“Its water is soft like milk.” // Opportunity in Isolation

On the outskirts of Gawsawayne, a village that is itself located on the fringes, Amina Daar squats on the dirt floor of her Somali home, chatting with a neighbor.

Born and raised in the village’s minority clan, Amina is accustomed to life in isolation.

“I have always been in the minority clan,” shares Amina. “And because of this, no one can respect me.”

Along with seven other households, 40-year-old Amina and her 12 children are cut off from most all of the village resources and livelihoods.

“There is no water or food. There are no job opportunities,” she pragmatically explains.

Amina, twice widowed (tragically losing her first husband to conflict and her second to hepatitis), is her family’s sole provider. And following abruptly quitting her job as Gawsawayne’s lead circumciser, “It was a job, but it was bad”, she has been without a steady source of income.

Aside from belonging to the minority clan, life in Gawsawayne is challenging on its own.

Amina walks toward her home - one of seven in her minority community.

Amina walks toward her home – one of seven in the minority community.

Gawsawayne is a rural village located in the Sanag region of Somaliland. The climate can best be described as a semi-desert. Its flat, arid land stretches vast distances, as far as the naked eye can see. Stoic trees are found sparsely scattered between Somali homes and small variety shops.

Due to its drastic seasons, either rainy (read: flooding) or dry (read: drought), even the village’s majority clan can barely access enough clean water; they survive on the water collected in a few berkads (rainwater catchment systems) and shallow wells.

Amina drinks water gathered from the dirty, stinky shallow well.

Amina drinks water gathered from the dirty, stinky shallow well.

Amina, on the other hand, is not allowed access to these water sources. Thus, she walks two hours every day (four hours roundtrip) to gather water from a dirty, dirty (seriously, it’s so dirty) well.

“The water from the shallow well is not clean. It even has a bad smell. Its water makes us sick. And the couple of jerry cans I am able to carry are not enough to provide for all of the people in my family.”

For years, Amina’s clan has practiced traditional methods of medicine in an attempt to heal their ever-present stomach ailments.

“We take a stick with fire and burn dots on the skin around the stomach and liver – this helps to ease the pain and rid us of the sickness,” she explains.

Ironically, peering out of Amina’s doorway, the blaring noonday sun can be seen reflecting off of the metal slopes of a nearby berkad. Unfortunately, though it is in such close proximity, this berkad has been out of service for years – its life-giving source now an idle village landmark.

Amina stands in front of the recently rehabilitated berkad.

Amina stands in front of the recently rehabilitated berkad.

After discussing with Gawsawayne’s village elders, World Concern and the majority clan agreed to rehabilitate this now dilapidated piece of metal. Recognizing the need, the elders thought it best to give Amina and her community a beneficial resource as well as another means of income.

With anticipation, Amina illustrates, “When the rains come, the rehabilitated berkad will fill with water. The community has decided that it will be my job to sell this water to other people so that I can make money to feed my family and maintain the berkad.”

Not only will the rehabilitated berkad provide Amina and her family with funds, it will also significantly improve their overall well-being.

“YES,” Amina loudly proclaims, “this berkad will improve our health – we can use it for drinking and washing clothes! I will have more energy every day because I won’t be spending hours collecting water.”

Still stooped on the dirt floor, gazing out of her hut’s humble doorway, in a dream-like state Amina proudly aspires, “When I get enough money I plan to open a small shop…start my own business.”

As is deeply rooted in the Somali culture, whatever one has belongs to the entire community (in a short ten days, I witnessed this beautiful conviction lived out in a genuine manner). Amina’s neighbors, her community and family, will equally benefit from the refurbished berkad.

Still day-dreaming, Amina continues to describe her berkad.

“Its water is like soft milk.”



Seeing IDPs as More. // Models in Warrap State.

A single image, once viewed, has irrevocable powers.

Whether positive or negative, whatever is portrayed in the four-edged frame will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.

As with most other art forms, a photo is interpreted based on the preconceived notions, philosophies, experiences, and ideologies of the individual viewer. Additionally, that very same photo is framed by the preconceived notions, philosophies, experiences, and ideologies of the photographer.

A photo can be captured with the intention to portray a feeling of hope and interpreted to mean disparity and desolation.

A single photo has the ability to personally connect to an endless number of people on an endless number of levels.

To summarize, photos are influential and should consistently be valued as such.

Recently I found myself chatting with a friend about the current crisis in South Sudan. We were discussing that though there is clearly a pressing need for humanitarian assistance, there is also need for the outside world to see the other side of life for IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) - the humanity that still exists even in the most inhumane circumstances.

My friend candidly told me, “I want to see images that show IDPs as more than suffering masses.”

While visiting four IDP sites in Warrap State, South Sudan, I found myself frequently dumbfounded by the jaw-dropping beauty of the women. Of course, we all know that South Sudanese women tend to err on the side of gorgeous; what floored me was that they managed to remain equally beautiful while living in very basic, if not dire, conditions.

To be honest, this could have largely been due to the fact that I felt like a never-ending river of dusty sweat thanks to extreme climate that is dry-season in South Sudan. But, I’d venture its safe to say that these women are just straight-up drop dead gorgeous.

