Tag Archives: South Sudan

We Are Connected

“And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.” We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected…”        – Wendell Berry

If you happen to have read two or three of my blog posts and newsletters, you may have picked up on my frequent Wendell Berry name-drops. Basically, I think he’s the bee’s knees.   [While writing this post, I discovered that he and I share a birthday…all the more reason to like the man.]

An outspoken poet, author, and activist, Berry inspires and challenges humanity’s response to environmental and social justice issues. He is most infamous for his stances on environmental degradation and the importance of community.

In the polluted, expansive, and bustling city that is Nairobi, it is more often than not that I feel disconnected from nature and the land. Yet, removed from side-walks, exhaust fumes, and sky-scrapers, it is obvious that every surrounding detail is intertwined: Cows graze on freshly sprouted grass from recent rains; people collect water from deep wells and water-pans filled by these same rains, using it to hydrate themselves and boil their tea; trees are cut down in copious quantities and made into balls of charcoal, later used to boil the collected water for that same tea.

Navigating my way through Nairobi, I often wonder, “There must be a balance, some way for us to feel connected to the earth, no matter our surroundings.”

If, as stated by Berry, “all places are connected,” shouldn’t humanity be compelled to be good stewards of every inhabited place?

The following photo essay tells the story of land – it’s integral role and unmistakable connection to the people and places in which World Concern works.

The pictures and quotes serve as reminders that stewardship and care of land is not optional, for in giving to the land we humble ourselves to the one who created it all.

“Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known.” “…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” “Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.”IMG_8887

“…it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another. The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work,” for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.”

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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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.

 

 

 

A Cliched Connection…Or Is It?

Living thousands of miles away from those who hold my heart the tightest – the friends and family whom I never have to worry about connecting with because it comes automatically – my soul finds itself searching for another source of human connection. It’s as if something in my core is innately aware that I can’t do this things called life alone. So, here in east Africa, I’ve been working on finding new ways of connecting – repeatedly assessing my definition of human connection.

Maybe human connection is a topic you’ve talked about so much that it’s become that banal book report theme you had to write about all four years of High School English.

Maybe it has always seemed vague and intangible; to try to wrap your mind around it is far too reminiscent of your childhood attempts to sell cups of homemade lemonade in order to buy that shiny red bicycle from the toy-shop window – you were always just $100 short.

Maybe it’s always been packaged in fluff: laughter and love and relationships, rather than the raw edge with which you can empathize: insecurities and dependency and unmet expectations.

Maybe you feel like every time it’s brought up, it’s as if someone is trying to shove all things appreciation down your throat. And maybe this is something you want to consume on your own.

Maybe you’ve heard it too much. And now it’s boring. But, maybe you can’t hear it enough…

Maybe, in order to deepen and broaden and strengthen your relationship with yourself, others, and that something beyond you, it needs to be talked about. Over. And over.

I believe you care about humanity. And I believe you are aware of life outside of your world.

So maybe this blog post is more for me. Because I know that in the midst of my so-called ‘daily grind’, I become so distracted that the only connection taking place is the zapping of my brain waves – firing off at one another thousands of millions of times per minute. And, embarrassingly, these brain waves are often concentrated on me: my work, my food, my nails that need to be cut, and my sweaty walk home.

When I allow my mind spiral into itself – I clearly lose focus on anything other than, well…myself. I’m not able to see that which I can learn from, find peace in, connect to, be challenged be, seek solace in, and experience profound beauty.

Even looking up from my LED screen right now, I am struck by the fact that I have been sitting in my swirly chair in a square room with three other individuals – all of whom I have not even glanced at in over two hours!

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” – MLK, Jr.

If I’m continually re-learning one thing, it’s this: Human connection is more than living in close proximity or appreciating one another’s commonalities. It requires looking up, speaking out, grasping a hand, sharing a taxi ride, eating together…acting as if I believe that what I do and think is connected to something, and someone, outside of me – because, dear people, it really is.

“The only difference between man and man all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species.” – Gandhi

Below are photos from the past 11 months that remind me of the incalculable beauty found only in human connection. My hope is that you can take the time to find ways to personally connect to each image and/or individual. (And I’d love if you shared your stories of connection in the comment section below!)

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Lamu, Kenya.

Lamu, Kenya.

Mpiro, Kenya.

