Sister Kim // Part II

She knew little more than the title of her next life chapter: Uganda. Its sentences had yet to be formulated, its paragraphs were waiting to be compiled. She was particularly unaware that this new so-called chapter would turn out to be more of a series – a life commitment.

In 1985, pursuing the unfamiliar, Chung Yoon Kim, referred to by most as Sister Kim, packed her life and moved from South Korea to Uganda. With the support of World Concern, she began to make lasting imprints on villages across the country, and they accepted her as one of them.

In a span of 30 years, Sister Kim established a fully functioning health center in the very rural village of Goli, opened a nursing training school, founded a prison ministry, and built a mountaintop retreat center.

This is Part II, in what could easily be an endless part blog series, on the life and legend of Sister Kim.

Before you continue reading, make sure to check out Part I.

“In 1967 I was talking with a nursing school friend about how we could one day go to Africa. We were just dreaming and talking casually, and then we forgot about it.”

It’s nearing nightfall and Sister Kim and I are perched on dining room table chairs on her front porch, basked in the late afternoon sun. A breeze makes its way through the rustling branches of the trees she planted in order to keep the area cooler. Mosquitoes begin to saturate the evening air, buzzing to tease ears and tickle vulnerable ankles.

After graduating nursing school in South Korea, Sister Kim moved to the U.S. to continue with her studies. She was, and still is, the only one of her seven siblings to live outside of Korea. Sis Kim spent the subsequent years working in between the U.S. and South Korea.

During the late 1970′s, Sis Kim found herself working relentlessly in inner-city Philadelphia.

“I was very busy back in America,” she tells me. “I was very committed in a Korean community and had a full time job in the hospital.  I assisted others with a lot of translations. I was working 24 hours a day, I had no sleeping hours.”

In an effort to save money, serve others, and above all, please God, Sister Kim poured her entire being into her every minute of every day.

Sis Kim & Goli Health Center Staff.

As is apparent in Sister Kim as a now 73-year-old woman, her perpetual energy and committed work ethic are deeply integrated parts of her character.

Despite her sacrificial Philadelphia lifestyle, Sister Kim continued to feel like she wasn’t pleasing God.

“When I was working I gained a lot of money and offered it all to the Lord, but it wasn’t pleasing Him.”

Perhaps it wasn’t that He wasn’t happy with her work, but rather He had something else in mind.

Curious how such seemingly selfless work could possibly displease the Lord, I prod Sister Kim for a further explanation.

“I knew He wasn’t pleased because I couldn’t pray,” Sister Kim replies. “So one day I went to a vacated room in the city and decided to pray until I heard an answer. I closed all of the doors and windows and just prayed.”

Sister Kim prayed for three days straight.

“At sunset on the third day, I was suddenly reminded of the conversations I once had with my nursing school friends- you said you wanted to go to Africa. I knew this was my answer, so I left the room and went back home.”

In what can only be described as complete faith, Sister Kim spent the next few years pursuing moving to a foreign country to do a professedly foreign work.

“As soon as I arrived in Uganda and stepped onto the ground, a peace overcame me,” Sister Kim recalls, tears welling in her remembering eyes. “Any worries about Africa I had once had were all gone. In me was only peace – and this peace has not left.” 

Curled up on my chair, I physically feel as if I’m swimming in the details of Sister Kim’s narrative. As I listen, I envision phrases and quotes swirling above her head. One of her comments is bold and italicized – it stands out from the rest:

“I thought I was humble but, unknowingly, there was pride within me.”

[Heeeelloooooo...reality check. Her words like a scalpel to my core - I was left to dissect my character, my life, and my intentions. I’m sure Sis Kim had no idea that in sharing her story, her raw words spoken over cups of lukewarm tea were sharpening and molding me.] IMG_9377

Sister Kim’s first eight years in Uganda were spent working at a health center and establishing a nursing school in a village called Kuluva. Originally a school of 70, Kuluva is now equipping over 250 nursing students.

