Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to visit a number of Practical Action’s projects across Latin America. Not only was I overwhelmed by the colours, culture and pure grit of people living in some really challenging environments, but by the generosity and open friendship they showed when welcoming us into their homes.
At an altitude of almost 4000m, high in the mountains of western Bolivia is the Jesús de Machaca municipality. With a population of roughly 400 people, a tough four hour car ride from any major town along rough dirt roads, this is a remote and arguably hostile landscape to live in. There are few ways to make a living up here, and apart from growing limited crops such as quinoa, the environment means agriculture is largely restricted to farming camelids.
Llamas and alpacas are hardy animals, which when cared for properly; provide a vital income for farmers. However; challenges of weather, uncontrolled breeding, inadequate knowledge of rearing livestock, along with often unfair access to markets means that farmers in the upland areas of Peru and Bolivia are struggling to earn a living to support their families.
But, with the help of our kind supporters, Practical Action is changing this. Below you can read about five simple, sustainable solutions that are helping to transform the livelihoods of camelid farmers in Latin America.
1. Covered shelters:
The relentless push of climate change is causing the weather to be unpredictable in high altitude areas, and farmers in Bolivia are often caught out by sudden bites of frost, or prolonged rainfall. Martin Queso and his family showed us the open fronted shelter that Practical Action have helped him to build, he told us:
“Before, my animals would just range freely. When the weather suddenly changed, with cold winds, ice or rain, they would get sick, often they would die, and I would have no way of making any income. I couldn’t afford to replace a lost llama, and my flock got smaller and smaller.”
With the shelter, now the family can easily bring the herd inside for protection from the elements when needed.
2. Rainwater storage, irrigation and water pumps and troughs:
With erratic and unreliable rainfall, mountainous areas in Peru and Bolivia often go for periods of time where water is scarce. With the implementation of rainwater harvesting systems like this one is Nunõa, Peru, water can be collected and stored. Irrigation pipes are connected to the reservoirs, ensuring the surrounding ground remains green for grazing. In Jesús de Machaca, the installation of photovoltaic water pumps and troughs means that livestock have access to fresh water all year round.
“We didn’t believe it would work at first” Dalia Condori, a member of the local council told us, “but now it has brought water and a better life for so many”
3. Breeding pens:
We’ve seen them patch-worked into the countryside of the United Kingdom for centuries:
Dry-stone wall enclosures that hem-in herds, divide open grassland and mark boundary lines; but this simple method of livestock separation has only been introduced fairly recently to communities in the Nunõa district, near Sicuani in southern Peru. Enabling farmers to isolate certain alpacas from the rest of the herd allows for selective and planned breeding of the healthiest animals, in turn producing the highest quality wool fleece, returning a better price at market. It also means that young alpacas can be nurtured and protected for longer periods of time before being released to roam freely with the herd, thus boosting their fitness and increasing their chances of survival.
4. Market access and product diversification:
In the remote villages of upland Bolivia, getting a fair price for llama wool is tough – individual farmers can only sell for whatever the going price in the local area is, even though this may be much lower than what the fleece is actually worth. Practical Action is working with farming communities to create co-operative groups that can work together to access bigger markets for their products, and demand a higher, fairer price. Llama farmers like Andrés are also encouraged to diversify their products in order to make a better income. Andrés, who has won multiple awards for his spinning and wool-product work, also makes and paints traditional Bolivian clay figures to sell at the tourist markets.
5. Training and knowledge:
Practical Action helps to provide training on basic animal husbandry and wellbeing. Farmers in Jesús de Machaca learn about the right type and quantities of nutritious food, how to administer medication for their llamas when they are sick, and how to maintain the grazing pasture land. The knowledge is then shared between farming communities by Practical Action ‘Promotors’ who help to teach others how to breed and care for their livestock effectively.
It is vitally important to the families in these areas that the great work that Practical Action is able to do continues. Llamas and alpacas are strong and intelligent and are crucial for the farming communities in Latin America. Access to the tools and knowledge for breeding and looking after their animals provide families with a secure source of income. With just £47 you can help to support a llama farmer in Bolivia by buying a ‘llama lifeline’ Practical Present today.1 Comment » | Add your comment
The best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things. E. F. Schumacher
I have recently joined Practical Action as Communications Officer at Odisha, India Office and this was my first field visit to find out about the work. When I heard about the infamous district of Rampur, during my first meeting with Read India I was curious to know more about the place which remains in the news for many reasons. Starting from political melodrama to poverty, this district has always been in lime light. The recent development of Rampur Town, which was selected from the 13 other cities of Uttar Pradesh for the Smart City project, increased my curiosity to know more about what changes Practical Answers has brought in last year since it has been working extensively with local villagers in the district in partnership with Read India, the implementing agency for Practical Answers in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan though it was a pilot project.
