Posted by: lucyodonoghue | June 1, 2011

A ‘little’ farewell to Africa

In blogging terms, I’ve probably committed the ultimate negligence – abandonment of blog.  What is the punishment for that?  Hmm, I’m not sure, but admittedly with the new ‘dimension’ of preparing to build a life with JP, Lucyinafrica has taken a backseat to our blog, jpandlucy.  But in any case, as I leave Africa not knowing when or if we’ll be back here one day, it seemed fitting that I bring to a close the blog that has been ‘Lucy in Africa’.

The best way I can think to do this is share a passage from a great book I just finished reading called “Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale” by Michael Holman.   The book, and this passage, really seem to hit the mark about a lot of the paradoxes in Africa today, particularly Kenya upon which it’s based, both in terms of the domestic dynamics and the effects of the western world’s meddling in their affairs for so long.  The characters include the president of the fictional country Kuwisha, wisened street urchins, the mayor, the british high commission, an idealistic aid worker called Lucy (ha), a questioning British journalist called Pearson who fancies Lucy, and a middle-aged banker called Furniver who has thrown in the towel to ‘dreary’ English life and now lives amongst the slums running a microfinance cooperative and has a very proper romance with the main character, Charity Mupanga, a local widow who also lives in the biggest urban slum in the country, Kireba (based on the real life version in Nairobi, Kibera).  Charity runs ‘Harrod’s International Bar (and Nightspot)’ as a rare homely, family-friendly eat-out spot in the slums, amongst numerous shadier joints, known for it’s dough balls and chicken necks.  She embodies everything you could think of the upstanding modest citizen of goodwill, the type that is found in every society even if you have to look a little harder in some.  Charity Mupanga’s late husband was a well loved Anglican bishop and this was one of the sermons of his that she recalls near the end of the book…

They say there are no atheists in the trenches of war.  Perhaps that is why we so often thank God in Africa.  Whether we live here, or whether we are regular visitors, we thank God, or Allah, for our many deliverances, with fervour and humility.

We thank God when we arrive safely at our destination, whether by car or train, or ferry or aircraft.  We thank God that the car’s brakes did not fail during long journeys on Africa’s potholed roads; we are grateful that the driver spotted the lorry ahead travelling without taillights; and give thanks that the overloaded ferry did not sink.

We give especially heartfelt thanks when we arrive safely at our destination after travelling at night, unmolested by the armed robbers that make their living along the highway, who so often seem to be dressed in uniforms stolen from the army or the police force.

We live with risk, some more than others.  But we all live with it, whether the risk of Aids, or the risk of a car accident because we lack spare parts, or the risk of malaria or even worse, catching malaria that has learnt to defy pills.  We thank God when we have the energy to face the day, that we do not have bilharzia, or other intestinal worms and parasites that suck the vitality of their victims.

We thank God when a child enjoys a birthday, and we thank God if he or she survives the hazards of being young in Africa.  We thank God if our children are lucky in Africa’s lottery.  We thank God if they are not one of the three million children who die of preventable diseases before they reach five.  We thank God if they emerge numerate and literate.  We are particularly thankful if it is a girl who survives, because for her the hazards of life are much greater.

We do not despair, because that is a cardinal sin, and we try not to succumb to fatalism.  But instead, if one is a Christian, one soon learns from the wisdom of another faith and utters the precautionary word that reminds one of human frailty: Inshallah – God willing.

We thank God for a decent meal, because most of the 600 million souls who live on our continent go without adequate nourishment.  We thank God if we live in peace, because millions of us have lives made hell by war.  We thank God if we have clean water to drink, because most of us do not, and we consider ourselves especially fortunate if we do not have to walk miles to fetch it.

We thank God if we are not a refugee, on a continent where so many millions have been forced to flee their homes, seeking sanctuary within or without the country that is home.

So in Africa we thank God, or Allah, with unusual frequency.  And we are especially thankful if we end the day alive and well, with a meal in our stomachs, with a bed to sleep in, and our loved ones safe.  No doubt this is because there are so few of us who are so fortunate.

In fact, as I read that over again, I think it’s a message that about sums up how I feel as I leave the African continent after a short few years. Without exception, JP and I have seen others live with those risks and often ourselves been closer than we’d like to those risks, and that leaves us simply grateful for the same things that people like Charity Mupanga and her late husband were grateful for.

JP and I have mused much about this concept of feeling a ‘connection’ to the continent of Africa – something a lot of guests like ourselves feel romantically compelled towards.  Neither of us wanted to be unrealistic or wistful in claiming some kind of organic connection to Africa. It would be an insult to those who really do have that, and an arrogance to suggest that we ‘know’ Africa after such a short time.  Indeed, as we leave, we’re conscious how little we really know in spite of what some might consider an impressive combined count of African nations where we’ve set foot – as if quantity counts for something.  Nor do we come away loathing the continent, despite all the misery which constitutes the daily landscape and the seemingly impossible concoction of problems of a magnitude that even the greatest idealist is eventually discouraged into disillusion.  We leave simply richer for the small wisdom and realism which time on these soils has afforded us – wisdom like the passage above – with the hope that we’ve managed to give back as much as we’ve received.

