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 inspirational mothers

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    July 23rd, 2012

    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.”

    ...and an inspirational mother and daughter in Darfur

    ...and an inspirational mother and daughter in Darfur

    ella jolly and mother

    With my inspirational mother...

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  • Dedicated to the women

    July 20th, 2012

    Last night I went out for dinner with my one of my oldest friends for a much-needed catch up about all that has happened in the last month while I have been away from the UK.  Our topics of conversation were many and varied – our respective holidays, my trip to Sudan with Practical Action, our jobs, latest news about mutual friends, our relationships, and the future. And as we discussed our hopes for the next few years we began to talk about having children. We are both 25, and neither of us have had children yet, but the opportunity to have a family is something that is important to us both.  We started dreaming: how many children would we like? Would  we want boys or girls? What names might we give to them?

    I’ve often thought that if I have children, I’d like to have a boy first, mostly because as as a little girl, and the oldest of four siblings, I used to crave an older brother, someone to look out for me. My reason for wanting a baby boy first is nothing more serious or ominous than that.

    Driving home, I remembered some research that I discovered recently. Commissioned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the research sought to determine which G20 country is the worst for women. Before I read the study, I was expecting the answer to be Saudi Arabia. In that country, all women, regardless of age, must have a male guardian, typically a husband or father. Domestic violence is not illegal. Most Saudi homes will have separate entrances for men and for women. Saudi citizenship can not be inherited from the mother. A woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Women are not even allowed to drive.

    So I was fully expecting the research to declare that Saudi Arabia is the worst place for women.

    In fact, the analysis indicated that India – a country I backpacked around not so long ago – is the worst G20 country in which to live as a woman.

    When I travelled around India, I fell in love with the place. Everything is beautiful, from the women cocooned in colourful saris, to the public buses which are festooned with ribbons and painted patterns. I watched a sunset over the green green grass of the mountains in Munnar and cried because of its beauty. I chatted to women who had established their own spice co-operative, women who were strong and seemingly independent. And two of India’s leading politicians – Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party, and Pratibha Patil, the country’s president – are female. And at no point did it feel like a country which suppresses its women.

    women in india

    Beautiful women I met in India

    Yet from birth to death, life as an Indian woman is a battle. Before birth, in fact, your chances of making it out of your mother’s womb alive are far worse if you’re a girl. There is a huge culture of sex-selective abortions in India. Medical technology means blood tests at 12 weeks can predict whether the foetus is a girl or boy – and many couples choose to abort their unborn child if its gender is not the right one. Female foeticide is an alarming phenomenon – the sex ratio in India today is the worst it has been since 1947. Baby girls are abandoned in public spaces and left to die. Maybe they’ll be rescued and taken to an orphanage. Maybe not.

    Though illegal since 1961, India’s dowry culture is still hugely prevalent. It means that parents of girls are compelled to provide huge sums of money when they marry. And so it is easier to have boys. Like me, women dream of having boys first. But not so their small sons can be protective big brothers to younger female children. But because a girl’s life is of less value than a boy’s.

    If a girl makes it to school age, she is less likely to receive equal access to education. School fees are paid by the state only to the age of 11. After that point, families must cover these costs themselves, and when money is tight, people are more likely to send their boys to school than their girls.

    After that, a girl faces the risk of being married to a much older man. A scandalous 44.5% of girls are married before they reach their 18th birthday. Child brides are less likely to be educated, and much more likely to die in childbirth as their bodies are not fully developed.  Married women will also face domestic violence and physical abuse at home – and in public. The chances that the male perpetrators will be punished are slim. Continued social discrimination means that women simply do not have the same opportunities to pursue their dreams as men. And by the time women reach old age, they can expect to live in poverty. If a woman outlives her husband, life is even harder. Traditional cultural practice is to cast widows out into the streets, forbidding them from remarrying and enforcing a life of perpetual mourning for the dead husband. Although the ancient Hindi custom of sati – self-immolation of a woman over her husband’s funeral pyre – is now illegal, there are still some communities in central and north India which propagate the practice. It is the height of injustice: an encapsulation of the belief that a woman’s life only has meaning if she is appended to a man – and that her life should be extinguished the moment she is free.

    I sit here thinking of this, thinking of all this inequality weighing down on the women of India from the very moment of conception.