We crossed wide spread green fields on both the sides which was an evidence of agricultural improvement in this part of the country after we started off from Delhi. Our companion from the Read India, Shivam told us that people are keener on agriculture oriented in Rampur and nearby areas. He also mentioned that these places are way too fertile and 2-3 crops are possible in one year in many places. It took around four and half hours from CR Park, Delhi to Rampur covering a distance of 206 km. While thinking about agricultural innovations and the importance of farming as well as the current scenario of the adverse condition of farmers, it reminded me the famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi “Of course the farmer is the father of the world. But it is his greatness that he is not aware of the fact.”
After we reached Rampur we first went to the village of Aliganj-Benejir and our field coordinator Anoop Singh was our escort. The roads were wide and clean. It seemed as if it’s a proper planned town and we were heading towards our first destination. It was just 7 Km from the district headquarters on the main road which was well built with cement and concrete we reached the village where villagers were waiting anxiously. We held the meeting on a verandah. By the time we started the discussion there were 15 odd young farmers plus a few elderly people who seemed to have just come back from the field. It was too hot and sweaty, however I was feeling sorry for them as the meeting timing was not very convenient.
We were welcomed with water and later hot samosas were served to everyone and I had two of them. My colleague Arun started discussing some issues with them and I was listening silently as I had very little idea about the project. But what I learned from the discussion made me quite positive and also started joining in. The best part of the village was, many young and mid aged people are keen on farming and they were ell informed about a lot of technological advancements and quite outspoken during discussion.
To my surprise, when they shared, I got to know that before Practical Answers started working through Read India, villagers were short of information on good practice. Be it farming or fertilizers or use of pesticides or taking care of livestock it was the local shopkeeper and his little knowledge which they used to rely on. He used to suggest medicine and other things which were expensive and not very effective, shared Sonu Tomar, 28 year old farmer who has been a beneficiary of Kisan Gyan Seva (Practical Answer’s knowledge service) through mobile vani ( A service where farmers get their queries answered with a phone call). He also shared their helplessness before this knowledge sharing service. Earlier they were dependent on the so called local experts who are primarily the shopkeepers for any assistance in terms of farming or issues they face in the farming. The remedies suggested by these shopkeepers were expensive or not much effective which he realized only later after having benefited by Practical Answers.
Similarly Brijesh Kumar Gupta, another energetic young man from the crowd started sharing his story. He hailed from the nearby village of Singham Kheda. Most of the people in his village were having issues which were never solved permanently. They had no access to expert service and hence, farming was not much profitable in comparison to current scenario.
Our field coordinator Anoop, who is from Aligunj, shared that, under this Krishak Gyan Seva, the local agricultural scientist has been suggesting and answering regular queries by the people. Many of the queries related to pest management, which led to changing practice in the project area, resulting in a decrease of crop diseases, and thereby increasing the production and productivity. According to Anoop there have been lot of queries coming up from the field which are not recurring in nature and which Kisan Gyan Seva has effectively answered. This way of answering the practical problems has made their lives better and have attributed to financial benefit to local farmers.
After the meeting when I returned to Read India’s centre which was in the city, I saw a full page advertisement on a front page of a national newspaper which was about the manifold developmental activities in the state by the government and looking I thought about Aligunj-Benejir and other villages, on the main road of the city but unable to access electricity for more than 3 hours a day and farmers are going through much hardship. But the only satisfaction was, at least in a place like Rampur our intervention has brought some changes which the people appreciate.1 Comment » | Add your comment
Listening to the news this morning I realised that the two young girls in India, aged 14 and 16, who had been gang raped and murdered died as they had gone into the fields looking for a discreet place to go to the loo. Somehow it made it even sadder. Sanitation is a pretty easy fix given money and will to provide latrines, sludge management and hygiene education. It’s truly do-able.
The girls remain nameless as it’s illegal under Indian law for the media to identify the victims. The fact that we don’t know their names seems somehow wrong – but that may just reflect our news norms in the UK – we want to sympathise personally and share in grief and support. It also makes them representative of the millions of young girls who each day risk attack just by looking for somewhere to go to the toilet, walking to fetch water or firewood for their families, or carry maize to a mill for grinding.
Women are frequently at risk – you only have to look at some of the other stories from India.
But the stories from India are not alone. Also on the Today Programme this morning were reports of a woman in Sudan convicted of changing her religion from Muslim to Christian, who has been sentenced to death (commuted for 2 years – and hopefully for life!). She was forced to give birth in a prison cell (rumoured to have been shackled throughout). And a third which told the story of a pregnant woman in Pakistan stoned to death in public by her own family for marrying the wrong man. The man she married had already murdered his first wife by strangling but was let off prison as his son forgave him.
The school girls kidnapped in Nigeria are no longer in the news.
What draws these stories together is a view of women and girls that somehow says we are lesser – viewed as unimportant, as processions or to be controlled. We have no voice.
At Practical Action we work on the practical things in life – like loos. We also work with people trying to help them – women and men – gain voice. We call this material and relational well-being – material well-being is about having the things you need for a decent life, relational well-being is about having a say in your society and how things are shaped. Both are needed for sustainable development.
I was horrified by each of these stories.
But strange attitudes to women, women somehow invisible are not just something that happens in countries far away from those of us who live in the UK.
Not on the same scale but a story closer to home had me shouting at my Twitter feed the evening before. It was an image of the UK Prime Minister David Cameron meeting Jimmy Carter to talk about how we remember those people who died in the holocaust – the meeting consisted of lots of men in suits. Not one woman. 2 million women died.
(I do know there are women on the Holocaust Commission – my question s why when there are 7 people visible around the table are all of them men?)
And finally – on my catch up weekend – I came across the just released list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Angela Merkel is ranked number 1 – probably politically not completely aligned with me but even so as a woman taking centre stage she made me smile! And it felt very good to read a news story about women, women with power and influence, that could make me smile.
Let’s remember the girls in India. Let’s work to make women more visible, let’s work to make women around the world less afraid, let’s aim for an equitable view of women and men.
I want to hear great stories of women doing brilliant things as I listen to my radio in the morning – not stories of oppression that just make me so sad. And I want those great stories to be because we have a world in which women are free to flourish.6 Comments » | Add your comment
A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work – Colin Powell
Visiting some of the communities that Practical Action work with has inspired me to reflect on Live Below the Line, so here are my musings. A reflection of Live Below the Line and Practical Action’s work in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
This week thousands of people across the UK have risen to the challenge and are taking on Live Below the Line, an anti-poverty campaign challenging participants to have a strict budget of just £5 for 5 days. I was apprehensive when I took on the challenge a few weeks ago, and it certainly lived up to the billing. It is a true challenge, but I didn’t find it difficult in the ways that I thought I would.
I thought I would struggle eating plain, boring food for 5 days and I knew that a lack of caffeine would have an effect. But the thing I found most difficult was how much time it took to prepare food throughout the week. Each evening, we would prepare dinner and then breakfast and lunch for the following day, spending a couple of hours in the kitchen, creating a meal from basic ingredients. This was made more difficult as our energy levels were running low at that time of day. The food we made was actually pretty good and I ate 39p pizzas for most of the week. For me, being so used to a convenient lifestyle is what makes Live Below the Line so challenging.
Yesterday, I had a fantastic day but learned that actually, during my Live Below the Line week, my life was still quite convenient.
I was walking in the hills around Mutare, Zimbabwe as we visited a micro-hydro scheme that is being installed to bring power to a community.
The beauty of the project is that it is community led and we saw the entire community getting involved, from a group women singing whilst they dug sand out of the river bed to a group of men who were building a business centre that will be powered by the micro-hydro system. This is hard work… really hard, but they are excited about how they are shaping their community and their future.
Later that day, I realised that not only are these people working so hard to transform their community, but they also have a very different definition of hard work. They are doing manual labour to develop their community, but this is on top of the fact that they grow their own food and process their crop. Walking in the hills above the village (viewing the source of the micro-hydro system) we met someone walking the other way. I was breathing hard after the climb and the lady walking in the other direction was carrying a large bag of maize on an 8km walk across difficult terrain to the mill to have it processed into flour.