The juxtaposition of the following photos is just further evidence that beauty can exist even in dire circumstances.

Introducing a new perspective on IDPs in Warrap State: South Sudan’s Hidden IDP  Models.

For more information about World Concern’s work in South Sudan, and how you can get involved, click here.


Majok Deng. Not an IDP. // Crisis in South Sudan.

An IDP's 'home'. // South Sudan.

An IDP’s ‘home’. // South Sudan.

It was the third IDP (Internally Displaced Person) site I’d visited in two days, all within a two hour radius. Though the dusty, sparsely forested scenery had not changed, the number of people at each site seemed to grow exponentially. 900, 1500, 6000.

Each IDP site shouted the same story: too many people living under little to no shelter with little to no food – all of them exhausted and unsure where, or whether, they would get their next meal.

Sitting on that stray log transformed into a mangled seat, my mind was in two places.

While Majok spoke, his words were so vivid that they became tangible – tugging at my nerves and swelling into my tear ducts. I felt ready to burst.

Simultaneously, my brain sent out an extensive Morse code of warning signals: “This isn’t real”, “Where are you?” and “Why are you here?”, “No one should have to suffer this much”; my subconscious attempt at emotional self-preservation.

His bloodshot eyes appeared a vacuum of emotions. Without a hint of expression, they spoke directly to me.

Neither blinking nor wandering Majok’s hollow eyes told me a story I didn’t want to hear.

As soon as he heard there was fighting in his village (Mayom County, Unity State), Majok wanted to see for himself.

“At that time when the fighting broke out I went to roam,” he told me. “Then the fighting got worse so I fled with other people. My family was left at home.”

Running for hours, Majok was eventually picked up by a UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) truck full of people and carried to an IDP site in Warrap State.

IDPs clamor to squeeze onto a lorry carrying people to a nearby state.

IDPs clamor to squeeze onto a lorry truck which will transport them to a nearby state.

Majok left his home in mid-December. I spoke with him on February 13, nearly two months since he last saw his family.

Stoically, as if routine, Majok shared, “When I came here (the IDP site), people told me they didn’t know whether my father and mother are alive – even up to now.”

Still to receive an IDP registration card, Majok has not been given any rations of food and non-food items. He has made his new ‘home’ around the circumference of a tree; its gargantuan roots tell stories of 20 years of civil war and human suffering.

Welcomed by a group of group of women who left his hometown of Mayom, Majok sleeps in good company. Unfortunately, though it’s been two months, no one in this family unit has obtained a registration card.

“I don’t know how to get food. The women I stay with beg for food from other people who have registration cards. Sometimes we eat the leaves from this tree,” Majok tells me, gesturing upwards.

Wandering around the massive IDP site, already overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, I was floored to see that a significant portion are without any form of shelter.

Infographic about the number of IDPs in South Sudan. Dated February 3, 2014

According to some sources, out of the estimated 6,000 people at this site, around 1,000 have not been registered.

“We don’t eat every day. Maybe we will if we can get dura (a local grain), but I last ate four days ago,” says Majok. “I cannot sleep because I left my father and my mother. I worry about them because I don’t know whether they are alive or not. And I worry about me because I don’t know where I will get food or where I will stay.”

Majok’s  narrative is not isolated. His currently crappy (I’d like to replace this with a stronger word if it were appropriate to do so…) situation is one in one million (sources claim the crisis has displaced over 900,000 people).

Majok sits under the tree he calls home with the women he now calls family.

Majok sits under the tree he calls home with the women he now calls family.

Serving in communications for an organization whose mission is to go to the end of the road and stay there, my working hours translate into spending time with hundreds of individuals who all have equally heart-wrenching stories.

Despite the fact that Majok and I were surrounded by a hundred plus people (it’s difficult to do an interview in IDP camps without serving as entertainment for the entire population), 200% of my attention was on him. Well, more like 200% of me – emotions and all.

I may still be figuring this whole interview-process thing out, but I’ve managed to fumble my way into remaining focused on gathering the story at hand while concurrently expressing sympathy and humanity.

I’m working on finding that magical spot between acting as a ‘Q&A robot’ and a ‘blubbering sob-fest’.

But there are times when the tears must, and should, come. And there are times when they must be stored away.

More than in any interview before, I wanted nothing else than to reach out and hold Majok’s hand.

I wanted to grasp it and squeeze it and tell him that maybe I’m just a little person with a big camera, but I have a big heart and it is all his.

By the powers of my magical hand hold, I wanted Majok to know and believe that his story is important and it will not be forgotten.

I longed to promise him that I will tell other people that there are things in this world, that are beyond me messed up, that are hurting acutely innocent people. And on behalf of Majok, and the other 1 million displaced people in South Sudan, I will not be quiet.

Majok is an 18-year-old boy, he is not an IDP. His IDP status is merely the product of a fragile country (still the newest in the world) in the state of a horribly violent crisis.

Keep informed. Don’t stop reading. Pray without ceasing. Give. And share.

“This is something I have to reconcile with every day because I know that if I ever let genuine compassion to be overcome by personal ambition, then I know I have sold my soul.” – James Nachtwey, War Photographer






A Labor of Love // Education in Enchoro, Kenya.

