Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The work day I'll never forget

Recently, I challenged myself to try and think of the three humanitarian photography assignments I've done that have impacted me the most. The ones I could never forget. The ones I want you to know about too.  Here’s one of them.
In March this year I was invited by Medical Teams International to photograph their work with the Red Cross in the hospitals within the refugee camps of Tanzania on the borders of Congo and Burundi.

On one of the days I 
spotted through my lens a little boy and his mother in line waiting to see the Doctor. They stood out to me because of the beautiful way the Mum was holding his lifeless little body. She had such a tenderness to her. Through an interview we found out that her three year old son was very ill, unable to walk and struggling to breathe. After seeing the doctor and being admitted to the wards, we later found out he had severe malaria and pneumonia and his treatment began. 

We moved through to the Women’s Ward and I saw 9-year-old Kentia. She was lying on a hospital bed while her mother wept over her frail body. She shook rapidly, her eyelids barely opened and when they did her eyes would roll back into her head. My colleague Angela later wrote, I found myself desperately praying that the medicine entering her veins through the IV drip would work faster — no child should suffer this way, and no mother should have to watch it.” We learned from the nurse that she had been struck by a severe case of malaria.

Later that same afternoon as we were leaving I noticed another very sick little girl about 8 years old on an oxygen tank. As we left the camp that night, I was scared not knowing if these children would make it through the night. In the morning, I could hardly wait to get back to the hospital to check on them all.

As I walked into the paediatric ward the first thing I noticed was that the 3 year old boy from yesterday was now sitting up! Later that day I even saw him outside drinking water from a soda bottle all by himself. The 9-year-old girl whose mother had been weeping over her was now sitting up too, her recovery was slower, but progress was being made. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

And then I looked to my left and there lay the other sweet little girl from yesterday. She now had her eyes closed and her mother and her Aunty were trying to feed her whatever they could. She was attached to oxygen and it wasn’t looking good. All of a sudden, she started making a noise I’ll never forget and the next thing I knew the Dr placed his hand gently on my back and whispered it was time to go.  I held myself together until I walked out into the sunlight and then I completely lost it. Sobs came up from the deepest place they possibly could. I’ll never forget that moment.

Once I had composed myself, we decided to go check in on some of the mothers that we had spoken to in labour the day prior. I walked in the door, was given a pair of gumboots and told to head into the labour room.  And within minutes I watched twins come into the world.

The twins were a surprise. The mother had no idea. I took two short iPhone videos while I was there. One shows the twins a few hours after they were born and one shows the traditional way a Mother leaves the hospital with her newborn baby.

It’s hard to wrestle with both the tragedy of death and the celebration of new life within 10 minutes of each other, but I guess that’s the business end of hospitals. Just when this world seems ruined beyond repair, a baby is born.

Before this hospital and the many others now in the camps were there, lives that could have been saved were lost for stupid reasons like medication for malaria wasn’t available. Now, that is not the case. If someone gets a treatable illness like malaria or pneumonia, they have a good chance of survival and the drugs to help them. The good news is that incidences of malaria have dropped by 30% globally. In addition, the number of under-fives dying from pneumonia has decreased by 47 percent. This is thanks in part to the incredible work of organisations like Medical Teams International and the generous support of people like you!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

An open letter to my neighbor - the 3 things you've taught me

I remember the day we first met. You and I were both Mum’s of new-borns. You walked into a playgroup I was attending and we hit it off. You mentioned you were looking for a place to live. My neighbour’s house was available. You moved in within the week. And life’s never been quite the same again. You’ve taught me so much about what healthy community can look like.  You live it.

Before I came to Uganda I had a wonderful circle of friends in New Zealand. I had a close-knit family and felt deeply attached to both. Then I came here and all of that was stripped away as we flew mile after mile to the other side of the earth to start a whole new life.

