Wednesday, October 24, 2018

At long last Welcome Home

Me and my little brother Josh about 21 years ago.

Twenty one years ago something happened that changed the course of my life forever. I was a Kiwi girl living in California with my three younger brothers and my parents. My best friend Natalie was an only child. Until she wasn’t. Overnight and seemingly out of the blue, she was given two brothers in quick succession. That was my first exposure to the world of adoption and it fascinated me.

Over the years it became more than a simple fascination, it became a passion. Reflecting back, I think what I loved about it was that my traditional view of family was blown out of the water as I watched their family come to life before my very eyes. From there on out I read books, watched movies and of course (like the detective I am) watched their family closely. Did Norb and Kathy love those boys the same as Natalie? Did their family feel like a ‘real’ family? Yes and yes. Around the same time I started learning more about the world we live in and the challenges people face in countries different to mine. We had people come and speak at our school and our church about what life was like for those living in developing countries. My heart was broken completely in two, my fate sealed. I would adopt a child from one of those countries.  Adoption was never a ‘second best’ option for me, it was my always my preferred option. 

Tim and I in our early dating years
Fast forward to my first date with Tim. Over an Oreo Milkshake from Denny’s (all class that boy), he told me that if I wouldn’t be willing to live in Africa that was a deal breaker for him. Never one to be shy with direct statements I shot back with, “If you wouldn’t be willing to adopt, that’s my deal breaker.” Spoiler alert. I’m typing this from my couch in Uganda with my two adopted children playing outside with their Dad, the aforementioned, classy Tim. 

The weird thing is, the child I’d dreamed about adopting was always a boy. If I told you I thought about this most weeks for the next 21 years of my life - would you believe me? If I told you I hired books from the library on this regularly would you believe me?  If I told you I bought clothes for him over the last 15 years – would you believe me? I truly, earnestly did. Ask my Mum and Dad, Kelly Anne or Sarah. They’ll testify. God’s had that little boy on my heart for decades. I wished for him so badly. Prayed for him so much. Had his name doodled in each diary I’ve owned. If I had one wish as I blew out the candle on every birthday it was for us to one day find each other in this great big world.

See I’ve always believed that we serve a God that sits up there in the heavens looking across the whole earth. He saw my heart (a heart I believe He gave me to adopt) and he saw not one, but two children coming down the pipeline that for whatever reason wouldn’t be able to stay with their biological families. Trauma and deep loss for those two children. And yet, he’s in the business of restoration and redemption. And what I’ve discovered is that this God is so extravagant that sometimes he’ll send people from one side of the earth to the other for another. He saw Tim and I with our hands up in the air, asking God that if a child ever needed a home, we’d be there in a heartbeat.  And one day, that day came.

Suffice to say when Hope entered our family I was most confused because she was most certainly a girl. A beautiful, wonderful, precious, adored baby girl nonetheless. But did I have it wrong? Did I hear incorrectly, did I need to feminise the doodled name? What on earth was I going to do with the boys clothes at my parents? I’d never hear the end of it from my brothers! Nothing made sense other than the fact that I KNEW this little girl was made for our family. Maybe the ‘boy’ was supposed to be biological I hypothesized? But 18 months later our biological daughter, Eva was born. Also, most certainly a girl.

The little boy I'd dreamed of. 
So in April 2017 on our 10 year anniversary I asked Tim for permission to ‘knock’ one last time. He set (quite extreme) stipulations and off I went. I wish I could tell you the details of his case but those details are just that, his. What I can tell you is that August 31st 2017 was a day I’ll never forget because it was the day I met my son. The boy I’d been dreaming about. The wish I’d wished and the fulfillment of a dream decades in the making. It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. Driving there we didn’t know if they’d matched us with a boy or a girl. We didn’t know the age or the background of the child. And so when he was carried through the door and our two worlds collided there was no drama, no fuss, no Eureka moment, just a little nudge in my heart as they read his file and I took it all in that this was indeed - him.