When I did Live Below the Line, I found it hard work and lots of effort, yet the ingredients were bought from a supermarket less than a mile from my home, and if that was too much effort I could have had them delivered to my door.
What really struck me about my day in Mutare, is that this is not a community of people who are waiting for a fairy godmother to make their dreams come true. This is a community that are excited to put in the sweat, determination and hard work hard needed to transform their community and shape their future, to lift themselves out of poverty, for good.No Comments » | Add your comment
If, like me, you’re filled with excitement at the thought of tonight’s final of The Great British Bake Off, I think you’ll enjoy this story of how the fortunes of Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres have been transformed, with a little help from Practical Action.
It is a Thursday morning in September 2012, and visitors are gradually arriving at a huge food festival that is a highlight for many Peruvians. Within a few hours, the place will be packed with hungry diners and long queues will form at the myriad food stalls. There is no respite for Luz Marina Cusi Cáceres, who has just returned to her stall after she has run out of stock. Her stall is to be found among the organic producers section, where delicious home-grown Peruvian goods are sold.
But what is so special about Luz Marina? And what does her story have to do with Practical Action?
Several years ago Luz Marina participated in Practical Action’s project ‘Development of productive uses of electricity in the Cusco region’. During her participation in this project, she developed her baking knowledge, and learnt how to bake traditional kiwicha [a traditional Peruvian cereal] biscuits in a more efficient manner.
Luz Marina used to make kiwicha products by hand until Practical Action came to her town, San Salvador, and worked with the community to introduce a variety of electricity-generating technologies such as solar panels.
“We knew nothing about electrified machinery before, but with the help of Practical Action engineers we began using kitchen appliances, like the electric whisk, which need electricity to operate.”
Luz Marina had always sold kiwicha, but she did not do anything to the raw kiwicha to add real value to it. An Italian woman in the town who knew how to make biscuits shared her baking skills with Luz Marina.
“She taught me that I could sell biscuits made out of kiwicha, which would fetch higher prices at market than raw kiwicha products.”
Once Luz Marina learnt how to bake the biscuits, rumours of her delicious culinary treats spread across town, and people started asking for more.
“People would eat them and then buy them. So I kept making the biscuits better, and although there is still room for improvement, I am now a much better baker than I was before. In 2009 I decided to start a baking business with three of my friends who also cook with kiwicha. It is very helpful to work as a group; we have a lot of confidence, we know each other, and we are united.”
The real turning point came when Luz Marina met a customer named Hugo. He was so impressed by the biscuits and the commitment of Luz Marina and her friends he helped the bakers to obtain the official hygiene certification they needed in order to sell their products in larger markets.
“Now we sell our biscuits in Ayacucho and San Gerónimo. We have to stock the stalls with 1000 packets every two weeks! What would we do without electricity? We use an electric whisk to make our biscuits. It saves us time and means we can make better quality biscuits that sell in their thousands! We still need more encouragement from the council though – it would help if they advertised and promoted our products.”
In addition to the biscuits, Luz Marina and the bakers are now selling kiwicha-based pastries and honey. At the bustling food festival these have been hugely popular.
“We have sold 6000 packets of biscuits in three days! I am very grateful to Practical Action – without electricity we could not have made a productive or profitable living from baking. The electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.No Comments » | Add your comment
It’s International Day of Peace today.
But I want you to think about a place synonymous with war – not peace.
It’s one of those places to which you just don’t go – “hell on earth” as someone once said to me.
Sudan has witnessed some of the most horrific acts committed by humankind. Images of genocide and famine are beamed into televisions around the world, and this is what we think of when think of Sudan.
Only last week, demonstrators in Khartoum protested fiercely and furiously outside the US, UK and German embassies in order to express their anger at an American You Tube film which allegedly mocks Islam. In August, a Sudanese police man was shot dead by an armed gang and various government buildings in Darfur were attacked. Such violence serves to underline the dangers of operating in one of the world’s most volatile places.
In June 2012, I spent two weeks there, primarily to visit Practical Action’s work in Darfur.
On Saturday 23 June, the day of my 25th birthday, I met 9 year old Idris Abdullah. He was tending to his herd of goats as they drank from the water trough, and he was not holding a gun. He was one of the few children without one. The water point was engulfed by herds of thirsty goats and cows and camels, but I could not stop staring at the innocent children gripping guns.
This is the reality of life in Darfur.