We leave with more questions and less answers than when we started, and somehow that’s ok because at the least the ones we do have are hopefully closer to the Truth.  We leave with more frustration and less satisfaction that you’d expect, but at the end of the day, it’s a bit selfish to use those as measurements because they really relate to our own sense of achievement.  We leave with a respect for the continent – for it’s infinite diversity, for it’s tenacity, for it’s natural beauty, for it’s chaos, for it’s drama, for it’s colour, for all that we never got to know – without trying to single it out as being any more violent and horrific than other places on earth, simply that the brutality is sometimes smellier and less well-dressed or well-organised, and in some ways more honest.  We leave not knowing whether we’ll be back there in a few months, a few years, or perhaps never again.  We never really asked to come here in the first place – in both cases, it was simply ‘where the work was’ where we felt we could engage in a greater cause.  Like a family that you do not get to choose, we’ve found amidst those we’ve met both individuals whom we struggle to do more than despise and kindred spirits whose imprint in our lives will last forever even if we never have the good fortune to meet again.

So without wishing to make sweeping statements about ‘Africa’, I simply say a small thank you. First name only, and without commentary or too much thought, this is my small thank you to the ‘Africans’ of all colours that have taught me a thing or two in the last few years…Zator (RIP), Celia, Shravan, Assan, Amita, Mama, Eliane, Leo the Baobab, Papa Thomas, Beatrice the Rwandan, Fr Charles, Francisca & her husband, Madeleine and her little girl who went straight to be with her Maker, Christophe, Lyly, Augustin (RIP), Abdallah, Jean Pierre, Andre, Elisa, Jacques, my dear Mama Georgette & Sister Marie-Do, Sister Helen, the Bofoes – Emmanuel & Sister Mado, Maroa, Rita the accountant, Ce the wisest Guinean, Alexis my third husband, Jean Eric and his beautiful wife and their newborn, Damas and his wife and their little one who also went straight to God, Beau, Mireille, Claude, Pomme Rouge Patrick, Jean Jacques, Chantal the seamstress, ‘Aunty’ Lesley, Diane, Aaron, Ajith, Peter, Juma, Philip the mechanic, Akile, Ann, Collins, Kolang, Jean, Luolabel, Wheelie and Ating Bang Bang and her chicken.

All the individuals above, several who’ve met death’s door or close to it during the time I’ve known them, have inspired or touched me with one or several of the following…their cheerful spirit, brute determination, faithful service, resilience, Amazonian femininity, gentleness, gratefulness, stoic recovery, ambition, entrepreneurship, patriotism, defiance of the ‘institution’, humour, acceptance, humility and compassion, service to community, love of simplicity, beauty, lightheartedness, sense of adventure, spontaneity, conscientiousness, commitment,  customer service, selflessness, courage, artistic conscience, frank realism (not cynicism), hospitality, sassiness, acceptance of frailty, determination to be one of the exceptions, patience, availability, skill & precision, politeness, faithfulness, sense of hope and generosity.  Amidst those individuals, some have also hurt me with hard lessons about dishonesty, trust and transparency, but a little bit of perspective is enough to notice that “hurting people hurt people” as my Mum would say, and there’s a lesson in every one.

I won’t go further.  It’s too easy to get wistful and emotional from the comfort of the lobby of the hotel in Johannesburg where I write this, with the novelty of cold toes from the winter chill.   But maybe it’s worth just reading once more Bishop Mupanga’s sermon above…

© Lucy O’Donoghue 2011

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | February 21, 2011

Losing Mary’s little girl: My encounter with infant mortality

It has taken me a while to publish this blog post.  It was written during my last weeks in Kisangani, DR Congo.  Not sure whether it would be ‘too close to home’ for other friends in similar contexts, or if it was just too hard to read…it lingered amongst my notes.

However, I think it’s important to share it.  I think it’s important to paint a picture of one woman’s reality behind the cold statistics concerning maternal and infant mortality in the developing world.

I won’t say ‘enjoy’, I’ll simply say ‘absorb’…

They say that hard times create solidarity.  One of the dangerous things about being here for ‘so long’ (and seven months is not a long time, really…) is how your life starts to intermingle itself with that of your staff and community.  You inevitably share joys and hardships and it would be near impossible to keep yourself from doing this – especially as that would make the whole experience miserable.

But it’s quite another experience to walk alongside my staff in their darkest moments.  About the time I arrived in Kisangani, one of the two women who works closest with me became pregnant.  Let’s call her Mary.  In other words, while to most there seemed to only be three women in our office (myself and my two assistants)…in reality, we were four the whole time…just one was in womb.

It has left an indelible mark on me, after the anticipation and the long wait, that Mary will never get to hold this precious baby.  Labour complications and a doctor that refused to listen to her persistent requests for a C-section, based on a mother’s instinct…meant that a healthy, full-term baby had to be buried.  I’m no obstetrician, but even I could tell his judgement was off – or he simply didn’t care.  This is Africa, damnit.  This is damn well Africa and this is a tragedy.

I can’t help but feel a partial responsibility.  Had I known how serious it was…had I known how easily I could have called a doctor that I trusted…had she called me earlier to say that things were going terribly wrong…maybe things would have been different.  I’ve asked a lot of “What if…?” questions lately.

As it happened, she did call me early in the morning 48 hours after going into labour…the fear in her voice was palpable…”Lucy, ca va pas…peut-tu appeler le médicin? Il ne repond pas, il refuse de venir…”  – “Lucy, it’s not going ok at all, can you get the doctor? He won’t respond, he refuses to come…”  There is no other word for it but negligence.  I jumped out of bed, threw on clothes and raced the one minute down the road to the hospital…the doctor walked in on my heels.  Why does it take the mundélé boss in a big white Landcruiser to get some action?  Her parents and brother had been keeping vigil all night – why were their pleas to no avail but my mere presence was “enough to make the doctor tremble in his boots” as Mary herself said?

