Jim Duffy: Inspired by those who make a big difference in a small way

Low expectations ahead of a charity event were confounded by a moving story of dignity and new opportunity says Jim Duffy

The film Shout Gladi Gladi celebrates the extraordinary people who rescue African women from a medical condition that can turn them into reviled outcasts.

How many of you like going to charity events? You know what I mean, right? Me neither…. They’re usually boring and a bit stuffy and I always wonder why people are there and what they are also thinking.

So, when I got the invite to attend the screening of Shout Gladi Gladi at the Festival theatre in Edinburgh this week, I was again filled with dread. But this time, it wasn’t just drinks and canapés, this time it was a movie. So, I showered, jumped on a train and cursed my way up the cobbles on a cold, driech evening. After all, it was Ann Gloag who had invited me.

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Accompanied by a mere 300 other guests, I watched the movie. Well, at times I blubbed my way through it. The older I get, the worse I am when it comes to sad movies, tearjerkers and family emotion. Narrated by Meryl Streep, this piece of film was of course moving, but highly inspirational.

Let me give you a scenario which you may find a little off-putting or indeed for some a bit squeamish. Firstly though, I need to confess, I’m a big shandy-pants when it comes to pain. My wee brother is a doctor and I keep asking him if I ever need to get a catheter in, can I get a general anesthetic. As you would expect, he says that the local anesthesia available is very good these days and that I will just feel a bit of discomfort. That’s my point, I keep telling him, I don’t want to feel anything – I’m a big fearty! But, you and me need to go through this process over the next 200 words.

Imagine you have no control whatsoever over how you go to the toilet. It just happens when it wants and it does not give you any signal or urge. In short, you are constantly wet. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. I think you now get the picture. Now imagine being this way in places like Sierra Leone or Malawi, where there is a lack of clean toilets, a lack of toilet roll and a lack of cleaning stuff to help you maintain your dignity. You are poor and you cannot work, because you cannot leave the house because you wet or soil yourself without warning every hour of the day.

Welcome to the world of female fistula. In essence, a fistula, I learned, is a hole that develops between the bowel or the bladder and the vagina. It forms when a girl is pregnant and there are complications. Add to this, tribal doctors who are as useful as chocolate teapots because they are not doctors as we know them but cultural overseers, a 100-mile walk to a hospital through the bush, and then a lack of trained gynecological professionals and you have thousands of young females developing fistula and all the stigma that brings.

The Gloag Foundation along with others supports over 2,000 women a year, many in their late teens, with fistula operations at places like Ann’s Aberdeen Centre for women in Freetown. The work is just stunning and the movie was testament to all those at the coalface who work intensively with these young women to fix them internally via obstetric fistula repairs. But there’s more – a lot more.

Once healed and fit to rejoin their tribal families, simply driving these girls back and saying ‘good luck’ would not work. So, they give them the tools and skillsets to work and earn a living. This is the bit that inspired me the most, albeit the bravery and attitudes of the girls was tremendous. They are loaned a BBoxx, which is a solar panel attached to some innovative electronics with five mobile phone chargers attached. It lights up so it can be used in dark spaces –like inside huts - and it can charge the villagers’ phones. So, our females who have their dignity back as females, now get to earn a living and be seen by their peers as independent, entrepreneurial business women. The girls then pay back the loan over a period of time to fully own the BBoxx – no charity here – and they learn what it means to be relevant and serve a purpose in their communities. How clever is that?

At the end of the movie, Anne Gloag and one of her team got up on stage to take questions. What I like about her is her humility. No glitz and glamour here. A member of the audience asked a tri-colonic question that even I didn’t understand. The long and short of it was why didn’t she simply write a cheque and let the Sierra Leone government do all this, and was only 2,000 lives a year impacted worth it? And here is where it gets even more interesting.

Anne’s response was that writing a cheque was too easy and then she would have no control over what happened, and how. Sometimes taking on the whole elephant is too much. Breaking it down and focusing on small, meaningful, tangible, measurable and human-oriented actions reaps a better result.

It reminds me so much of how entrepreneurs think and act. Ann has taken her big entrepreneurial brain, leveraged her network and applied it to what she is passionate about. It is making a big difference in a small way. State aid is not working and will never work as it gets top-sliced and hidden away in murky places. What we need are passionate people with entrepreneurial focus who can garner resources and get stuff done. Then we need politicians who are brave enough to take a stand and argue the case.

When you see 25 girls in their new dresses having spent six months in surgery and recuperation, dancing with each other on the day they leave to go home with female dignity and a livelihood – it all makes sense. Mighty oaks from small acorns grow.

Go watch Shout Gladi Gladi and take a different perspective on life.

Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark