quietly changing the world.

Not long ago I caught up with a colleague of mine who heads up the work in Nassarawa, Kaduna (Nigeria). I first met Nentawe in 2007, I think, he may have been part of the first Foundations course we ran in June or the training I did with the team in August of that year. At any rate, from the time Dave and Jo Ireson relocated to Kaduna to establish the work in October 2007, Nentawe was part of the core team they were working with.

He is a quiet, respectful, unassuming man in his late 20s with a love for his people and a dream for his country. Well before I met him, he had become active in a number of youth forums and had already earned at least one scholarship to travel to the UK, representing his country. By 2008 doors were open for him to earn a reasonable living which would enable him to support his younger siblings, as is expected in the culture there. But it was during that year that he chose two things, firstly to stay with the community in which he grew up, Nassarawa, one of the poorest suburbs in that part of the country, and secondly to serve his community as a full time member of the Fusion team with no salary.

More than three years later Nentawe is still there with a small team of volunteers, and they are busy as ever. Running a Kids Club in the community each week for the last three years has helped build trust and credibility in the community with parents, community leaders and schools. Each year they run a primary school soccer tournament, advent pageants and other events which bring the community together. The team from Ghana, led by Francis, makes the two day road trip to join Nentawe and his team for the tournament. But a new thing seems to have emerged over the last 18 months or so.

At points of crisis, where the community would ordinarily look to local government services that often fall short of delivering what’s needed, both the community and church leaders come knocking on Nentawe’s door. Earlier this year an epidemic of cholera swept through Nessarawa taking the lives of many, at least one of Nentawe’s close family was lost to the disease. But it was Nentawe and the team that the community leaders and churches looked to in order to facilitate a way forward in dealing with the outbreak and preventing a recurrence. Within a few weeks the national elections were held and violence broke out both in the lead up and afterwards. I was in South Africa at the time receiving emails sent out by Nentawe, together the team there and I joined many across the world and prayed for safety for Nentawe and an end to the violence. But once again it was Nentawe and the team that the leaders approached seeking help in the aftermath of the violence and further loss of life in community.

When called upon at these times, Nentawe often feels inadequate, mostly he feels as if he doesn’t have the answers. Usually what he does is bring the leaders and stakeholders together and facilitate a discussion from which a strategy for a way forward emerges; sounds pretty all right to me! Some times he can assist with navigating government departments or editing letters to officials, but mostly he just turns up for work and does what’s needed as best he can. And so Nentawe’s faithfulness to his God and his people has meant that hope and life has come to his community; on $50 a month, barely enough to support one person, he supports himself and his volunteers and keeps taking each day as it comes. He has become one of my heroes.


(you’ll find Nentawe Gomiyar on Facebook, linkedin, youthpolicy.org and even on U-tube, posted by ‘trust entente’)


Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan (part four)

I haven’t said much about what we were all doing yet! We were a team of about six, medics and logisticians. The project was focussed on training primary health care workers, midwives, hygiene promoters as well as providing primary health care and treatment for a terrible disease called Kala-azar (visceral leishmeniasis) which had a 95% mortality rate without treatment. We also dug latrines and distributed mosquito nets as well as targeted trachoma prevention in our work with the hygiene promoters. In case this makes me sound like some kind of hero, my job was very much coordinating and facilitating rather than doing!


The relationship with the rebel army and the King of Shilluk were both very key to the success of our work. The King sent me (for the team) a prize young bull, I gave him a pen…! We didn’t look after the bull very well and in the end it served us for an end of year feast for all our primary health care workers and team!


Every 4 to 6 weeks I would head off to Kenya for R&R, we were given one day for every week we were in the field. I found the beautiful Woburn Residence Club in Malindi on the coast of Kenya. It is still run by an Ely and Franco who trained their chef in Italian cookery. It so happens that most of the times I went there, I was one of a hand full of guests so I often got ‘taylor made’ meals from the chef. I loved being there, it was always refreshing and resting, Ely and Franco have a real gift in hospitality and welcomed me into their lives.

If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it! http://www.woburnresidencemalindi.com


In the end, the harsh climate and stress from the potential insecurity in the area took its toll on my body and although my contract was for a year and Tearfund were hatching plans for even more work for me down the line, I had to leave. I spent a month in Nairobi seeing doctors, having treatment and running tests, but I didn’t improve and it was decided that I needed to come home. To be in the field in Sudan one had to be fit enough to go on the run in the bush for 24 hours at least, and I was no where near that! It eventually emerged that the giardia, UTI’s, chronic tonsillitis and dehydration had left their mark and I was left with chronic fatigue. I was off sick for a year in which I wrote the book “letters to Kate”, but that’s another story for another time…




Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan (part three)

During the rains it was a different story. We had black cotton soil in the area which meant that with the first rains great chasms formed spontaneously in the ground making walking at dusk or dawn treacherous. It also meant that fox holes were not a suitable safety measure in the event of a bomb raid! So we set about building a bomb shelter from WHO food bags filled with earth. It looked magnificent, until a few weeks after the temperatures began to climb when I realised that the sun was melting the sacks!!!