It’s hard to believe and an abhorrence that in this day and age, a male doctor can still literally say to a well-educated, well-respected mother of 5 in labour once again “Shut your mouth, you have no place telling me what to do…No, things are fine, just let the miracle happen naturally…”  It’s a scandal, it’s bastardious, and I don’t know how that man can sleep at night.  Lord, have mercy on him – he doesn’t realise what he’s doing.

He has continued to show very little compassion towards her in her follow up care, administering the minimum of transfusions – probably to save money for the clinic.  And yet ACF pays dearly for such health coverage for our staff.  (Author’s Note: Since this post, we have changed health providers for the staff remaining in Kisangani…)

As I sat by Mary’s side this evening, something I’ve tried to manage everyday since she lost her child, for the first time she really let it out how angry she was with the doctor.  “Lucy, he said I had no place to speak up…and look at the result.”  She looks away, at the wall, fighting back tears.  “I walked into this hospital with a perfectly healthy baby inside me, and I will go home without her…let’s see him tell me who was right…”  Her words will be etched in my mind forever.

Maybe my own anger towards the doctor comes from a sense of guilt that, had I realised, had I known, had I understood, I could have done more.  Never again.  To Mary’s precious little one who has gone straight to be with the angels, please pray for us down here.  We’ve got a long way to go.

After reading that, it’s easy to shake one’s head and say “How tragic…”  But please take at least one action…check out MaterCare.  When I was still a university student and ‘wet behind the ears’ in terms of development work, I met one of MaterCare‘s founders, Dr Robert Walley, at a development conference.  I was quickly captured and inspired by the work of Matercare’s gynaecologists and obstetricians who adopt “a preferential option for mothers and babies.”  Their aim is to “improve the lives and health of mothers and babies both born and unborn ” through initiatives of service, training, advocacy and research.  They’re doing everything they can to make sure woman like my assistant Mary and her unborn daughter get the attention they really deserve.

As the heat intensifies (though let’s be grateful it’s still semi-cool at nighttime), the numbers of returnees making Northern Bahr el Ghazal their new home has gotten past the 70 000 mark.  That’s 70 000 people setting up a new life, with many thousands of local population, and many thousands of IDPs (internally displaced people) still figuring out their lot as they’ve never made it home since the last unrest.  70 000 people looking for a school, health clinic, job, plot of land, cattle, supplies, fuel…peace and prosperity.

(Author’s note…these returnee stats are still under scrutiny by the humanitarian community…for the purposes of this blog post, we could replace simply ’70 000′ with ‘a hek of a lot of people’…”

I made it out to one of the transit sites Apadda about 1 1/2 hours from our base…considerably better laid out than other transit sites. In fact some ‘site planning’ actually took place as opposed to the spontaneous settlements.  Apart from the temporary nature of all the shacks, the give away sign was the dozens of trucks piled high with belongings of returnees.  How on earth these belongings get matched up with their owns, usually arriving by bus, I will never know…

Our ACF matatu van is dwarfed by a truck of returnees' belongings..

We were 50% down on drivers for several days last week…we normally have four, we only had two.  You’d probably expect them to be on sick leave or annual leave. Well, no, one had gone AWOL for four days even though he claimed to have been sick but was well enough to go to another town an hour away for treatment but too sick to just come to the office to signal his sickness …and the other had been arrested for not paying a dowry.  No one bats an eyelid…this is not unusual apparently!

All that said, my team are great.  I’m also enjoying putting into practice the lessons I’ve learnt from last time round with respect to people management.  I can see why people write books on this sort of thing…and also why you sometimes just have to throw the books away and get back to basic questions about a) what motivates people and b) what de-motivates people to do a good job…

And then there’s the question of fuel. Fuel prices have soared recently…the supply route from Khartoum has been precarious.  The fuel from Kenya and Uganda costs a bomb to transport all the way to us.  Your hands are tied. We’re buying ‘just enough’ to avoid being caught short but hoping the price will go down soon…please…

In the meantime, as we wait for a stock of genuine Toyota Landcruiser car parts from Nairobi, we have to suffice with the overpriced, ok-quality parts from a city about three hours away.  It’s a whole-day mission to go there, buy, repair and come home…requiring careful planning and contingencies in case things go wrong.  Oh, and did I mention the suppliers there only speak Arabic and well, I speak none, and my mechanic speaks Swahili and English (a Kenyan) and my logistician only speaks enough Arabic to do basic negotiations.  I hope an auditor reads this one day…as we desperately try to keep to the donor’s procurement procedures, but have mercy on us…it’s bloody difficult at times!

It was also quite difficult to work out why a little white chicken’s egg appeared next to my pillow one night.  However I was soon shown why the next night as I had my back turned to the door of my tent.  I heard a slight scuffling noise and I look out to the entrance of the tent…suddenly a very scared and flighty black chicken is running manic trying to get of the tent.  I place the egg outside then, so the mother can get her egg back.  Later I find half the egg shell and dried egg yolk and white on the floor in my tent.  The mystery remains.  Why did she choose my tent to lay her egg? And who or what decided to decimate the egg inside my tent?