Shortly after I arrived, I remember expats (foreigners like me living in Uganda) talking about the importance of community here. I remember rolling my eyes imagining their weird little commune life. They used words like “fellowship.” I just wanted to be someone’s friend like a NORMAL person.

You were the same. Normal. Nice. And we both needed each other and appreciated the friendship. At first it was for dinners as a couple, then dinners as a family and other such "official" invites. Fast forward 3.5 years  there's not been an official invite since. In fact, I think your kids were at my house every single day this past week – at least once. Usually twice. Did we arrange it  - unlikely? Were they welcome – absolutely!

You’ve showed me that community means doing every-day life together with people that want to do every-day life with me back. It means being vulnerable to share about all the aspects of yourself from your love life to your work life to your failures as a parent and your hopes for the future. It means engaging wholeheartedly with each other to the point where you celebrate their success and deeply feel their losses. It means stopping what you’re doing to rush to the aid of a friend who needs support. I call it the Red Cross effect. Us girls can mobilize anywhere in three minutes. It means surprise birthday parties and endless inside jokes. It means fire pit dance parties and dropping off meals.

Do you know what you’ve taught me Courtney?

  1. My house doesn’t have to be perfect. I clearly remember when you first started coming over I felt like I had to make sure the house was in tip-top shape. I fluffed the cushions and lit the candles even if it was for a casual playdate. That stopped on about week 4 of our friendship when I couldn’t keep up anymore and you clearly couldn’t care less. I put my hand on my heart and promise I’ve never cleaned up for you since. Last week you helped me kill a rat in here while our kids ran buck wild and the house looked like a jaguar was on the loose pulling everything from the shelves.
  2. People are lonely.  Take a risk, invite them in. I had no idea what I was missing. 
  3. Community gives space when needed and comes around when the time is right. It is respectful. Thank you for modelling that. And for having a supernaturally high capacity for interaction with your neighbour.
PS: I still don’t like the word fellowship. But community…. Now that I like very much. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Denizen Magazine - Heroes Edition

It's not everyday I get published in Denizen Magazine. Ok, it's never happened before. But this month, I was honored to partner with them for their Heroes issue and do a beautiful story together on 5 heroes I've met. 

The people you’re about to read about haven’t solved a medical mystery. They haven’t discovered a new planet or paid for a hundred heart operations in India. They’ve just survived. Despite all odds and beyond all common sense or knowledge. Their resilience is inspiring. Their resolve breath-taking. Let me take you to the front lines of some of our planet’s most challenging places. There’s some heroes there I'd love you to meet.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The reason I'm choosing to go 40 hours without food

Six months ago I met a girl I’ll never forget. Her name was Edna. And what she told me is precisely why I’m choosing to go 40 hours without food.

“I was 8 years old and at school in South Sudan when the soldiers began to shoot bullets. People were running. I remember seeing many people had died. There was lots of blood. People were floating in the river. I kept asking myself, why do people do things like this? My older sister, brother and I ran home to try find our parents and three younger siblings. They were not there. We had to run. After three days we reached Uganda and were registered as refugees. My legs were swollen. My parents weren’t there either.  We were all alone, we didn’t know anyone. There was no one that could build for us a house. Our parents loved us so much and had taught us how important school was. Soon after we sold our food rations to pay for school fees. One day we introduced ourselves to World Vision. They registered us and gave us food. By this time I had gone four days without food. I wanted to die at that time. World Vision then built for us a house. We now also have a foster mother who keeps an eye on us. I don’t know where my parents are.  The war has separated us. I do not know whether they are alive or dead. I like playing in the playground (installed by World Vision) near to my house. I like learning about maths and science. When I grow up I want to be a pilot.”

When Edna told me she wanted to be a pilot I asked her if she wanted to go play with me. That day she’d been wearing a blanket and so went out into the field behind her house and shot these.

