melloney experienced when she applied to do a work placement in Banjul, Ostend’s sister city for twenty years.

‘Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to work in healthcare. It was also my dream to go to Africa one day and help people there. When I was given the opportunity to do a work placement in Banjul, those two things came together and it didn’t take me long to make up my mind,’ laughs Melloney. Nonetheless, she admits that she set off with some trepidation because you never know how things will pan out over there. ‘My uncertainty initially unnerved me a little,’ Melloney reveals, ‘but as soon as I stepped off the plane in Africa, I knew it was the right decision’.

Were you well-acquainted with the city link? How visible was it to you?

‘I was aware that Banjul was Ostend’s sister city, but not what that meant specifically. I had no idea exactly how the partnership between our cities worked. It is very visible in waste processing. If you walk through the streets, you see the city of Ostend waste bins.’ (Ostend is helping Banjul to implement separate waste collection, editor’s note)

I also noticed the many trees being planted in Banjul to make the city greener and provide more shade. Incidentally, palm trees are also being planted on the beach.’ (They provide natural protection as sea levels rise as a result of global warming, editor’s note)

What was it like coming into contact with African culture?

‘I very quickly felt at ease very quickly and that was mainly because the people are so friendly. I lived with a fellow student in a small flat. All our neighbours were locals and they made sure we felt immediately welcome. We were asked to stay for something to eat everywhere we went, even though some families didn’t have much to spare themselves. People are so generous. I learnt a great deal from that. We Belgians set great store by possessions. In Banjul, everyone is very open towards each other. Even foreigners are treated as family. That really took me aback.’

What was it like working at the local hospital?

‘I made a conscious decision to work with children because in Belgium, as a graduate nurse, you have less opportunity to work in paediatrics, for example. I lost my heart, in particular, in the neonatal department in Banjul, where I worked with newborn babies for four weeks. I loved exchanging knowledge. I learnt from them, but they also learnt from me. For instance, I saw a baby with a pressure wound from an IV on its hand and they had inserted a new IV alongside it. That’s actually not OK. I then showed them how to take care of the wound. I really felt that I’d done some good.’

What are the biggest differences between doing a work placement in Belgium as compared with Banjul?

‘Here, everyone on a work placement is assigned a nurse as a supervisor. You never work on your own. In Banjul, it’s very different. There are just a few permanent nurses and all the others are students. So you are much more left to your own devices. I was shocked by this at first, but in the end it was a good thing for me, because it gave my self-confidence an enormous boost. 
They have far few resources to work with, but in the end they still manage to care for and heal many people. I was pretty quick to adapt. The atmosphere in general is also far more relaxed than in Belgium. Africans probably aren’t familiar with the word ‘stress’. I also felt hardly any pressure when I was working there, even though all the beds were occupied there as well.’

Were there any things you struggled with?

‘I struggled mainly with the fact that patients in Banjul are expected to stay strong and not complain or whine too much, even if they are in a lot of pain. Women give birth there without epidurals. I automatically comforted them or held their hands, but that was not expected of me. Other procedures for which people typically receive pain relief in Belgium are also often carried out without any there. That would sometimes make me feel uncomfortable, yet at the same time I was confident enough to discuss this with a doctor. That's something I’m proud of.’

What moment is most memorable to you?

‘I really bonded with one patient, a fourteen-year-old boy. Shortly before I started in the paediatrics department, I had gone to look at what was happening there. That boy straightaway caught my eye because he looked very scared and timid. I waved and he waved back. I had a quick chat with him and his mum. She was very grateful to me and said, 'you’re the first nurse to take the time to talk to my child'. He had something wrong with his leg that meant he could no longer walk and he was in a lot of pain. He wouldn’t eat either. I started visiting him every day after my shift. He really needed someone to talk to. He then started eating again. I saw him change completely as a result of our little chats. I loved that I had been able to do something for him. He has a special place in my heart. We are still in touch. He sent me a video to show that he was able to play football again.’

Melloney recommends that everyone does a work placement in Banjul. ‘It was an incredible experience. I grew as a person and I had a fantastic time there.’ Thanks to her work placement, she has become much more self-confident. ‘I’m now working at ‘t Ponton residential care home and I love my job, but if I could, I would go back to Banjul. I’m flying there on a visit in February. It will be great to see all the people again.’

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