It’s easy to start feeling like my dear chicken when I stay on the base too long too.  I’ve been trying to get out of the base at least once a day, usually around sunset, for a wander.  Wandering around the village…stumbling across the homes of my staff, since, it’s well, a village.  “Lucy!” I hear a familiar voice.  “Ah good evening John…(my driver arrested for not paying the dowry)”  “Lucy, come and meet my two wives…and these are my three children…and over there in the corner…that’s my father…”  He stands proudly with many more than three children (I’m guessing some belong to the neighbours) hanging out around his legs.  Like everyone here, his grand estate is a couple of mud hut tukuls and a little dry sandy space in between.  But it’s his place and that’s what counts.

I must admit that I’m pleasantly surprised by the people in Malualkon…it’s about one of the first times during my time in Africa where pretty much everyone is happy to see you, happy to greet you, not instantaneously asking for help and quick to have a good laugh as I try out my very limited Dinka and Arabic.  I think this is the beauty of being in a village.  This is a generalization but I must say the people feel more approachable here.  The kids, while yelling ‘kawadje’ (foreigner in Arabic), are curious and giggly, some daring others shy at the site of me.

There is often one who captures my heart and is a little more forthright than the others, determined to check out this strange kawadje.  I do wonder what the future will hold for these children in an independent south Sudan.  For now, they’ve not been taught to fight, to hate or be divisive.  Some have already known pain and sickness or disability, sadly, but almost all have known simple, joyful curiosity, a mother’s love and the security of community…indeed, it does take a village to raise a child.

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | January 23, 2011

Leopard-Print Shoes, Pied-Piper Tactics and Transit Camp Cinema

Week one is down.  As planned I successfully arrived in Juba on Monday…healthy as a ripe banana.  It’s always fascinating to people-watch in airports.  You had the glamorous field photographer…just rugged enough to be going to the field, but looking good enough for the magazines he’ll publish in.  Each to their own.  You have the odd little man wearing leopard skin shoes with his suit and tie (which I’ve since found out is very common in Darfur).  Sadly, there are the kids that hang around the airport carpark ready to clean the dust off the car of any willing driver.  If you stop long enough to look them in the eye, you notice that a couple of them have untreated cataracts.  It’s a hard world here.

After briefings in Juba, I headed up country on Wednesday in an UNHAS (UN Humanitarian Air Service) plane to a lovely airport in Wau at which point I had to identify my bag which was flung onto the back of a pick up truck that careened off across the dusty red tarmac to load it on to a tiny 9 seater Cessna plane from WFP (World Food Programme) to fly me up to Malualkon-proper.  In Wau, the control tower with the giant ‘UN’ painted in black was a transportable control tower, clearly not designed to stay forever.

Behind ya...coming in to land at Malualkon on the WFP plane

Malualkon, the ‘sprawling metropolis’, is my new home.  The morning alarm clock are all the animals making noises.  My tent is five star with lights and even a plug, and well, the ‘ensuite bathroom’ is class.  Funnily enough this is what most people probably imagine when they think of life as an aid worker.  And I must say I quite like it (“Ha, she’s only on day four…” they all snigger).   The entertainment scene consists of a walk to the market before 7pm curfew or dropping by the other organizations in the town, of which there’s a handful.   There’s a volleyball net and a tyre swing from the tree at the neighbours, Mercy Corps, which can be reached by going through the hole in the flax fence.

The view from my tent...other tents & tukuls on the base

The showers and latrines...shower under the stars anyone?

The contrasts with the Congo are massive.   While Congo was ‘once-glorious-in-a-time-gone-by’ and thus seems to live in the shell or skeleton of this supposed (tyrannical, colonial) glory with their love of formality, heavy bureaucracy and filing for the sake of filing…southern Sudan, especially as it appears to be on the brink of independence, is a ‘fresh’ place in a sense – not to dismiss of course the rich ethnic (and colonial) history of this vast expanse.  While in Congo you’ll have laws dating from many decades, and many of them, and people like to quote them until it makes you turn blue…the laws of southern Sudan have only existed for a few years and in all honesty, at this rural and remote level, what counts more is having the authorities on your side and just doing what works.

From my tent at night I can hear the kids chanting and playing in the mud huts next door.  I have to admit, this is pretty close to the stereotype people think of when they think of working in the elusive ‘Africa’.  As I said, though, it’s a refreshing (hot) change.  The heat is dry…so the sweat is less forthcoming than in Kisangani though I’ve been warned, this lovely balmy mid-30s celcius is not ‘hot’.

Yesterday (Saturday) I went out with our water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) guys and the WASH coordinator for Sudan for all organizations doing WASH activities.  It was a chance to visit some of the returnees, southerners who have made their way back from northern sudan to restart life in what looks to be a new Southern Sudan in a few months time.  Literally families hanging out under the trees, hiding from the blazing sun, with their belongings…suitcases, beds dismantled, mattresses, wardrobes and other wares…waiting to be settled on land nearby.  This is one of the major issues…getting the land surveying done quickly enough to then allocate to the returnees a plot which they can call their own.  There’s plenty of land, but there’s hoards of households and local authorities have to decide who gets what and how.  A delay in the land surveying means the ‘transitory’ phase is prolonged and thus the ’emergency’ response as well…never an ideal situation.

However, in the more established transit points, it’s a great example of how society thrives as a little economy jumpstarts almost overnight…human nature drives us towards working and earning and finding a way to create something for the future.  I heard from a colleague of a returnee who had brought his television and dvds with him and had set up a little ‘cinema’ in the camp, demarcating the ‘paid’ viewing area.  Among the returnees there are lawyers, health professionals, teachers, carpenters…you name it.  A lot of skills flooding into the area.

