The Kilimanjaro Connection: a personal perspective

By Helen Ford, Health Correspondent

We touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport in darkness, and made our way by car to the town of Moshi. During the hour-long journey on country roads, it was hard to get an impression of the area in which we had landed.

Woken early the following morning - by a succession of noisy wildlife - and the lushness of our surroundings became clear. This is a region of banana and coffee plantations, architectural trees and stunning flowers.

The beauty of the landscape is reflected at the hospital where we would spend the week; the main entrance looking more like a botanical garden than a medical centre.

Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre is a referral hospital, which serves a wide area. As such, it takes in a population of around fifteen million people across northern Tanzania. Some patients walk for hours to get there, with some even attracted from neighbouring countries.

KCMC, as it's known, began a partnership with Northumbria Healthcare twenty years ago. The North East trust provides health services across North Tyneside and Northumberland.

The link is primarily aimed at developing healthcare services at KCMC, and from small beginnings, the relationship has broadened - and deepened - over the decades. Maternity services and physiotherapy have seen changes. Keyhole surgery has been developed. The partnership has also enabled the setting up of a dedicated burns unit at KCMC. Alongside clinical care, training and research are also supported by the link.

Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Many of the North East team which travels to KCMC are doing so in their own time. All get huge satisfaction from their volunteering and say they gain valuable skills and experience, which improves the way they work when they're back in the North East. In that way, it's hoped that patients in two very different parts of the world are benefitting from this partnership.

Talking to staff from both organisations, and the bond between the two is immediately clear. The head of Northumbria Healthcare's charitable arm, Bright Northumbria, is Brenda Longstaff. The charity provides financial support for the link and Brenda has been involved from the start. Walking around KCMC and it's striking how well she is known; even referred to by some as 'Mama', the Swahili for mother.

The KCMC ecumenical choir Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Mornings at KCMC are punctuated by the sound of the hospital choir, which is open to staff from all Christian denominations. Listening to the range of voices, singing in unison, was an uplifting - and emotional - experience for the UK visitors and was undoubtedly a highlight of our filming schedule.

The congregation spills into the hospital gardens on Sunday morning Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Given its name, is probably no surprise that the church plays a central role in the life of KCMC. On Sunday, it was standing room only as the congregation spilled out into the hospital gardens in order to take part in morning services, which are led in both English and Swahili.

The view from Kibosho Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Another high point - of a very different kind - was the view over Moshi and surrounding areas from the nearby community of Kibosho, which we reached, thanks to a skilled hospital driver, via some steep and narrow roads. At Kibosho we were told the temperature could fall to single figures at night in winter; a sure sign of the altitude. In Kibosho we were surrounded by a group of curious children. Nothing unusual in that, you might say. What was surprising was how they watched silently as we recorded a piece to camera; never speaking until we had completed our task.

Filming in Kibosho Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees
River view on the way to Kibosho Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

The purpose of our trip to Kibosho was to visit a hospital which uses an ultrasound machine, donated by Northumbria Healthcare. Here, in this remote area of northern Tanzania, sits a piece of the North East that's supporting maternal healthcare on a daily basis. That did seem quite remarkable.

Kilimanjaro through the trees Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

The view from the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro was impressive, but what about the mountain itself? We were made to wait before catching a glimpse of the snow covered landmark. For much of our visit, Kilimanjaro was shrouded in cloud. Finally, on the day before our departure, the clouds parted to reveal the iconic mountain top: and all from the driveway of our lodge. It was something of a relief to finally capture it on film.

While we were lucky enough to be bathed in sunshine at times, heavy rain was also a feature of our visit, which quickly turned the sticky red-brown earth to mud. Since our visit, large parts of East Africa have experienced devastating flooding.

A burns education lesson for primary school children Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Other memorable moments? Certainly a visit to Kilimanjaro Primary School was a morning which will provide a host of memories for all who took part. Community work has become another important feature of the partnership. This visit was aimed at teaching children how to avoid burns in the home and what to do if they - or a family member - is burned. The message is serious, but it's delivered with fun and humour, leading one team member to say it's become her favourite day of the annual visit. I'm not surprised. The sound of the children's singing and laughter will stay with us all for a very long time.

The Kilimanjaro Connection reports will be broadcast in the ITV Tyne Tees evening programme at 6pm from Monday 16th December.