Here I go again! By the time you read this post, I'll be winging my way across 11 time zones from San Francisco to Portland to Amsterdam to Nairobi. Lest that sound exotic and fun, let me share the details:
After 28 hours in transit, my zombie-like self will, I hope, clear Kenyan immigration and customs before midnight and land at a local Mercy convent. Then it's back out to Jomo Kenyatta Airport early the next morning for the next leg of the trip to S. Sudan: a flight to Lodwar, in central Kenya.
Alas, the discovery of oil in northern Kenya has vastly complicated my travel to South Sudan: the airport at Loki, quite near the S.Sudan border, has been shut down (several years already!) for repairs and expansion. Lodwar is an undesirable alternate airport, located some 5 hours south of Loki, and thus necessitating a long road journey to the border, where I must stay overnight (think lovely motel "tukul") because it will be too late in the day to get cleared by the border control officers. The next morning the journey resumes northward, with long stopovers to obtain multiple official stamps in my passport from Kenyan and S.Sudanese immigration personnel. That done, we cross into S.Sudan and after another hour or two (providing the rivers are not impassable) arrive at our nearest project site, Narus.
Beam me up, Scottie!
But, you might ask, "Why not fly into Juba, the capital of S.Sudan, which is less than 150 miles from Narus?" Yes, that would be a better option, for sure (a mere 12 hour road trip) except for the fact that the road linking Juba to Narus is plagued by ruthless bandits murdering travelers every week. Often the road is simply shut down by the army as "too dangerous" for transit.
Photo from ryot.org
It shouldn't happen anywhere--young children being used by governments or rebel groups to fight their wars--but in South Sudan it's just one horror in a long list of horrors. In January the UN Mission in South Sudan issued a scathing report detailing widespread atrocities: "The scale, intensity and severity of human rights violations and abuses have increased with the continuation of the hostilities" and have pushed 4 million people to the brink of starvation. The report cites large-scale killings, attacks that single out children, and "an unprecedented level of sexual violence including gang rape and sex slavery." A particularly disturbing feature of the conflict, the report says, is the warring parties' total disregard for any safe havens including hospitals, religious institutions and areas such as UN enclosures where civilians fleeing the fighting have assembled.
The UN estimates that 13,000 - 15,000 child soldiers are now active in the escalating conflict.
The Presidential election in Haiti has been postponed several times since December due to political protests in Port-au-Prince that threaten to spread to the rest of the country.
Opposition groups denounce President Michel Martelly (whose term ends on Feb 7th) and accuse his party of corruption and vote-rigging. Demonstrators burn tires, overturn vehicles, block traffic and face down the riot police.
To date, the programs of Mercy Beyond Borders have not been directly affected,primarily because we operate in rural regions only. Photo from ibtimes.com
Here in Calif a 4-yr drought is making us more aware of how precious water is. We're cutting usage by 25% or more throughout the State. But still, whenever I turn on the tap, water flows. And whenever I want to take a shower, I do it. In Haiti, as in most developing countries, in-home plumbing remains a distant dream, Families spend hours every day hiking down (and back up) steep hills to bring water from streams at the bottom of the ravines. Here, MBB Scholar Venande collects rain water outside her mountain house. Precious indeed: collected with effort, stored with care, used sparingly, and never taken for granted.
Uninvited guests can be awkward, esp at holiday time. There aren't many belfries in South Sudan; perhaps that's why this bat decided to hang out inside one of the tukuls (mud and thatch huts) where staff at St Bakhita Girls School live. No windows for him to fly out, and the white curtain that covers the doorway provided netting in which to get entangled. Eventually it found the way out. Just another day in South Sudan!
Have you made a resolution to get off the couch and spend more time exercising in these post-holiday weeks, perhaps
aiming to work off a few pumpkin-pie-induced pounds?
