Wednesday, February 14, 2018

12 photos that meant the most to me on my latest assignment to Congo.

It's not easy for me to edit photos like these. I go to bed and see their eyes as I try to sleep. I remember all too well. The smell, the temperature, the harshness of the environment they live in and the context in which we met. Right now, in this very moment, even as you read these words, there's a silent crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year (on average) 30-50 people crossed the border each day. As of January, those numbers are closer to 500 per day. Medical Teams International are also there, right now, providing emergency and ongoing medical care to these precious people - now refugees.  Here's the 12 photos that meant the most to me from my trip two weeks ago.

This mother and child woke up a couple weeks ago and realized their entire village had packed up and left. Gun fire sounded in the distance and so she grabbed a bag and her other children and walked to Uganda. As she crossed the border we met and hopped into this UNHCR truck together.  I sat in the back of that truck with other refugees like her to a transit center where they began their new lives as refugees escaping the violence and conflict of their home country. When the truck slowed down to pass over a speed bump I took this shot.

Waiting in line to be bio-metric registered as refugees by UNHCR, this young boy caught my eye.

On arrival at a border point/transit centre Medical Teams International provides health screening and immunisations for incoming  refugees.
This little 18 month old baby girl weighs 6 kilos (13 pounds). Her parents have both died and her grandmother (in red) is now her caregiver. The Medical Teams International staff are coming alongside her to provide nutrition support to help her grow.
This is what it looks like to register as a refugee in February 2018 on the border of Congo to Uganda. This Mum caught my eye, as did her beautiful children. Exhausted. 
Living conditions for 2700 Congolese refugees arriving into the transit centre on the border of Uganda

Standing in the doorway of the MTI clinic this beautiful little girl lost her Daddy just days earlier. Her and her two sisters and baby brother are now refugees living in Uganda.
Health Screening is an important first step for refugees arriving into Uganda. Babies that need food will get it, Mums that need medicine will be given it and children that are sick will be seen and cared for.

The "'pharmacy"' inside a transit centre is this grey box filled daily with medicines to help the huge influx of refugees coming in.

I noticed these boys being registered and immediately went to inquire. "'Unaccompanied children"' the registrar said. We talked for a minute or two about the background details he was getting from them 6, 8 (twins) and 12. And my heart sank.  Took this photo then turned away and let the tears slip down my cheeks.

New arrival family unpacking their things.

Seeing hundreds of people wait in line for food is a hard thing to experience. I think its the dignity element and the control element that bother me the most. 

To support the work of Medical Teams International please visit http://www.medicalteams.org/

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a few days with the team at Medical Teams International. Their work seems them provide medical care for hundreds of thousands of refugees here in Uganda. But the crisis that's captured their attention right now is the one happening right on the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year 30-50 people crossed per day. But as of January it's been around 400-500 people per day. This is a small selection of some of the images that meant the most to me on my most recent trip.

Friday, January 26, 2018

4 One minute videos that show what its like to arrive in a refugee transit center

The last few days have been equal parts swearing (under my breath) and praying. The truth is it’s hard not to whisper a swear word to yourself when you see an almost 18 month old that weighs 6.2 kilos because of malnutrition. It’s hard not to swear as you watch a woman give birth in a makeshift hospital tent inside a refugee camp. It’s hard not to swear when a woman rushes into that same medical tent to say a one week old baby has been abandoned and hasn’t been fed since who knows when. As the quiet gasps escape my mouth I find myself immediately turning to pray.

Right now there’s an invisible crisis happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I’ve just spent three days listening to horrendous stories and witnessing first-hand the tremendous influx of refugees coming out of there. It’s invisible because hardly anyone’s talking about it and honestly, I get it. It certainly feels to me like some country in Africa is always at war and Congo’s often the culprit. It’s become part of the wallpaper of our lives.