The black cotton soil had other implications for our safety. Each morning and evening we had to radio back into Loki to give a security update, part of this was an update on the weather and the condition of the airstrip. (Back in Loki, there would be daily briefings for all coordinators giving an overview of what was happening in the field.) As a general rule the twin otters were the only air craft trusted to land in our area unless it was the midst of the dry season when the strip was solid. Sometimes in the rainy season planes would only land in an emergency, which could mean no contact with the outside world (apart from radio contact) for a week or two. It was always a highlight when they came, sometimes it would be team they brought but most often it was supplies, mail parcels, a newspaper, and a brief but friendly chat with news from the rest of the area. The planes were flown by MAF and the UN.  There was a sizable fleet of planes involved in the work in Sudan. The Herculeses aircraft used for food drops, twin otters and caravans for routine and emergency team movements, Buffalo used for transport of heavy goods – we had our Toyota 4×4 delivered in one of these.


Communicating with people back home was a slow process, emails and letters were collected in Nairobi, flown in a mail parcel to Loki and then on to the field, just this process could take up to 14 days in the rainy season… and then back again! I remember my birthday though, despite the delays, the timing was perfect and all my mail arrived the day before, it was a very special thing to sit and open up cards and letters from loved ones, feeling so far away and yet deeply connected. So I celebrated my thirtieth birthday not with a big party in Oxford as I had been planning earlier in the year, but in a mud hut in the south of Sudan!


To be continued in a few days….

Life in a War Zone – Southern Sudan (part two)

Our camp was in the Shilluk Kingdom, a region unique in Sudan for having a kind of peace treaty with the warring parties. Having said that there were a couple of times when, standing in our camp, we heard shelling from barges coming down the White Nile about 2Km away from us, the range of the shells was just 1Km thank fully. Thanks to the peace in the area I never witnessed an antonov attack or helicopter gun ships coming in. The antonovs would fly high and circle over a given area then beer barrels of explosives and metal scraps would be kicked out of the back to fall indiscriminately causing devastating harm. In the areas frequently subject to these attacks the first sign of the coming bombs would be the children and animals running for cover – they would be the first to hear the high pitched aircraft engines. I am so grateful that this wasn’t part of my experience, a month after I left however, our security level deteriorated and the team was evacuated by the Sierras.


The camp was simple, made up of ‘mud huts’ – wooden frames with wattle and daub walls and thatch roofs, a mixture of round and rectangular ones. A small round hut was my “room” to start off with, until I was welcomed by a snake in the doorway, devouring a mouse that it had found in my roof. I requested a tent be flown in from Loki, which though stifling in the soaring afternoon temperatures, was snake free due to the rubber ground covering and the absence of mice! Each hut and my tent was supplied with an electric light powered by two solar panels, we were able to run a fan and two computers in the “office”. We even had a fridge that was powered by kerosene.


By December temperatures had risen to the mid forties and were steadily climbing. In the mid day sun chickens would take shelter in the shade of the low reaching thatched roofs, wings spread out and beaks open, panting to keep cool. The silence at that time of day was stunning, not even the insects were able to move in the heat. A few weeks after I left temperatures were to reach 50 degrees C.


To be continued in a few days….


Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan


I was so impacted by my two trips to Mozambique in 2000 that I set about exploring ways in which I could be more involved with aid work overseas. My search ended up with me being accepted onto Tearfund’s Disaster Response Register (now called Disaster Management Team if I recall rightly). And within a month or two I was asked to consider a placement in South Sudan as the team leader for one of their four projects in the war torn and drought ravaged country. Following a series of orientation days, training weekends and various other meetings and preparations (including writing my will and signing my agreement to the policy that no ransom would be paid in the event of my being taken as a hostage) I found my self heading to East Africa in June 2002.


The first stop on the way to Sudan was always Nairobi where the regional headquarters for Tearfund was located. I didn’t really enjoy city life so I spent as little time there as I could! Next stop was Lokichoggio in the north of Kenya, at the edge of the town was the NGO camp which had developed into its own little community. Many NGO’s providing aid and relief to South Sudan had their operational base in the camp, there was designated office space and staff accommodation, buffet restaurants and every thing you need for the surreal life of an aid worker!


One of the features of life in Loki was the Sierras, a unique group of good looking ex military personnel with an overdose of testosterone. Taking their name from their call sign in the NATO phonetic alphabet, they were the security team responsible for our safety in the field, and when needs must they would search and rescue teams who had had to evacuate their camps. Before heading out to the field I had two or three days training with them learning how to survive in the Sudanese bush, on the run from warring factions and what to do if I was taken hostage. Nice welcome!


The camp that would be my home for the next 6 months was on the edge of a dirt air strip. Next to us was the Vets Sin Frontier camp and further down at the other end of the strip was the rebel army’s camp who held the area, just opposite them was the water pump that the camps and surrounding community used. I enjoyed walking out onto the airstrip at the end of a long, hot day and watching the people walk up from the pump with water jars balanced on their heads, silhouetted by the setting sun that cast long, long shadows in front of them. The downside to this idyllic African scene was that our only drinking water was from this pump which happened to be salty to the taste – I never got used to it and so was chronically dehydrated!