    And I think – if I have children, actually I’d like a girl first.

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  • Sudan Visit: thoughts from home

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

    Yesterday was my first day back in the Practical Action offices after being in Africa for a month. After my work trip to Sudan, I then spent some time exploring Morocco, on the other side of the continent. I love Africa, but I definitely missed certain home things while away: yoga classes, green trees, red wine, BBC Radio 6, dark chocolate, peanut butter, the weekend papers. I think, to my surprise, I even missed the rain. So now I am home, where I can enjoy all those things I missed, and reacquaint myself with the realities of my life.

    The only problem is it all seems a bit trivial. My life is trivial. I keep comparing my daily existence with that of the poorest people who I met in Sudan. For so many of them, life is about survival: the desperate, hopeful struggle to grow enough food, search for water, care for animals, walk great distances to collect firewood. I recall one woman from a small village called Kulkul in North Darfur which is grappling with a huge food crisis after last year’s rains didn’t fall. She told me “of course we fear for our lives, but we don’t have a choice, we can’t give up.” I don’t think I have ever feared for my life. Of course, there are universal unifying truths – birth, love, death – but in terms of what I do with my life – going to the office or the gym or the cinema or the pub or supermarket – it all just seems a bit meaningless. It’s just stuff that fills my days because I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I don’t have to spend my days fighting to exist.

    So after being immersed in one part of the planet for a month, a few hours on a plane have delivered me right back to where I came from. It’s strange, internally there can be a seismic shift, yet on the outside, everything remains as it always was.

    I am thinking of my Practical Action colleagues in Darfur. I wonder what struggles have they faced? And what successes have they celebrated? A colleague, now a friend, informed me of skirmishes and gun fire with government forces in the market place of El Fasher last week. All this is happening right now; other people’s lives, lives full of love and tragedy and struggles for survival and celebrations of success.

    I keep returning to a Louis MacNeice poem called ‘Snow’, which has this beautiful line about feeling “the drunkenness of things being various”. It is not about being drunk. It is about feeling intoxicated by the sheer plurality of the world. I feel a bit like that today. Drunk on all that I have experienced in the last month – drunk on all the people I met in Sudan, all the stories of hope and loss and despair I heard, remembering that all those people’s lives are continuing right now, as I sit here typing my thoughts, re-writing my world as I try to make sense of all that I have learned.

    girl with donkey

    I wonder where is this girl now? What is she doing, right now?

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  • Sudan Visit: through the keyhole

    Bilton, Rugby, Warwickshire CV22 6EF, UK, Bilton Ward
    June 29th, 2012
    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our journeying
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

    T.S. Eliot

    Before I came to Sudan, I posed the question ‘what sort of country can this be?’ I was horrified by news reports that I had read about a court case which condemned a young Sudanese women to death by stoning, after unsubstantiated accusations of adultery.

    I think back to that question, and I realise I am still not in a position to write a comprehensive or sophisticated answer. I was in Sudan for only 12 days. My insight is no more than that of a child on her tip toes, spying through a key hole to discover the mysteries that lie beyond a heavy door. Through that key hole, I have peered as hard as I can, trying to observe and learn as much as possible, and store it up, so that when I return – I feel in my heart that one day I will – I can unlock the door.

    But I do know a little more than I did 12 days ago.

    I know that Sudan is a place where the government is hugely oppressive. Whether one is pro or anti-government, its omnipresence and omnipotence are irrefutable.

    But I also know now that Sudan’s citizens are the most enthusiastic, kind-hearted, warm, sincere people I have ever had the privilege and honour of meeting. From Practical Action staff in Khartoum, Darfur, Kassala, to community members themselves, just ordinary people living – all have a generosity of spirit with which I have fallen in love.

    And as I sit here in England’s green green heart I actually feel bereft, bereft of the friends I have made during my time in Sudan. I realise I am lucky to have had the opportunity to make those bonds at all.

    For my 25th birthday on 23rd June, the Practical Action team in Darfur organised a surprise celebration – we spent the evening drinking tea, eating birthday cake iced with ‘Happy Birthday Ella Jolly’, and dancing, Sudanese style. At the end of the evening, there were speeches – ensuring everyone has the chance to give thanks is typically Sudanese. I was then presented with the most beautiful birthday present; a leather handbag, handmade in El Fasher, with my name etched into it. It is here with me now, and I am so happy to have returned with a little piece of Darfur. The leather is a rich terracotta colour; it is exotic and beautiful amid the whiteness of my bedroom.