Let me tell you something.

There’s this little theory I have. It’s a theory that has increasingly become molded into the foundation of my morals and convictions; an integrated part of my being.

No matter how vastly different two people may seem (look, talk, act), there is always a way to connect with one another.

Landon (my bro) talks with Kisea. // Maji Moto, Kenya.

Landon (my bro) talks with Kisea. // Maji Moto, Kenya.

While I spent hours engrossed in the process of familiarizing myself with the people and details of Enchoro Village (i.e. interviewing, touring property, sharing tea, taking hundreds of photos), Noosalash patiently sat waiting in a sliver of shade produced by a World Concern Land Rover.

Toying with a discarded plastic Krest bottle, she peered up at me with a shy grin as I approached her. It’s no surprise that most beneficiaries I meet react to me with slight intimidation; in the field I tend to look like a half-human/half-robot – one arm carrying my large tripod while the other balances my camera bag, microphones, and lenses. (Yes, my looks alone have been the cause of children’s tears.)

As Noosalash led me to her home, romping over fallen acacias and dried up river beds, the conversation between us seemed to flow. In fact, we talked for the entire 15 minute walk.

A little background…

Noosalash: 40-year-old mother of 8 from Enchoro, Kenya. Maasai. Speaks mainly Maasai and a bit of Kiswahili.

Kelly: a 26-year-old single woman from Seattle, Washington. American. Speaks mainly English and a bit of Kiswahili.

Arriving at Noosalash’s compound, giggling with each other, my colleagues looked at us puzzled, “What were you talking about that whole time?”

Noosalash creating beautifully intricate Maasai jewelry to be sold in town.

Noosalash creating beautifully intricate Maasai jewelry to be sold in town.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.

As we walked, I would say something in Kiswahili, then Noosalash would respond in Maasai. She would proceed to say something in Kiswahili, then I would respond in English.

Somehow, despite our tri-lingual exchange, meeting on a very peculiar level, Noosalash and I understood each other.

We connected.

By the time we’d reached her house, Noosalash no longer looked at me from the corner of her eye. Instead, she playfully batted my arms as I teased her about carrying such a huge stack of wood. Grabbing my hand, she led me to see inside her manyatta (traditional Maasai home) and then over to a patch of shade. We plopped down under the shelter of the compound’s largest tree, where Noosalash was creating intricate pieces of traditional Maasai jewelry.

Similar to 99.9% of the women in Enchoro , Noosalash never received a proper education. Like most, she was married by the age of ten and immediately proceeded to have children and care for the home. Though she does not harbor bitter feelings toward her upbringing, Noosalash believes in something more for her children.

“I plan to send all of my children to school through doing odd jobs – making beads, selling livestock, and other kinds of casual labor,” shared Noosalash.

Unfortunately, no matter the commitment of her labor of love, there is a strong chance that Noosalash’s children will have to cut their education short. Enchoro School Collage

Like Olemegili, Enchoro’s school only goes up to grade 4.

According to 28-year-old Rose Pesi, an Enchoro’s primary (elementary) school teacher, “It’s tough to be a teacher in this school because we don’t have enough classrooms for our children. We have 2 classrooms and there are 4 grades.”

Rose sits in one of Enchoro's classrooms.

Rose pensively sit at her desk in one of Enchoro’s classrooms.

After finishing grade 3, students either drop out of school, repeat a grade, or walk two hours (each way) to Olesere, the nearest town with a better equipped school.

“This school is far,” explains 11-year-old Francis. “When I go to visit, it takes me two hours by foot.”

Francis, who is number one in his class (quite possibly because he has had to repeat grade three due to the fact that he is still too young to walk all the way to Olesere), can attest to the community’s heartfelt desire to educate their children.

“Life in Enchoro is a bit difficult because we don’t have a good school with classes to graduate to,” he points out. “Some students are kept by their parents from going to Olesere because they are still very young. I don’t like it when children have to go to another school.”

Whenever diligently working Francis is given the opportunity to complete his education, he has big plans, ”I want to be a teacher so that I can teach the children.”

Francis in the classroom where he is repeating grade 3.

Francis in the classroom where he is repeating grade 3.

Of the four individuals I had the privilege of spending time with in Enchoro, 100% voiced that their village’s greatest need is a larger school.

Emphasizing her point, Rose confidently reiterated, “The greatest need in this village is to get extra classrooms for our children.”

It’s clear that the desire to grow in knowledge is innate. Having never lived outside of Narok (and most likely never outside of her very rural homestead), Noosalash remains far from ignorant, “I want this village to develop. I want us to have a school.”

It seems that education should be viewed as more than rote-memorization and tedious coursework.

In fact, education could be the spark that ignited my connection with Noosalash. It is our shared passionate curiosity and inquisitive nature that drives us both to question the world and people around us. Like many, we both have the desire to learn; and this is stronger than any physical, cultural, or linguistic barrier that may superficially appear to hold us apart.

Within The Folds Of Rolling Green. // Elizabeth in Olemegili, Kenya.

