Ella Jolly


Ella is a writer, researcher and fundraiser working for Practical Action. She is passionate about Africa, women, and telling Practical Action's stories in the best way she can.

Recommended reading: http://twitter.com/#!/ellajolly

Posts by Ella

  • In praise of Practical Action

    December 21st, 2012

    Sadly, today is my last day here at Practical Action because in January I will be starting a new job at another international development charity. I have worked here for three and a half years and been writing my blog for the last two and a half years. As one of the youngest people in the UK head office, I feel like I have done a lot of growing up at Practical Action. I have worked with, and learnt from, some brilliant colleagues across the organisation. They are bright, committed, passionate people, and I have been very lucky to know them.

    I am leaving with some very happy memories of my time here. My trips to Sudan and Kenya are particular highlights, and I will never forget the warmth, hospitality and helpfulness of all the overseas colleagues I have had the honour of meeting.

    I have been very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and interview some of the millions of people Practical Action has helped. Those conversations are perhaps my most treasured memories.

    When I was in Kenya I met a woman called Syprose. Syprose was a beautiful woman, with the most magnificent face – the sort of face which has a whole life etched into it. She lived in a slum village called Nyalenda, just outside Kisumu city. She was a mother, and a grandmother. Her husband Daniel had died 3 years ago after stepping on a nail and contracting septicaemia. She was 63 years old, and she had the responsibility of looking after her five little grandchildren alone because she’d lost her four children to AIDS.

    Syprose’s village did not have a system of clean water, although it did have a natural spring. But because it just flowed along the land, it was often polluted by animal and human waste. So people would get cholera, and die. Sometimes there were as many as 10 deaths a day. Syprose’s big fear was that her grandchildren would die too. So we worked with the villagers to protect the natural spring by constructing a low concrete wall round it and directing the water through a pipe. This simple technology means that people in Syprose’s village no longer die of cholera, and they have a constant supply of clean water.

    And everyone was delighted, particularly Syprose. When I asked her how this made her feel, she took my hand, and her hand, and placed them both onto her heart. And then she said “it makes me feel like God is here.”

    Syprose’s words will remain locked in my heart forever. I am leaving Practical Action safe in the knowledge that as an organisation, we do change and save lives in a very real way. I feel really proud to have been a small part of it.

    Thank you for reading my blog over the last few years.

    Wishing everyone a peaceful, relaxing and happy Christmas, and all good things for 2013.



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  • A little small is beautiful, lots of inspiration – and many wonderful people

    November 23rd, 2012

    Although I have been very, very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Sudan to visit our projects, I have not visited all of Practical Action’s countries of operation. I have hundreds of colleagues who, sadly, I have not been able to meet in my three and a half years working for Practical Action. We communicate through email and Skype, and although these technologies promote good working relationships, nothing beats having a real conversation in person.

    So last week it was a real joy to meet one of Practical Action’s most dedicated project workers, Nazmul Islam Chowdury, from Bangladesh. Nazmul is currently visiting the UK as part of our work campaigning for more political action, leadership and funding for the fight against climate change.

    Nazmul is truly inspirational. We speak at length about the Pathways from Poverty project which he manages in Bangladesh. This ambitious project, one of the largest in our history, endeavours to help 119,000 of the poorest women, men and children in rural areas of the country to take the first step to a life beyond poverty.

    Many families here are achingly poor, and have been impoverished for generations. Their poverty is not just a shortage of money with which to buy things. It means starvation, dirty water, ill-health, inadequate shelter, limited access to education. It is the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together.

    At the beginning of the Pathways from Poverty project, people had lost hope of things ever being different or better. Nazmul’s assurance that, within 12 months, communities would have enough food to overcome their hunger was met with huge suspicion. That suspicion only intensified when Nazmul shared his idea of a beautifully simple farming technique, sandbar cropping, which could secure food for life. “People thought I was mad!” he says.