After the visits we went to Samaritan’s Purse, another relief agency involved in WASH activities in the area to meet with all the WASH representatives from the major NGOs operating in the area.  Yesterday restored my faith in what is called the ‘cluster’ system, where NGOs doing the same work (like WASH) in similar areas (like the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal where we are) literally ‘cluster’ together their work, share information, resources, time etc.   While there have been the critics of the cluster system worldwide, it’s clear that when it’s done well it really works.

On our way home, about 50 metres from the base, we slowed the vehicle down to avoid running over a stray goat.  The vehicle stalled and, as it has had a reputation to, would not re-start.  Well, time to push…so out we get. However, it’s myself and a colleague from IRC pushing…and 30 other enthusiastic kids bouncing around.  Eventually the driver says “We have to get rid of the kids…I’m going to run one over by mistake…”   So like the Pied Piper I call them over to a clearing on the side of the road and start teaching them ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’…well, the car got started within half a minute and the kids didn’t even notice it was gone.  I walked home with kids trailing behind me and a pink sky before me.  It’s about noticing the simple, little, silly beauties of life…

Sunset ride home...

The silence is broken.  We’re back and I’m determined, like a doomed New Year’s Resolution, to resume regular blog writing.  Albeit, I have been a little, uh ‘busy’ but that’s no real excuse.

After a very chilly but charming ten days in New Jersey over Christmas and New Year, where I just happened to get engaged to a lovely bloke :), I have returned to Nairobi where I’ve become exceptionally good friends with Diane’s couch.  Diane is part of my ‘Nairobi girlfriends’ group.  Nairobi itself provides a taste of ‘home,’ and Diane, as a Zimbabwean, talks my British colonial roots language, of cold ham and egg & potato salad on a hot Christmas day.

I was hanging in Nairobi doing a little work for our regional office there as I, like many others, waited out the independence referendum taking place in southern Sudan, to see that it turned out calmly before going in.  Just as we got the all clear for me to travel to Sudan, all hell broke lose in my interiors and by fluke I discovered that I had not one, but two biological weapons lurking on my insides (it’s amazing what you learn when you get engaged to a former US military officer!).  I also had a small gastro-bacterial zoo to boot, so none of these little buggers were lonely inside me.  Glorious.

However, I felt pretty unimpressive and counted five minutes upright to do the dishes as equivalent to a marathon.  As I fast ‘became one’ with Diane’s couch, I was being unusually supermodel-like, turning up all but chocolate cookies and honey on toast.   Despite my incessant attempts to get on a plane to fly to Sudan, my body literally refused.

My dear friend, Diane's couch

The doctor ordered rest, and prescribed medicines advising I ‘avoid’ dairy and alcohol…hmmph, can we clarify the exact meaning of ‘avoid’, that’s not quite ‘prohibited’?  All good preparation for Sudan where I’ll learn to get excited about okra and aubergines.   As luck would have it, this weekend, another Nairobi girlfriend Angelika was celebrating her birthday at the Kiambethu Tea Farm.  Not sure whether I was allowed ‘outings’, I was assured that this would be even more restful than being one with Diane’s couch…the fresh air would do me good.  And I’ve done practically nothing ‘touristy’ in Nairobi…ever…and well, lots of lasses at a tea estate for a night, what could be better!

If I was looking to feel like a tourist, I would have been sadly disappointed – fortunately I was not.   The Kiambethu Tea Farm was akin to my Grandma’s in Whakatane, except that I was in Kenya, and it’s a tea farm not a small townhouse.  But this place is an institution.  Simple, home-made, home-baked, home-cooked and well-loved…everything oozes home as third-generation owner, Fiona, and her faithful staff potter around to ensure you have a lovely homey stay.  Add to this the colonial ties and the book shelf contents (old well-thumbed National Geographics, Bill Bryson, and a coffee-table book of “Discover New Zealand…the Glorious Islands”) and I really wondered if I was even in Kenya.  We drank Pimms (well, I had a small glass…I know, no alcohol) and ate cake and drank tea and admired the hydrangeas and relaxed…to…the…core.  A must-do for anyone with a weekend in Nairobi.

Looking out to the tea estate gardens from our homey room

Eating breakfast...with an 'old' friend in the background!

The homey and classic lounge. Still no refreshing.

Looking out from the living room to the garden...maaagic!

One of the delightfully tame K9 company onsite

Angelika, the birthday girl, outside the tea farm house

It’s a good thing because tomorrow is D-day.  Feeling human-enough, I fly to Juba, the capital of southern Sudan which is quite likely to become Africa’s newest nation if the voter turnout and voting preference are considered valid enough by all the relevant authorities.After two days in Juba for briefings and acclimatization I’ll head up to my new base in Malualkon, in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state bordering the northern part of Sudan, and notably the disputed region of Abyei.  Abyei was meant to have it’s own referendum to decide whether to join the north or the south in the event of a split.  While the overall referendum for independence has gone very peacefully, Abyei’s vote never came to fruition for a variety of predictable reasons.  Clashes have lead to at least 38 deaths in the last weeks and word has it the transit camps around our base in Malualkon a few hours from Abyei, have been well and truly overwhelmed as southerners flee the troubled region.


It has been frustrating to be sick…desperately wanting to get up there as soon as I could, especially knowing how critical things are right now.  But a reality like Malualkon requires a body in full form, at 100%.  The 40 to 50 degrees celcius, the borehole water source, life in a tukul (mud hut) or tent, and the threat of serpents and snakes make this place and this mission a challenge of an entirely new sort.   Keeping my own health up is essential if I want to be of any use to anyone out there.

