….there was a little girl who loved stories. As a little slip of a thing, she used to stand and swing on the garden gate, waving to passers-by in the hope that she could chat to them and ask them questions to find out their stories (she was a very curious little girl). A few years later, her very patient, very wonderful mother would read her favourite Maurice Sendak stories Outside Over There and Where The Wild Things Are to her every night. When she was at school, she’d set her alarm super early so she could wake up and read Enid Blyton books before going to lessons. English was always her favourite subject, and characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Jo March and Scarlett O’Hara were as familiar to her as her oldest friends. And then she studied the art of telling a story – for it is an art – during an English Literature degree at university.
Now that little girl (who’s not so little anymore) works for Practical Action.
I am that girl. And I work at Practical Action because I want to change the world. But my passion is storytelling: both discovering a good story, and then telling it in the best possible way. But how do you change the world with a story?
Well, this week, we at Practical Action launched our next five year strategy. It is bold and ambitious and exciting – but challenging too. The targets, both in terms of fundraising and impact at scale, are high.
But that’s because there are huge problems to solve. Right now 1.3 billion people across the world don’t have clean, safe water. 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. 2.6 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation. And 1.6 billion people don’t have access to modern energy. Too many people live in abject poverty. It is a world of great technology injustice.
There is no question that this needs to change. So over the next five years we will work towards four universal goals:
- Sustainable access to modern energy service for all by 2030
- Systems which provide food security and livelihoods for people in rural areas
- Improved access to drinking water, sanitation and waste services for people living in towns and cities
- Reduced risk of disasters for marginalised communities
And by the end of this next strategy period, in 2017, we will have transformed the lives of 6 million people.
That is an exhilarating prospect for me.
Because 6 million people = 6 million stories to find and tell.
Each of those 6 million is not just a ‘project beneficiary’ but a living, feeling, thinking human being with their own unique life story. And those 6 million life stories are 6 million more reasons to support Practical Action, today and for the future.
I can’t wait to get started.
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One of the greatest joys of working in fundraising is meeting lots of amazing people who want to do something to change the world – whether that’s donating loose change, or running 10km and asking for sponsorship, or organising a cake sale, or setting up a charitable trust to give away larger sums of money, or climbing mountains , as some of our student supporters are doing.
Last night I was very honoured to be a guest speaker at a women only fundraising dinner in Yorkshire which was both celebrating women, and raising money for Practical Action’s work in Sudan. The room was full of over 200 women, all intelligent, funny, charming, wonderful people. Last night alone raised in excess of £7,000! And it’s all going towards a food project in rural Kassala which is helping nearly 100,000 people – some of the poorest on the planet – to make a better living from farming by giving them the tools, knowledge and skills they need to move to a life beyond poverty . The generosity in that room was tangible. And it’s amazing to experience it. All too often it seems we’re living in the worst of times – great economic austerity, a seemingly endless war against terrorism, a government that cuts benefits from the most vulnerable while simultaneously allowing the rich to prosper. It can easy to be cynical, unmotivated, to think the worst and do absolutely nothing about it.
But the dinner last night was a perfect reminder that people are, for the most part, pretty wonderful. Tell a room of women that there are 4.2 million people in Sudan starving, and they will dig deep and donate, in the hope of making tomorrow brighter than today.
Today is also Sport Relief – and I know that millions of people up and down the country will be compelled to do something about the injustice of global poverty – whether that’s texting a donation while watching tonight’s TV show, or running the Sport Relief mile on Sunday.
Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Thank God there are so many wonderful people who live their lives true to that mantra. Today my heart is full of joy because of them – thank you. Happy Friday everyone!No Comments » | Add your comment
I really need the loo. I’ve been at my desk for well over three hours and so far have filled my body with two cups of tea, one cup of coffee and a fair amount of water too. But I have the misfortune of working on the very top floor of Practical Action’s head office, which means that a trip to the loo involves climbing all the way downstairs. And I’m so engrossed in my work (and also a little lazy – it is Friday, after all) that I really can’t be bothered….
I’m currently writing a proposal to fundraise for a hugely exciting new project that Practical Action is embarking on in Zimbabwe. We’re working with rural communities in the southern provinces of Gwanda and Mwenezi, endeavouring to reach out to 200,000 people to improve their access to clean water, ensure they have adequate sanitation and reduce their health risks from poor hygiene. The figure is massive. 200,000 people is over double the size of my home town!
Most of these people currently live several kilometres away from a safe water supply. The task of collecting water usually falls to women and children who will spend whole days carrying up to 80 litres of water. The journey can be dangerous – these women are vulnerable to mugging and rape; and the water they do collect often isn’t fit for human consumption anyway.