I think her story stuck with me so much because she reminded me of my own daughter. She even looked like her a little bit. My Mama arms just wanted to wrap around her and hold her so tight. I wanted to buy her new clothes and cook her healthy food. I wanted to read her a bedtime story and sing to her as she went to sleep. She told me with such despair in her voice about how they have to eat the same thing every single day. She cried telling me about how her Mum used to give her meat and fish and vegetables and she has not had that since.  Her Mum and Dad love Edna and her siblings so much - I could tell by the way they held themselves and the way they spoke.

I hope and pray that Edna and her siblings will one day reunite with their Mum, Dad and three younger siblings.  And while they wait, be encouraged that there are some really wonderful organisations like our friends over at World Vision trying their best to help unaccompanied children like Edna find their feet. 

On a much wider note, I want you to encourage you that step by step, year by year our world is improving. In the last 20 years alone there has beenhuge decline in the share of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day. It used to be 35 percent in 1987 and now it’s under 10 per cent. Though our planet still faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.
It is the least I can do to go 40 hours without food this weekend and support the Youth Ambassadors and World Vision staff I worked alongside to bring this story to life through this years 40 hour famine.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The First Hello

For the last 15 months of my life, I’ve been following the stories of three Ugandan Mums from from pregnancy to the first birthday in a photo journalism assignment I’ve called, T
he First Hello.
The idea came about because Compassion (also known as Tearfund in New Zealand) had recently launched a “Survival” program that comes alongside mothers in developing countries in the first five years of a child’s life. Traditionally, child sponsorship has always started at 5. However, it became clear that a reasonable portion of kids were not even making it to 5! The Survival project intervenes from the early stages of pregnancy to ensure vulnerable mothers are being given the correct nutrition, the right medical care and the support of the local church to help them on the other end. This assignment was my attempt to bring that to life.

As I kicked off the assignment, I couldn’t help but notice that the average Ugandan woman has 6 children. In New Zealand, our average is 1.9.  In Uganda there are about 1.3 nurses or midwifes for every 1000 people.  In New Zealand we have an average of 11 for every 1000 people.  Uganda’s neonatal mortality rate is 38 deaths per 1000 live births, which means it is among the highest in the world. In New Zealand we’re down to 3.8 deaths per 1000 live births. To put that another way, a new-born baby in Uganda is 10 times more likely to die than a NZ born baby. I believe our job is not to deny the story, but to deny the ending.

The First Hello helped me break down the divide I’d created in my mind between me and them. It showed me the common humanity we all share. I found them to be Mum’s just like me with kids just like mine. And I discovered there’s really no difference in what we want for our children, only in what we can give them.

Mama Juliet. Having not had the opportunity to go to school, Juliet met her husband Edward at a young age. They got pregnant soon after and had little to no money to their name. A member of a local church helped register them into the
Compassion program. Juliet gave birth, by herself, inside a local hospital after a nurse had suddenly gone off duty. I remember waiting for the call. It was fun to feel like a midwife waiting for my three Mums to give birth so I could race to the hospital.  It’s also been beautiful to watch Juliet’s love for her daughter grow. “I am so much in love with my daughter Christine,” she told me. “Maybe it’s because she’s my first born? I love my husband too, but he annoys me whereas she cannot annoy me.” Juliet made me laugh when she said, “I’ve heard that white women don’t feel pain when they give birth? That you have schedules for napping and you get mad if the baby doesn’t follow it!?”