The girls at St Bakhita commit to exercising, too. For
them, however, it’s never about shedding extra pounds. Rather, what weighs on them is stress. Many have lived through war, witnessed
(or experienced) violence, fled their villages multiple times for safety, known the pain of severe hunger, suffered the loss of family members,
And beneath all that trauma, they
bear the constant anxiety of never knowing when their relatives might show up to pull
them out of school for early marriage.
So, it’s no small thing that the 702 girls you support at St
Bakhita school can stretch and race and play and laugh. They can forget their
worries for a while. They can enjoy being children!
If you're looking for a contem-porary Madonna & Child, look no further. South Sudan has many. The women are beautiful, strong, resilient. They go about their daily work collecting firewood, hauling water, tilling farmland, making mud/thatch huts and cooking meals, usually with the youngest child strapped across their back -- the lucky ones get a dried gourd as umbrella against the tropical heat. No Magi here. No angels promising peace. Just the daily work of nurturing new life in a harsh environment. Just the joys and sorrows of being a mother. Just the most important job in the world. This Christmas we remember and honor all mothers around the world. Mercy Beyond Borders admires your hard work, your spirit, your tenderness, your endurance. Together we form the hopeful chorus for PEACE ON EARTH.
If you look very closely you will see a girl in the background pumping water and several others doing laundry....
But not these two! They're obviously focused on football (soccer) as the preferred way to spend a Saturday morning. Judging by the joy on their faces no one is going to take that ball away... And no one should.
We take PLAY for granted. We know it's essential and normal for all children. Yet in the villages of South Sudan girls have neither time nor opportunity to play. In fact, St Bakhita Girls' School is the only place in South Sudan where I've ever seen girls playing. Good for them! Literally.
In 2013 Valki Anderson (left) accompanied Sr Marilyn to Haiti as an interpreter. While there she met many of the MBB Scholars and took some pictures. Flash forward to today: Valki is back in Haiti, now as the full-time MBB Scholarships Coordinator. She recognized Francheline (right) and showed her the "ancient" picture of herself from two years ago. "Mon Dieu!" Francheline squirmed and squealed. "Did I reeeally look like thaaaat???"
You know from the news about the continuing chaos throughout South Sudan. You know about the violence, the displacements, the constant uncertainty as rival militaries battle to control land and resources.
What doesn't often get into the news is the importance of school in regions torn by upheaval. School is welcome place of normalcy for children. School is safe. School is fun. School is engaging, taking their young minds away from daily problems. St Bakhita is that haven of safety and learning for more girls than any other single place in South Sudan. THANK YOU for supporting our 702 girls in this oasis amid chaos.
Have you ever given thanks for colored pencils? This young girl at St Bakhita School is definitely grateful for them. Can you tell how engrossed she is in the experience of creating art? Perhaps she will be the world's next Gauguin or Picasso. Or better yet, she could become South Sudan's first world-renowned artist. Join me today in saying THANK YOU to all of you around the world who support Mercy Beyond Borders. You're working miracles, great and small. You're saving girls from early marriages, enabling them to pursue careers as educators and nurses and journalists and agronomists. And you're putting colored pencils into the hands of budding artists! A WONDERFUL, WARM, MEMORABLE & HAPPY THANKSGIVING to ALL of YOU from Mercy Beyond Borders!
MBB scholars at St Bakhita Secondary School stand amazed at having created light in their science class through the marvel of electricity. Most of us in the West take electricity for granted, but its presence is more than enough to elicit "oohs" and "ahhhs" from these girls who are now deciphering its mysteries through lessons in circuitry.
On a deeper level, it is these girls themselves who promise to be the light of their young nation. MBB is not seeing any "brain drain" among its Scholars. Quite the contrary: as soon as they finish their university studies, they get jobs within South Sudan, eager to serve despite the volatile and dangerous conditions that persist.