During her time in Kuluva Sister Kim dealt with a gamut of challenges. A war in Uganda was being waged and patients with missing limbs were entering the health center on the daily.

“We were running out of resources and had to recycle whatever materials we could find,” she describes.

While simultaneously tending to wounds and organizing prayer groups, Sister Kim was suffering from monthly spouts of malaria.

“It was not a big deal,” she casually shares. “I always knew when the malaria was coming because I would begin to feel heavy and achy.”IMG_9286 IMG_9231

There reached a point when Kuluva nursing school became sustainable. Sister Kim appointed a local principal and declared it time to head back to Korea and the U.S.

“I told God, ‘Isn’t that enough?’” she says. “But he did not answer me. Then the Anglican diocese called me back to Uganda – I felt frustrated. What should I go back for? So I spent another three days in secluded prayer.”

Again, on the third day, God answered her cries.

“A verse came to me that I still have on my wall to this day,” Sister Kim energetically shares. “So I moved back to Uganda.”

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self…to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4: 22-24

Dusk has turned to nightfall and the mosquitoes have migrated around artificial lights. Sister Kim and I sit comfortably in silence, processing stories unforeseen and stories yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sister Kim: The legend of a life lived for others. // Part I

In the year of 1941, unbeknownst to a rural Ugandan community, a distant sister and unparalleled pioneer was born.

Her given name was Chung Yoon Kim, but most (an underestatement as you will soon read) refer to her as Sister Kim.

If it were possible, I would love to write an entire six part blog post describing Sister Kim. I would tell you that she is incredibly selfless, hospitable, intentional, prayerful, hilarious, driven, energetic, resilient, beautiful, and every other positive adjective that when combined only scratch the surface of her character. But Sister Kim wouldn’t like this because, well, she really is that selfless. [I consider it a minor accomplishment that I was able to spend four plus hours interviewing her, as this required that she talk about herself.]

Instead, I will tell you about Sister Kim (still in the form of a series) via voices from the gamut of communities, projects, and individuals who have been transformed in the last 30 years.

IMG_9555In 1985, prior to the advent of widespread internet access, Sister Kim courageously packed up her few belongings and moved to a land she knew little more of than it’s name: Uganda.

“To be honest, I did feel fear,” she explained. “But the very moment I descended from the plane’s staircase and stepped onto the red soil, I was overcome with a sense of peace – and this peace hasn’t left me since.”

Sister Kim attributes this peace entirely to God. It is a peace that has kept her through Uganda’s 20 year civil war. A peace that has caused her to remain in a very rural village when other missionaries fled. A peace that pervades so much of her being that for 30 years, Sister Kim has lived and worked in a culture that’s not her own, learning to speak an entirely new language (among endless other cultural nuances), all the while living alone – without any immediate family or a husband.

“I never feel fear,” she pragmatically promised. “Why would I feel fear when I know why I’m here?!”

Indeed, Sister Kim, beyond a shadow of a doubt, knows why she is still living, working, and thriving in a very remote Ugandan village.

Located in Nebbi, a district in northwest Uganda that is situated between Gulu (an area known by many due to its recent history involving the Lord’s Resistance Army) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (one can literally see the DRC from the town’s center), Goli village is home to Sister Kim and the level three (soon to be four) Goli District Health Center.

When she first arrived in Goli, the so-called health center consisted of a couple of thatched-roof huts. Inside these semi-permanent structures, doctors dealt with everything from fistula to leprosy, all while a variety of critters crawled overhead.

“There was a time I saw a cat crawling above us while we were administering surgery. But I prayed, and the patient never became infected.”

And that’s what she does. If there’s one word to describe SIster Kim, it is prayer.

For the last 22 years, Sister Kim has woken up at 4:30 am to attend a 5 am prayer service. Every. Single. Day.

This ritual is both a reflection and causation of Sister Kim’s unprecedented selfless nature. She prays because she knows and believes in the one who made her – and this is the reason why she is in Goli.

