Blogs tagged as communications

  • Sudan Visit: Joy in Darfur

    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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  • Loos and luck

    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.

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  • Shelter me – and I’ll shelter you too

    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.

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  • Kenya Visit: in which I make a promise and I lose my heart

    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.

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  • Kenya Visit – There is beauty everywhere


    August 15th, 2011
    On Monday morning we board a plane from Mandera town to Nairobi. Although I loved last week’s road trip, I am secretly relieved that we are not facing another 19 hour drive on dirt tracks. I don’t think my body could handle it, especially after feeling so weak over the last few days.

    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.

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  • Kenya Visit – in which I am ill

    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 ever

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  • Kenya Visit

    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.

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  • Kenya Visit


    August 10th, 2011

    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.

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  • Kenya Visit

    ‎12 hours in a van driving across very difficult terrain. my bottom and back are starting to feel it. however I have seen the most unforgettable things and am learning so much from my practical action colleagues. feeling very happy to be here x

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  • Kenya Visit

    Signs of drought are increasingly common – already seen the carcass of 17 dead cows on the roadside. Counted 5 dry river beds – in the last 1 a group of small children had gathered to dig scoop holes. “Please don’t” I wanted to scream from our van, “the water could kill you.” But then the lack of it – or malnutrition also caused by the drought – could get them as well. So I didn’t say anything. Just drove on by, watching guiltily, sadly, as these children – so young and beautiful – are fighting for their right to remain in this world. Somehow I feel complicit in their suffering.

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