But in the last few weeks things have escalated significantly in Congo. For most of last year 30-75 people crossed the borders from Congo to Uganda each day. But since around Jan 1st 2018, that’s gone up to a whopping 500 on average per day.  Thousands upon thousands of families now wait up to a week at a transit centre before being transported to the nearest refugee settlement about 7 hours drive away. My assignment was with Medical Teams International who are THE provider of health and nutrition services for all of these Congolese refugees. Their operations in Uganda also extend to other borders and they have about 1500 staff working around the clock to provide healthcare services to these very vulnerable people.

I often wish I could take you all with me on these trips so this time instead of sharing photos, I’m going to share four one minute iPhone videos that will hopefully help bring it to life even more. No filters, no editing.

Video 1:  ON ARRIVAL: After crossing the border of Congo into Uganda, refugees wait until the UNHCR trucks arrive at the border to take them to Nyabatande Transist Center. The minute they hop of the truck, this is what happens to them. In a rare quiet moment I took this quick video. (1:39 seconds)

Video 2: HEALTH SCREENING: After health screening and food ration cards are given, families make their way over to the health clinic. Within ten minutes of arriving in this tent on my first day I watched as a woman gave birth on the exact bed you’ll see on this video. Silently and without any fuss. The head was already out when she hoisted herself onto the table and began to push. She was a frail little thing with a steel resolve. The huge rip in the side is for impromptu air flow. The MTI women attending to her were confident, calm and professional and had that room cleaned up after her delivery within minutes. She then lay on that floor with a cardboard box folded in half for a pillow. Her baby sleeping peacefully under the one blanket she had to her name.  (1:01 second)


Video 3: INSIDE THE ACCOMMODATION: The line for the Office for the Prime Minister (people in charge of camps) and UNHCR is usually hundreds long. The sheer numbers and the smell are often overwhelming. The day before I took this video I spotted a group of four young boys aged 6-12 huddled together and all alone. I enquired as to their situation and discovered they had arrived without parents at the camp. Three of them were in matching t-shirts and it took everything in me to stop the tears from falling as I looked at how scared and vulnerable they were in that moment.  Who would help them get food? Who would give them a blanket to sleep under? Who would kiss them as they went to sleep that night inside those big red buildings you’ll see in this video? (1:10 seconds)



Video 4: FOOD. What are refugees eating? How do you serve 2700 people on any one day? This is a video of one of the kitchens. (56 seconds)


Medical Teams International is an NGO with an incredible reputation both here in Uganda and around the world and I’ve had the privilege of seeing their work in action in multiple locations. The main health issues they are facing right now with Congolese refugees are malaria, respiratory infections and malnutrition. The MTI team is large and powerful. They are efficient and effective and they have their work down to a fine art. They are caring and kind whilst also firm about procedures and practices being at the highest standard possible in this unique situation. The context within which they are working is all consuming and exhausting and most staff are working 8am-8pm. When a convoy leaves (carrying 600 people to the refugee settlement) they are up at 4am to get everyone ready.

I count it as one of the most incredible privileges to be asked to help bring these stories to life. To shine a light on some of the darkest places in our world and to share the work of remarkable NGO’s giving everything they’ve got.  I have no answers for you or myself as to why things are the way they are.  I have hope though. I see it in the faces of staff committed to working around that clock to bring healing. I see it in the smiles of mothers who are handed a blanket and some utensils to help them cook again for the family. The dignity of that is not lost on me. I see it in the bouncy nature of little children running around after soccer balls donated by people like you and me to help distract them for but a moment from the pain of losing their Daddy last week. And I see it in you, the people that read this blog as you comment, ‘like’, share and donate to continue to keep these organistions running. No matter what story I bring you, your compassion doesn’t run out. Your interest doesn’t wane.  And your love, action and prayers for these people is felt and changes things.


h.

http://www.medicalteams.org/

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The moment that 'broke' me last week

South Sudanese refugee children take in the view
My goodness, it’s been one heck of a year. Does anyone else feel like they’re hanging on by a thread waiting for January to come!? #anyone #anyoneatall? I write to you from a very small plane currently mid-air on my way home to Kampala. This is my rhythm. I do a trip and then I write. I find it very cathartic. Helps me get those feelings out.