Although the conflict, which was primarily an ethnic clash, ended in 2006, the official peace is fragile. Spikes of intense fighting between rebel groups, warring tribes and military forces continue to wreak havoc on the people who make their homes here. I met and spoke with so many women, children and men who must live under the ominous shadow of violence.
One mother, Amel Mahmoud Osman, said to me “We always have the fear that something will happen, but in order to survive we have no choice but to overcome it. We pray to God for safety.” And then she recalled watching pregnant women “bleed their babies away” during the heights of the terror of war.
Another young woman, Sara Abubker Ahmed, remembered the day her friend was blown up by a government bomb: “I still smell the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.”
The words of another young person, Yassir Oman Musa, will haunt me always. “It’s tragic, but everyone in Darfur has a story of loss to tell.”
Yassir’s acceptance of the futility of war is, of course, understandable, but it filled me with a sort of righteous rage. Why should anyone – even if you live in Darfur – have to accept a world dominated by violence?
Practical Action refuses to accept such a world. We have worked in Sudan, and in Darfur, for the last 25 years and continue to work there, employing a team of national staff to help vulnerable and marginalised communities to survive and thrive, against the odds. Working in partnership with local people, we endeavour to provide small-scale, sustainable and appropriate solutions to the daily problems caused by a rapidly changing climate and the chaos of war. We use simple techniques to help communities improve their own food security by planting community forests and improving access to and quality of water through harvesting rainwater.
But as sustainable development work is nearly impossible in the face of conflict, we are also striving to achieve a lasting local peace between traditionally warring neighbours. We use a host of approaches including facilitating mediation meetings, raising awareness about land ownership and demarcation of boundaries, and even producing educational community theatre.
Our efforts to build peace in these fragmented communities are innovative, unique, and most importantly, showing signs of success. Indeed, Yassir told me joyfully “for the first time ever we are hopeful of lasting peace.”
We have a chance to change the story of Darfur for good, to enable Amel, Sara, Yassir and so many others like them to move from war and suffering to peace and prosperity. But the work cannot be completed without further support.
By supporting Practical Action this International Day of Peace, you could give the people of Darfur a chance for a stable, peaceful and secure future, for the first time ever. Children like Idris Abdullah can look after their animals in peace, free of those weapons which are too adult, too ugly for their innocent hands.
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When I was in Sudan, I met a man called Mohamed Mohamed Musa. He was one of the people who had undertaken a seven hour bus journey to travel from Kassala to meet me at the Practical Action offices in Khartoum. I interviewed Mohamed at length, to learn about his life, and how he had worked with Practical Action.
My conversation with Mohamed was a fascinating one, and I wrote about it at the time on my blog Sprouting seeds for success and happiness. I remember being struck by his height. I’m quite small, and Mohamed towered over me. But he was very thin, and his collar bones protruded sharply. I remember noticing his clothes – he wore a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban – but he was also very proud of his very cool Ray Ban style sunglasses. But mostly I remember Mohamed’s face. It was fascinating, magnificent, the sort that has a whole life etched into it.
Today I received some really sad news from one my colleagues in Sudan.
Mohamed has passed away.
He died on 9 September after falling ill with a parasitic infection which is spread by contact with dirty water.
I am filled with sorrow. Mohamed was 64 – a good age – but at no point in our conversation did he seem weak, or frail, or ready to leave his life. He was passionate about Practical Action, and spoke enthusiastically about his hope that one day he would be able to help other poor people in Sudan in the way that Practical Action had helped him, and his community.
In my notes of our conversation, I scribbled “Mohamed is like hope embodied.” I feel so sad that his life and that hope have been snuffed out so soon.
I’d like to share Mohamed’s words with you, so you too can be inspired by the story of a very hard-working, determined and humble man.
“I was born in 1947. I’m 64. I’ve lived all my life in Tambi. I have two wives and 16 children – nine sons and seven daughters. Some of them are still in school.
My childhood was a happy time. I had six brothers and four daughters. My father was a farmer and he also did some teaching. I left school when I was about 12 and started working with my father, helping with our animals.
I was 26 years old when I married my first wife Mariam, who is now 50. And then I was 44 when I married my second wife, Fatima, who is 37. My marriage to Mariam was arranged. Fatima is a relative, the daughter of my cousin. Her parents died when she was young and so I married her to look after her.
