It's Friday, I'm walking past the grand house. Restoration scaffolding is camouflaged with what looks like Reindeer moss. Phosphorescent green lights illuminating the mid clusters, to look like goblins gold. Oblong and diamond shape hedge blocks are at the front, white stone dream sculpture heads of astronauts and ladies with fascinators, sit on the staggered obstacles. The Tea Ladies on Tour, busy themselves around a drinks stand – decorated with fresh flowers and bonbon coloured balloons. The women bob around in floral pinafores, 1940s style headscarves, tied in knotted bows around curled bangs. Leather handbags swing freely from crooks of arms, while they buoyantly flick kitten heel stockinged feet and puff on fake cigarettes.
I stride out, taking the shortcut up the steep grassy bank. Smiling to myself with the Tea Ladies show business whoops and chatter, still in earshot. The hill inclines past a conservation area of bushes and trees. Crafted and stuffed figures – SpongeBob SquarePants, a lifeguard on a step ladder and a haughty looking fox wicker, guard its perimeter. Back on the leaf covered path a young boy on a unicycle rides past, peddling ferociously. Arms extended either side for balance and shoots over the top of the hill. I gawp in amazement. A family coming the opposite way stops and we exchange dismayed wide eyed looks of shock, then smiles as we see him safely zipping along the flat, into the heart of the festival.
I walk up past the Orangery and decide to follow my nose to a delicious rich smell of chilli and caramelised onions, coming from the hot dog stool. But I notice a woman sat on an upturned bucket in the middle of the path. She has a prosthetic leg balanced on her knees and is hunched over, engrossed in decorating the faux limb with swirls of black marker pen. She senses me watching and looks up with a sincere smile. Caught off guard, realising I have probably been staring for longer than a passing moment, I awkwardly say 'Hi, erm. What are you – doing?!' 'Oh you know, just drawing on legs!' She responds merrily. A towering toilet waste vehicle jerks to a halt behind us, a man leans out from the window of the transporter looking, faeces vessel and waves us along. 'I was here first, well before them anyway.' She says pointing to a parked golf buggy of Port Eliot guests. She grins and we move to the side.
Sensing her good nature, I ask what she is doing at the festival. She is here with the charity Legs 4 Africa. 'Five thousand prosthetic legs a year are incinerated by the NHS, they have to pay to have them burnt and we are protesting to get them all sent to Africa. People in the UK get a new leg roughly each five years. We are planning on taking one thousand out to Zambia, we've got t-shirts here, that can be tie dyed and you offer a donation.' I ask how the charity started. 'Well my brother Tom was out in Gambia and made friends with a family, the dad had a leg missing from a traffic accident. I am actually a makeup artists and sometimes do work with actors, some of which are ex- military that are now amputees. We make them up to look as if they have just sustained injuries and do exercises with the army, to see how they would deal with that scenario. (Subsequently) I have a friend that was able to take the measurements and get the components for a new leg, he made a socket and was able to provide a prosthetic leg for this man (in Gambia). From that we got into the papers and people started donating.'
At this point Tom comes and joins us. Emily explains that I was just asking some questions about their organisation. The respect and warmth between the two siblings is immediately obvious and is impelling. After the original case made press, prosthetic legs started turning up at Toms' house. They partnered up with mobility organisations in Africa, who take unneeded prosthetic limbs, donated from people that have new ones, or from deceased amputees’ relatives. They build new legs taking parts from the donated ones. Tom explains that everyone involved in the charity has separate full time jobs. He is a photographer for example. 'Something that's really beautiful that we didn't expect is deceased family members sending legs. We try to get photos of recipients with their new legs, on the farm or in their natural setting and send them to the donators. It’s about creating connections. The benefactors are also grateful.' 'It's a massive part of someone (a limb) what do you do, burn it? Keep it in the attic?' Adds Emily empathetically.
Tom takes me over to a display board, illustrating the history and development of Legs 4 Africa. Paul Pierce was the dad who lost leg. He recently lost the other leg to diabetes and sadly died. Africa's main source of limb loss is diabetes. 'A lot of people are coming from the countryside to the cities and consuming more sugar, it's a completely different diet.' I share that I am surprised that diabetes is one of the main causes of amputation. I ask how the disease leads to this. Tom unwaveringly replies, that he is not exactly sure. He isn't qualified in prosthetics or science. But he doesn't see this as a reason why he should not be involved in helping people. His courage and conviction is touchingly restorative and demonstrates that a handful of people with a drive to help where they can, can have life changing impact without having to obtain qualifications or give up their day jobs. This is something they do in their spare time. 'We aren't pretending to be anything other than what we are.' Says Tom.
‘This is Paul.’ Tom points to one of the photographs. A man sits on a wooden chair in the centre of the picture. Children grip the chair arms, adults are stooped and huddled together to face the camera, arms around each other. A man in a bright orange t-shirt, has one hand placed gently on the elderly amputees’ leg, slightly lifting the hem of his cargo shorts to present the prosthetic limb. The elderly man, Paul beams proudly. 'This is the Dominick.' Says Tom. He is Pauls’ son and is the reason behind why Tom met the family. 'I was eating at this seafood restaurant, the food was the best I had ever tasted and I said I must meet the chef. (Which was Dominick) He cried because he felt so privileged to be asked to come from the kitchen and meet someone that had enjoyed his food. He said if you like this, you will love my mums cooking.' Tom went to Dominicks’ home and met Paul. Tom could see how the fathers’ disability was affecting the whole family. After returning to England and his friend crafting the new leg, Tom travelled back to Gambia. 'I carried the leg back through the shanti town, trying to remember the way. I turned up on the doorstep with this leg. It was one of the most emotional days of my life.'
Legs 4 Africa have a documentary coming out in a few weeks titled 'Leg it to Africa'. It follows a few peoples’ stories, including teacher Cher. 'Before he was quite shy, this time we went over he had so much energy. He is now part of a wheelchair basketball team.' Tom talks about how it's so inspiring, as Cher’s wheelchair is quite old and basic compared to the more robust chairs of the other players. He often gets barged and flung from his chair in the game, but he doesn't let that deter him. The mobility organisations have communicated that other forms of mobility aid, such as wheelchairs are often sort after. But Tom explains that their focus is on the prosthetic legs. I admire that he is resolute and honest about his charities breadth. What is conveyed most is that this is not a market driven venture. It is one that has grown organically from care and intuition. There are no motives other than being moved by a situation and being active in finding a way to help. This is a genuine interest, I am sure we all have different instances of people suffering or in need that move us. But rarely as everyday citizens do we take initiative and responsibility. We convince ourselves there are already charities out there, to deal with whatever it is that has tugged at our conscience. We convince ourselves there are already charities out there, to deal with whatever it is that has tugged at our conscience. We dismiss the concept that we could be the people to get involved or even organise our own movement.
With the heightened pressure to be PC when talking about important issues, I feel we can often be deterred to even discuss such topics as disability, for fear of using the incorrect language. Whilst sensitivity is important, so is not neglecting the issues that are challenging to approach and that don't directly affect us, or are happening on our planet just not in front of us. Legs 4 Africa demonstrates the achievability of making impactful and lasting connections, internally in the U.K and across the globe.
I was also softened to learn that Legs 4 Africa, were able to have their exhibition plot at Port Eliot Festival, free of charge. I’ll leave with a quote. (It’s actually a combination of two quotes. Ghandis words and a car sticker I read on the back of a tuk-tuk in Kashmir.)
‘Be the change you want to see in the world. Be the kind of person that you would want to meet.’