    It is hard to separate my impressions about Practical Action’s work in Sudan from my feelings about the people and the culture. But our work in Darfur is truly outstanding. When the conflict started in 2003, NGOs and their money poured into the area. Other agencies worked with people living in temporary camps, offering food aid and emergencies supplies. But because we believe in developing communities for the future, we focused our attentions on tribes in the remote rural villages who make their lives and livelihoods from farming the land. Our ‘Greening Darfur’ programme has transformed the fortunes of over 70,000 women, men and children, and revived thousands of hectares of land. We have worked in partnership with communities to developing farming techniques (setting up women’s farms, for example) and reforesting hectares of the Darfur earth, recreating a landscape that communities thought was lost forever, improving access to and quality of water (through rainwater harvesting and building dams) and providing modern energy (using low smoke stoves for cooking).

    In over 600 villages, we have established Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Women’s Development Associations (WDAs). These are small community organisations comprised of community members, and which bring people together to take control over the development of their own villages and environments. We have established three networks (or ‘nets’ as the local people say – I love this): the Rural El Fasher Development Network, the Voluntary Network for Rural Helping and Development, and the Women’s Development Association Network. These networks, made up of members of the VDCs and WDAs, have enabled us to expand and continue our work safely, throughout the conflict, in the most inaccessible parts of Darfur. They are independent organisations, and one day, when Practical Action is no longer around, they will still be operating, because they are committed to driving the long-term development of their own country. I feel so deeply proud that it is Practical Action which gave birth to these organisations. As one community member said: “Practical Action is like the mother.” And when we die (for one day, we should – I do not believe that development organisations should live forever), our children will reign on.

    The model that we have established in Darfur has been so successful that we are now seeking to emulate it in other locations across the country. For example, the Blue Nile state is now the focus of the fighting between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and thousands of innocent women, men and children have been forced to flee their homes. There seems to be no end to the violence. So we will be doing all we can to work through partners and local organisations to achieve community-driven, long-term change, during immense challenges – war, drought, famine. We will help millions through the very worst of times, so they have the right to enjoy the very best, too.
    During my first blog about my visit to Sudan, I wrote of my curiosity about the country’s ‘specialness’. I still cannot write exactly why it is so magical. My words seem too mere, just not enough. It’s a feeling, that’s all. And I found it, and I felt it. Five hours back in the UK, and I miss it already.
    Slightly out of focus, but my favourite photo from Sudan - sheer unadulterated joy

    Slightly out of focus, but my favourite photo from Sudan - sheer unadulterated joy



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  • Sudan Visit: daughter of Darfur

    June 27th, 2012
    It is not only nature which rules life here in Darfur, but politics. The Practical Action team here is required daily to draw upon great reserves of patience and humility and tolerance to get our vital work done. It is essential that my colleagues in Darfur preserve good relationships with both government bodies and rebel forces in order for us to remain safely in the area. On my final day in Darfur the rebels are fighting in many areas outside El Fasher. I am forbidden to travel to the field.

    As someone who has grown up with so much freedom, the limitations and restrictions are difficult to accept without getting very angry indeed. And I did get angry at times. I cannot express my awe and admiration for my colleagues who are able to cope with and succeed in such difficult circumstances every single day.

    I did encounter another kind of freedom in Darfur though. Away from the pressures of a commercial, capitalist, consumerist society, I felt liberated. In the UK, I am a slave to it. In Darfur I felt free. And happy. I was not expecting that.

    As I get ready to leave El Fasher, my colleague Amel – an amazing force of a woman who is not scared of anything – tells me “my dear, you are my daughter of Darfur and I am your mother”. I am now back in Khartoum and in 48 hours I will be in London. But I hope some part of me will remain always the daughter of Darfur.

    With Amel Ibrahim, Project Manager in Practical Action Darfur

    With Amel Ibrahim, Project Manager in Practical Action Darfur

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  • Sudan Visit: the sand rises

    June 27th, 2012

    We are due to travel home from Tartora to El Fasher on Monday. Yet after only ten minutes we turn back. I am confused, and think perhaps we are picking up more passengers. But I am not Sudanese, and cannot sense the bigger problem. My colleagues know better and point to the sky: “look  – the ‘haboob’ is coming.”