Our family 
And so here I type today friends. The day of his adoption. The day a judge in the High Court of Uganda looked me in the eye and said the three letters I’ve prayed for most of my life. 


There are truly no words someone can say to explain what it feels like to be given the legal right to be a Mother. I just shook her hand and let the tears fall down my cheeks, mustering up a squeaky “Thank you” as she kindly let me have a moment.  

Welcome Home baby boy, at long last, Welcome Home.

Thank you Jesus. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Good Magazine Story - October 2018

It is an honor to have my work featured in this month's Good Magazine.

Lake Volta in Ghana is the world's largest man-made lake. It sustains thousands of lives - but its fishing industry is built on the backs of vulnerable children, most under 10 years old. Compassion and Tearfund are there to stop that.

View the Good Magazine story as it appeared in print here. 

The online version is here 

 His name was Ebenezzer. And as I sat next to him on the rickety bus rumbling its way down some red dusty roads in West Africa, we got to talking. Turns out that at 19 years old, Ebenezzer had spent three years of his life on the lake we were now heading straight towards.  But for those thousands of hours of labour and heartache he was paid a total of $75 NZD for his work. He was a child slave. 

Ghana hosts the largest man-made lake in the world. It's absolutely beautiful, but there's a dark underbelly to its beauty. The slavery of thousands of children that are brought here to work on it. They are recruited as young as five for their little fingers to untie nets, their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and their inability to fight back. Behind every net is a story. This, is Ebenezer’s.

“Shortly after I was born my mother died. My Father had been killed months earlier by the witch doctor and so my Grandmother came to take me. I was one of nine grandchildren in her care and she found it difficult to take care of me. When I was six years old a distant relative came to our home.
He promised a good job, a steady wage, enough food and a safe place to sleep for young boys who would work with him. Those first few days I was so scared. I would dream at night about going back to my Grandma but I had no way to reach her. We used to wake up at 4am each day and then comeback by midday for something small to eat. Then we would work again until nightfall cut up fish, bait them, put them in the water, collect the nets, bail water out of the boats, untie knots and dive deep. Sometimes the man who owned the boat would beat the other boys with paddles or bamboo on their backs.”

“One day our boat capsized in a thunderstorm and the man who took me to the lake could not operate his business anymore. He called my Grandma to pick me up and she spoke to (Tearfund’s partner, Compassion) the local project in our area about helping to get me back and into a school.  When my Grandma came to get me she began to cry as she realised what had happened out there on the lake for those years. She said that if she had realised what was going on she would have never sent me with that man.”

Trafficking is illegal in Ghana. But on the water, there is no law. Children like Ebenezzer are routinely beaten with paddles, heavy ropes, and electrical cables. Many have spoken about sleep deprivation, malnutrition, sexual assault and abuse, and grievous injuries. They are deprived of medical attention, education and recreation. When they refuse to dive to free the tangled nets, they are pushed or bludgeoned overboard. When they fall asleep or move too slowly to do their masters' bidding, they are beaten. When they complain or try to escape, they are denied food and water. They are slaves.

Tearfund New Zealand has been working on Lake Volta and it’s surrounds through their local partner, Compassion International to release children from poverty through child sponsorship. With over two million children sponsored worldwide, their overarching goal is to make sure these children are known, loved and protected. In every developing country that comes to life in a slightly different way. But in Ghana, on Lake Volta it looks like setting up projects within walking distance of the lake. It looks like ensuring that all the children in the project are placed in school, given nutritious food, and a safe place to play aware from the allure of evil traffickers preying around their villages. And if a child is ever unwittingly taken, they work relentlessly to ensure their immediate and safe return.

Now in his final years of high school, Ebenezer hopes to become a mechanical engineer one day. But for now he’s protected by the project, living safely back with his grandmother and encouraged by his sponsor. "I have suffered enough in my life and so I don't want my family or my future children to suffer. I want them to acquire some knowledge so they can lead a better life, If not for Compassion, I would be on the lake still. But because I am now with Compassion I can talk about what happened and my future with confidence.”

