My mother, Helen, is an inspiration to me. She left school aged 16 and went straight into a responsible full-time secretarial job at a local engineering firm. Aged 21, she moved to Italy for some adventure. She made friends and a life – and can still speak Italian fluently. After she returned to the UK, and met and married my father, she embarked on motherhood. Aged 35, she had four energetic children all under the age of seven. I look back on my childhood, and remember my beautiful but boisterous brothers, and marvel at how she kept her sanity. She then went back to college to study, and finally embarked on a degree in English Literature – while still being a committed and dedicated mother and wife, and working at a local school. I struggled to focus on my degree even when I was 18 and totally free, and it was the only thing I had to think about. The fact my Mum did hers, and graduated with a 2:1 from one of the best universities in the country, is still completely remarkable to me. Her unfaltering sense of calm, and enduring belief that everything will be ok in the end – you will survive the very worst of life: heartbreak, illness, bereavement – is an inspiration to me.
But I know many people feel like this about their Mum. The bond between mother and child is the most unique, the most unshakeable love.
Today I am writing up many more of the stories I collected while visiting our work in Sudan. And what strikes me is how passionately the people with whom we work feel about Practical Action. Over and over again, I listened to stories from people who have clung on to life in the face of poverty, famine and war. The words they have for Practical Action are profoundly moving, and go beyond the clichéd (although still wonderful) “Practical Action changed my life”:
“Practical Action is like a mother to us – we see ourselves as the children of Practical Action.”
“I thank Practical Action. You know how to save people.”
“Practical Action thinks about the whole picture – our animals, our land, our food. Our community thanks Practical Action, the words “Practical Action” are never far from our minds!”
“Practical Action solves problems. It is the only organisation that actually looks at us as people. We are no longer alone.”
“I could not have done it without…Practical Action. Practical Action is a mother, a teacher, a saviour.”
I love the fact that people are so eager to speak about Practical Action in this way. And what is particularly compelling to me is that suggestion that “Practical Action is like a mother”.
Why do people say this?
Well firstly, I think it is testament to just how wonderful our project workers are. They are loyal, hardworking and compassionate people.
Secondly, I believe that the phrase “Practical Action is like a mother” illustrates our unique approach to development. Like the best mothers, Practical Action seeks to raise confident, caring, fulfilled, independent offspring. If children cannot live happily beyond their mothers, then something has gone wrong. Similarly, if people cannot move successfully to a future beyond Practical Action’s development projects, then something hasn’t quite worked.
In Sudan what was perhaps most impressive to me was the sense that Practical Action empowers whole communities. Our work might start with technology, but that’s all it is – the starting point. The end point is leaving communities in a state where they are capable of making their own development dreams a reality.
Or as someone else said:
“We will know what to do long after Practical Action leaves. I am very happy and proud. I am hoping that one day we will be able to do for other poor people in Sudan what Practical Action has done for us.”