When a team of optometrists from Lions InSight came to Gros Morne, Haiti, with Mercy Beyond Borders this past April to conduct vision screenings for 1,000 children, most of the students who needed corrective lenses got them immediately, Several dozen others, however, needed specialized prescriptions not readily available. Their eyeglasses arrived at the end of the summer, just in time for the opening of school. Do you see what I see? A girl who won't get headaches every week from squinting. A girl who can both see the blackboard and enjoy reading books.A girl whose chances of doing well in school (and in life) have increased dramatically. Thank you, Lions InSight. Thank you, MBB.
What does it take to register women for health services in the most remote parts of South Sudan? An intrepid young nurse like Grace Layet, a graduate of Mercy Beyond Borders' scholarship program and now a practicing nurse in rural Kuron Peace Village.
Grace, sitting on the striped blanket, is enrolling women for the clinic's health outreach services. Of course, none of the women surrounding her was ever lucky enough to go to school. None of them knows how to hold a pencil, much less sign her name. Grace walks each one through the enrollment process and patiently answers their questions. She first learned their local language (Toposa) while she volunteered for a yearlong pre-nursing internship with MBB. Now she's a full-fledged RN, back at the same place, using her skills to improve maternal/child health. We salute you, Grace! By your commitment to work where the need is greatest, you epitomize the MBB spirit of "paying it forward."
If you were a 4-yr old girl learning to count at St Bakhita School in Narus, South Sudan, you wouldn't have much trouble visualizing "100." You'd just look around the room! That's how many pre-schoolers squeeze into each class. Counting to 100 would be as simple as ticking off the names of all your new friends.
Pity the teacher besieged by two hundred little hands wanting her attention? No, not really. These girls are eager to learn and happy to be in school. Sure, they're squirmy. And yes, their attention sometimes wanders. But certainly there is no place else they'd rather be!
The annual peanut harvest: it's a joyful community event. Students are excused from school; everyone from young to old pitches in to pick, dry, shuck and sack the bounty. There are no corner grocery stores in rural South Sudan, so for most families a good harvest of "groundnuts" (as they are called in Africa) means they will not starve during "the hungry months" each year.
Here we see a family in South Sudan with MBB Scholar in the foreground working together to transfer the nuts --well, actually, legumes -- to a sack for safe storage.
Do you remember your teen years? Lots of personal changes, academic stresses, worries about fitting in with your peers.... Our MBB scholars in Haiti are not immune to such things, and so the excitement of going out-of-town to the annual Leadership Week brings welcome relief. Besides learning new skills, the Scholars have time for making new friends while having good ol' fashioned let-down-your-hair fun.
No doubt about it: Manchu is a big hit wherever he goes in Haiti. He literally stole the show at MBB's annual Leadership Week in August. Haiti, of course, has plenty of dogs--but they are mostly street dogs or guard dogs, not really pets. Manchu's owner, Valki, is MBB's new Scholarship Coordinator in Haiti.
Look closely and you will see ragged sandbags ringing this dry riverbank--hundreds and hundreds of sandbags that are being washed away, month after month, by torrents of water that surge with each heavy rain. Why do we care? Because the sandbags exist to protect St Bakhita Girls School from the relentless erosion that threatens its campus. If we were millionaires we'd rebuild the school on safer ground so that the power of nature could no longer erode the power of nurture in this wonderful school community which is doing so much to further girls' education.... So, if you know any millionaires who care about girls' education, please send them my way: email@example.com. THANKS!
Outside of every classroom at St Bakhita Girls' Primary School in South Sudan you will find a strange rectangular hole, quite deep, cement-reinforced, and with rough steps leading down into the darkness. Bomb shelters, used often by the children and teachers during the long civil war that pitted North against South for decades. Bombs hit the school more than once, and one student lost her leg to shrapnel. Though no bombs have fallen in this part of South Sudan since independence in 2011, other dangers persist. Venomous snakes and large rats have discovered that the dark, dank spaces suit them just fine!