As I reflect on the week I spent with Ebenezzer and his friends on Lake Volta, untangling their stories and listening hard to learn what life was like for them -  I couldn’t help but think how every child on these shores should be sponsored. Needs to be sponsored. Deserves to be sponsored. As a Mum of three children, the right to a childhood for my own kids and countless others is something I’ll fight for all my life. Join me.

Helen Manson is a Kiwi humanitarian photographer and storyteller living in Uganda.
For more information on sponsoring a child visit 
Please note: Other than Ebenzzer and his grandmother, the children pictured do not work in the fishing industry; they recreated scenes of life on Lake Volta willingly and with permission.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The 11 photos that bring to life the Rohingya crisis for me

The camp is a sprawling mess of  hundreds of thousands of dusty makeshift shelters set atop hilly, shaky terrain.

"When words fail me I shall choose to focus with photographs.”

So the truth is that this week as I stood in the middle of the world’s both largest and fastest growing refugee camp, word’s failed me. Something, that if we know each other, you'll know is very, very rare. Wink Wink.
See, I was feeling a lot of pressure to get some social media-esque videos up as fast as I could for my bosses (and for all of you) and yet every time I turned on my iPhone to show you what I saw and to try and explain it, I just couldn’t. Couldn't find the words. 

After all, how does one put into words what it feels like to sit in a bamboo hut in almost 40-degree heat, as you listen to a mum bravely telling you her story of survival from genocide? Or when you see a little child barely able to sit up because of malnutrition? Or a father left to raise five daughters after their mother was brutally killed?

Of course the journalist I was hosting from Newshub, TV3, Michael Morrah did a wonderful job of putting words to it all. Here’s five stories from this week that we made while on the field together that played on 6pm news on New Zealand’s national news network.
Please click on the hyperlinks under each Story to see the clip

Earlier this year, you may remember I found myself here at the height of this crisis, watching it unfold. Children and adults alike were traumatised, dehydrated and exhausted. They stared into a void, without even the energy to cry.  What I saw last week was that this crisis is not over. People really are in a desperate state and we need to stay with them, to keep caring. These people are not allowed to build a permanent home, not allowed to work, not allowed to send their children to high school, not allowed to even leave the camps. If they choose to go back to Myanmar, the persecution would most certainly continue.

So this is my little way of bringing this crisis to life through photographs. Trying to show you why this means so much to me. These are the images (taken in April and last week) that bring it to life the most for me. I’ve written a wee caption to explain why.

I hope you see what I see. 

The scale of this crisis is enormous. Close to a million people live within 10 square kilometers. 
Modena shared with me how she lost her husband and is now raising 8 daughters by herself. She feels sad that she is prohibited by the government to work and so therefore cant provide them with pretty dresses and chocolates on Eid (Muslim festival happening last week) because they have no money. Pictured below is Modena with her youngest daughter.

 I cant imagine what it must be like for a mother to have to throw faeces down a rubbish filled embankment mere meters from your house. The overcrowded conditions of the camp mean that sanitation is a huge challenge.

I think it's the kids in the camps that capture my heart the most. They deserve toys, safe places to play, a roof that wont leak and enough food to eat. And yet, that's a luxury. 

One boy I met called Hamid is 19 years old. On the way his best friend and brother were shot. Shortly after, he heard the sound of a baby crying in a village that had just been decimated. He found a five-month-old baby girl amid the rubble. Together they now live in the camps. Hamid was a star student in one of Tearfund's projects English classes. Now employable, after finishing the course, the little money he makes as a volunteer sustains him, his family and this little girl.  
I remember this young girl telling me that every time she eats rice she cant help but think of her Daddy. He loved rice, just like her, and now he's dead and so is her brother and rice could never taste the same again.

At a nutrition clinic for malnourished children I spotted this sweetheart cuddled up next to her Mama. Malnutrition in the camp is now at emergency levels and so this center is a lifeline for her, and her Mum.