    The ‘haboob’ is a sand storm. The dust wind, the ‘ghubar’, is responsible. In five minutes, the skyscape is transformed from a pale white vista to a colossal mountain range of sand, swirling towers which move  as one – and faster than you can imagine. We run for shelter, fleeing from the unstoppable wind and sand.

    I am naïve and stop to take photos. The sensible ones run fast.

    The beginning of the 'haboob'

    The beginning of the 'haboob'

    Then everything goes dark. An inky night time blackness surrounds us in the mid afternoon. It is a strange, surreal experience. The wind is raging and the rain begins to fall. I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Later the darkness lifts, and all is bathed in an eerie tangerine light. Silence. It seems like the end of the world, and I am one of the few survivors.

    Every year the sand storm comes. The insubstantial hay and mud homes in which most people live are ripped apart, and everyone is forced to rebuild their homes and their lives.

    The storm is a symbol of the elemental quality of life here.

    In spite of our advances in technology and our tendency to dominate the land, to colonize the green with concrete, we do not rule the earth and we cannot control it. It is good to be reminded of that fact, to remember one’s own insignificance.

    I think Schumacher (founder of Practical Action) writes it better than I ever can: “Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that if he won the battle he would find himself on the losing side.”

    Nowhere is the rule of nature more evident than in here in Darfur. The people depend on the land to grow crops to eat and sell, and they depend on the rains to come so that those crops will grow. If the rains do not come, there is nothing. So there is profound gratitude among people I meet in Darfur for the ‘haboob’, because it brings one day of rain. They are praying for more. Last year there was none, which means this year people are struggling to find enough food to eat. 60% of the villagers in one small community Kulkul (I do not visit but I meet people from this place) are malnourished, and so desperate that they are forced to forage for food, sometimes subsisting only on hard berries. For these people I hope with all my heart that the ‘haboob’ I witnessed is the start of the rainy season. The alternative – that this year too will be a year of not enough rain – is too worrying to even contemplate.

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  • Sudan Visit: Joy in Darfur

    Al Fashir, Sudan, Al Fashir
    June 27th, 2012

    I think Darfur will change my life.

    I step off the plane and all I see is colour. After the grey white sandiness of Khartoum, the colour is a joy. The cornflower blue of the huge huge sky. Swathes of sand, burnt yellow. Rows of slightly crumbling pastel painted houses in El Fasher. The flash of a dreamy pink flowering plant gracing the walls of the guesthouse in which I am staying.

    I feel I can breathe here.

    On Saturday I am 25 in Darfur. I wake early and expect to ache for home. Instead, I shower in the sunlight and sit serenely in the peace of the morning, enjoying one of those moments of complete perfect happiness.

    Later, we drive for hours across the desert of Darfur, passing misty mountains which burst up through the earth. We visit Wad Koti, a small rural community just outside El Fasher. Here, Practical Action is helping the community to separate the water for animals and the water for people. At the moment, everyone – person and animal alike – drinks from the same trough. And invariably, the people – especially the little children – fall ill. I speak with one beautiful, but very timid, 9 year old boy who is responsible for caring for his family’s herd of animals three days a week, preventing him from attending school. He is not holding a gun. He is one of the few children here who is not. As I look around at all the cows and goats that have gathered to drink water, all I can see are the innocents holding guns. Guns which are too big, too adult for them. It is a horrifying reminder of the reality of living here in North Darfur. Although the conflict is officially over, there are many rebel groups who still struggle against the government. Peace in Darfur is something of a fragile veil. And as one mother tells me later: “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.”

    The insecurity in Darfur means that many NGOs and UN agencies that operate here use convoys of armoured vehicles. On Sunday, I accompany one such convoy north to Tartora, a small village which was close to the heart of the conflict.While travelling I look to the earth of Darfur. At first glance, it is barren. But the more you look the more it moves, it lives. People moving across the sand, leading their animals to pasture. Making lives and livelihoods from what appears to be dead. It is amazing.