Ten Haitian women packed a small room in Gros Morne to share their dreams for MBB's newest project, a Women's Center scheduled to open there in early 2016. In this, the second of a series of focus groups, the women freely discussed their personal and community priorities for the types of programs they want the Center to host: Literacy. Skills development. Health screenings. Business opportunities. And most of all: JOBS.
Elisa, MBB Country Director in Haiti, was kept busy scribbling notes on the blackboard!
Who's the first person that comes to mind when you hear the word JAMAICA? Maybe it's the singer Bob Marley?
or maybe it's the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt?
I'll bet you're NOT thinking about me, the Director of Mercy Beyond Borders. But Jamaica is exactly where I am this week, enjoying the warm hospitality of the island while giving some workshops to school faculties for the opening of the academic year. Lucky me!
In South Sudan, where paper is hard to come by and colored pencils are rarer than a white rhino, the girls at St Bakhita School revel in the opportunity to draw and color and create. Their art lessons are funded by MBB's collaboration with ART IN EVERY CLASSROOM, a nonprofit in San Francisco. Look carefully: You just might be looking at the next Matisse or Picasso; or better yet, the first South Sudanese young woman to gain future fame for her masterpieces....
Many Haitian families in the mountains keep goats, chickens, and yes, mourning doves. This is the home of Rosi Claire in Pendu, about an hour's rough ride by moto (on the back of a motorcycle) beyond Gros Morne, along dirt trails and up and down steep ravines. The house sits atop a rocky incline. No running water or electricity or other amenities--but it can boast of a million dollar view of the surrounding countryside. Rosi Claire is happy to reside in our Scholar's Lodge in Gros Morne, since it would be nearly impossible to commute daily from this place to school. Still, her face lights up when she gets the chance to be back here for a weekend with her mother. There's simply no place like home.
What's the first thing you do in choir practice? Warm up with voice exercises, of course. What's the first thing you do in computer keyboarding class? Wiggle your fingers, of course!
MBB Scholar alumna Achemi Bakhita has been teaching daily computer classes to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders at St Bakhita Girls Primary School in South Sudan. The room is stiflingly hot, but the laptops are powered up and the girls eager to learn. Each class starts with finger-wiggling joy. Surely these are the nation's youngest computer students!
People who know that I travel back and forth to South Sudan will usually, eventually, circumspectly clear their throats and inquire, "What kind of, er, bathrooms are available?" Maybe this is just an American preoccupation, but toileting does seem to crop up in these conversations more than you might imagine. So, to save you the awkwardness of bringing it up in polite company, here's the skinny on loos in Narus, South Sudan. The standard outhouse toilets at the Narus guest compound are cement-floored, long-drop holes. Immaculately clean by day, but swarming with frightful spiders and roaches by night. (Plan your fluid intake accordingly.) For those who don't take to squatting, there is one stall containing a wooden toilet seat built over the hole, complete with wooden cover. Comfie, but there is that moment of dread when lifting the cover to check for "wildlife" beneath. Of course, if you are not at such a lovely guest house, anything goes in the elimination department. There you have it. Any questions?
MBB Scholar Isabel eyes her new best friend, Valki
MBB happily announces the addition of Valkyrie Anderson to our staff in Haiti. Next week, Valki will assume the position of MBB Scholarships Coordinator. (The staffer who previously held that position, Elisa Divoux, has been promoted to Country Coordinator.) Besides a winning smile and personal warmth, Valki brings a gift for languages (French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish--plus English), 4 yrs of teaching at the high school level, a knack for photography, and experience as a court-appointed advocate for children in foster care. Welcome to MBB!
Driverless cars are here! It's true: Google is test-driving its vehicles in the city of Mtn View, CA. Hundreds of them are navigating around the surface streets, quietly and smoothly negotiating traffic, pedestrians, obstacles, and intersections without so much as a hiccup or a lurch.