    Floods in Bangladesh don’t just destroy homes and lives when they arrive; they also leave a crippling legacy when the waters subside. The ‘char’ – the silted sand plains that the floods leave behind – are too infertile for even the most skilled farmers to tend. Nazmul’s idea was to simply dig holes in the sandy plains and fill them with manure, compost and then plant pumpkin seeds. Within seven days the pumpkin seeds start to germinate fresh green shoots. And hope springs once more.

    “I remember one woman in particular who was so delighted with her pumpkin harvest. She told me ‘I’ve fallen in in love with this. Before I hated spending time in the field because it seemed so futile. Nothing grew. But now I want to spend all my time tending to my crop of pumpkins. I’ve never seen so much food. This technology is helping us to grow food in the sand. It’s a dream.’ Listening to stories like this makes me feel immensely proud of the sandbar cropping technology. I think it is the best example of ‘small is beautiful’.”  

    The Pathways from Poverty project is already having a huge, transformational impact on the lives of some of Bangladesh’s most desperate people.

    The pumpkin harvest

    The incredible pumpkin harvest,                              thanks to sandbar cropping









    I ask Nazmul what drives him, and am so inspired by his response:

    “I feel a great sense of responsibility to the Bangladeshi people. Everyone pays their taxes. And those taxes have paid for my education. I feel it is my duty to pay people back. I use this philosophy to inspire my team. I want to see people in my country enjoying their lives, not spending every moment worrying about their survival, about their children’s survival. We may never be rich like the Americans. But I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn what is sufficient for life. Everybody in the world has the right to food, shelter, and education, healthcare. These are the basic rights and choices.”

    As I listen to Nazmul’s words, I feel so immensely lucky to work with such visionary people who are so committed to challenging the numerous injustices in our world. Practical Action is an organisation, but our good work is only possible because of people – our committed team of project workers, the people with whom we’re working who revolutionise their own lives, and of course, you – the lovely, wonderful people who support us.

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  • The Great Peruvian Bake Off!

    October 16th, 2012

    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.

    Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres

    Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres

    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 began to use an electric whisk

    Electricity enabled Luz Marina to use an electric whisk

    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.” 

    Luz Marina's improved kiwicha biscuits

    Luz Marina’s improved kiwicha biscuits

    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”. 

    "Electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.

    “Electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.

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  • Dedicated to the girls, on International Day of the Girl Child

    Bilton, Rugby, Warwickshire CV22 6EF, UK, Bilton Ward
    October 11th, 2012

    When I was 12 years old, my life revolved around playing with my friends, and trying to do my best at school. My biggest worries were whether I’d finish my homework on time, and more importantly, whether it would get an A* (I was a very conscientious pupil). My greatest responsibilities were helping my mum with chores around the house, and looking after my little brothers.

    I was safe, protected, and enjoying my childhood, exactly as any 12 year old should.

    But if I had been born into poverty – in Bangladesh, Mali, or Niger, for example – chances are, that at age 12, my childhood would have ended. I could have been forced into marriage. Into pregnancy. Into giving birth to a child, while still a child myself. If I survived all that, I’d have faced a life of drudgery, of doing whatever necessary to support my family. That might entail selling everything I had, including my body, to men, for sex.

    10 million girls around the world are forced into early marriage each year. That’s about one girl every three seconds.

    Think of yourself aged 12. Or your daughter. Or your granddaughter. Is this the childhood you would choose for her?

    Today, Thursday 11 October 2012, marks the first ever International Day of the Girl Child: a chance to amplify awareness of the inequalities which confront girls, just because they are girls. In announcing this day, the UN has demonstrated its commitment to ending the discrimination, violence, and poverty that disproportionately affect girls.

    But we need more than just this one day. We need, every day, to remember the millions of girls who graduate from childhood to womanhood far, far too quickly. We need to remember this injustice, and act, and advocate for global change.

    We need to recognize that when girls’ rights as children and human beings are valued and respected; when girls are educated, not forced to marry, not made mothers when they’re still children themselves; when girls grow up and have the confidence, knowledge and skills to make a decent, dignified life and living; they become women who have the power to break the cycle of poverty forever.