I’ve just finished a week-long trip with World Vision – my last one for the year. And before you even question why someone who has worked for Compassion and Tearfund would choose to do an assignment with them, I’d like to knock that one on the head. There is FAR too much going on in our world for any kind of ‘competition’. Far too much at stake. It’s going to take every single organisation playing their part to move our heaving mess of humanity forward. And I, for one, will not sit on the side-lines playing favourites. I’ve worked for about 24 charities since I began doing this and can see genuine merit in each model and approach to development. No NGO is perfect. We are all interconnected and we all need each other. It’s truly one of the greatest privileges of my life to bring the work on the field to living colour for as many incredible NGO’s as I can.


South Sudanese refugees are transported to their plot of land
 #iphone
But I will say - this year has taken its toll and I’ve been feeling it these last few weeks. I want to be real about that because Instagram doesn’t tell that part of my story very well. In my job I regularly get to see the aftermath of the very worst humanity has to offer. This year I’ve interviewed sex slaves from the Congo, former Isis wives in Iraq, unaccompanied children coming into refugee camps, child labourers and victims of war to name but a few. Every month there’s been a new story. Their stories, so precious to me. Each face, each family.

When I get home from a trip like this, the truth is that I usually can’t physically bring myself to look at these photos for at least a week. Sometimes more. I can’t even open the Microsoft Word interviews on my computer. It’s just all a bit too much. 

South Sudanese refugees are transported to their plot of land
 #iphone
I find it so ironic that I do this kind of work. I was the girl in school who couldn’t bear to listen to stories of the Holocaust or anything like that. Could.Not.Handle.It. Barely handled the freaking news. Tim once tried to have me watch a documentary on child soldiers and I flat out said no. I prefer shopping at the mall and reading Your home and garden magazine. And then one day I found myself sitting at a bus stop in downtown Kampala and I met a former child soldier. He was a mass murderer and here we were sharing an apple together. We became fast friends and one day when he was at our house for dinner he told me how he was abducted as a child and forced to become a child soldier. All of a sudden this ‘issue’ came to life before my eyes.  I remember literally shifting my physical position on the couch and leaning in to every word that softly came out of his mouth. I remember hearing how he would purposely shoot in the air and close his eyes as they ambushed a village just so that he would miss shooting people. History had all of a sudden become personal. And history now had a name and flesh and was eating my spaghetti Bolognese!

That was the catalyst point for me. I then started reading books on child soldiers and learning all I could. Today, it feels like I cover a new humanitarian issue every single month and each issue then becomes personal.

A sweet South Sudanese baby whose
spent his life living in a refugee camp #iphone6
But for the first time this year I went on a trip and I didn’t ‘feel’ it. Usually I have a moment each trip where the emotion bubbles over and I cry. Sounds silly, but for me, that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s during a three hour interview where the excruciating details are all just too much, and sometimes it’s in the privacy of my room later that night. But for whatever reason this one particular trip I wasn’t feeling it. It was a hard hitting subject matter I was dealing with but ‘I’d seen worse’. And I lamented this to Tim. I never want that to happen again.  I want to feel it deep. Every. Single. Time. I want to feel it like Jesus feels it. I want to see these people the way he does. Photograph them the way he would. I want to listen to them, ask the right questions and stand in awe at the organisations pushing back the darkness.

So this week with World Vision I was praying specifically that God would ‘break’ me again. And he did. #typical. I was taking some photos when out of the corner of my eye, my colleague, Laura, alerted me to an elderly woman creating quite the scene. Apparently she’d be in the Reception Centre in the Refugee Camp for four weeks and was supposed to have been resettled to her plot of land after a couple of days. Instead she watched as day after day, truck after truck took more and more people away leaving her behind. She had fled to the refuge camp with no family and she had no idea where they were. She’d come to Uganda carrying her handbag and that was it. Her worldly possessions were piled up beside her in a neatly tied heap. All of them were things that had been given to her in the past few weeks. And here she was saying that she was going to board this truck by force. She wanted to be resettled. Hated staying in those long tents where over 200 people sleep each night. Sadly, her plot and shelter were not ready yet and so in absolute defeat she struggled to lift her items onto her head and make the embarrassing walk back to her tent. 
*Not the woman I'm referring to*
iPhone photo from earlier this year