Reflecting on my week in the camps, two things give me hope. The incredible determination and resilience of the Rohingya people and the growing community of Tearfund supporters getting stirred up to stand with these people. Please consider making a donation to help this critical work continue.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The truth about expat friendships

The woman in question - Alicia.
Wearing her Sunday best. 

So I’m sitting here at my desk on a Wednesday afternoon after what turned out to be quite an emotional morning. See, my friend Alicia is leaving after two years of living and working here in Uganda and we had a farewell thing for her today. And when it came time for my turn to speak around the table about how amazing she is and how much we’ll all miss her, I couldn’t even speak for fear the lump in my throat would spill over. Couldn’t even say one word.

That’s because I feel like I’ve had enough goodbyes to last me a lifetime. Tim and I sat down at dinner last week and counted by name 187 friends that have left in the last five years we’ve called Uganda home. 187. And I’m over it. 

Let me rewind a bit. When we first moved here I remember people talking to me about how “amazing the community is here” and me rolling my eyes. Ok people, you can have your freaky deaky weird little ‘community’ and I’ll be justttt fine over here living like a normal person thanks. See, what fresh off the boat me didn’t realise is that when you move to a place like Uganda as an expat (someone who lives in a country that's not your birth country) your friends become family. Fast. They have to. You have no family, no ‘old friends’ and you don’t know anyone. So friends have to become like family or you’ll drown in the bureaucracy, drama, setbacks and frustrations. You’ll lose your mind when your power goes out for the third time – today. Swear black and blue when your water is cut off for no reason and want to punch someone in the face when you get asked for a bribe - again. But not with friends by your side. Oh no. With friends you’ll not only survive this crazy town, you’ll thrive in it.

See there’s no time for small talk, chit chat and bullsh*tting about how you feel living here.  You’re all just trying to keep your head above water and these friends you find yourself living alongside are the only ones who get it. Like really, really get it.  And so you go deep quick. You go quick because you or they might be here three months or three years and neither of you really knows which one because that’s the very nature of this transient country and this transient expatriate lifestyle. But you need each other. And so you tell your secrets, see each other every single day (and I do really mean every single day) and you become Aunts to their children and intrinsically involved in every aspect of one another’s lives. You do X-fit on a Monday, a smoothie right after and grocery shopping all before 11am. That afternoon you hang out for a playdate and that evening you text each other about what you managed to make for dinner in a country where you have to go to four grocery stores to get what you tend to eat each week. Oh and then you do it all again tomorrow.

So you might be able to see why it’s catching up on me all this “Goodbye” stuff. Especially when you feel like with each goodbye goes a little piece of you. Moments you’ll never re-live, memories no-one else was there for but them. And it’s been like this all my life right? Not just Uganda but California, Sydney, New Zealand and Dubai. All places I’ve lived and said my fair share of goodbyes in.  And so when yet another friend left today it felt like on some deep level another part of me was leaving too. Memories, photos, tears and laughs left with her and stayed with me.

So I've been reflecting on this today, processing by writing to you. Ironically, that same girl who rolled her eyes at the concept of “true community” is now the same one wiping said eyes as one of her closest members of that community leaves.  And although my friend leaving today (and all the ones that have gone before her) can never be replaced, the one thing I know for certain is that for every goodbye in Uganda, there’s another Hello. 

It’s August. That means the Embassies are turning over their staff and the missionaries are moving into town for the school year and the aid workers are coming back from home assignment leave. See what I realized today is is that the silver lining to all these goodbyes is that somewhere along the line I said Hello. A lot. And Hello’s are fun. Hellos are promising.  So it's taken me a week to be able to post this but that's because it's the truth and the truth is sometimes hard to swallow. But today I said Hello again to someone. Turns out I suck at Goodbyes. But Hello’s  - well Hello's are what I do best. I should know, I’ve done 187 of them. 
Please know we NEVER dress like this. We decided to do Prom night in Uganda
and, well, these were the dresses we found. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Surprise Triplets: The best birth story I've ever heard

It's not everyday you hear a birth story that prominently features a motorbike. But then, it's not everyday you hear about a Mum giving birth again, again and again in one day. 