Climbing in elevation up what should be considered more of a pile of corrugated rocks than a road, this is not the Maasai landscape I thought I knew.  Holding on to the door handle so as not to fly across the vacated backseat, I look out at the valley that seems to shrink with every tire rotation.

Narok County, located in the south-west region of Kenya, is home to over 800,000 people. Situated alongside the magnificent Great Rift Valley, Narok south alone is home to countless around 200 villages – the majority of whom are Maasai.

A significant portion of Narok’s landscape can be compared to what many know as ‘quintessential Kenya’. It’s common for those who have not visited Kenya  to envision it as a country filled with tall Maasai men draped in checkered blankets, balancing on one leg while holding a large stick, and peering out over a seemingly endless savannah (where a lion is inevitably crouching amid the tall blowing grass).

Though this is a fairly accurate image of Narok, the rolling green hills outside of my window convince me that this popular image cannot stand alone.

After three jostling hours, the car reaches what appears to be the top. Breathless, I gaze out at the rolling green hills. Everything about this area is different from the previous Narok villages I’ve visited. It’s chilly, lush, and even closer to the equatorial sun (something a person of very pale skin is quick to notice).

We’ve arrived in Olemegili.

1-Olemegili Chief,Mother,Girl (8 of 170)

Later, sipping fresh milk tea inside of the chief’s tin roof home, James Ntiyani explains in proper English that out of the village’s impressive 3,000 person population, a mere four adults are educated.

Albeit it’s crisp air and mountainous beauty, Olemegili is somewhat of an island on its own. To travel to school, the market, an adequate health center, or even a clean water source, the community fights a (literally) uphill battle.

Sipping tea with the chief.

Sipping tea with the chief.

Because the chief is adamant about educating the entire village he has assisted the community with building a small school, ”I focus most on education because I realize that it’s the greatest avenue for change to come to the people. Since I found some education, let my village become like me.

This is great news and leaps and bounds beyond Olemegili’s recent education history. Unfortunately, the one-room school only goes up to grade three. This means that students are forced to repeat grades, travel ludicrous distances to attend grade four (around 16 kilometers round-trip per day), or, sadly, drop out of school entirely.

A belly full of sugary tea, we step out of the chief’s home meander down a grassy knoll to meet a community member named Elizabeth Noolmeyeki. Pausing to turn in circles and fully soak in the view, I wonder out loud where all of these supposed 3,000 people are. All I can see is six scattered homes.

The slopes of Olemegili appear to engulf individual homesteads, hiding significant sections of the village within their folds.

Far in the distance, if you squint hard, you can see the nearest health center to Olemegili.

Far in the distance, if you squint hard, is Olemegili’s nearest health center.

An air of inherent confidence to her stride, Elizabeth greets us with firm handshakes and smiles. She invites me into the doorway of her home (this is hands-down my most favorite location for talking and taking photos), where we proceed to sit on her carefully combed dirt floor.

Peering through my lens, this 28-year-old mother of five breaks down life in Olemegili through hers.

Elizabeth at home.

Elizabeth at home.

After marrying her husband Jeremiah about ten years ago, Elizabeth made a new home in Olemegili. Rearing five children between the ages of six months and 13 years of age, she continues to work her tail end off to make sure they are fed and in school.

[Evidence Of A Life Of Hard Work :: An Average Day in the Life of Elizabeth]

6am: Wake up and leave the home straightaway to fetch water.
“I have to make sure to draw water first because there is very little. I have to get there before the other ladies.”
(Definition of there: a dirty water hole that only fills when it rains.)

9 – 10am: Return from fetching water, milk the cows, and let sheep out of their pen.
We struggle here with a shortage of water. During dry season, we travel from 6am to 6pm, so all of our effort is toward gathering water. There is no time for work in the home. Where we get water is where every person and animal gets their water. This gives us stomach aches.”

Olemegili water pan.

Olemegili water pan.

11am: Head to the garden to begin digging.
“There is a lot of agricultural potential here. This land is beautiful.”
(Elizabeth plants potatoes, maize, beans, kale, and onions.)

12pm: Return home to cook lunch.

1pm: Pick up axe and venture out to collect firewood, then return to garden.

2pm: Finish gardening and bring animals back to their enclosure.

3pm – Dark: Cook dinner, feed children, bathe and put children to bed, close up gates and door, sleep.

Repeat  x365.

On the family property.

On the family property.

Yet, even after the aforementioned 24/7 work schedule, Elizabeth’s food and money is not always sufficient. “Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes it’s not enough, but this is all we have.”

Her days may be full due to the necessary measures required to survive, yet it’s clear that Elizabeth toils with conviction.

Using her red handkerchief to swat the incessant army of flies away from her face, she states with the steadfastness of a dream envisioned years past, “My greatest desire is for all my five children to be able to go to school. Once they are through with school, their lives can change. I am not educated but I will be happy if they are.”

Olemegili's one-room school. Hosting up to grade three.

Olemegili’s one-room school. Hosting up to grade three.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s eldest child has already fallen victim to the grade three cut-off. “My son Samuel was forced to travel to the neighboring school eight kilometers away after finishing grade three. Every day he faces cold and walks very long distances.”