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | December 16, 2010

Pas de chi chi…2nd Financial Times Post and a jaunt in South Sudan

Not sure where to start…here, have a new post…here’s my second post on the Financial Times “Hunger Diaries” following Action Against Hunger/ACF-USA field staff like myself…

Pas de Chi Chi it was so aptly entitled.  Click here to read the blog and find out what Chi Chi is… 🙂

In the meantime, the silence over the last few weeks can be well accounted for…

Life in Kisangani sadly comes to an end for me.  My base is downsizing due to a dry up in funding options.  We rely on external funding and my region geographically is no longer considered priority by the major funding mechanisms of the humanitarian community within DR Congo.  Sad, since the need is still clearly there.

So the last couple months has been a lot of preparation for downsizing, moving out of the base, laying off the team and tying up things so that all that rests is one of my assistants for the liaison, logistics and admin support to the hive of activity in the north east.

Things have had to move a lot more quickly than expected, and with not much notice of the change, such that my lovely planning had to pretty much go out the window and we’ve just been hacking through the downsize with a metaphorical machete.  It’s during moments like these that the spirit of my staff really shows through.  They’re still working long hours so we can get things tied up and yet they’re all going to be laid off come 1 January.  Talk about professional dedication.

This is not what you imagine when you imagine humanitarian work, but it’s a reality of the job.

The other reality is that, given that my presence in Kisangani becomes superfluous, it’s time to look elsewhere.  I’ve accepted another posting with ACF until mid-April to southern Sudan, to the base of Wunrok in the Twic County of Warrap State…yes, right up near Abyei for those whose political Sudanese geography is sharp.  Southern Sudan is going into a referendum in early January to determine it’s independence from northern Sudan…who knows what we’ll be walking into as the new year rolls around.  All hopes are for a peaceful independence process, however there’s serious doubt and fear that this might not be the case.  That’s another blog post in itself…

In the meantime, it’s farewell to Kisangani in less than a week…December 21st to be exact…as I make my way to the US of A for a very…very…brief visit to New Joisey as my brother likes to call it.  Sad to leave Kisangani – I still enjoy this nice sized city as much as when I first arrived, only wishing I could have extracted myself from the office more often to admire the exceptional sunsets along the majestic Congo River.   Sad to leave friends and connections, but this is part of this transient life.

A blessed Christmas to you all and a peaceful new year (especially for southern Sudan).

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | December 1, 2010

The Financial Times hearts Action Against Hunger/ACF

This is not to be a post per se…but an encouragement to you all to check out the Financial Times Seasonal Appeal, this year in support of…, yes, US! Action Against Hunger/ACF!

There’s videos (including those shot in my region) and a blog (including posts from your truly…rad huh, I can claim I’ve actually been ‘published’!) and much more!
Click here to go to the feature on the Financial Times website – and keep checking back often, new blogs and videos each day!
Below are links direct to the short videos shot in my region…
(P.S. you may have to sign up to the Financial Times website to view the blog…it’s free though!)

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | November 21, 2010

On the streets of Kisangani…part 2

I was having a beer with a few friends at a roadside bar in town on a Saturday night.  As often happens, three friendly ‘peanut girls’ came round,  girls probably no older than 14 years selling peanuts in the shells.  They pour out cupfuls on your table for a meagre sum of 50c.  For now, I won’t get into a debate on the morals of whether these girls should or shouldn’t be selling peanuts at on the streets of Kisangani at night time…however, I will share a particularly poignant incident.

I decided to buy peanuts for the table – even if I don’t think they should be out late at night like that, at least they are being entrepreneurial and not just seeking handouts. After sharing a giggle and pretending I’d be up to do some Congolese rhumba with them, I asked one of the girls to serve up enough peanuts for everyone around the table.

In the meantime, I finished negociating with her two peers the overall price and absentmindedly paid the two with whom I’d negociated assuming they’d share out the proceeds.  By the time the first girl had finished dishing out the peanuts, the two girls I had paid had done a runner.  The first girl, understandably, became very upset with me, feeling like I’d ripped her off, cheated her.  In an act of defiance she refused to accept any of my money.

I knew I couldn’t just tell her to get over it and go away – it wasn’t fair by any stretch of the imagination.  While it wasn’t me who had intended the injustice, I had indeed created the opportunity.

So I got up and went to look for the two other girls – they hadn’t made it far.  I managed to rope them over with the first girl at my side.

“30 seconds ago, you three were best of friends.  Your friend dished up the peanuts and I paid you to share it all together.  Is this really fair that you run away?  What sort of friends are you to her?”

I had roped them in just on the roadside and so several cyclists and motorcyclists had gathered around.  I went on: “Is this the example you want to show the world of what it means to be Congolese? Are you proud to be Congolese when you behave like this? We’re right around the 50th anniversary of independence and this is how your weakest in society treat each other?”

I was taking a risk, essentially criticising in public, but I was soon reassured by the murmur of agreement from the cyclists and motorcyclists around me.  To the two girls who had done a runner, I told them I would stand and wait until they ‘re-paid’ the first girl with the equivalent peanuts that she had given me.  I didn’t need to stand and wait – there were enough people standing around waiting also.  All eyes were on these two girls to set things straight.

I’m not an advocate of getting oneself mixed up in public incidents like this – there’s a risk that you’ll be misconstrued, misunderstood, and you can put yourself and others in danger. However, once I’d made that mistake of paying the other girls, I realised I had to set an example to the girl who had been hard done by and to those around me, to put things right.  Once again, I had to show that as a mundélé, as a foreigner, as ‘the one who “has”‘, that even in the small detail, I still cared.