I live with my wife Mariam in Tambi, in a small mud house with four rooms. Fatima doesn’t live with me; she lives in Kassala because I want the children to go to school there.
Every day I wake up at 4am and prepare to go to the mosque to pray. After that I drink some tea and then will travel to the farm to work on the land all day. After I get back to my house at 5pm and we pray again and maybe have some food. In the evening times, I will go to the community centre which has been built by Practical Action. As a community we’ll discuss any issues or concerns, or problems we might have with our farming, or the latest news.
Mariam searches for the firewood for cooking. We cook on an open fire outside in the open, not inside our house. Otherwise it gets too smoky.
It’s our children’s duty to go and collect the water for drinking. We have water that is pumped from Kassala, but we rely on the rainwater to water our crops. We know that climate change is making life more difficult. We now need to plant seeds that don’t require as much rain because the rains don’t come as frequently these days.
Practical Action told me about these new seeds. They actually yield more, and I am able to get more money for my crops at market! I decided to bring these to share with you because I know you are meeting other farmers in Darfur. We can all see the difference between the old and the new seeds.
Before Practical Action came to Tambi, I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. Mostly I was worried about food. We never had enough to eat. But I never gave up. We were just farmers, we had no skills, no other jobs. We had no choice, but to continue trying to make a living from farming.
I volunteered to be a ‘lead farmer’ in my village and am part of a network of lead farmers across Kassala called ‘Elgandhl’ (it means ‘sprouting seed’ in English). This means it’s my duty to share farming skills with other farmers in my community. This could be how to build a terrace or how to hoe the soil. I know how to do a small germination test to check the quality of the seeds – you simply put one in a saucepan of water, and watch to see if it will grow. I now know about weeds and pests and how to control them using local techniques (that have been forgotten over the generations) about scaring birds away. Practical Action has informed us of our rights, what we can expect from our government, how we can make ourselves heard.
Practical Action has helped some of the women in my village to set up a women’s farm. Mariam, my wife, is one of these women. If she has time she also comes and helps me with the animals. We now think of the women as equal – we are the same. I know my wife can think as well as I do.
There is not enough time to talk about all that Practical Action does in my village. Practical Action is like a mother to us – we see ourselves as the children of Practical Action. Before I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not with money but with knowledge. Knowledge makes me richer than anything.
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.”
Mohamed will stay in my heart forever. My thoughts are with his family and community in Kassala.4 Comments » | Add your comment
I’ve been very short-sighted since I was 8 years old. An optician seeking somebody to blame told me it was my own fault – I’d read too many books when I was younger. As my mum is also very short-sighted, I think it was more a case of bad genes.
So for the last 17 years, I have worn contact lenses and glasses. There is nothing more excruciating than losing a contact lense behind your eyeball, and nothing more infuriating than losing your glasses in the middle of the Indian Ocean when you’re on holiday. My short-sightedness has meant a lifetime of horrible eye infections, irritated eyes after long days of writing, and innumerable pairs of lost lenses and glasses.
Six months ago, after a particularly severe eye infection, I was told by an eye specialist that I would never be able to wear contact lenses again. I have spent the first half of 2012 wearing very big glasses. They were cool glasses, but mostly they felt like a huge barrier: between me and the rest of the world. So I decided to do something about it.
12 days ago my life was utterly transformed by laser eye surgery.
Waking in the morning and being able to see – actually see – the world in all its magnificence feels miraculous. Everything is more beautiful, more colourful, more perfect than before. I have had 12 whole days of 20/20 vision but it still seems unreal, as if tomorrow when I wake, my world might be a sleepy blur once more. I feel so overjoyed – and very lucky – that modern day technology has fixed my broken eyes.
When I was in Sudan I met a woman, Randa, who also couldn’t see. But her poor vision was nothing to do with short-sightedness. She was going blind because of the smoke caused by cooking on an open fire in her kitchen.
Randa is from a small village in North Darfur called Kafut, and has cooked with wood for her whole life. This means walking for maybe three or four hours to collect firewood, which she then carries on her head.
Cooking with firewood means that Randa’s whole house is constantly polluted by toxic smoke. Her house is made of hay, and the inside is burnt black. Randa’s lungs are also blackened by smoke, and like all the other women in her village she has suffered from countless chest problems.
But the cruelty of the smoke is that it is stealing her sight, and Randa is beginning to go blind.