I love seeing them because it means we are one step closer to a world where the disabled can be more independent, where the elderly can "keep their license" even after vision or reflexes fail, and where the rest of us can get where we're going with less stress. It means eliminating the congestion and accidents caused by distracted or impaired drivers. It means being able to sit back and enjoy a good book (or a nap) while commuting. It means wheels without worries.
Google believes these cars will be commonplace in 5 years. Of course, such marvels are still worlds away for places like South Sudan (where there are only 50 miles of paved road in the entire country) and rural Haiti. But some day.....
For sure Elisa, MBB Country Director in Haiti, has her hands full juggling MBB's growing scholarship program, its two boarding houses, daily computer classes and math tutorials, and the annual leadership camp. Lots of work with inevitable headaches! But it's also true that Haiti is a charming Caribbean island full of life and wondrous things to see and enjoy. Here Elisa's hands are full of a seaside surprise: a transparent jellyfish she scooped out of the water during last summer's leadership camp.
I know, I know: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nevertheless, whenever I visit our MBB programs in Haiti, I love being able to decipher at least some of the Kreyol words. KWIZIN, of course, correlates with CUISINE which correlates with the KITCHEN in our Scholars' boarding lodge. Credit Elisa Divoux, MBB Country Director in Haiti, with the artistic sign! And credit our House Mother Cooks with the enticing aromas and delicious meals that emerge every day from the KWIZIN for our resident Scholars.
These days nearly everyone recognizes the importance of girls' education for lifting families out of extreme poverty. It's trendy to brag about building libraries and schools. But what about the lowly latrine?
Thousands of teen girls in places like HAITI and SOUTH SUDAN miss school for up to a week every month. Why? For lack of latrines to take care of their sanitary needs.
Mercy Beyond Borders has funded the construction of new toilet facilities at St Gabriel All-Girls School in Gros Morne, HAITI. Here you see the cement flooring, and below, the laborer whose days of shoveling in the hot sun dug out the pit beneath.
The women's hall in LangCok Military Encampment is ready now! And the women are ready, too! This is the place where the women want to study literacy and numeracy, but only when violence subsides long enough in S.Sudan for classes to resume. Inter-ethnic fighting continues to roil the country, making normal life impossible. Nearly half-a-million people have fled into neighboring countries since an attempted coup sparked the conflict in Dec 2013. One-third of the remaining population is at severe risk of starvation in 2015, according to the UN. The world grows weary of this war story, but MBB will not abandon the women!
Mercy Beyond Borders is expanding in Haiti! We've leased this 2-story building adjacent to one of our Scholars' Boarding Lodges and are starting the slow process of transforming it into the very first WOMEN's CENTER in the region. We know the women are excited--because they've told us! During the summer months our staff in Haiti will convene Focus Groups to hear from the women about prioritizing programs; we'll get their advice regarding scheduling and staffing. We're excited, too! We're aiming for a Grand Opening in early 2016.
The men in South Sudan are fighting. Always fighting. And where are their spouses and children? Often they accompany their husbands/fathers, moving from place to place. Here we see Sr Mary Mumu (center), under the watchful eye of armed soldiers, listening to a mom as she describes the women's plans to build (by hand) a hall where they can gather for Literacy Classes. Sr. Mary supervises our rural women's Literacy Classes in South Sudan. Most recently she has befriended the women at LangCok Military encampment in Lakes State. Life is not easy for these military families, but the women are determined to keep learning. MBB stands with them to make that possible.
Thirty-one sacks of peanuts! That's almost 7,000 lbs of crunchy protein....
Those 7,000 lbs represent a triumph for Christine, one of the women participating in Mercy Beyond Borders' micro-enterprise project in the village of Ikwotos, South Sudan. Coupling a modest loan from MBB with plenty of back-breaking farm labor, Christine vastly improved her harvest this year. She was also able to augment the work of her own hands by buying stock from other families fleeing the region's continuing instability. She now sells her peanuts (known as "groundnuts" in Africa) to local markets and schools. Christine demonstrates the resilience of women eager to work their way up from extreme poverty. MBB is proud to stand with her and all the other women in our micro-enterprise groups.