My camera now slung behind my back I took one look at her and my eyes welled up with tears. She looked just like my Grandmother. But she was a single woman, all alone in a massive refugee camp with no-one that knew her or could help her.  So I made my way over to her and, with the help of two grown adults, lifted her bundle onto my head. Tears streaming, and I mean, streaming, down my face at the injustice and the lack of dignity for her and thinking with every step how I’d hope someone would do this for my grandmother. About halfway along, Laura could see I was struggling and so took the bundle onto her head and walked her 'home'. Even now, tears well in my eyes as I think of the beauty of that moment. She then sat down next to her and just rubbed her back. There was nothing to say, no translator around. Just a deep sense of our shared humanity.

Reflecting later I was reminded that “because Jesus loves us, he allows us to feel pain that draws us to him.  And in the midst of pain He weeps with us for a world that is not as he intended, for sorrow that he did not design.” Katie Davis.

So with that beautifully tender moment to end the year on, I’m off to take a break for a few weeks. A good, proper break with my family that are flying in for Christmas. I hear self-care is all the rage these days. After all, I’ve got some Your Home and Garden magazines to catch up on.  


Love,
Helen

Sunday, October 15, 2017

And then there were five...

We have a son! Meet Maz - he’s 7.5 months old and the newest member of our family! We are deeply humbled and grateful to God for the honor of being his parents.

What’s his name?
His name is Amaziah (Maz) Kyamagero Isaac Manson
Amaziah is both a Swahili and Biblical name that means, “The one who has the strength of God, is unusual and extraordinary”. But we will call him Maz in the day to day.
Kyamagero means Miracle in Luganda and refers to the name the babies home gave him at birth.
Isaac means he who will laugh.

When did this happen and was it a surprise?
We only met our son in early September after working alongside a reputable babies home here in Kampala for just under 6 months. Tim and I both decided at the beginning of this year that we’d like to “knock” on the door one last time. Finally, we were matched with a little boy that was 6 months old. Over the past few weeks our family has been visiting him daily at the babies home and beginning the bonding process.  Then, about two weeks ago everything became official through paperwork and we were able to have him begin living in our home.

How did he come to the babies home?
He came to the babies home at birth with no known family and has lived there up until now. Adoption is a precious, complex and beautiful thing and his story is just that, his. We will respect that.


How are the girls adjusting?
Hope is adjusting beautifully and slipping into her oldest sister role with ease. She’d been praying for a baby brother for a very long time and it’s been really special watching them form a special bond. The first thing she did when she saw his picture was gasp, “He looks just like me Mum!”  Eva, on the other hand, expresses her love through pinching and sitting on him.
With her full weight. She also may or may not have rolled him off the couch and onto concrete tiles, “accidently”.  Other than those few incidents, she’s obsessed.






What is the process for adopting this time around?
The process has changed significantly (for the better) since we adopted Hope. With Hope we had to live in country for 3 years before we were able to proceed to adoption. With Maz, the process is only one year. We are just a couple of weeks into that. In one year from now we hope to be applying for his adoption in court. Later on, we hope to apply for his New Zealand citizenship by descent.







What’s it like for you guys having three kids?
Wonderful, chaotic, crazy, beautiful, fun and exhausting. We are so grateful to be raising our children in this laid back country. Our families are lining up to visit their nephew and newest grandchild and we stand in awe of God for his kindness in giving us a son.

Love,
#Mansonpartyoffive
#oursquad







"Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone, yet somehow - miraculously - all my own. Never forget for just one minute, although you didn't grow under my heart, you grew in it." Fleur Conkling Heylinger






Monday, September 25, 2017

Raising little kids in Kampala, Uganda.

I’ll never forget the look on the ladies face at the supermarket in New Zealand when she realised I was serious about moving back to Uganda tomorrow with my three month old baby and an almost two year old.  Eva was peacefully sleeping and we were just winding up our conversation when she said, “But what will you do with her?” “Bring her with us.” I said. “But, but, but it’s not safe! She protested.