    When we arrive in Tartora we are welcomed with a traditional Sudanese greeting. Crowds of smiling women in technicolour dresses and scarves  clap and click their fingers, gently sway and then produce the most astonishing half-song, half-whistle, the ‘zaghrouda’. It fills the air, my head, my heart. There is so much joy here. In spite of all that Tartora has witnessed, and the little it has in terms of services – still there is so much joy. The women here are joyful because Practical Action is going to help them to build a huge earth embankment along their ‘wadi ‘ – the fertile, clay soil. This means that when the rains fall, the water will not run off on to the sandy soil and be wasted, but stay and nourish the embryonic seedlings in the ‘wadi’ on which the community so depends. The work has not even started, yet already there is joy. It is hardwired into the hearts of Darfur. I remember the ‘gratitude diaries’ that we in the West are encouraged to write by advocates of positive thinking, and think how strange they would seem to the people of North Darfur. No-one here writes their gratitude – instead it is felt keenly, sharply, viscerally, every single day. And there is so much gratitude for life itself – however hard that life might be.

    Joyful women in Tartora, North Darfur

    Joyful women in Tartora, North Darfur

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  • Sudan Visit: sprouting seeds for success and happiness

    Khartoum, Sudan, Khartoum
    June 21st, 2012

    Half of Sudan’s population live in acute poverty.

    This means that for millions of women, men and children, each day is a struggle to survive.

    It is a country blighted by civil unrest, (so many people I have met have lost loved ones to the fighting), devastating droughts, and recurrent food shortages. Nowhere is the impact of these factors felt more sharply than across the rural areas of Sudan, which are home to a majority of the population.

    For these families, an unsafe living environment, poor nutrition and few ways to earn an income have, lamentably, become a way of life.

    Practical Action always focuses on the poorest of the poor, helping the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, those who live on the very fringes of society, to transform their lives. So we are operating in the rural areas of Kassala, Blue Nile and Darfur to reach out to those communities whose survival is no more certain than the balancing of a diamond upon a blade of grass.

    Our work in Kassala is particularly impressive.  This project represents an ongoing programme which aims to strengthen the self-reliance of its traditional farmers. By providing access to innovative technologies and training, the project is directly improving the lives of 99,760 people in rural communities! It’s a huge number – just slightly larger than the population of my hometown of Rugby. This project has helped to strengthen livelihoods and sustain and improve their traditional methods of production. As a result of Practical Action’s skill-sharing, communities can now grow enough food to both eat and sell at market, and are more resilient to poverty.

    Before my arrival in Sudan, I was optimistic that I might be able to travel to Kassala to see the work first-hand. But after the expulsion of foreign staff from the area, it has been impossible for me to make this journey.

    So today, four people from Kassala – Samera, Siham, Mohamed, Abubker – come to Khartoum to meet me at the Practical Action offices. This journey takes seven hours by bus, and across terrible roads in the oppresive heat, I am sure it is neither a comfortable or enjoyable experience. For Siham and Abubker, the visit today is the first time they have ever travelled to their capital city. I feel so incredibly humbled that my presence here is the reason for their trip.

    Aged 65 years, Mohamed Mohamed Musa is the oldest of the group.  He was born in 1947 (it is significant and rather moving that he knows his birth year, as so many people do not). He is a tall man, but so thin that his collar bones protrude sharply. He wears a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban. This is traditional clothing for a Sudanese man, and to complete the look he sports a pair of Ray Ban style sunglasses. It is a strange combination of the ancient and the new. I am fascinated by his face. He is toothless and lined, and just so animated. His face seems to tell a story of its own.

    My questions for Mohamed are endless – I think he gets rather fed up with my unceasing curiosity in his life. He has two wives, for instance. The first marriage was arranged, the second one took place so he could take care of the daughter of a cousin after her parents died. He has many, many children. He can read and write – and he left school aged 12.

    But most importantly, he is passionate about seeds – and about Practical Action.

    Practical Action introduced Mohamed to a new type of sorghum seed. These seeds do not need as much rain to grow as the old variety, and as there is now less rain due to climate change, this is essential. The seeds also yield more crops – so when Mohamed harvests them, he has more to take to market. The new variety of sorghum weighs more too, which means Mohamed’s crops fetch a better price. The seeds – and the new hand tools and new terracing techniques that Mohamed now has – are transformational.

    “In the past, we were always hungry. I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. But I couldn’t give up, otherwise I would not have been able to care for my family.