Mpiro, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Naroomoru, Kenya.

Naroomoru, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Goz Beida, Chad.

Goz Beida, Chad.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Wau, South Sudan.

Wau, South Sudan.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Kiambu, Kenya.

 

 

This is not easy. // Tessou, South Sudan

In my attempt to share the stories of individuals in a way that depicts truth, dignity, and humanity, I have very cautiously walked a fine line – intending to strike a balance between facts, truth, and emotion.

Here is my confession: In pursuing honest storytelling with such strong conviction, and out of the fear of warping a story so that it appears more emotional, painful, or heartbreaking than it really is, I have erred on the side of unemotional and detached.

I strongly believe that being given the platform to literally be a voice on behalf another human being is not a role to be taken lightly.

Let me be straight – I’m here to say that this is not easy, and it should never be easy. I willingly carry the burden of the power of words – words that can depict someone as hopeless, weak, and helpless or hopeful, skillful, and able. I’m here to let you know that I’m committed to using my words in a way that is honest and with purpose. I am honored to be a voice for the voiceless and even more honored that you support me in doing so.

Phew, with that being said… Yesterday I traveled to a village called Tessou (by the way, I’m in Eastern Chad). It would be a disservice to tell the story of the people of Tessou without evoking strong emotions (it was here that my convictions were shaken).

Fence destroyed by the previous night's storm. // Tessou, Chad

Fence destroyed by the previous night’s storm. //  Tessou, Chad

“We would rather die here than in the camps.”

After driving two hours on bumpy, muddy dirt roads (you’ve heard that one before, right?), my colleagues and I arrived to find the people of Tessou in disarray. Surrounded by jagged hills, Tessou sits in a flat, open, and seemingly endlessly arid stretch of land – vulnerable to, well, most everything. In fact, the night before our visit, a massive storm came through and completely flattened the grass fences and huts that make up the village. We arrived to toppled thatch roofs and fences turned to mats.

View from the car. // Chad

View from the car. // Chad

Heartbreaking as this initially was, upon sitting and sharing with the people I quickly realized that this was a minor incident in comparison to the tragedies this community has endured.

Since 2004, the Janjaweed (armed militia rebels, originating in Sudan) have attacked Tessou three times (most recently in 2009); each time killing, raping, stealing, and burning people, animals, and property. [More to come on the history of conflict in Chad in the following posts.] After the first attack on Tessou, the survivors were forced to flee for their lives – carrying only the clothes on their backs and hiding in the bush for weeks. Eventually they made their way to Gassire IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Goz Beida (a full day’s journey away), where they have remained for the past 10 years.

Though the camp provides its residents with safety, clean water, and education, it allows no space for personal farming; in other words, the IDPs cannot grow food for themselves. Their lives in the camp are not self-sustaining.

In 2011, the Chadian government announced “A Year of Return” for all IDPs – encouraging that they move back to their villages and that all NGOs halt their enabling operations within the camps. Without personal land for cultivation, or NGO food distributions, the IDPs remaining in Gassire faced a threatening food shortage.

For the past ten years, eager to farm and re-claim their wrongfully stolen land, the people of Tessou have attempted to resettle multiple times. But resettling is a process: first the men travel to the village to do a survey, sleeping in the bush overnight and keeping watch for intruders. The men then go back to the camps and inform their family whether or not it is safe to make the move; if proven safe, families pack up the little they have and prepare for a full day journey (most likely on donkey). Most families arrive home to nothing, sleeping under trees for up to weeks until grass-woven shelters are built. More likely than not, there is no nearby water source (or the nearest source, which is not clean, is over an hour away) and whatever food they have has been brought with them from the camps.

Surveying the damage // Chad

Surveying the storm’s damage // Chad

Tragically, there has been no solid re-establishment in Tessou as the Janjaweed have continued to kill, destroy, and preserve an environment of fear and vulnerability.

Now, a few years post the 2009 attack (four people were killed), Tessou is starting from scratch. Though they were once pastoralists, their main source of income, all of their livestock were stolen by the Janjaweed. People are returning from Gassire completely empty-handed. In order to survive, Tessou residents are working to compensate their income via farming. Unfortunately, Eastern Chad’s environment is incredibly harsh and the rains only come a few months out of each year – often so forcefully that they lead to flooding (similarly to the conditions in South Sudan). [If it means anything, the average temperature in Chad is 83 degrees Farenheit.]

