Today I stood on the far edge of humanity and it was beyond what 90% of us in the world would think is possible let alone acceptable (inside or outside of war).
The reason I knew I was still within the realms of humanity was because of the beautiful people. The line for acceptable conditions for humans I had stepped over long before getting here to the Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp in Bentiu, Unity State and feel like I stepped over that line the day I arrived in South Sudan.
As Gabriel, my UNICEF national colleague, and I walked around the PoC camps today we encountered scene after scene of people living in conditions with serious threat to health, security and certainly happiness. Some people exhausted, others hungry, others eating, bathing, drinking and existing in the most unhygienic disease-riddled conditions possible. If it was just one family as I have seen in similar conditions in impoverished rural areas of the globe the weight if the experience is life-lasting but to see 70,000 people living in such conditions could be life-lasting for anyone just reading this.
But I am not here to give people a sob story or guilt trip because that does no favours to the fellow humans I am representing from today, instead just think of it as the reality for these people. I will get onto what we might be able to do about it later.
From PoC to PoC camp I walked with Gabriel wading through knee high muck that would be too flattering to call mud. I had been in the PoC each day this week but this was the first time since a big rain yesterday which had delayed my flight back to Juba by two days. The place that was beyond my previous experiences of extreme poverty in the previous days was now amplified to a place I’d never imagined.
The hardest moment came when Gabriel and I stood near the registration tent where people were waiting to get registered so they could then receive food rations, temporary shelter, immunisation and water. I saw people sitting in the middle of the mud barely knowing they were in mud because they were exhausted and starving. The babies and small children were too upset and deprived of energy to keep the flies off their faces. Their mothers clutched onto tiny strips of paper that had a scribbled number so they would enter into the system which was only just a tiny step beyond what they had now which looked like less than nothing. The volume of people made it obvious that not everyone would be registered today and many probably not tomorrow.
I’ve never felt more white and more hopeless in my life. The only thing separating me from any one of these people was my birthplace and there was little I could do immediately to all of my human sisters and brothers sitting in the mud.
These are people who did not choose to be in this situation like everyone else I’ve ever met living in extreme poverty. They are caught in an ongoing civil war on top of extreme poverty that existed before any conflict. They walked extremely long distances in the slim chance to get a little peace and survival. These are the people we should do anything for regardless of what country we are from, how poor we think we are or how critical we are of those we don’t know and maybe don’t want to understand.
So to move on to the rays of hope that I always try to find in any situation and that I am clinging onto now to make this experience not one of sadness and helplessness but one of resolve, learning and inspiration…
Here are the people, ideas, situations and cooperation that I have seen in the past few days that is making a difference and will hopefully win out overall in this situation:
- Every person entering the camps is offered a free cholera vaccine (including me) to keep cholera away during the rainy season as they did last year (but only half the number of people in the camp this time last year)
- We visited the new site for the entire camp which is drained, has latrines, shelters with basic wooden structure and sites set up for schools and clinics
- A local NGO I met and unfortunately one of very few local NGOs in South Sudan was hosting trainings and talks on child health, gender based violence, sanitation, etc
- Ingenuity, resourcefulness and resilience hit me in every corner – someone using parts of radios to connect to batteries, others selling what I think was bread when I didn’t see a single sack of flour anywhere and people ignoring the conditions around them as much as possible to be with friends, chat, share and laugh
- Enthusiastic, willing and dedicated trainers who were being trained to then train community volunteers
- Community volunteers committed to serve their community on a tiny volunteer salary of just over $2 a day (depending on the depreciation of the currency on that day)
- The entire group of trainers who offered me their tea and biscuits which is the major highlight of going to these trainings. This show of hospitality is well beyond anything we might do in the west (basically it would be like me giving all of my money to someone without even thinking even though I have no idea when the next time I will have money in my pocket or in their case food in their stomachs)
- Receiving raptures of applause and thanks after small speeches telling them that I would do what I can to represent them in my culture (western society) while travelling around the world as I know they are not in the position to do – I used to find this uncomfortable and patronising kind of playing the white saviour but I have now been in enough countries and with enough people that I and they know it is genuine, the reality and I am the expert in my community as I know I am not the expert in their community (hence this blog!)
- The smiles of people, unbelievable respect and restraint where I can’t believe they are not rolling the dice for their last chance to survive and not robbing me or others but also not even asking me for money when they know I have access to anything and everything in the world
- A major relief to my emotions was knowing I have $500 USD to give in the name of Bromsgrove International School Thailand for the Polio Points they have earned and have been matched by the school’s board of directors
- I talked with Gabriel my local colleague from UNICEF and he suggested it go into a drama group (they are common in South Sudan) which would then be used to create and perform dramas on polio eradication, sanitation, gender equality and more! this will motivate the youth in the camps and educate the community – wow eh…
So on this emotional roller-coaster ride of a day which I am thankful to have laid on the couch and got off my chest with this blog. I still believe there is more good than bad out there and humans are resilient, tough, collaborative and inspiring in essence. We just have to make sure we actively think, feel and act on the side of good for it to prevail.
If you do want to think, feel and act on the side of good here are a couple of tips:
- Get your school, office or any group of people together to start up Polio Points in your community – http://makingthepoint.org/
- To address these kind of humanitarian crisis funds can be given to the UN agencies (UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA, UNDP, FAO, IOM, WFP – find your favourite acronym and give), INGOs (MSF [Doctors Without Borders], Care, Save the Children, Mercy Relief, etc)
- Check out my concept of Teaspoons of Change – personal choices, decisions and actions that have a positive impact on people and the planet creating teaspoons of change and don’t just give to others but also have a positive impact in as much as you can with your daily choices, decisions and actions http://teaspoonsofchange.wordpress.com/ and facebook.com/teaspoonsofchange
- Get your fingers punching on the keyboard or phone and write or call your local MP to not cut foreign aid and check out RESULTS to help you do that: results.org/
- To make sure you are giving enough of your personal wealth and that it will be effective then check out an organisation who can do that legwork for you – Giving What We Can givingwhatwecan.org/
- Take on the ideals and benefits of simplicity and happy simple living and have a look at another one of my projects – Happy, simply – a sustainable lifestyle model and education project http://happysimply.wordpress.com
- And if advocacy and using your voice to help end extreme poverty floats your boat then always refer to the Global Poverty Project and Global Citizen http://www.globalcitizen.org
- If none of them do it for you then get in touch with a specific question or request and I know so many wonderful people with wonderful ideas doing wonderful things I can put you in touch with…