Trying to disregard the flies as thick as a Georgia summer air creeping into the crevices of my eyes and nose, I contend to balance my camera. It’s in this moment that I am struck by Elizabeth’s words – she is the fourth person to mention the impact of the Olemegili cold.

Elizabeth and three of her children (L to R): Elina, Tunini, Ketemian.

Elizabeth and three of her children (L to R): Elina, Tunini, Ketemian.

According to the general community, people die every year from pneumonia. To blame is the nearest health care center, almost a full day’s walk away. Because the pneumonia has not been treated properly, the disease has continued to manifest itself into new, resistant varieties.

“I can count the people we have buried just because they weren’t able to get to a hospital on time,” Elizabeth whispers, staring me directly in the eyes.

“As much as I want other things for this village, I would push the need for a health facility as a priority.”

The paradoxical beauty of Olemegili’s landscape in contrast to all that it lacks leaves me dissatisfied. Yet the poignancy of Elizabeth’s passion and clarity of her conviction births within me an awareness of hope for the future of her family and her village.

Resting a weathered chin on the palm of her hand, Elizabeth states, “We are open to new ways of doing things.”



World Concern: Going To The End Of The Road And Staying There. // Part II

The following is Part II in a two-part series (you can read Part I here).

The series was written in response to the following questions:
     1. What makes World Concern different than other development organizations?
     2. Is being a faith-based organization (FBO) more of a challenge or a strength?

My hope is that you find this both informative and thought provoking. I’d love to hear your responses/questions! (It’s best to share these via commenting below or emailing me at kellyr@worldconcern.org)


World Concern staff meets with village elders. // Abeche, Chad.

World Concern staff meets with village elders. // Abeche, Chad.

How do the FBO’s do it?

From what I’ve seen, World Concern’s Christian basis is the glue that seals together their long-term development vision.

Being a FBO is both a bonus and a challenge. “I think every organization has something about them that wins some and loses some,” says Chris Sheach, World Concern’s Deputy Director of Disaster Response.

For example, due to their faith-based stance, World Concern has been denied multiple large grants (hence the restricted budget), losing a lot of potential funds. However, their faith based status means that World Concern has been able to build deep, lasting partnerships with churches in the U.S. and a variety of other faith-based groups around the world – establishing lasting relationships and consistent private giving (for example see One Village Transformed).

Along these lines, World Concern has faced, and continues to face, issues with security. Working in locations such as Chad, South Sudan and Somalia, they have dealt with a variety of faith-based tensions and threats. In some cases, religion gives reason for being labeled a potential target.

World Concern beneficiaries in Chad, where over 50% of the population is Muslim.

World Concern beneficiaries in Chad, where over 50% of the population is Muslim.

On the other hand, World Concern is inclusive and open to hiring staff from other faith backgrounds. Still, nationals in the areas where they work are aware that World Concern is Christian based.

According to Sheach, “In terms of how we deliver, I don’t think being faith-based should have much to do with it – we should deliver in the best (professional) way possible, to the people that are the most in need of delivery. Perhaps one of the problems with an FBO is that different people have different interpretations of how faith intersects with the process of serving. This doesn’t happen in World Concern.”

“The best thing about working for a FBO is that when I am with beneficiaries, most none of whom are atheist, and whose world views MUST encompass spirituality as a fundamental part of living and daily survival, I already have a bond that allows us to relate,” shares Jane Gunningham, World Concern’s Regional Advisor for Innovation.

Having recently returned to Nairobi from a four month stint in South Sudan, Gunningham continues, “I am not driven by policy to ignore this aspect of reality: in fact, I am allowed to talk about how faith, divine principles and the ultimate nature of existence reside in how we understand and relate to the spiritual underpinning of life. It allows me to recognize how seriously the beneficiaries take their spiritual beliefs, without thinking of them as backwards or superstitious.”

While balancing their values, appealing to the donor, and remaining consistently committed to work that is raw, messy, and long-term, World Concern is trying to live out what they believe in doing – going to the end of the road, staying at the end of the road, and doing it all with a strong sense of purpose.

Village meeting with World Concern. // Tessou, Chad.

Village meeting with World Concern. // Tessou, Chad.

Is there a formula for successfully fundraising for long-term projects while maintaining a sex appeal; a way to educate the donor mindset – replacing the desired instant gratification from development with long-term change? To be honest, World Concern is still searching. (If you have one, find my contact info below.)

And the ever-morphing future for development work can only tell.

So here’s to continuing down that un-sexy, not-so-profitable, life transforming road.

To learn more about World Concern’s One Village Transformed, click here


World Concern: Going To The End Of The Road And Staying There. // Part I

Today I want to share with you Part I of a II piece series I wrote in response to the following questions:
1. What makes World Concern different than other development organizations?
2. Is being a faith-based organization (FBO) more of a challenge or a strength?
My hope is that you find this both informative and thought provoking. I’d love to hear your responses/questions! (best to share these via commenting below or emailing me at kellyr@worldconcern.org)


World Concern staff meet with a village in Magai, South Sudan.

World Concern staff meet with a village in Magai, South Sudan.

“Concern Worldwide, right?”