    I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not rich with money, but rich with knowledge. I’m proud I have knowledge because I can share it with my children and all the other poor families in my village. Other farmers come to me and ask me for my skills . We are so happy to have worked with Practical Action, but we will know what to do long after Practical Action goes. Practical Action is like our mother and we are like her children. There is not enough time to talk about all the good works that Practical Action does.”

    I could write Mohamed’s words for the whole evening. He is so effusive about Practical Action. And he is so passionate about his new seeds that at one point he reaches within his jalabya and plucks out a handful of seeds. He has brought them all the way from Kassala to show me.  He knows I am meeting farmers from Darfur this weekend, and he wants to tell me about these seeds, so I, in turn, can pass on his knowledge to other people in need. Mohamed is like hope embodied – he believes so vehemently in the power of these tiny seeds.

    But juxtaposed against these stories of hope were tales of uncountable tragedy. While listening to 21 year old Siham recall her childhood and talk about the day soldiers came to her village with guns to bomb hundreds of innocent people – including her best friend – it takes as much self-control as I can muster to stop myself from crying.

    It has been an overwhelming day. I am reminded of one of my favourite George Eliot quotations:

    If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.  As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

    And I think maybe this explains why so many of us turn our backs in the face of suffering. I do not want to turn away. I want to listen to that roar. And then I want to write about it.

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  • Sudan Visit: I know why the caged bird sings

    Khartoum, Sudan, Khartoum
    June 20th, 2012

    Today in Brazil, over 50,000 people streamed into Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. Practical Action even has a team there, determined to ensure that total energy access for people in the developing world is high on the agenda.

    Meanwhile, here in Sudan, hundreds of ordinary people participated in demonstrations campaigning against political oppression and economic austerity. I’m sure these protests failed to make the headlines in the UK, but in Africa they were big news. The demonstrators were greeted by police who used batons and tear gas to suppress them.

    There is little personal freedom, and I have never experienced anything like it. Someone told me “it is like a prison here”.

    There are sand storms today, the “Habob”, and the sand is everywhere – in my hair, my ears, my eyes, my nose, my mouth. Khartoum is a desert city – and the desert does not let you forget it.

    Before I came to Sudan, three lovely colleagues in the UK gave me a poetry book – some soul food for my travels. Tonight, as I sit in my hotel room reflecting on my day, I find Maya Angelou’s poem “I know why the caged bird sings”. It’s a poem I have always loved, but tonight the last verse moves me more than usual:

    “the caged bird sings

    With a fearful trill

    Of things unknown

    But longed for still

    And his time is heard

    On the distant hill

    For the caged bird

    Sings of freedom”


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  • Sudan Visit: what does Practical Action mean to you?

    Khartoum, Sudan, Khartoum
    June 19th, 2012

    One of the most exciting  elements of visiting our overseas offices is the opportunity to build relationships with our field staff. They are the people who implement our projects, who work with vulnerable communities, who know the women, men and children living in poverty. Our field staff are Practical Action’s beating heart.

    So today my Sudanese colleagues and I spent several hours discussing what Practical Action means to us as individuals – how would we describe Practical Action in one word to someone who has not heard of us before? And how would we want to be described by our supporters, donors, partners, friends? It’s a fascinating subject because I think how we feel about the organisation for which we work is crucial to our success. If we are proud of and energised by what we do, I think it makes us better, more effective, more inspiring.

    We conjured up a delicious myriad of words:




















    There were many more, but this is just a snapshot. The words chosen create a compelling picture of the Practical Action in which I believe.

    The most moving word to me is “home”, which was suggested by Mazen, a young water engineer working in Sudan’s turbulent Blue Nile state. I asked Mazen why he chose this word, and he told me simply “for many poor people that we work with, Practical Action is like home to them, we’re like their family. We’re always there, supporting people and their communities. People trust us. If things go wrong, they know Practical Action will be there to help. We care. We’re home.”

    I think this reflects positively not only on Practical Action as an organisation, but also on the culture of our Sudanese staff, which is the most generous, welcoming, warm and hospitable that I have had the privilege of experiencing.

    There is a phrase in Arabic, “Al-Bayt Baytak”, which means “my house is your house”. In a matter of days I have felt at home with Practical Action in Sudan. So now when I ponder that question “what does Practical Action mean to you?”, one of my thoughts will be “home”. What will your answer be? What does Practical Action mean to you?

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