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  • Waging peace in Sudan on International Day of Peace

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    September 21st, 2012

    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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  • “Before I was a poor man, but now I am rich.”

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    September 18th, 2012

    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.


    Mohamed’s story

    “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.

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  • Sara’s story

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    September 7th, 2012

    Over the last 48 hours I have listened in horror to the tragic news of the shootings of the British family in the French Alps. The detail that makes me shudder most, that fills me with the deepest distress, is the fact that the youngest child, a four year old girl, was so scared that she sheltered under the legs of her murdered mother for eight hours. I cannot imagine the fear and utter trauma that must now envelop her, and her critically ill seven year old sister.

    That sense of terror, of shell shock, reminded me of a story I heard in Sudan. I interviewed a woman called Sara, who aged 21, is only a few years younger than me. She told me how when she was only five, government soldiers stormed into her village and shot everyone they could see. She was so frightened she could not move.

    Sara’s story is one of dignity and of hope and of survival against all odds. But above all, it is a story of one woman’s strength. I think you will find it an inspirational and a moving one. I hope so anyway.

    Sara’s story

    “I was born in Al Llafa, near Fato, in Kassala, in the east of Sudan.

    I remember the first day the war came to Al Llafa. It was in 1996. It was early morning, the first day of Eid and my best friend and I were holding hands and walking through our village, going to the celebrations. At that moment, we heard gun shots. We couldn’t make it back to our families in time, because of the fighting. I was separated from my mother and was so scared. Most of the villagers fled, they ran into the desert and hid. But I could not move. My friend and I stayed together, cowering under a bush, and then under the cover of the night we found our families. I still have nightmares about the sound of the guns. A school friend was hit by a shell. We had to travel to a safe place in the same truck as her dead body. I still remember the smell of the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.

    Organisations like the Red Crescent came to provide shelter and build a camp for the people who were fleeing the war. We stayed in this camp, in little tents. My whole family in one tent – my parents and my three brothers and my four sisters. We lived in that tent for two years, until I was seven.

    Then another NGO came and helped us to build some new houses in Fato. Slowly, very slowly, we have rebuilt our lives.

    I didn’t go to school for two years. I was just in a constant state of shock and also my parents had no way of earning money for the school fees. They had been farmers in Al Llafa but when we fled, we left the land. It was an impossible time. We used to get food from some of the kind people in the village, and from the World Food Programme. My parents used to sell the food from WFP so they could earn enough money for my school fees. We were hungry but at least I was getting an education.

    Sometimes I can’t believe my childhood was like that. I can’t believe I got through it.

    I left school when I was 15. I didn’t pass my Maths and English exams. Since then I have stayed at home helping the family.

    Every day I get up at 6am, pray, and I clean the house. I cook our breakfast. It’s my job because I have siblings younger than me. The duties are divided between me and my sisters. The boys don’t do very much.

    We buy water from the water tank in the village and my father goes to get the firewood. We cook on an open fire which means that there is lots of smoke inside the house. It can be difficult for our chest and our eyes.

    We get electricity in our home by using our neighbour’s generator. This means we have can have light. The main reason for getting electricity though is so my siblings can read in the evenings. We’ve had it for one year and it has changed our lives, although we can’t afford it all the time, and we can’t afford our own generator.

    During the afternoon I’ll make coffee for the family and then I cook dinner. In the evenings I help my brothers with their homework. Then we pray. Then we sleep. My days are very busy.

    I am a member of the Village Development Committee which Practical Action helped us to set up. I was nominated by my village to be in the VDC because I am strong-minded and have my own opinions. The men worry about women like me. The fact that I completed my school education was also a good thing. No-one had a bad word to say about me.

    One of the things our VDC has done, with Practical Action’s guidance, is set up a social fund. Everyone pays in a small fee to a central pot each month and then if someone gets sick there is money to help the ill person and their family. All the villagers will also come together and help that sick person with the farming work – planting seeds or harvesting, or whatever needs doing.