To her credit, her sentiments probably echoed the views of many. So here’s the real deal on what it’s like raising our little girl squad (Hope - 3.5years and Eva - 23 months) in #ugandababyuganda. Whether you’re considering a move to Africa, you’re interested to know what it’s like raising young children in a third world country or you’re just curious, I hope this helps.
  
FOREWARNING* - My Parenting style: I need you to know that I find parenting to be a lot like walking and talking while rubbing my stomach and patting my head.  Only instead of it being my head, it’s Eva’s head, who also happens to be running after our dog with a pair of scissors. Also, I’m holding snacks, a dirty diaper, two kid’s water bottles, Hope on the hip, and a phone that won’t stop ringing because I won’t stop calling. So if you cannot relate to any of that - we should part ways now.

My children eat all three meals outside on the balcony and often wander around half naked as they do it.  I usually feed them with my hands as utensils are overrated and that’s how everyone does it here. Our house (and 99% of houses here) are made of tiles (no carpet) and so the warm temperature (27C or 80F year round) means I don’t care if they spill water or drop rice. Which they do. All day errrryday.  I kind of slipped into parenting in such a carefree way and didn’t notice it until I went home and saw how kids in New Zealand do not behave in this manner around mealtimes. #facepalm. Perhaps I’ve become a little too relaxed though. The other day my Canadian neighbour. Courtney, was over at my house and watched on in horror as her daughter peed in my yard. I didn’t even notice (or care) but she was like, “WHO ON EARTH TAUGHT YOU THAT!” To which I sheepishly replied, “my children”. Meh. Our girls end most days hot, dirty from the red dust and sticky from Lord knows what. We bath them every single night in disinfectant.

Accommodation – I live with more lizards than people. I live with more cockroaches, enormous wasps and gargantuan ants than people. But ultimately, I don’t live in a mud hut, I live in a beautiful four bedroom home made of bricks, fairly straight walls and a simple kitchen. I have a washing machine and a fridge. And when the power is on, they are really useful.   Almost every week we have a power cut for anything from a few hours to a day or two. I have two people on speed dial - my husband and our power company. Every few months we have a water cut. We had almost all of our furniture custom made as there’s no Ikea’s or traditional malls to buy furniture from. 

Leaving the house – I buckle my kids into their car seats (brought in from New Zealand) inside our 4x4 (for the bumpy roads), lock the doors, beep my horn and the guard comes to open our metal gates. As we drive down our road made of rocks and pot holes I can only see the high barbed wire fence that surrounds our compound and hear our dog barking as we leave. We head out not knowing how long it’ll take to get back. Traffic is horrendous in Kampala. I can barely handle it. It feels like I’m driving in a video game. Hazards abound. Secretly I love it. Apart from when I don’t.  Going 15 min down the road can be a two hour journey. I’m not exaggerating. I fear police for the bribes they ask for 9/10 times that I get pulled over. One of my girlfriends taught me to wear sunglasses while driving so you can pretend you don’t see them trying to pull you over. The windows stay up, the air con on. Often the smell of trash or dust kicks into our car. We drive down crowded streets, hustling our way through multiple lines of traffic, motorbikes and people coming against us – on our side of the road. Defensive driving at its finest. Bodas (motorcycles) knock our car at least once a month. And the trouble of pulling over to get their ‘fake’ details and make them pay with money they don’t have is too much of a hassle so we shake it off and let it go. One day we were pulled over by a police officer and yelled at because we had our infant in a car seat. “What is that? That is not safe.  You take her out and hold her right now.” True story.

Security - I feel safe here 99% of the time. Promise, Mum. When we eventually reach wherever we’re going, my car (and every car) will be checked for bombs by security. Often, they will even make us get out and go through a metal detector and search our bags. Every.Where.I.Go. Can you imagine trying to accomplish a few simple errands? At my daughter’s pre-school, the gate drop off ordeal is a daily dance in security checks as our car is checked for explosives. There was a murder in our street last year and once a week or so we hear gun shots in the distance down the road at night - but other than that – it’s fine.  