Furthermore, many families in Gwanda and Mwenezi don’t have toilets in their own homes as they can’t afford to build them. This means that people usually just relieve themselves outside in the bush. This morning I’ve read stories from women and girls who describe the complete loss of dignity and embarrassment they feel while doing this, especially when they’re menstruating.
Suddenly my reluctance to walk down a flight of stairs to go to the toilet demonstrates not only laziness, but complete ignorance of how fortunate I am. Wherever I am, it only ever takes me a few minutes to fetch a glass of clean water or go to the loo.
I am lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck. Having clean water and being able to go the toilet without putting your safety or health at risk are basic human rights to which people everywhere are entitled, whether you live in Warwickshire or Gwanda.
Now I really must go – I’m desperate.2 Comments » | Add your comment
This week I have been researching shelter in Africa, namely Zimbabwe.
When I think of the word ‘shelter’, I think of feeling warm, safe and dry; of cups of tea, or my lovely, cosy bed, or hugs from my Mum; or that gorgeous Ray LaMontagne song Shelter, where shelter is more than just a sense of physical safety but one of emotional security too; of feeling that all is right in the world; and of my home, a sanctuary.
All too often in the world’s poorest places, your home is not a safe place where you can seek sanctuary from the evils that populate the world. In fact, your home might be the problem itself. Perhaps it’s simply physically insubstantial and doesn’t protect you from harsh weather like flooding, or natural disasters such as earthquakes. Or maybe there are so many people squeezed inside it that the danger lurks within.
For communities in urban Zimbabwe, overcrowding and inadequate housing are very real and dangerous realities.
It wasn’t always like this. Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most successful countries, ‘the bread basket of Africa’, with a strong economy, a local government system that delivered the services it was meant to provide, and with the people skilled to support those services.
The country is now struggling economically. The gap between rich and poor is widening, skilled people are migrating in search of better employment prospects, and access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, waste collection and roads, is now for many people just an impossible dream.
Hyper-inflation, very high unemployment (estimated at over 90%), a rapidly devaluating currency and a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (15.3%) have all contributed to increasing levels of vulnerability for Zimbabwean people. 80% of the population lives on less than 85p a day.
And in 2005, life became so much worse for 700,000 poor women, men and children who were the victims of the Zimbabwean government’s Murambatsvina Operation. Murambatsvina (English: Operation Drive Out Trash), also officially known as Operation Restore Order or the Clean Up Operation. This was a large scale Zimbabwe government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. The campaign started in May 2005 and according to United Nations estimates, has affected at least 2.4 million people. In July 2005, UN-HABITAT estimated that 700,000 people lost either their homes or livelihoods, or both.
But the Government of Zimbabwe says the operation was launched after extensive consultations with stakeholders. The primary objective, the Government says, was to rid the urban environments of illegal structures and unlicensed trading premises. The aim of the national clean-up exercise was meant to decongest the cities and towns and establish an environment conducive to investment.
Unfortunately, the Government wasn’t able to replace the people’s homes, with inflation then raging at 1,700,000%.
Local authorities have struggled since the ‘clean up’, with the enormous task of ensuring that poor and vulnerable people living in urban areas have access to the basics that we take for granted – clean water at the turn of a tap, toilets, where people, particularly children, are protected from the waste and have privacy, refuse that is removed regularly, streets that are clean and safe to walk in, and, fundamentally, the security of knowing you have a home that is legally yours to rent or own.
Furthermore, since the ‘clean up’, overcrowding has become a massive problem in many urban areas. Almost overnight houses suddenly had to host three families rather than one, with nothing more than blankets to separate different families’ living areas. TB and cholera are rife. Children will often sleep on the floor underneath their parents’ bed. This fact is actually a contributing factor to the high HIV rate. Children are exposed to their parents having sex just above them, and children being children, will begin to copy this from a very young age. Young girls are falling pregnant as young as 12 years old, and rape cases are on the rise. And I’ve read stories of mothers who are forced to prostitute themselves just to make enough money to pay rent and feed their children.
Practical Action is training these marginalised communities, who have come through so much, to improve their houses, ensuring they are safe places offering real shelter. Brick by brick, people here are rebuilding their own homes, and their hopes for a brighter future.
Our approach is to help people to make the best use of their own labour and to use locally produced building materials and construction techniques that they can afford and manage themselves. Ensuring that people have good quality homes to live in, with enough space for everyone, doesn’t just improve living conditions – it can become a catalyst for the further development of communities by creating local jobs, and an infrastructure that benefits everyone.
I sit here at my desk listening to that song Shelter, hoping from the bottom of my heart that the people in Zimbabwe with whom we are working will once more have safe homes that are full of happiness and love, and free from harm and danger. Sanctuaries.No Comments » | Add your comment
I have arrived in Kisumu, over 1300 km from Mandera, and I am in a different Kenya now. The earth is not screaming out for water. Instead, it is a fresh, verdant landscape, with blue skies and hazy hills that seem to gently usher the city of Kisumu down to the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in Africa.