A large number of people killed and many still remaining in the IDP camp, Tessou is less than half the size it once was.

Abdel. Lifetime resident of Tessou. // Chad

Abdel. Lifetime resident of Tessou. // Chad

When talking with Abdel, an elderly man born and raised in Tessou (He claims 55 years old. I’d respectfully beg to differ.), I asked him about his hopes for the future of his village. He repeatedly told me,
“I pray that Tessou will one day be large as it was before. I hope that one day I will be able to build a home so that my family will join me from the camps.” [Abdel has been trying to build a home for his family for the past four years. Each time he has come close to finishing, the Janjaweed have returned and he has had to run back to the camps. This man does not give up.]

For now, the people of Tessou sleep under fragile grass huts. They are constantly sick from the water that they travel for hours each day to gather. They have no schools; in fact, no one knows how to read or write. Their livestock are few (read: three animals in the entire village). And they still live in fear that the Janjaweed may come again.

[It is so easy for me to say the word ‘fear’ without understanding its full depth. In the context of Tessou, the word fear stems from losing as many as 40 of your family members; from seeing your father shot in front of you; from hiding in the bush; from watching your mother being beaten; from seeing your neighbor’s family killed and their home burned. This is a fear that still, 10 years later, permeates your every waking moment. According to Amereran, when I asked her if she still lives in fear, she smirked and said, “Of course I am afraid. I never stop thinking about the attacks. I cannot forget them. How can you forget seeing dead people laying all over the ground.” This is fear I will, hopefully, never fully understand.]

"______" - // Chad

“In Gassire, life is very hard. Even if we’re going to die, its better to work hard here. At least we have room to farm.”  – Amereran // Chad

Yet, the people of Tessou are hopeful and courageous. They are genuinely happy to be back on their land (many born and raised here).They acknowledge that, “This life is not easy, but one day we will have our village back…It is better to die here than in the camps.” – Amereran.

I am still not entirely sure how to process all that I saw and heard throughout my day spent in Tessou. The lives and stories of the people are so detached from anything I’ve ever personally experienced that my mind categorizes them as somehow ‘unreal’ (and there are too many other villages in Chad and Sudan who share these same experiences). I am haunted by, and will never forget, the stories and events from Tessou.

————————————————————————————————————————–

What encourages me is that the people of Tessou are capable. They are strong, skilled individuals who, given the proper resources, will rebuild their village in a heartbeat. I am beyond excited that Tessou has been chosen by World Concern as a potential village of partnership through our One Village Transformed(OVT) Program. On the needy scale, this village is breaking the weight capacities.

Joy in all circumstances. // Tessou, Chad

Joy in all circumstances. // Tessou, Chad

“We hope to see our village as it once was.”

This is my appeal. In the coming months, I will be posting a series of detailed stories about the people of Chad, World Concern’s work, and how you can partner with this work. Please, take time to consider supporting World Concern as we partner with unjustly underprivileged individuals to reach their fullest capacity.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is my second appeal. Please hold me accountable to sharing the upcoming stories in a way that can only be described as just, truthful, and dignified.

If not, I may have to inundate you with more bi-monthly confessions. 🙂

Curbing Hunger [PART III] // A Day at the Seed Fair

[Note: This is the final post in a III part series – please take time to read the intro blogPart I, and Part II]

As the dry season, five painfully long months of no rain and extreme heat, comes to a close and the hunger season (the period between cultivation and harvesting) appears without welcome invitation, it is time for the people of South Sudan to plant, plant, plant.

The end of the dry season also means that it is time for a very important event – the World Concern (WC) Seed Fair!

For the past two years, World Concern has partnered with USAID to host a week-long Seed Fair in Warrap State, South Sudan. WC is able to target the most at-risk families in Warrap State communities (meaning those families with the fewest resources, an absent spouse, disabled children, etc.). These families are awarded ‘money’ to purchase farming tools and seeds from designated community members in a set location, i.e. at the Seed Fair.

Seed Fair Dough.

Seed Fair Dough.

Such an event requires major preparation: mobilizing communities, gathering local vendors, organizing an accessible location, and the cutting out of hundreds of Seed Fair dollars (I had the honor of cutting those beautiful ‘5 dollar bills’ to your right – good thing there was sweet reggae music coming out of the radio as we were cutting and stacking late into the evening).