Househelp – Certainly the greatest personal blessing to living in Africa is having someone in your home that helps your family with cooking and cleaning. You really should move here immediately. This is INCREDIBLE.  The majority of people in this country, expat and local alike, have househelp. One of the practical reasons is that the dust is so bad here, the floors need to be mopped daily. But I also love how having a househelper gives a woman a chance to come out of poverty in a dignified way by making a living and enabling her to put her children through school.  Our househelper is also my children’s honorary Grandmother and I would be lost without her. I actually mean that. That woman is a God send. Because we have no family here, Jane has become our family. She also helps if we need a babysitter one night or when I’m traveling for work.

Activities for kids – Our home is our haven. With no public parks or playgrounds, we’ve made our home a place our kids want to hang out at. We had a mini playground made by a local carpenter, bought a trampoline and have a small inflatable pool. We don’t own a TV as there is nothing to watch on TV here and so if Hope wants to watch Peppa Pig she watches it on the laptop for 40c by the guy who burns her a copy down the road. Organised classes like Toddler Rock or Baby Gym are unheard of but we did recently arrange for a local woman to put on a music class for our kids! My friend, Alicia, reminded me today that she was recently at a restaurant where a few play pieces of equipment were set up. Only to watch on in horror as the ‘playground’ fell to the ground almost crushing the children below. “Not to worry” she said, “the fear factor helps develop character”.

Grocery Shopping – Is a weekly challenge in patience and resilience. I go to four stores over two hours.  A supermarket for staple items (about the size of a large 7/11 or 4Square, a bread shop (options are sweet or salty otherwise), a meat shop and finally the local market for fruit and vegetables. There are hardly any fast food restaurants. No McDonalds etc…so most meals we cook and eat at home.

Healthcare
– is a challenge. Today I took my child to the doctors and it took us two hours from start to finish. I was the only patient. We have medical evacuation insurance. Enough said.  My kids are vaccinated with almost everything you could imagine because we go into slums and refugee camps. In order to keep our girls as healthy as possible we vaccinate at a place called ‘The Surgery’ where we have confidence in the cool supply chain. Before I moved here, I never thought twice about a so-called ‘cool supply chain’. You better believe I do now.





Stroller/Pram
– Going for a walk in this country with your stroller means taking the lives of yourself and your children into your hands. No sidewalks. No road rules. Just lots of stares from very confused people as to why you are pushing children in a “wheelbarrow”.

Buying Clothes - Two options. Firstly, the local markets. Sift through piles of clothing laid out on tarpaulins for approx USD$1-5 per item. OR go to the one store in the country where you can buy clothing, Mr Price, and pay $20-$60usd for a t-shirt.

  Buying Toys – Nearly impossible to get anything good quality other than $2 shop trinkets. Once I was so desperate for a Christmas present for Hope I bought her bubbles. They set me back a whopping $20USD. Learnt my lesson.

School – There are about five international schools in Uganda that expats usually send their children to. Fees are expensive (USD$6000-12,0000 per year, per child).

Playgroup – is once a week at my friend’s house. We play outside with the kids under her massive mango tree, enjoying whatever Pinterest perfection she’s baked in the kitchen. It’s hard to buy biscuits that taste ‘normal’.  The kids are a mixture of races and many of them are adopted. We talk about, traffic jams, power cuts, adoption, garage sales for expats that are leaving and what different work projects we’re working on.

Final thoughts
Because we’re raising our children in a third world country, we’re constantly surrounded by extreme poverty. I feel like that leaves us with no other option but to be deeply grateful for what we do have. As I look out my window each day I’m reminded of how lucky I am. The difference is crystal clear. But that constant mindset also leaves us equally concerned with the welfare of those around us. It is our hearts desire to raise girls that realise that the rest of the world does not look like New Zealand or America. Beautiful as those countries are, there are cultures and tribes and countries to explore, there are friends to meet and people to come alongside.  And living here enables us to do that for them.
And for us.
xo