When 27 year old Annet went into labour, she had no idea she would be giving birth to more than one baby that day. Her husband had gone to the city and she began feeling some pain that evening. Her son Samuel was born that night alone in her house. After Samuel was born, she had trouble cutting the umbilical cord and so jumped on a boda (motorbike) with her sister in law to rush to the nearest medical centre where a nurse told a very surprised Annet that there was another baby on the way.
The nurse was concerned about the delivery so Annet got on another motorbike and travelled to a larger hospital for help. There, she had the first scan of her entire pregnancy and was told by the doctor there was not one, but two more babies coming! The Doctor could see that she was losing strength and so called her husband to ask for permission to operate and do a cesarean section. In Ugandan culture twins are a blessing but triplets are a curse and so he said no. The doctor realized this was a life and death situation and performed the operation. Soon after, Grace and Patience entered the world, weighing just 1.8kgs each.
With a mounting hospital bill, the doctor who signed the paperwork didn’t know what to do so he ended up calling TV, radio and newspaper journalists to come and take photos and put the news out there about Annet’s situation. When the story went public a Compassion staff member saw it and contacted the nearby project. Shortly after some Compassion staff came to the hospital and helped Annet leave.  At first they tried to reconcile Annet with her husband and in-laws but that didn’t work. 

For the last four years Compassion has been helping pay for Annet to rent a home with her children but they are now outgrowing that space and desperately need another option. Their home is small and hot and about 6 metres by 3 meters in size.
Annet was given some land by her Father but doesn’t have enough money to build a home for her and her children. Compassion is hoping to change that.

This week the triplets turn four and Compassion has been running a campaign to give them the best birthday present ever – a forever home, debt free. Today I saw that they had been successful in that endeavor and that $40,000 has come in to build not only these triplets, but friends like them safe shelters too. So amazing. Have a wonderful week everyone! 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Our family in the Australian Women's Weekly

It was an incredible honor to be interviewed for this months Australian Women's Weekly Magazine (on sale now) by their very talented Deputy Editor, Emma Clifton.

In it, I talk about my job as a humanitarian photographer and the juggle of being a Mama to three little people.

This article would not have been possible without the incredible organisations and people I try to humbly serve through my work. You guys are the real inspiration and every day I spend on the 'field' with you is so deeply precious to me.

The Australian Womens Weekly July Edition Article can be found if you click here

OR by clicking here for the online only version.


Friday, May 4, 2018

The world’s largest refugee camp through the lens of a Kiwi Mum of three

A Rohingya refugee sits in the shade and overlooks the camp
The upcoming monsoon season will mean houses like this are at huge risk 

I don’t know about you, but for me, the words, “Rohingya, Muslim, Myanmar, persecution and Rakhine State” make my eyes glaze over with confusion. Those terms and places are so far from my everyday reality as a Kiwi mum. But a few weeks ago, things became personal when I arrived in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh—the largest refugee camp in the world. I spent four days taking photos and listening to people’s stories.

Rusham's husband was killed as they fled to Bangaldesh.
What’s been going on? 
Myanmar is a country in Asia. Most of the country are of the Buddhist Religion, but there’s about a million people that live there called the Rohingya Muslims that have been hugely persecuted. They have been denied all citizenship rights and are therefore considered stateless - even though they’ve lived there for centuries. Sick of the restrictions and oppression, a group of Rohingya people attacked police points to show their frustrations. Days later, the Myanmar government retaliated. The Rohingya people were killed, tortured, raped, burned alive, and humiliated. Those lucky enough to escape made the week-long walk or the life-threatening boat ride to Bangladesh’s Cox’ Bazaar.

What does it look like?
The refugee camp is a tiny10kms square. Many New Zealand farms are bigger than that and yet a million people live in this camp. Most of the trees have been cut down for firewood, leaving nothing but a dust bowl. Makeshift tents sit tightly packed on precarious edges of, hill after rolling hill, making them vulnerable to landslides during the impending monsoon season.