During this week, World Concern staff members travel every day to a new community to operate a bustling, lively, and greatly beneficial distribution fair. 800 hopeful households attended, and benefited from, the week’s festivities. 

View from the WC Compound the night before the Seed Fair.

View from the WC Compound the night before the Seed Fair.

Before I show off some pictures of my day at the Seed Fair, let me clarify, World Concern is did not hand out farming goods – we had the privilege of facilitating the day’s activities. Using the money we give them, it is the locals themselves who sell and purchase goods from one another – benefiting both parties involved. [At the end of the day’s festivities, the vendors exchange their generated Seed Fair income for real South Sudanese dollars.]

My Seed Fair experience occurred in a disadvantaged village called Magai. I spent the day hanging out under a couple of massive trees, talking with vendors, eating fresh groundnuts, making funny faces with children (apparently my faces are the most entertaining – I’ll try to take this as a compliment…), sitting with mothers by the central water pump, counting Seed Fair dollars, and learning more about life for the average family living in Magai.

As the Seed Fair photographer, I was able to both observe and participate (easily my favorite part of this job). Of course, the dichotomy of observed behaviors captivated most of my attention (and mental processing upon returning to the compound that night): I observed as mothers fed their family leaves for lunch and numerous children with uncomfortably distended bellies played with sticks in the shade. Yet, I also observed the fine art of South Sudanese bartering and mommy’s giggling with their children while enjoying the company of their neighbors.

Overall, here’s how I’d summarize the events of the day:
“You’ve got that. I’ve got this. How about I give you this for that?”

In my opinion, the selling and sharing of local resources within a cooperative group of individuals is community defined – and the Seed Fair is community at its finest.

WC staffer, Bonface, doing some Seed Fair preppin'.

WC staffer, Bonface, doing some Seed Fair preppin’.

We love the Seed Fair!

We love the Seed Fair!

Listening while WC staff explains the day's activities.

Listening while WC staff explain the day’s activities.

Mommas.

Bonface getting the day started.

Bonface getting the day started.

Community under trees.

Community under trees.

Hanging out with Seed Fair vendors.

Hanging out with Seed Fair vendors.

Groundnut chompin'.

Groundnut chompin’.

One of my favorites from the day.

One of my favorites from the day.

Malouda shopping.

Malouda shopping.

Fingerprint stamping. Because the large majority of people in South Sudan are illiterate, fingerprints are used as an alternative to signatures.

Fingerprint stamping // Because the large majority of people in South Sudan are illiterate, fingerprints are used as an alternative to signatures.

Agol Dor // This is Agol's second year attending the Seed Fair. A mother and farmer, she is not able to generate enough income for her family to eat more than one meal per day (during the dry/hunger seasons in particular). "The Seed Fair has helped my farm improve." As well as attending the Seed Fair, Agol has received dry season training from World Concern. "I am very happy with the training. I never go to the market for onion or legula...I am very happy with what World Concern is doing here."

Agol Dor // This is Agol’s second year attending the Seed Fair. As a farming mother, she is not always able to generate enough income for her family to eat more than one meal per day (during the dry/hunger seasons in particular). When chatting, she told me, “The Seed Fair has helped my farm improve.” As well as attending the Seed Fair, Agol has received dry season agricultural training from World Concern. “I am very happy with the training. I never go to the market for onion or legula…I am very happy with what World Concern is doing here.”

Receiving Seed Fair dollars.

Receiving Seed Fair dollars.

Vendors add up their shared income at the end of the day.

Vendors add up their shared income at the end of the day.John Majok // 25 yr old Groundnut vendor. Prior to the Seed Fair, he had no money to do his work (farming simsim, dura, groundnuts). The Seed Fair has brought him both an increased income and new relationships - he plans to continue his business in the Magai community.John Majok // 25-yr-old groundnut vendor. Prior to the Seed Fair, John had “no money to do his [my] work”(farming simsim, dura, and groundnuts). The Seed Fair gave John an increased income as well as new relationships – he plans to continue his business in the Magai community.

Vendors collecting their earnings.

Vendors collecting their earnings.

The Seed Fair is over and it's time to play!

The Seed Fair is over and it’s time to play!