Everyone knows how important it is to nurture children in the habit of reading. That's hard to do in places like Haiti, where a significant portion of the population has never been to school. Books are scarce even for those lucky enough to be in school; students rarely get their hands on a book that isn't a textbook. Mercy Beyond Borders now has its own small (but growing) lending library in one of the Boarding Lodges for our Scholars in Gros Morne, Haiti. Most of the books are in French, the language of instruction at the high school level. Novels, biographies, adventure stories, romances (favorites!). The world is opening up for our Scholars through reading...
Welcome to summer in South Sudan! Next time you are traveling and tempted to complain (not that you ever would) about tedious lines at an overcrowded airport or a nasty pothole in your otherwise nicely paved highway or a roadside restroom that isn't, shall we say, quite up to your standards, consider the challenges of moving around in South Sudan during the annual 6 month rainy season, from April to September. Only the brave need apply.... And yes, our intrepid MBB staff continue to "make the rounds" visiting our micro-enterprise women's groups and our scholarship recipients in far-flung locales across the-country-that-has-no-functioning-infrastructure.
Oftentimes the tallest object in an African village is a termite mound. "Mound" is actually the polite way of saying "poop." Yes, termite who live under the ground excrete a substance that dries into somehing hard and concrete-like.
Year by year, the poop pushes higher into the sky, evidence of the zillions of unseen but active insects that live below. We humans are very very much in the minority on this planet.
Chikungunya! Say it aloud: CHICK-uhn-GUN-yuh. What is it? Quick quiz: a) It's the latest trendy dance craze.
b) It's a tasty creole dinner recipe
c) It's a nasty mosquito-borne illness
d) It's a newly-discovered Amazonian dialect
Pat yourself on the back if you answered "c". Chikungunya is a tropical disease transmitted by the daytime bite of a mosquito. Dubbed "break-bone disease" because of the joint pain it causes, it is similar to malaria. Its symptoms are usually more severe but less long-lasting. Chikungunya appeared for the first time ever in Haiti last year, apparently via mosquitoes carried in inadvertently by visitors. All the MBB staff in Haiti suffered from it for a few days before it mercifully ebbed.
This preschooler at St Gabriel All-Girls School in Gros Morne, Haiti, is now seeing clearly for the first time in her life. The gift of sight! Brought by a team of volunteer optometrists and technicians from Lions In Sight, California, in partnership with Mercy Beyond Borders. The team screened over 1,000 K-12th grade students in 2 days (in itself something of a miracle). The only disappointed kids were the ones who DIDN'T get glasses; apparently it was such a novelty that they ALL wanted a pair.
Wherever there's a scrap of shade in South Sudan, that's where you'll find children studying, doing their best to get some relief from the searing heat. No such thing as air conditioning, of course. Not even a cold drink (ever!). With their backs against the hot cement and their feet sticking out into the sunshine, these girls know how lucky they are to be among the 650 students at St Bakhita Primary--the only all-girls' primary school in the nation. MBB is proud to pay for their education.
You wake up before dawn in a mud hut. You trek hours for water that you carry on your head. You cut and haul firewood. You build the fire. You pound the maize. You cook for the family. You care for children and share with your neighbors. You dig (farm). If the rains come at the right time, you harvest. You bind thatch to build your house. You are treated by most men as "worth less than a cow." Yet you don't give up. You pray that the civil war will end some day. You dream about better things for your children. And all the while, you face life with a SMILE.
You, the strong women of South Sudan, amaze and inspire me!
Yes, it must be true: "Where there's a wheel, there's a way." (Who said that, anyway?) Surely we see evidence of it in rural Haiti, where folks fashion useful items out of bits and pieces left over from somewhere else, and where disabled persons fend creatively for themselves with determined ingenuity. Hats off to those who find a way even when life seems stacked against them.