Caister couple’s never ending Africa challenge

It was nearly 18 years ago that a typical tourist trip round the Gambia's capital, Banjul, changed a Norfolk couple's life for ever.

A visit to the Campama school for the blind left Phil and Joan Feller horrorstruck by the lack of books and equipment and the dilapidated building, which had chunks of dangerous asbestos falling off its roof.

It led them on a fundraising mission – first to build a new school and then to maintain and develop it.

Eight years after the new school opened, they are still working flat out to support the charity they formed, Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia.

'We thought we might be winding down by now,' said Phil, 63, of Humber Close, Caister, near Great Yarmouth, 'but new challenges keep cropping up all the time.'

This summer's torrential rains caused extensive damage to the school's tin roof and other buildings, including a nightwatchman's hut, and it cost the charity about �2,400 in repairs.

And the retired Caister bobby, who served in Norfolk police for 30 years, found a host of other problems to address on his recent three week visit – not least the clearing of weeds that had grown at an alarming rate in the heavy rain.

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'They can be a hiding place for snakes, and deadly green mambas have been seen in the area in the past,' he said.

Phil, who still works at Yarmouth police station as an administrator, said it gave him and his wife enormous satisfaction to see the progress of students who might have been beggars without the help of the school.

'Dozens of children have progressed through college and university and one of our original students, Mariamma, has just graduated from teacher training college and come back to the school as a teacher,' he said.

'There are far fewer beggars now and we have found the attitude to blind people has completely changed.'

He said the charity's workload had increased now all the children were re-integrated into mainstream schools once they had reached their basic levels of Braille and English.

Even though there was increasing help from the Gambian government, the students still needed supporting with Braille machines and other equipment.

Phil's wife, Joan, raises money nine months a year through boot fairs and they are grateful for the generous help of other supporters.

'A circuit judge in Bristol sponsors a student and a blind lawyer in London pays for the travel expenses of one of our newest pupils, Mododou, who lives quite a way from the school,' he said.

'One of Yarmouth's inspectors, Nick Cheshire, recently led a police team on a sponsored bike ride that raised �1,000 to pay for our school breakfast programme for a year.'

With the economic downturn hitting donations and boot fair profits, Phil made a Christmas appeal to the public who he said had been so generous in the past. Call him on 01493 721506.