In a similar sense to the way the international community is called to challenge certain nations to operate with justice (albeit, without failing to notice the planks stuck in their own national ‘eye’…let’s be realistic, we’ve got all got a lot to learn from each other…), just maybe by my little interaction with these girls, in what was a humble form of public shaming, I sent a message to the girls and those around me that us ‘foreigners’ want to see justice for the Congolese as much as they may want it themselves.  A reminder that, despite the Congo-fatigue, the world is still watching you, the world has not forgotten you.

Call me overblown, patronising, whatever you like – maybe I was all those things by reacting in such a fashion.  However I guess it stems from a belief that we all really know what justice is in our hearts, we all inherently know what it feels like to be hard done by.  I couldn’t let my negligence be the means by which another was so clearly ripped off by her so-called ‘friends’…even if it was just a matter of peanuts.

P.S. Thanks for the interesting comments after last week’s post…just want to say I’m totally in agreement with those of you who were against the idea of giving money outright.  As I said in the post itself, that’s not my policy generally, however if that action can the provide a challenge to a group of people to step outside themselves (as I feel was the situation with Maria) then it has the potential to be so much more empowering than a handout.

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | November 14, 2010

On the streets of Kisangani…part 1

Going home to NZ, as a change of contexts, shed new light on certain encounters and incidents here in Congo that I realised are worth sharing.  Some I never shared because time just passed me by.  Others seemed unimportant.  And others seemed a little too precious to subject to the nakedness of the public domain.

However, after sharing some stories with friends and family, I’ve had several people say “You should put that on your blog!”

These are encounters that I’m going to share and it’s quite possible that those who are there with me – colleagues, friends – may not agree with my actions or may laugh at me.  Oh well.  I share it in good faith.

Once there was Maria.  I had just parked our ACF 4×4 outside a small food shop in town in Kisangani – admittedly I had just blown out USD 50 on chocolate, butter, wine and Amarula liqueur because I wanted to do a whole lot of baking for a dear bunch of friends and my team. A real treat.  When I got back to the 4×4, I find a thin young(-looking) woman dressed in a filthy maroon dress and with gaunt eyes, standing in front of the driver’s door of the vehicle.

If there’s one thing you have to learn to handle on this continent, it’s how to treat and interact with those who are often most rejected by society.  Everyone has their theory and way of approaching it and I must admit that I’ve grown and changed in how I approach it too.  If we start with the basic premise that all humans deserve to be treated with the most basic respect and dignity…and also recognise that we’re not called to talk to every single person we pass on the street….then maybe we’ll get somewhere.  “If you want to see what a society is like, look at how they treat their weakest…”

So my basic approach is when someone crosses my path, the first rule is not to ignore or avoid.  There is nothing worse than reinforcing the message that those who have will ignore those who have not.  The altruistic motivation to be here (I’m referring particularly to mundélés, white folk, who do stand out like a sore thumb…and ok, not all of us have an altruistic motivation, I’m not referring to diamond traders…and other such sorts…)…what is the point of being here to ‘make a difference’ if our micro, daily interactions, we forget to treat those around us humanly.

So…Maria was the lady wearing the filthy maroon dress, and smelling less than agreeable.  After asking her name, I politely request that she let me get into my vehicle.  She doesn’t move.  About the only thing I can do is to push her aside – awkwardly or agressively – either way, it won’t look or feel right.  Passers by yell “She just wants your money…” “She’s cooky…”

One guy stops on his bicycle and makes a point to tell me these things again.  “You know she’s sick, she’s epileptic. She’s crazy.  She just wants your money.”  I reply “I know she is sick.  That is ok.  She is called Maria.  She is beautiful.” They start to think that I’m the cooky one.

His stopping has a cumulative effect and after half a minute a small conglomerate of people – maybe half a dozen – has formed.  I’m not sure why they stop – pure curiosity, sense of concern, or just adding fervour…which I must confess the Congolese enjoy to do at times.

Maria clearly suffers from a debilitating mental disability and is unable to care for herself.  It seems neither is her family – if she has any.

“You should give her money…” seems to be the general line circulating. However nothing is more dehumanising that a simple handout for those who could otherwise earn that, and therefore retain in parallel their dignity.  Yet, when it’s a question of those who are clearly vulnerable (disabled and elderly…though children on the street are a different question…) and in a place like Congo where the social security net is as dysfunctional as it is, you’re lying to yourself and those around you if you say “Well, someone else should be looking after those people anyway…” Yes, they should, and they’re called families, and more widely communities, wider still governments.  However, in that very moment that belongs to a protracted experience of misery, it just seems inhuman to reason oneself away from action with a purely ‘macro’ perspective.

So I say to the group: “Normally I don’t give money.  People should work for money.  It is not free. But, Maria deserves to live with dignity like we do and she cannot look after herself like we can.” I zero in on one or two of the little group and look them in the eye: “If I give you 500 francs, will you decide together how you can spend that money to best help Maria? Do you promise me you will make sure that 500 francs will assist her?”  They profusely reassure me and I have to admit that I’m pretty well convinced by the energy with which they’re debating what to do next.  So I hand over the money, get in my car and drive away.