“No, World Concern…”

Initially, this common exchange led me to assume that in East Africa, World Concern is not well known.

As a medium-sized Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) based out of Seattle, Washington, World Concern tends to be less known in heavily aid-concentrated areas for one simple reason: This is not where they work. In addition, World Concern may not be your stereotypical Faith Based Organization (FBO) with proselytizing as the main goal, but rather compelled by their faith to be committed to long-term development and restoring human dignity, even if it means humbling and adapting with lessons learned along the way.

Let’s Take a Trip.

I have a pretty incredible job. I work for World Concern in a regional position covering South Sudan, Chad, Somalia and Kenya. Based out of Nairobi, I spend most of my waking time in the field getting to know World Concern’s projects and beneficiaries. Gathering thousands of photos and many an interview, I work with the beneficiaries to share their stories with the outside world.

Interviewing a World Concern beneficiary in Tessou, Chad.

Interviewing a World Concern beneficiary in Tessou, Chad.

Basically, I get the best of both worlds – life in ‘the field’ coupled with life in one of the world’s largest international development hubs.

Due to my line of work, the aforementioned conversation is one I’ve found myself repeating with multiple people in the east African expatriate community. Surprisingly (to me), these conversations tend to occur most frequently in Nairobi, or other cities with a high concentration of development organizations such as Gulu, Kampala, Kakuma, and Juba.

I’d like you to join me on a trip to rural, I mean rural, Chad. Specifically – let’s scoot on over to Goz Beida, located in the Sila Region of eastern Chad.

Now ask someone there if they know about the projects and village partnerships headed up by World Concern. Chances are you will hear a contrasting response.

As we continue on our way to Goz Beida, allow me to paint a picture of our journey leaving from Nairobi.

Many a time have I flown in a large plane, that takes me to a small United Nations (UN) plane, that then drops me in on a dirt runway next to a Land Rover, that then drives me on a 2-5 hour journey miles outside of an already rural town (Goz Beida) to an even more rural village. At this point, we’ve arrived at a World Concern project site; in our case Harako, Chad.

Half of the time in the field I am flabbergasted that: (a) The local staff have any clue where in the heck they are driving (it is safe to say that there is a 0.03% probability that our journey to the field will involve paved roads, or any roads at all) and (b) World Concern staff is conscious that these villages even exist, let alone have meaningful relationships with the local people.

Traveling to project sites, it is rare to see another NGO present. Though the jolting drives may be cause for future back problems, I’m encouraged that World Concern targets villages with off-the-map locations; those that tend to be few in population. For some, the latter is reason enough to throw in the towel and say, “The effort is not worth it.”

Karona, a World Concern partner village outside of Goz Beida, Chad.

Karona, a World Concern partner village outside of Goz Beida, Chad.

Call me dramatic, but I’ve never felt more at the ends of the earth than I do visiting World Concern’s partner villages, whether in Chad or elsewhere.

On assignment in South Sudan, laying alone in a tukul (a traditional hut) in a compound surrounded by a flimsy four-foot tall stick fence, I found myself thinking, “I have never felt further from anything or anyone I know. This could be it.” This goes without mentioning that the ‘guard’ is equivalent to half my weight.

Strip away the romanticism of partnering with the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and the sexy (yet false) idea that merely digging and building a gushing well equates to a better quality of life and a village transformed. Now you can see development work in remarkably remote locations for what it is – a constant uphill battle. (Cue timely ‘Amen’)

From what I have observed, this is an ongoing internal struggle for World Concern – an organization that implements projects such as wells and desires to celebrate their impact, but at the same time is aware that this is only a fragment of long-term transformation.

Working it Out in Chad

Let’s go back to Goz Beida, Chad.

From 2004 to 2011, Goz Beida was a hotspot for international NGOs. Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) were pouring into the area from every direction (some have flippantly referred to Chad as a large dumping pot for refugees, IDPs, and immigrants). The crisis was tangible and the aid money was flowing.

World Concern beneficiary in the Jabal Refugee Camp, Goz Beida, Chad.

World Concern beneficiary in the Jabal Refugee Camp, Goz Beida, Chad.

In 2011, the Chadian government announced “A Year of Return” for all IDPs – encouraging them to move back to their villages and for all NGOs to halt their operations within the camps.

In other words, the government declared the crisis over (naturally, it wasn’t).

Cut-off from large non-private funds, World Concern was left to work with an impossibly low budget. Still committed to their beneficiaries– they had to make a tough decision – remain and search for outside resources or move out with the rest. In a few brief months, nearly all compounds in Goz Beida were vacated, making World Concern one of the few remaining NGOs in a development ghost town.

Barely scraping by on private funding, World Concern fought for outside support in order to move out of giving relief and towards development. The people of Chad clearly needed more than handouts – and World Concern was learning to see the bigger picture. Their beneficiaries needed a way to save themselves from a repeat disaster.

“On average, almost two disasters of significant proportions are recorded every week in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. Few of these ever hit the global headlines but they silently erode the capacities of Africans to survive or prosper,” states the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). “In order for development activities to be sustainable they must also reduce disaster risk.”