Sister Kim prays because, she will tell you until her face turns blue,:

cannot do anything.”

 

 

A Man and His Camels // A Series of Eyewitness Accounts [Part II]

The following is a brief Eye Witness Account [Part II] as shared by Saleban – a father and camel herder in Faraguul, Somaliland. 

I am uncomfortable.

The UV rays are direct, piercing through my thin cotton shirt. I immediately feel fatigued and sunburned. I’ve been sitting in the Faraguul afternoon sun for a total of 25 minutes.

While I had been sitting inside an air conditioned vehicle, 40-year-old Saleban had been walking for 3 hours, alongside his 30-strong herd of camels, to reach our meeting point. After using a tethered rope attached to a weathered plastic jerry can to draw countless litres of water, he finished rehydrating his long-necked beasts and proceed on the redundant 3 hour journey home.

Saleban does this every day.3 - Faraguul, school wat, well_999_288-138

Faraguul is a rural village located in the Sanaag region of Somaliland, the self-declared independent state of Somalia.

The climate can best be described as a semi-desert; Its flat, arid land stretches seemingly endless distances. Stoic trees can be found sparsely scattered between Somali homes and small variety shops.  A dried river bed divides the tiny village from a number of shallow wells, whose salty water is consumed by the antiseptic tongues of hundreds of camels and the lips of parched goats.

Though Faraguul is divided by a ‘river’, it is more a hallucination of what could be; the land is frequently plagued by devastating droughts.

“I travel this far because this is the nearest water source for my camels,” explains Saleban, his lanky figure leathered from a lifetime spent in the desert sun. “The journey makes me feel tired.”

Recently, World Concern partnered with the Faraguul community to rehabilitate 4 of their shallow wells.

“Before, the wells were made of wood,” says Saleban. “They were not covered so the water was very dirty. Even my animals didn’t like the taste, so they would only drink a little.”

A shallow well pre-rehabilitation.

A shallow well pre-rehabilitation.

I can’t even begin to imagine the exhaustion of walking six hours every day to water animals that refused to drink.

“Now the wells are better,” Saleban continues.  “They are properly covered and made of quality materials. My animals drink a lot of water.”

Though the number of hours Saleban spends walking in the scorching sun has not decreased, there are still tangible improvements. With healthier animals, Saleban is encouraged, in energy and spirit to provide for his family of ten.

Saleban's son cools off in the noonday heat.

Saleban’s son cools off in the noonday heat.

According to recent reports, only one in three people have access to safe drinking water.

Though progress is being made, 2.9 million Somalis are currently living in a state of humanitarian crisis. Like South Sudan, the situation in Somalia rarely makes headline news, but the severity of the crisis remains very real.

Let’s not forget our dear brothers and sisters. Stay informed:

  • 2.9 million Somalis are in humanitarian crisis
  • 50,000 children are severely malnourished
  • Women in Somalia face the second highest risk of maternal death in the world and babies are at the highest risk of dying on the day of their birth
  • 1.1 million people are displaced within their own country
  • Polio has returned, with 193 cases recorded in the last year
  • Just 30% of the population has access to clean drinking water
  • Fewer 1 in 4 people have access to adequate sanitation facilities
  • 1 in 7 children are acutely malnourished

Further reading:
Somali Children ‘at death’s Door’
Somalia risks “catastrophe” as warning signs echo 2011 famine – agencies

Strapping on collected water for the journey ahead.

Preparing collected water for the journey ahead.

Strapping on collected water for the journey ahead.

Recently rehabilitated shallow well.

Recently rehabilitated shallow well.

 

Neither Here Nor There // A Series of Eyewitness Accounts [Part I]

The following are brief Eye Witness Accounts from Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in Wau, South Sudan.

Since conflict broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in December 2013, the country has been in a state of crisis. In the last six months, over 250,000 people have fled to neighboring countries and over 800,000 people have been internally displaced. Fleeing their land and tools, millions have watched the harvesting season come and go, left to fear what will happen when cultivation season arrives and there are no crops to harvest.