Inside Cox's Bazar

The steep, dusty hillsides are at huge risk for mudslides in the upcoming monsoon season

A child plays outside his tent and next to open sewerage inside Cox's Bazar.

Girls are at risk for many forms of abuse in these camps
What are some of the challenges?
Children in the camps are at risk for child marriage, violence and abuse. There are documented cases of Rohingya girls being sought as child prostitutes and teenage girls being sourced for human trafficking. Everyone I interviewed knew someone that had died in the violence. Many had been raped. Each carried the extreme trauma of having fled their home, lost everything they owned and seen horrible things as they made the journey.  Holding the hands of those who are crying uncontrollably as they recount the horror of what they experienced is a humbling and sobering experience.

Arefa*, 25 sits inside her tent with her daughters
Meet Arefa*
“I decided to leave Myanmar 8 months ago after my husband got shot, my house burnt down and I was raped in front of my children. The military came into our house to look for my husband and found him hiding under the kitchen table. The beat him up in front of my four daughters, (aged 8, 5,4 and 18 months old) and then killed him. My daughters saw this and were screaming. They loved their Father very much. Even now if we talk about him they start to cry. Shortly after this, I was raped. Finally, I managed to escape with some of my in-laws and it took us 9 days to reach Bangladesh. I remember we were all starving. It is a very terrible life we are passing here. We only receive rice, dahl and oil from the authorities. We used to have our own food in our garden.  One of the hardest things for me is not being able to provide snacks for my children. My daughters cry because they are hungry and want snacks. I can’t give them that anymore.” 

Where does God fit in?

Tears sting my eyes as I share that story with you. Those darn snacks had me sniffling for days. You know, I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. But honestly when I see the level of suffering, the abhorrent conditions people live in and the injustice of it all, I don’t understand it. I do know that I believe one day God will restore everything that’s broken and justice will be served. I also know that the Bible teaches me that it’s my job to love my neighbour, to give generously and to engage with situations like this. One day God’s going to right every wrong, but right now he’s using organisations like Tearfund and people like you and me to do it.  

What can I do?
Tearfund’s partner is in Cox’s Bazaar delivering multiple programmes including skills training, English lessons, sewing classes, sports activities, women’s groups and trauma counselling. Best of all, The New Zealand Government has promised to match dollar for dollar all donations Tearfund receives up to $150k. But we have to act quickly to raise the money before June to get the matched funding.  Please join me in helping the Rohingya people who have suffered so much, by giving to Tearfund’s programmes in Cox’ Bazaar.

You can help by clicking here.

*Name changed for privacy*

"Come for a walk with me", I said. And so we walked up and down the narrow alleyways outside her home in the worlds largest refugee settlement and we laughed at the silly boys and played hide and seek and she showed me her new home here. What a beautiful child

A young Rohingya refugee caught my eye as she played outside her tent.

*The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Tearfund New Zealand.*

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Behind the Nets

Oh my goodness gracious, I've been so excited to share these images with you and now finally, finally, finally I can! You may recall that in December last year I went on a trip to Ghana. I was travelling with Compassion Australia to help them gather photos and stories for this years Hillsong Colour Conference. Well, Colour launched last week and so today I bring you the 14 images that meant the most to me.

But first, read this.

Ghana hosts the largest man-made lake in the world. It's beautiful, but there's a very dark underbelly to it's beauty. The slavery of thousands of children that are brought to work on it. Recruited as young as five for their little fingers to untie nets, their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and their inability to fight back. We met children that were once enslaved on this lake and spent days untangling their stories and listening as hard as we could to help understand the situation at hand for them and their friends. Behind every net is a story. 

Compassion International has one goal. Releasing children from poverty in Jesus name. In every developing country that comes to life in a slightly different way. But in Ghana, on Lake Volta it looks like making sure every child in their program is known, loved and protected. By sponsoring a child with Compassion, that child is placed in school, given nutritious food, and a safe place to play aware from the allure of evil traffickers preying around their villages. I hope these images help bring a small part of that reality to life for you.


A Compassion Project on Lake Volta