I hope they did use the money for Maria, I hope they felt morally compelled to collectively engage in pro-social behaviour not based on self-intrest. And no it wouldn’t solve the problem, but as St Mary Mackillop would say “Don’t see a need without doing anything about it…”   It also sends a message of what the ‘international community’ expects of the Congo (all typical stereotypes of neo-imperialism set aside please…I’m just talking basic human morality here…)

To me it served as a bit of a microcosm for this whole aid game I guess.  Ultimately, it would be wonderful if that principle of subsidiarity were possible, indeed it would render our presence superfluous…ensuring that the closest ties (the family unit) provide the first and ultimate support, and when that fails, that communities and societies and governments step in, but in all and every way, the closest social unit take the most responsability possible.   This is indeed the paradox in which we do our work.  We ask ourselves these questions every single day and there are no easy answers.

Posted by: lucyodonoghue | November 7, 2010

Lights, camera, action against hunger…

Keeping people informed about what’s going on in places like the DR Congo is pretty important…getting the stories out about how much malnutrition still cripples the DRC and how ACF is working alongside the Congolese to fight that, is important to making it possible to keep doing what we do.

So for the last week, the nutrition programmes in the health zones an hour or two out of Kisangani became the new ‘Hollywood’.  To make it all happen, we had a visit from Susannah in the communications department in our New York HQ and Shravan Vidyarthi, Kenyan photographer, documentary-maker and by chance one of my good mates here in Africa.

It was time to make some on-screen super stars of the real super stars that are right there in the heart of the communities where ACF operates.

First off, I never realised just how much fun this would be.  You imagine if you lived in a small village and a film crew came to your place.  The kids, the mothers, the community volunteers – it was a laugh a minute for everyone.  If I wasn’t busy trying to translate I’d steal away a moment to hang out with some of the mums then get told off for making too much noise as we joked about how drab my beige shorts and ACF t-shirt were compared to their fabulously colourful attire.  For those who will see me in person in the future, I can’t wait to show you some of the behind-the-scenes clips and photos.  Kids really do and say the darndest things…

Linguistically…it was a fabulous tangle.  The ACF nutrition supervisor (Mireille) based in this zone had French and of course the local languages Lingala and Swahili; I had the French and English, and a bit of swahili to have an idea what was going on; Kenyan-born Shravan had English, and enough French and Swahili to get by; and Susannah from New York had enough French to follow what was going on and get the basic message across if I got distracted.  We’d pose questions in English, translate to French, the interviewee would respond in Swahili.

I managed to be out in the field with the team for two days, and the first day we followed one of our community volunteers, Papa Jano, in his work.  The community volunteers (rélais communautaires) are really some of the heros.  They are simply people from the communities where we work who do a lot of the door-to-door follow up, run the nutrition training sessions, help with admissions’ day at the nutrition centres as new cases come in…they’re very much the link between the community and ACF.  While it can be discouraging when you see other people’s dishonesty or corruption in this country, a day following Papa Jano around has left me with a lot of hope.  There are really good, community-oriented, selfless people here.  They’re the equivalent of the Neighbourhood Watch, the Rotarians, the local St John’s first aiders…

I was also pretty stoked because we went to visit a case of an child who had successfully finished the nutrition treatment and it turned out to be one of the kids I had met during a previous visit to a nutrition centre.  I recognised his face straight away and it was something else to see him racing around, laughing, mucking in with the other kids and generally enjoying life with his newfound health.

It was also fantastic to realise what a difference a media visit like this can really make – not just for the those who will see the footage and stories at the other end, but for the community itself.  Mireille, our nutrition supervisor based in this zone, pointed out to me that this media visit would stimulate a lot of activity amongst the community.  “Ooh, wow, they brought in cameras and mundélés and everything…” Mothers who may have hesitated to bring their children to the nutrition centre, or to attend the cooking demonstrations, would be encouraged by such an ‘foreign’ presence.

For me one of the biggest questions when I look at any humanitarian or development organisation is concerning what their relationships are like on the very front line?  How do ACF staff interact with the communities where the programmes take place and where we are based?  Do they live and work amongst them in partnership? Are they respected? Because you can have all sorts of other brilliant, important stuff – money, amazing logistics, great strategies, excellent reporting, great materials…but if the relationship at that grass roots level isn’t one of authentic partnership and one that the community appreciates…well…  And I can say with hand on heart that in the communities where we work around Kisangani, there is that great dynamic.

One of my favourite examples of this is Mireille in the zone where we did most of the filming.  Previously there was a lot of sentiment among the community that malnutrition was linked to sorcery, a lot of superstition and stigma. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health’s staff and the community volunteers, ACF’s nutrition supervisor Mireille has seen the community’s attitudes change as people realise that malnutrition is preventable and treatable.

“Lucy, there are times when I’m going down the road on my motorbike and a maman runs out to the road.  ‘Stop! Stop!’ she yells to me.  I go to greet her and she exclaims ‘Have these!’ thrusting a gigantic bunch of bananas at me.  She starts to cry as she tells me that her child has been healed and is strong thanks to the nutrition programme.  Lucy, this happens all the time…”

Far out, dude, it’s a pretty awesome feeling to know that somehow we do our little bit to help that happen.  Of the 2 500 kids that we’re hoping to have treated for malnutrition in this programme, not to mention all the families of all these children who are so grateful to give their child another shot at life, I only get to cross paths with a very fraction given my role…but a couple days in the field is enough to counter the frustrations and the discouragements for a long while.

P.S. Sorry I can’t publish photos on the blog…if you want to see my photos, give me a buzz by email and I’ll let you know how… lucyvellis at gmail dot com

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