It is now rainy season, and rather than being thankful for the water that nourishes their cracked, dry land, people are living in haphazard shelters and suffering through persistent floods; stories tell of families wading through water knee-high, others talk of mother’s who are forced to carry their children whenever it rains so that they don’t drown. The UN, National Geographic, and many other news and development agencies are predicting that South Sudan is likely to experience one of the worst famines the world has experienced in over a quarter century. According to the UN, over 3.7 million people, close to one-third of the population, are at risk of starvation.

Much of the recent conflict has been concentrated in Unity State, an oil-rich region. Because it borders Sudan, Unity serves as a hub for a large population of Sudanese traders and refugees.

At the IOM Way-station in Wau, the capital of Warrap State (neighbors to the west of Unity), 130 Sudanese men and their families sit idly under massive tarpaulin structures – the structures are so large that the majority of their temporary residents sleep beneath a single roof.

Prior to moving to Wau, many of the IOM Way-station inhabitants fled to the Unity UNMISS compound as soon the rebels attacked their villages.

“Some of us lived in the camp while others of us remained in our homes for 27 days. We could not come out,” shares Suleman Masam, a Sudanese trader from Unity. “We had only the food and water that what was in our homes to survive.”

As soon as the government regained control of the village, Suleman and thousands of others decided it was time to leave Unity.

“I knew I could not stay there. My shop had been completely looted. I saw dead bodies lining the street; even one of my colleagues was shot.”

Suleman stands at the entrance to his current home with three of his children.

Suleman stands at the entrance to his current home with three of his children.

With his remaining money, Suleman paid for public transportation to take him, one of his wives, and two of his children to Wau – where they reside today.

“I was not expecting what happened to happen. Despite some problems we received from the host community, we had felt safe in Unity,” explains Suleman. “I feel less fear here in Wau than I was feeling at home, but I have nothing to do. I cannot go back to either of my homes – Sudan and Unity. I don’t know what will happen next.”

Salwa, an 18-year-old girl who hitched a ride with her brothers from Unity to Wau, feels similarly, “I can just sit here all day without doing anything.”

Salwa’s story is unique. Not only is she displaced from her home and her family, but of the 130 IDPs, she is one of only five women staying in the Way-station.

 

“I don’t know where the other women are, but I am not comfortable,” explains Salwa. “I cannot go about my life as normal being one of the only women here. I cannot take baths whenever I want and I cannot even sleep without clothing.” (This is notable considering South Sudan’s often unbearable heat – even through the nights.)

In partnership with IOM, Suleman, Salwa, and the other Way-station residents have received World Concern food rations.

But from their perspective, they are still stuck.

“We have some food, but we don’t know when it will come next,” said Salwa.

“I am not sure where I will move next or what will happen in my near future,” Suleman comments, absent-mindedly staring at a child playing nearby. “We want to live in peace. We want to restart our businesses, but right now we have nothing.”

As the conflict and floods continue to plague many regions of South Sudan, I urge you to, most importantly, stay informed. Though it may no longer be making headline news, the crisis in South Sudan is very real. Let’s not forget our millions of displaced brothers and sisters around the world.

For more information:

Food Crisis Worsens in South Sudan as Civil War is Displacing Millions

South Sudan crisis among gravest in history, says UN

South Sudan Crisis: Donors Pledge $600m at conference

World Concern: South Sudan Relief

 

“We Can Now Taste Our Land.” // Fadumo Farming in Somaliland

Last week, while romping through seemingly untouched acres of northern Ugandan bush, an Ecuadorian priest and I kicked our feet through fresh red soil earth and two-foot tall swaying grasses.

It was late afternoon and the muted orange sun hung low on the horizon. I’ve said it once before and I’ll say it again, there is nothing like an African sunset – more specifically, a Ugandan sunset.

As we trudged over anthills and leaped across dried riverbeds, the priest spewed unintentional wisdom from his weathered lips; wisdom that can only come from knowing a before and an after.