Alongside curbing hunger in South Sudan, World Concern is currently working towards expanding our work in the village of Magai through our One Village Transformed (OVT) project. Check out the link and partner with us!

In three days, I leave on a 6AM flight to Chad, where I will spend three or so weeks visiting and documenting World Concern’s projects. I look forward to seeing more OVT locations and traveling to villages where we hope to implement OVT in the near future. Though I am a bit weary of the heat and bumpy roads awaiting me, I am once again humbled to experience life from a new perspective, to walk (even if only for a few weeks) in the shoes of another beautiful people group. Look out for photos, video, and stories to come!

***Read more about our work in Chad here and here. And watch for more recent stories when I return!

 

 

 

Curbing Hunger [PART II] // Ox-Plows (or ‘ploughs’ for those of us who prefer proper English)

[Note: This is Part II in a III part series- please take time to read the intro blog & Part I]

If I were a 25-year-old South Sudanese woman living in Warrap State, South Sudan, chances are that…

–  I have already given birth to 3-5 children (and I’m expecting a few more on the way).

Momma love. // Lietnhom, South Sudan

Momma love. // Lietnhom, South Sudan

– I am married to a man with 2 or more other wives (possibly as many as 8).

– I am built with a beautifully tall 5’10” frame and magnificent bone structure. I have intricately unique facial scars that were given to me during my youth as a sign of bravery, beauty and tribal identity. 

World Concern Farmer, ___, displaying her beautiful beads, smile, and facial scars.

Ayak Long displaying her beautiful beads, smile, and facial scars.

– My tall and slim figure is strong- it can walk for miles to and from the market, gather water, work the land, clean the compound, and feed my children all before sunset.

– My long fingers and hands are calloused from years of physical labor.

Anok Awer // Lietnhom, South Sudan

Anok Awer // Lietnhom, South Sudan

– During seasons of cultivation and harvesting, you will find me in the field before the sun rises – while the air is still cool and fresh. While cultivating, I sit on my knees, using a malouda, to till the beaten and hardened earth, recently moistened by the new rains.

Malouda making // Lietnhom, South Sudan

Malouda making // Lietnhom, South Sudan

– Most days, the field work is up to me and me alone. If my children are too young for school, or I cannot afford to send them, they will occasionally assist. My husband can be found herding cattle, running a local business, or merely milling around the market playing games and talking to friends (sadly this is an all too common scenario).

– Despite waking early to farm, I have to break in order to clean and care for my family, inevitably heading back to farm later on under the scorching sun.

Mary // Lietnhom, South Sudan

Mary // Lietnhom, South Sudan

– I am proud of my land, my labor, my husband, and my children. I am thankful for the hard work because it is equivalent to an independent nation – it means I live free from war.

– I may still be healing from a 20 year war, but I am hopeful and eager to play a role in the rebuilding of my nation. 

In any South Sudanese household, farming is a shared role. Yet, many would argue that women do the large majority of the work (possibly even all of it). Given their busy daily schedule [note: the above does not include random visits from friends/relatives, breastfeeding/caring for an infant, religious activities, etc.], women work to complete household chores and farming as efficiently as possible.

This is especially true during the season of cultivation. Once the first few consistent rains have watered the dehydrated land, it is time to cultivate and plant every seed available  before the heavens open up (some may have been eaten in place of food during the hunger season – a last resort when all other resources have been depleted).

This may seem obvious, but solo-cultivation, using only a malouda, is far from efficient.

Ox-plows, on the other hand, can cultivate significantly more land in the same period of time it would take to do so by hand. But ox-plows require a strong, healthy ox and, naturally, a plow. Both of these can be quite expensive and difficult to come by (particularly the strong ox after an extended period of drought).

Along with dry season farming, World Concern has implemented a successful Rent-to-Own program to curb hunger in South Sudan.

Ox-Plow

Ox-Plow

Beneficiaries who are active members of a World Concern savings group are eligible to apply for an asset (bikes, sewing machines, solar panels, and more) – one of the most popular being the ox-plow. Using a payment plan agreement contracted by World Concern staff and the involved beneficiary, monthly payments are made to rent the plow from World Concern until it has been paid in full.

Without such a program, most families are financially unable to purchase a plow. The process of obtaining one is quite complicated. They have to be ordered from Juba, a 14 hour drive distance, taken to Wau, transported to Kuajok, then distributed to the farmer (who most likely lives a long bumpy ride from Kuajok town center).