One of my Practical Action colleagues in the UK has a nickname for me: ‘passion in a can’ . Yet after 12 hours in Kisumu I feel like my passion comes nowhere close to what is here. This is passion’s hometown, and laughter seems to surf on every molecule in the air.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the informal settlements of Nyalenda and Manyatta, which lie just outside Kisumu city. Wandering through the slum of Manyatta, where over 20,000 people live in an area that is just 1.5 square km, all I can hear is laughter – of the young men making jokes, of the women chatting while they clean their mountains of coloured clothes. And the laughter of the children who call after me ‘mzungumzunguhowareyouy?i’mfinethankyouhowareyou?’, running the words together so the phrase sounds like one long exhalation. I want to record all their sing-song voices and play them constantly because they make me smile so much.
It is amid this cacophony of laughter that Practical Action is delivering one of its largest and most notable projects in Africa, aiming to improve the homes and environments of around 190,000 people who live in slum areas around Kisumu and Kitale.
The people here are determined to transform their own lives, so much so that the project has been developed according to their own vision. Instead of Practical Action telling communities ‘what you really need is a lovely new community hall’, we have listened to their voices and worked with them to draw up their own development plans for their homes. These plans are largely focused on improving access to clean water, constructing safe sanitation, improving the structure of houses, and establishing rubbish collection processes. And people themselves are driving this change – with passion and practical action.
I spend my morning weaving through the slums to look at the host of appropriate technologies the project comprises – boreholes and protected natural springs to secure clean water, ecological toilets and bathrooms with showers to promote safe sanitation, bricks made from sand to improve housing, and composting bins so that rubbish can be disposed of properly. The scale of the work is impressive, and the stories are so inspiring. One man tells me that for the first time in his life he feels as if he matters. Another lady informs me that before this project, it was not uncommon for as many as 10 people to die from cholera each day. And now, because there is clean water, there are no unnecessary deaths at all.
After an afternoon with another community in Nyalenda, the community chairperson asks me what I think of Kenya.
“My whole life I have wanted to come to Kenya, and it has been wonderful.” I smile.
“And Kisumu?” he asks.
“I love it!” I declare.
“Did you know the most powerful man in the world has his roots right here?” the man says proudly.
“Barack Obama? Then no wonder I love Kisumu, I love Obama!”
There is much laughter at this. So much laughter. I leave Nyalenda with laughter filling my heart and my head. But I feel deeply serious too. I promised to the people I met in Nyalenda and Manyatta that I would tell their stories, the stories of how they changed their own lives. I do not want to let them down. Their passion has inspired me. And in turn, I hope I can use my own passion to inspire you, and your friends, and your family, to support Practical Action.
We finish the day by watching the sun slowly sinking into the lake, colouring the huge sky apricot. I bask in the beauty of my surroundings and a flash of joy infuses every vein in my body. I have fallen in love with Africa, and my heart will remain here when I return to the UK on Thursday night.3 Comments » | Add your comment
During the two hour wait for take off (this is ‘Africa time’ I am told), I start chatting to a Somali man called Patrick, who works for UNICEF. He has been in Mandera to deliver emergency aid to the thousands of refugees who are fleeing the famine.
“Is this your first time in Kenya?” he asks.
I tell him yes, and that actually it’s my first visit to Africa.
“Your first visit to Africa and they bring you to Mandera? Why would they do that?!” he laughs.
This attitude is one which seems to prevail in Kenya, and in the UK too.
Mandera is remote. Mandera town itself, which lies at the northern most tip of Mandera county, is a 1200km drive from the city of Nairobi. The first 200km are proper roads with tarmac and relatively smooth driving. The remaining 1000km are dirt tracks, punctuated by potholes. You might see the occasional four by four truck but for the most part it is a completely desolate drive. Occasionally you’ll pass through villages (‘manyatta’), consisting of a few makeshift houses constructed with wooden frames and a thatched roof. Between the villages, there is nothing. Just miles and miles of dusty red earth, and scorched looking trees. Deforestation is rife in this region as burning wood from trees is the only means by which people access energy.
The sheer distance of Mandera from Nairobi contributes to its feeling of isolation. This is compounded by the fact that there is only a very slight government presence here. Nairobi rarely concerns itself with Mandera – much like the rest of the world. Indeed, when you read the Dorling Kindersley guidebook about Kenya, in the long section describing Northern Kenya, there is much about Turkana and Lodwar. But Mandera – in spite of its incredible history, its spectacular landscape, its wealth of wildlife – is completely forgotten.