“If we would just listen to the earth, it could teach us a few things,” he said, toying with a dried piece of grass.

As we continued walking, examining rocks and tasting salty earth in the form of water pouring from an abandoned pump, the priest continued:

“We really don’t have to do much. In fact, our problem is that we are doing too much already,” he shared. “The land would produce on its own if we would harm it less and love it more simply.”

Picking up my mud-encrusted skirt I turned to walk back to the car, where we’d left our friends roasting local vegetables to celebrate the Easter holiday.

——————————————————————————————————–

Fadumo, 45-year-old wife, grandmother, mother, tea-shop owner, goat meat chef, and now farmer.

Fadumo. 45-year-old wife, grandmother, mother, tea-shop owner, goat meat chef, and recent farmer.

Backtrack one month to Ceel Ade [pronounced 'Ehl-Ahdeh'], Somaliland.

“We can now taste our land,” Fadumo explains.

We sit on the dirt floor of her home – a dome-shaped hut patched together with sticks, dried mud, emptied flour sacks, and tattered canvas bags – faded and brown from the wear and tear of Ceel Ade’s arid climate. Fadumo, her seven children, grandchildren, and in-laws all sleep, eat, and live on this small plot of land.

Home.

Home.

But Fadumo does not see the land as small. Forced to flee Ceel Ade during a previous famine, Fadumo and her family lived in an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps for over 15 years.

Pointing to the earth, she confidently states, “This is my motherland. Ceel Ade is better than the camp.”

Traditionally pastoralists, the Ceel Ade community is persistently suffering from droughts and famines that plague its arid land.

And for a people whose livelihood, as well as much of their personal value, is heavily determined by their goats, camels, and cattle – the consequences of a drought are truly extreme.

Recently, World Concern partnered with the community to build a number of shallow wells and rehabilitate berkads (a traditional Somali water catchment system). Reducing the effects of the predictably yearly droughts, water is now less of a concern for the people of Ceel Ade.

Fadumo's son shows off his multi-tasking skills - running while carrying water.

Fadumo’s son shows off his multi-tasking skills – running while carrying water.

Accessible, clean water is significant. Okay, more like HUGE. But Fadumo can’t seem to stop talking to me about farming. She’s infatuated.

With the help of World Concern training and tools – Ceel Ade has rapidly transformed into an agro-pastoralist community.

“We are very glad to be able to produce food from our land,” Fadumo shares with great joy – the curious kind of joy that comes from learning something new.

In the last five months, Ceel Ade has grown from a community of zero farmers to over 75. It is notable that multiple locals made sure to point that this is the first time they have ever seen a woman farm. 

A meeting of Ceel Ade farmers.

A meeting of Ceel Ade farmers.

Fadumo shares stories of old and farming anew.

Later, lightly tip-toeing over her newly budding soil, Fadumo says, “When I saw the people in our community growing farms, I requested for seeds. My neighbors taught me what they had learned from World Concern and now I am growing watermelon, carrots, maize, and many other things.”

Fadumo crouches down to run her fingers across a lush head of cabbage. My eyes trail off to the seemingly endless desert serving has her backdrop. The contrast is almost unbelievable and I do not blame Fadumo for never knowing that such cracked, dusty land could harvest such bountiful produce.

“We are thankful for World Concern because they have helped our community to make farms,” she tells me. “Before we did not know that our land had a good taste, but now we know it is good.”

Like others, Fadumo plans to eat and sell her farm’s produce, using the money to pay for her seven children’s school fees and improve the structure of her home.

Fadumo + 2 of her 7 children.

Fadumo + 2 of her 7 children.

And with the genuinely selfless attitude that encapsulates every Somali I’ve met, Fadumo explains, “Yes, it is my goal to eat and sell and give food to my neighbor who has none.”

As the land has shared with her, so she wants to share with others.

My mind trails off to the Ecuadorian priest on that late humid afternoon, “If we would just listen to the earth , it could teach us a few things.”

 

“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.”