Since working with Practical Action, Randa has been introduced to a new kind of cooking, using a stove which uses a clean energy source: liquid petroleum gas. The benefits of this are multifarious: not only is it cheaper for families, it also reduces the pressure on the dwindling supply of trees in North Darfur.
But for Randa, the most wonderful thing about her new stove is that it does not aggravate her eye problems:
“The LPG stove has totally eliminated the smoke… I think it has saved my sight. Before my eyes would stream constantly but now this has stopped. And I can breathe easily.”
Randa belongs to the Women’s Development Association in her village, and she is now educating other women about the benefits of cooking on an LPG stove, and also helping to distribute 19 stoves to families across her village, and 61 to other communities nearby.
Meeting the beautiful, determined Randa , and listening to her story, confirmed to me that simple technologies – such as a new stove – really can be life-changing. I know Randa was thrilled that the stove had saved her sight.
But how I wish that she’d never had to lose it in the first place. And that like me, she could benefit from wonderful new eyes.
What fills me with fury is the injustice of it. Because Randa’s near-blindness wasn’t inevitable. It need not have happened. I know that Practical Action’s work is helping her now, but for thousands of other people, it’s already too late.
Nelson Mandela once said “overcoming poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice”. I think he is right.
We are not being charitable by helping. We are helping to restore some sense of justice to this world of ours that is so unbalanced and just so unfair.5 Comments » | Add your comment
I am not a cynic by nature. Yet something about the London 2012 Olympics has unearthed a curmudgeonly Ella Jolly who I never knew existed.
The knowledge that £9 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the Olympics – at the expense of other public spending – while usually austere politicians feebly reassure the British people that putting London on the world stage will ultimately be ‘good for growth’, fills me with fury.
Each time I walk through Euston station in London, which is plastered with McDonalds adverts screaming hollowly “We all make the games”, I feel so outraged that this sporting event is sponsored by a multinational corporation whose insatiability contributes to the obesity epidemic across the western world.
And although communities across Britain participated in the monumental Olympic torch relay, the Games themselves still feel so London-centric. Walking round Oxford Street this weekend, the Olympics were omnipresent – in all shop windows, billboards, tube announcements. Back in sleepy Warwickshire that heady excitement seems a little distant.
So as I settled down last week to watch the Opening Ceremony on Friday evening, I was fully anticipating feelings of cynicism or anger or embarrassment or disappointment.
Instead, my own heart surprised me, and I felt moved, entertained, humbled, and full of joy.
I do not have a patriotic bone in my body – last year’s Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee Celebrations left me feeling strangely numb – yet the Great Britain that Danny Boyle, the director of the ceremony, presented to the world, was a Great Britain that felt like mine.
It rejoiced in the rural and the urban, the simplicity of a bygone pastoral age and the connectedness of our own digital era, and crucially, it made heroes of normal everyday British people – the performers were all volunteers. It hailed all the wonders of Britain – the NHS; our rich literary heritage from Shakespeare and Milton to J.K. Rowling and J.M. Barrie; our incredibly diverse music: David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal; that singularly British sense of humour, and the power of youth and hope.
It celebrated love, with Paul McCartney singing “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”, and unity, with Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet) tweeting live “this is for everyone”. Love and unity.
And as the competing Olympic athletes processed round the stadium, I felt so proud to see representatives from Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Peru – countries where Practical Action endeavours to work in partnership with some of the poorest people to make their lives a little better. I am sure that those athletes have had to persevere against the odds to secure a place in London 2012.
In a Practical Action blog last week, my colleague Mansoor posed the question “do the Olympics and our efforts to fight global poverty have a relationship?” and anticipated an Opening Ceremony about oneness and our diverse unity. Mansoor was correct I think. The ceremony was indeed about unity and diversity. And it was also somehow – amazingly – both uniquely British, and cosmically human. I think that’s why I loved it.
That feeling of cosmic humanity is absolutely fundamental in our efforts to fight global poverty.
All too often development is considered an academic pursuit, with the people living in poverty all too often anonymous beneficiaries. For me, development is not academic. It is personal. It is about people. And they are living, feeling, thinking human beings with their own stories. And I don’t think we can ever afford to forget that development is, ultimately, about people.
Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony not only made me glad to British, it made me glad to be human. And it made me believe. It made me believe in hope and love and unity and perseverance and people. And I think in order to fight global poverty we all need to believe.4 Comments » | Add your comment
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.”No Comments » | Add your comment