“Investing in the cost of reducing disasters can be 10 times (some say 40 times) more effective than helping people recover afterwards,” explains Chris Sheach, World Concern’s Deputy Director of Disaster Response.

Despite its immense importance, it seems that obtaining private donor funding for disaster risk reduction (DRR) is surprisingly arduous.

Creating an appeal and encouraging donors to give money during a disaster? Attractive. Fundraising for the purpose of long-term development, with the goal of preventing future disasters and reducing risk? Not so attractive.

Currently, the work of World Concern in Chad is entirely based on private donors; well-meaning churches, individuals, families, and groups across the U.S.

“The long-term, low-cost investment in sustainable community development and DRR is much more effective and efficient than just ‘helping people’,” continues Sheach. “Effective in that it leads to bigger and better things, and reduces losses. Efficient in that it’s a better use of money.”

Yet, DRR is still less dazzling than handouts and quick-response aid. The sad but simple truth is that long term development just isn’t sexy.

It doesn’t produce instantaneous results, and it sure can’t be packaged in a pretty box. It is complex and its process is often difficult to fully comprehend unless you have either been to the field or worked in development. And even then, the answers may still evade those of us working in development – and the complexities definitely still exist.

The longer I spend working in the field of development, the more I am exposed to harmful practices – I have seen the effects of organizations whose work instills more harm than it does help.

Does this make me disheartened and, unfortunately, overly-critical (as is a common characteristic of many development workers)? At times, definitely yes.

Has this made me more understanding of where World Concern has come from and their vision for where they are working to go? Again, definitely yes.

Stay tuned for “World Concern: Going To The End Of The Road And Staying There. // Part II”, which will focus more on the question:
Is being a faith-based organization (FBO) more of a challenge or a strength?

The River is Not Enough // Dry-Season Farming and Empowering Beneficiaries in South Sudan

Anok Awer squints her eyes as she speaks. It’s as if she is blinded by the glare of her neon yellow t-shirt – rather than the brutal South Sudanese sun beating directly onto her face; a year-round sensation that goes without complaint.

With a wrinkled forehead, as if matter of fact, she explains, “We now face a shortage of food. Currently we are dealing with the drought from last year.”

Positioned between a semi-seasonal river and a dry-season garden, Anok fidgets, clearly uncomfortable with the heat and subject matter. Visible beads of sweat roll down her weathered face, “It is very difficult to get money. The only way is to make wine out of dura.”

As far back as history reveals, the people of South Sudan have been agro-pastoral. This means they are both farmers and keepers of livestock.

Prior to Sudan’s 20 year horrendous civil war that rocked, and ultimately split the country, seasons of hunger was a scarcely identified issue. The Sudanese people had naturally adapted their methods of farming to survive the heat and lack of rain. Because life was generally peaceful, committing to farming one’s land was easily sustainable.

The war in Sudan killed roughly 2 million people and displaced more than 4 million. It depleted the country of a shared nationhood and any sort of infrastructure.

Amid the chaos of the war, the Sudanese ability to successfully farm year round was tragically lost.

Hiding in the bush, fleeing outside of the country, and living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, the war left the people of southern Sudan no opportunity to practice long-term cultivation. Rather than relying on natural self-sufficiency, most were forced into a life of dependency.

Unfortunately, the dependency mentality remains present in Anok and her dry-season farming group.

One of the members in Anok's farming group washes away the heat in a nearby water source.

One of the members in Anok’s farming group attempts to wash away the heat in the river.

During, and post, the war, food and water were provided in the form of handouts and aid. Survival was determined by the work and assistance of someone else. Over time relying on relief, as it was often the only option, transformed into a pattern of life. Most tragically, it became deeply engraved in the Sudanese cultural mentality.

Living with her husband and five children in Mading Akot, a very rural village outside of Lietnhom, located miles away from clean water and any sign of infrastructure, Anok laments her failing farm.

“We work with World Concern in this farm but we face so many challenges. The pests and cows are destroying our fence and crops.”

Anok and her World Concern farming group in Mading Akot, South Sudan.

Anok and her World Concern group stand among their dried up farm in Mading Akot, South Sudan.

Currently, one of World Concern’s most prominent projects in South Sudan entails training, equipping, and empowering families in the area of dry season farming. In order to promote building and learning in community, the training occurs in small groups on a shared plot of land. These groups learn to cultivate and harvest a medley of produce, including tomatoes and kudera (a hearty leafy-green vegetable), that can survive the drastic heat and lack of copious hydration.

According to Anok, “World Concern teaches us that if we really do this farm, it will eradicate poverty in our community. It will help us get money for our village and children.”

Just a 20 minute walk down the road from Mading Akot, another World Concern farming group can be found digging and watering their bounteous, healthy crops.  Though the group has received a replica training and tools to that of Anok’s, their fence remains standing and their harvest is plentiful enough to take home, store, and sell in the local market.

In contrast to Anok's garden, this farming group took ownership of their garden, resulting in a successful harvest.

In contrast to Anok’s, this farming group took ownership of their garden, resulting in a successful harvest.

Though, even with quality training, farming during the dry-season is no easy task, there’s another reason for Anok’s group’s failure: lack of ownership.