Mama Kate.
Kate’s Mum died at 14 and for many years she endured awful abuse at the hands of her stepmother. By 16 she was forced to drop out of school. By 17 she was pregnant.
The man Kate met as a teenager eventually became her husband. But after two kids together he left her for another woman. When I met Mama Kate she was in a bad way.  She was not able to afford to put her current daughter in school full time and providing regular food was difficult. The baby came at 41 weeks and when I came to see her she told me that she was so happy that Compassion had come alongside her and paid for all of her hospital costs to have Pamela. After seeing Kate’s confidence grow over the course of the year, and the help Compassion was providing for Baby Pamela,  her ex-husband came back to her and he’s been a transformed man ever since. By 6 months Kate had begun selling fish to make a little money to support her and her three kids.  Today you’ll find her learning about income generating activities like beadwork and handbag making most days.
When I asked her about what she thought of white women and Motherhood she said, “Westerners seem to really rush with everything. They have a lot to do. They have to get it done. We do what we do in a relaxed way. For them, everything is now, now. For them it has to be exactly that time (Fairly confident she was not so subtly talking about me). I hear that white people, by the time they give birth have prepared in every way for their babies and they are just waiting for the baby to come. They get a room for the baby, they decorate it specifically for the baby ,they get the baby it’s own bed, toys and clothes. I don’t know if I can ever be like that. But that’s how I would have liked to have done it.”
Mama Rahuma.  Rahuma was the youngest of 7 children and because of money, was forced to drop out of school at 13. At 20 she married her childhood sweetheart but the money they made meant they were only able to cook once a day. When she found out she was pregnant they both strongly considered an abortion. Around that time some members from the local church told her about the Compassion Survival program and she registered for it. After almost 56 hours of being in pain, Compassion stepped in and demanded and paid for a C-section to save the mother and babies life. Baby Faith is the apple of her parent’s eyes. She is adored and treated like a princess. When we met up on Faith’s first birthday she told me, “The best thing about this year is that we are alive and our child is too.” Today Rahuma is a better mother than you could ever hope for. She’s learning how to make books and fix shoes. She makes her own Vaseline and is patient and strong.  

Compassion’s Survival program helps children and their mothers to survive those crucial early years. The program teaches mothers how to read and write, how to calculate, what proper nutrition looks like and how to be a positive parent. Many of the Mothers in the program have gone through domestic violence and have exhausted all financial opportunities. They feel discouraged. This program encourages them that they can indeed make it and they can thrive. Compassion keeps their family together with a simple but crucial intervention.

I’ve visited and engaged with a lot of development projects over the years in a wide range of different contexts. I’ve seen desperately needed aid, food and water handed out to victims of natural disasters and I’ve seen the steady flow of support that can come from a self-help savings and loans group. I’ve also had the opportunity to think hard about the question, what can we do? I believe one of the best ways we can engage is through child sponsorship. It’s not sexy, it’s not fast, it’s not new. But it works.

At the end of the First Hello assignment on the girls first birthday’s I wondered what to give them. But deep down I knew the answer about 11 months and 29 days prior.

On each of the babies first birthday’s I handed them a card that asked if our family could be their sponsor. Our kids will now grow up with these kids. And it’s great that Baby Christine, Baby Pamela and Baby Faith have been sponsored. But the reason I’m writing this blog is because I need your help to ensure all their little friends in their Survival projects are sponsored to. You can sponsor a child by clicking here if you live in New Zealand OR here if you live anywhere else.

As a Mum to three little kids myself I feel sick when I think about kids around the world who don’t have access to the same things mine do. Simple stuff like food, clean water and medical care. That’s not ok with me. And I think that’s why I love child sponsorship so much because it gives a child their childhood back. It says to a kid living in poverty, don’t worry. Don’t worry about your schooling, your food, your medical care anymore. We have your back.Poverty comes to steal to rob, to kill and destroy. It tells a child you will never get out of this. Child sponsorship is one very important antidote to that. It says, NO. Not on my watch. I see you. I hear you. And I might not live next to you or even in the same country as you, but I’m going to play the long game and walk with you until you graduate school and can go off on your own.

Today I’m asking you to give childhood back to a child who likely won’t have it otherwise. Not only is there really strong independent research that backs Compassion’s specific model up, but I’ve personally visited countless Compassion projects the world over and have seen the impressive results first hand. 
You can sponsor a child by clicking here if you live in New Zealand OR here if you live anywhere else.

Thank you! xo