Or if it’s not forgotten, then conversation about Mandera is invariably negative. For example: ‘don’t go to Mandera, there’s nothing there’ or ‘don’t go to Mandera, you’ll be a target for rape and sexual assault’, or ‘don’t go to Mandera – it’s home to el-Shebab’.
And yet all this is totally at odds with my experiences. Yes, there is poverty, and yes, the drought has devastated communities. But I have also seen the best of humankind here in Mandera.
I have visited villages playing host to thousands of refugees fleeing the famine in Somalia, sharing the little they have with these people who have nothing.
I have met with the Mandera Council of Imams which is promoting good deeds for the “betterment of the community” by assisting women who are victims of domestic abuse and promoting peace between clans.
I have chatted to nurses and doctors at the Mandera District Hospital doing all they can to tend to the scores of malnourished children here, and watched as a woman called Hawa, a nutritional assistant, softly strokes the face of Sapria, an 8 year old orphan, as if she were her own child.
And finally, I have seen what I have been desperate to see ever since I first started working for Practical Action two years ago. I have witnessed our own projects transforming lives.
I have met women who no longer have to walk hundreds of kilometres to fetch water, and who can instead get safe water supplies from Practical Action’s shallow wells.
I have shaken hands with pastoralists who, thanks to Practical Action’s vaccination programme, can rest safe in the knowledge that their herd of ‘shoats’ (sheep and goats) will be safe from common diseases.
And I have laughed with children who know the name ‘Practical Action’, who recognise it as a force for positive change within their communities.
Yesterday, our last day in this part of Kenya, Gemma and I both received gifts of beautiful henna tattoos all over our feet and hands – a thank you gift from Mandera. Every time I look at the intricate markings on my hands, I am reminded of the warmth, vibrancy and the optimism of Mandera’s people.
In spite of the poverty, in spite of the devastation caused by drought, in spite of what they say about Mandera, there is beauty here.
And I am so proud of Practical Action for seeing it.
Tomorrow morning we fly to Kisumu. What will I find there? A different Africa I think.
If anyone had asked me a week ago, before I came to Africa, ‘have you ever suffered with sickness and diarrhoea?’ I would have nodded and said ‘of course, hasn’t everyone?’. But now my answer is ‘you haven’t properly experienced sickness and diarrhoea until you’ve had it in Africa’. On thursday night I hardly slept – I spent 7 hours in my bathroom. I was so sick that at times it felt like I had parted with my whole digestive system.
So on friday my colleagues decided I was too ill to visit our projects. I spent the day in bed, shivering and feeling icy cold inside. Every time I touched my skin it felt as if a fire was emanating from my body. I was so weak that walking to answer my door became a marathon, although it is only a few paces.
Last night when my colleagues returned to check on me, my fever had worsened. I was taken to the hospital in Mandera town where I was fortunate enough to be seen almost instantly – something that would never happen in my own hospital in the UK. Blood tests ruled out malaria, but I was diagnosed with severe dehydration and gastroenteritis. The doctors put me on a drip and I was filled with fluid, glucose, painkillers and antiobiotics. Within a few hours the fever dissipated and my strength slowly returned.
The doctors told me I had probably fallen ill due to contaminated water. Instantly, I thought of all the children I have met over the last few days who are also suffering with sickness and diarrhoea. I think the statistic is that across the world today 2.2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, although the tools and technologies that are needed to make this happen do exist. Unlike me, most of the people who fall ill as a result of consuming contaminated water will not receive the healthcare they need to recover. This experience has only reinforced me belief that Practical Action’s technology justice movement is needed now more than ever1 Comment » | Add your comment
This morning we visit Mandera hospital which is running a feeding programme for mothers and children who have been severely affected by the drought and are now suffering malnutrition. The women are strong and proud in colourful scarves and dresses. The children, with their huge eyes, are desperately hungry. One two year old boy I met weighs only 620grams. Another little girl who is HIV+ is 8 years old but looks no bigger than a 4 year old. Her parents died of AIDS several years ago. She has malnutrition and is now living in the hospital. These people are starving. I cry, and feel so guilty. The sheer need of this situation only confirms my belief that Practical Action’s long term development work which is reaching out to these vulnerable communities to increase their resilience to climate change and drought is needed now more than ever.3 Comments » | Add your comment
Yesterday we spent 18 hours driving to a little town called Elwak in Mandera County. Today we’re meeting UK journalists to show them our project helping families to cope in times of drought. Exciting. Last night was one of the most memorable of my life. Driving through the moonlit African bushland we spotted so many beautiful animals in their natural environment.. But later on we came across a dying camel in the middle of the road. Did you know camels can cry? No,me neither. The drought is inescapable.No Comments » | Add your comment