When asked why her land was not producing, Anok slowly lowers her chin, requesting more seeds and tools, and showing no interest in fixing what has already been broken.  Her relationship to the farm, and her group, is evidently surface level – she shows few signs personal responsibility.

Though ownership is a complex concept to teach – particularly to those who have spent the majority of their lives in IDP camps, dependent and surviving on handouts- ownership is an absolutely necessary component of holistic transformation. It is the winning factor in the debate over empowering versus enabling.

World Concern believes in empowering.

And though administering relief is invaluable in times of crisis, in a case like Mading Akot, a handout would inevitably give way to another reason for the people to avoid doing work themselves.

In order for Anok’s farm to be as successful as her neighbor’s down the road, she must first believe in herself; she must take ownership of the fact that, ultimately, she is the one who can improve and transform her life, her family, and her community.

All of this is not to say that Anok is less capable than anyone else – it is to say that a shift in mindset will make or break the quality of a harvest – no matter how incredible World Concern’s tools and trainings. And this can be said of mindsets worldwide.

World Concern hasn’t given up on Anok, and we have no intentions of doing so. In fact, we are thankful for Anok’s story because it is a reminder that transformation requires more than a simple formula, a straightforward five-step program involving manicured handouts and quick lessons.

Transformation requires commitment, both from our staff as well as the beneficiaries involved. And, most importantly, it requires that every individual involved recognizes that he or she is both capable and empowered.




Lafayas in Amkharouba // Salouakatteer

Pulling up to Amkharouba village, our first stop of the day, I hang back in the Land Rover while my colleagues pile out to greet our eager hosts. Sitting on my lap is a beautifully geometric patterned lafaya, a traditional Chadian wrap borrowed from a colleague who worked in the area for an extended period of time.

The lovely women of Amkharouba wrap me in a lafaya, otherwise known as a Kelly burrito.

The lovely women of Amkharouba wrap me in a lafaya, otherwise known as a Kelly burrito.

Glued to, and sweating in, my seat, I stare at the large piece of fabric – bewildered as to how I will be able to perform my normal photographer duties while wrapped head to toe like a human burrito in the Sahel.

Reluctantly making my way out of the car, I’m immediately surrounded by a group of curious onlookers. Noticing the lafaya gripped in my sweaty palms, they grab the fabric and proceed to give me a Sila Region makeover.

Despite the women’s lafaya wrapping expertise, it was just as uncomfortable I imagined. Let’s just say that though I may have looked like a local (okay, as much as a white woman could), I sure didn’t walk like one. Throughout the afternoon, tripping became a normalcy.

Okay. I'll cut myself a little slack on my tripping quota.

Okay. I’ll cut myself a little slack on my tripping quota.

Fortunately, I was not the one in front of the camera – and the people of Amkharouba seemed to deeply appreciate my willingness to dress as they do.

And as clichéd as it may sound, my day as a Chadian burrito became noticeably less uncomfortable as I sat and listened to the community’s daily discomforts. I was trying to restrain from ripping off my lafaya for a single afternoon; the women of Amkharouba rock their lafayas all day every day all the while dealing with significant discomforts.


// Saloukatteer //

“I’m hoping that one day we can get water and a school and food to eat every day.”

Brushing back her neon yellow lafaya, Salouakatteer solemnly describes life in Amkharouba, a village in the rural Sila Region of Eastern Chad.

Located close to one and a half hours from the nearest water source – both the land and the people of Amkharouba are dehydrated.

Describing her daily activities, Salouakatteer explains that “the water we are getting is very far from here”.

Often, she spends the majority of her morning on donkey back traveling to and from the water collection site – an old well.

“I go every day, unless sometimes my brother or sisters go instead. The water we are getting is not clean,” Salouakatteer tells me.

Though unsure of her age, Salouakatteer appears to be around ten years old. No matter, she is old enough to know that people in her village are dying from hunger and a lack of clean, accessible drinking water.

Referring to her six siblings Salouakatteer says, “We eat one to two times a day. Yes, we are hungry everyday – sometimes we even cry.”  She solemnly recalls a few people in Amkharouba who have died from such causes.

World Concern staff meets with the Amkharouba under a tree.

World Concern staff and the Amkharouba community meet under a tree.

World Concern recently partnered with the people of Amkharouba through an incredible program called One Village Transformed.

Thanks to private donors who have committed to three years of support, the people of Amkharouba are working alongside World Concern to establish what many of us would consider as basics: accessible clean water, agricultural empowerment, hygiene awareness, and education.

Though Salouakatteer’s childhood may have been cut short by her surrounding environment, she is clearly still a child at heart.

“School is far from here so no one attends. But I want to learn about what kids learn about in school.”

Just the mention of education reveals a bashful grin on Salouakatteer’s previously stoic face.

“I’m hoping that one day we can get water and a school and food to eat every day.”

** If you are interested in participating in World Concern’s One Village Transformed program (seriously, this is an amazing opportunity), check out this link.
***Over the next few weeks I plan to frequently update the blog with beneficiary stories from all over East Africa. Tune in to read more about World Concern’s work. Use this blog as a medium for connecting to a people, place, and story that is not frequently talked about in the standard news.