To be continued in a few days time…


(check out Tearfund’s website: http://www.tearfund.org)

Mozambique part two

Some memories stand out pretty sharply from my time in Mozambique. One is of the time I was leading the team and was brought to see a pregnant woman who was in some kind of distress. I really felt powerless in that situation and wished I had specialised in obstetrics instead of peads! I thought the best thing to do was to bring her back to the orphanage where we could get her more help. As it turned out there wasn’t anything else we could do for her, so she had a good rest at the orphanage for a few days and then we had to get her back to her village. Its amazing how similar all the little villages look from a helicopter!! Especially when the pilots stop at several each day and don’t return to the same one again for a week or so, except to pick a medical team. it took a long hour or two and one refuelling stop to return her. So in fuel alone that trip cost around $2000. Everyone was really nice, the pilots were great about it all, but I still beat myself up when I remember that story!


Another adventure we had was when i headed off to a community with another doctor and a nurse. Because this one was further away, we planned to stay for a couple of nights, so we could have two full day of clinics. This community was right on the coast, in fact we stayed in what remained of a holiday resort. Each day since the floods had receded, they had watched a couple of feet of the coast line disappear into the sea, they lost many of their buildings in the process. I recall driving along a track that had flood debris left in the trees 10 feet above ground level, this area had had it bad.


We actually ended up staying a couple of extra nights because we had been left off the flight schedule for the helicopters and then the next day they ran out of day light flying hours! In the end Roland Baker flew his own light aircraft to come and get us, it was the first time he had been able to since the floods because airstrips were all damaged. Meanwhile we had a fun couple of days quad biking on the sand dunes, and watching the local soccer tournament (we had run out of medical supplies and so couldn’t run any more clinics)! I recall taking off in Roland’s aircraft, it was dark by the time we left so a couple of the resort staff had to station the quad bikes strategically with the lights on to mark the end of the run way!!! We also didn’t have enough seats in the plan and one of us had to sit in the back on the floor…. Hmmmm!


Mozambique was also the first place I had come face to face with the arrogance that bred and was bred by apartheid. I recall sitting in a truck with a certain gentleman from South Africa and my stomach turning as I listened to him reduce this massive natural disaster to a matter of just deserts due to inferiority of race. I had no idea that I was later to discover the treasure of knowing countless heroes when I would one day live for a time in South Africa, a beautiful land with many deep, sacred wounds.


You may recall in early 2000, Mozambique was devastated by floods. The combination of rains, released dams in neighbouring countries and a small scale tsunami wreaked havoc on the coastal lands of the country. I was part time Assistant Editor for Soul Survivor magazine at the time, living in Oxford, and doing regular locums in paediatric departments across the midlands. A friend from church called me one day and said they were looking for medics to go and help with the crisis in Mozambique, this was just a few days after the floods had hit. I couldn’t think of a reason not to go and I was glad to be able to lend a hand. So about 10 days later we were both on a flight to Mozambique – we scored “cost” fares from TAP airways as we were doing volunteer aid work.
I recall, as the plane was making its decent into Maputo, realising with a certain degree of amazement that I was returning to Africa! For years I had said I had no interest or desire to visit the place, I told myself that my time in Morocco had been enough. The negative attitudes and associations I felt with Africa from growing up there were strong and I didn’t want to give it the time of day! Yet here I was about to spend two weeks in Africa as part of the international effort to help the flood victims of Mozambique. It had all happened so fast from Michelle’s phone call, fund raising, getting all our travel gear together, immunisations, finding flights… I remember smiling to myself as I realised that God had done a fast one on me! in all the preparations it had never occurred to me that I was going to Africa, all I knew was that it was right to go and lend a hand!

SO here I was, in Maputo the capital of Mozambique, it was March 2000.  We were based at Iris Ministries, an orphanage run by Heidi and Roland Baker. A handful of others had travelled in to lend a hand, some medics, others just willing to do whatever was needed. There was plenty to be done and the regular staff were stretched beyond reckoning already. The orphanage itself held at least 100 kids, if not 200, of all ages, some with aids, others with learning and physical disabilities. It was a full time job caring for them all medically, but in addition we ran a clinic for the neighbouring communities as well. I wasn’t involved with much of this stuff, not until my next trip later in the year, but that’s jumping ahead!

Each day the medics (docs, nurses and assistants) would split into two or three teams depending on how many of us there were. Each team would head out early in the morning with one of the helicopters delivering WHO food supplies to the stranded communities. The helicopters were all military craft and operated, from a range of different countries joining in the relief effort. We would stay for the day in the community, tending to their sick, teaching them how to purify their water and prevent diseases spreading in the current conditions, then in the late afternoon while it was still light, the helicopter would return and collect us.

To be continued….