Savings Group meeting with WC staff about acquiring an ox-plow // Kuajok, South Sudan

Meeting with WC staff about acquiring an ox-plow // Kuajok, South Sudan

Just after receiving an ox-plow through WC’s Rent-to-Own Program // Kuajok, South Sudan

Due to the difficulties caused by expense and transportation, ox-plows are a hot commodity.

Let the stories of beneficiaries who’ve purchased ox-plows through World Concern speak for themselves (and on behalf of their extended communities who often equally benefit from the same plow):

Achol Ayek // Malual, South Sudan

Achol Ayek // Malual, South Sudan

After gulping down a cup of piping hot tea (on a 95+ degree morning) and throwing on our field boots, Max (WC Rent-to-Own Manager) and I hopped into a vehicle and drove almost two hours from the Kuajok World Concern compound. Stopping along the way to re-register with the local government, kill a snake (take that as you wish – both meanings proved true), and cross a massive dried riverbed, we found Achol Ayek diligently working on her shared compound.

Achol & children // Malual, South Sudan

Achol & children // Malual, South Sudan

Among many other things, Achol is a mother of six children and one of nine wives living on a large compound. Like many in her village, she is a farmer by trade and feeds her family from what she is able to harvest. Neither she nor her husband are employed outside of their land.

In the past, Achol cultivated her land primarily using maloudas. She often found herself so exhausted at the end the day that she could not muster the strength to boil water for her children (I have never been a mother, but I am guessing that reaching the point of disregard for clean water can only come from extreme fatigue.This is in no way to say that Achol is a bad mother, but to emphasize the difficulties of farming and motherhood in rural South Sudan.)

Achol & 2/3 of her children.

Achol & 2/3 of her children.

When I met Achol, it had been exactly one year since she rented, and paid off, an ox-plow through World Concern. She was quick to mention that, “The ox-plow has changed my life so much. It allows me to farm about two acres per day.” 

Achol shares the plow with the eight other women living on the compound, distributing the work and more efficiently preparing the land for the coming rains.

Achol's shared compound.

Achol’s shared compound.

Upon my visit, the rains had yet to water the weary land. Achol seemed a bit apprehensive of what was to come. Last year, massive floods destroyed many of her crops and hard labor, leaving her family with little food to last through the dry season. Though she is worried this could happen again, Achol is determined to continue plowing, trusting in the Lord’s favor, “we know that the Lord brings water from the heavens to cultivate.”

Come this harvest season, Achol looks forward to growing enough dura, maize, sorghum, and simsim to feed her family and sell the remaining in the market.

Similarly to Achol, Mabok Duar purchased an ox-plow through World Concern. This ox-plow has been a great assistance with feeding many beautiful little mouths (as well as numerous other mouths in his community).

Daddy time. Mabok & his many children that he works hard to feed. // Malual, South Sudan

Daddy time. Mabok & his many children that he works hard to feed. // Malual, South Sudan

 

Like Achol, for years, Mabok and his three wives labored by hand, producing few crops each harvest season.

Two harvests ago, he cultivated 5 sacks of groundnuts, 2 sacks of simsim, ½ sack of dura. Last harvest, after using his ox-plow, Mabok produced 50 sacks of groundnuts, 2 sacks of simsim, and 5 sacks of dura!

“I was very poor before this plow but now I have improved my situation. I am able to provide for the family, pay for school fees, help my sick children, and improve the conditions at home.” 

With the increase in last season’s harvest, Mabok paid for three of his children to attend school, had enough food to last his family through the dry season, and has had the capacity to assist his community, “I help people free of charge. For example, I plow the fields for a woman who has no husband.”

Mabok and his ox-plow // Malual, South Sudan

Mabok and his ox-plow // Malual, South Sudan

Despite last year’s flooding, Mabok is hopeful for a bountiful harvest season. I can’t wait to visit his gorgeous family again when the land is lush and bellies are full.

Grand in seasons, culture, and size, South Sudan is not lacking in space or open land. Without ox-plows, many families are only able cultivate the land located nearest to their compound. With ox-plows, and permission from the local government, the open land is a family’s for the farming. An increase in cultivated land means an increase in crop yields, which means a decrease in the impact of the hunger season and the further curbing of hunger in South Sudan.