    Practical Action has also trained me on food processing. I was one of 30 women who participated in the training. We learned how to make jams, spaghetti, cakes, biscuits, juices, and chutneys – all of this from the produce we grow on the land. Food processing is a wonderful thing for us because it helps us to make our food last longer and also get more value from what we sell at market. Instead of selling a pumpkin, we can sell the pumpkin chutney we make, which enables us to earn more money.

    I’m proud of myself because food processing helps me to make a living and also take care of my family. For example, I am paying for my brother to go to school so he can have a chance at life.

    I am so happy that now I have skills because I can earn money to have control over my own life. My Dad cannot tell me what to do. I have freedom. Thank God for this.

    As a child I had no hope. I never thought I would be strong enough to live again. I am happy Practical Action has changed my life in a way that brings our community together. Before everyone was isolated, as if we were all existing in our own separate shells. But now we are connected. And the men in my village respect my contribution to the development of our community. I never ever thought I’d have the chance to come to Khartoum. I didn’t even have to ask my Dad’s permission. I could just come, because I wanted to. Because now I am free.”


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  • There is a light that never goes out

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    August 17th, 2012

    Watching Mo Farah sprint to a glorious second gold medal in the 5000m race last Saturday night, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of awe.

    I had read a newspaper interview earlier that day with Mo’s elder brother, Faisal Farah, who lives in Somaliland (a self-proclaimed independent state which remains unrecognized internationally), and works on his farm nestled deep in the African savannah. Although I knew the basic details of Mo Farah’s life – Somali-born, lived in the UK since childhood and hugely philanthropic – the interview with his brother was an inspiration.

    Mo was born in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. Although his father was a businessman, and his family lived a life of relative middle-class comfort, the political chaos soon saw Somalia hurtle into a brutal civil war lasting over 20 years. Mo’s family, who originated from Somaliland, were forced to flee back to that region. And once there, they lived in an IDP camp.

    When I was in Sudan I interviewed several people who had lived for many years in IDP camps – places for ‘internally displaced persons’. An ‘internally displaced person’ is someone who flees their home, but not their country. Someone who crosses borders to escape becomes a refugee. But whether you’re an IDP or refugee, life is difficult. The camps are places of little dignity – so many people squeezed into tiny tents – and there is no way of making a sustainable living, so you survive on hand-outs from aid agencies.

    Imagine that – Mo Farah, double gold medal winning Olympic athlete – spent his early childhood in a refugee camp in the middle of a warring country. There would have been no water, no decent toilets, no proper houses, no schools, limited medical help. And he’s somehow gone from that – from hell – to record-breaking sporting achievement and worldwide adulation.

    I can’t stop picturing all the millions of little children around the world who are currently living in hell. Maybe they are trapped in the blood bath that is Syria, or dying of hunger in the Sahel. Think of all the future Mo Farahs among them. Think of who they could be, of the lives they could have.

    I hope against hope that, like Mo Farah, all those children someday have the opportunity to move on to a brighter life – to a life where existence is more than simply a battle to survive and keep body and soul together, but where you can fulfil every little bit of your potential, follow every dream you have, light all of your hopes.

    End note: This day last year I was in Kenya. I’d spent two weeks visiting Practical Action’s work across the country and was getting ready to go home. I woke up on the morning of my final day in Nairobi hugely excited about my last field trip, to the library and community centre built by Practical Action in Kibera, the huge sprawling mass of a slum just outside the city centre. And then I discovered – via Facebook – that my grandfather, Michael, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years, had died. Michael was a man who spent his life playing and watching sport, in awe of athletic achievement. I know he would have loved Mo Farah. He was a reluctant hoper – but a hoper nonetheless. We need more of them. So this one is for my Grandad.


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  • Charity or justice?

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    August 7th, 2012

    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.

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  • Hope and love and unity and perseverance and people

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    July 30th, 2012

    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.

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