Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dreaming of Kenya

I met beautiful, kind, caring, intelligent Millicent at the Tostan training in Senegal. An experienced nurse, midwife and hospital administrator, loving wife and mother of three grown-up children, she is fiercely devoted to serving her community.

When Millicent said she was from Kenya, my ears pricked up because it’s in this beautiful East African country where I want to work.

Millicent lives in Chogoria, 140 miles north-east of Nairobi, near Mount Kenya National Park, where she runs the vibrant Faraja Family Resource Center, with her dedicated husband, Josphat, to empower vulnerable children, adolescents, and women to play a more active role in improving health in their communities.

Millicent explains: “Many families in Chogoria struggle with poverty. Economic instability severely affects individual’s capacity to acquire information about their health and sanitation to make healthy choices.

“We provide health education, outreach medical clinics, agricultural training and critical mentoring to families to teach them the knowledge and skills they need to improve their lives.

Faraja provides basic health education on common illnesses such as malaria and HIV, family planning and hygiene through Mobile Health Clinics in remote rural areas of the Maara district. 

“We also provide food, clothing, school support and opportunities for play to orphans and vulnerable children.”

Many children in the region are orphans or live in vulnerable, unstable families. The Faraja Center provides nutritious meals, clothing and school materials.

Millicent says: “The school materials are especially important for HIV+ children to reduce the stigma and help them stay in school. We also offer a day care facility for children under five.

The Center has a spacious hall for children to play, with eight rooms, toilets, chairs and tables, books and toys and balls. There are also sewing machines for the women to gain sewing skills.

A Good Cause 

Millicent also teaches health to adolescent girls and supplies reusable menstrual pads through the US charity, For The Good Period.

Humanitarian worker, Kayce Anderson from Colorado founded the non-profit organization, with the support of Molly Secor-Turner and Sharon Secor, nursing educators from North Dakato, and adventurous travel photographer and writer, Kate Lapides.

These dynamic women raise funds to bring reproductive health education and sustainable, re-usable menstrual hygiene pads to girls in rural Kenya.

The 4TGP team makes regular visits to rural Kenya and, with Millicent providing education in the local language of Swahili, they distributed pads to thousands of girls.

A Vision of Empowerment

Millicent is already working hard to support her communities. But she wants to do more.

In fact Millicent and I, although we look as different as chalk and cheese, share a passion. We would love to introduce the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) into remote rural villages and empower women, men and children with knowledge about health and human rights.

We have a vision of bringing the grassroots program to villages, where knowledge of basis health care is lacking, and lack of knowledge is at the core of sickness and despair.

In West Africa, we witnessed how knowledge about health, human rights, child development, conflict resolution and good governance, shared in their own traditional languages, has empowered millions of people living in rural villages.

The Tostan approach requires teams of local people to be trained as facilitators in the Tostan’s CEP and teach the program over three years.

By the end of the training Millicent and I became firm friends and soul sisters, united in a grand vision, which we presented to the group.

I am travelling to Kenya in September to visit Millicent and her community and meet with the 4TGP team from America. How exciting!

The vision to bring empowerment to remote villages throughout Kenya and other East African countries might seem like an impossible dream.
But when I look at history, I see that all worthwhile achievements started with someone’s daring dream.
And when I look at nature I see that tiny seeds grow into mighty trees.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Training in Transformation

 When Molly made the profound statement “This is a movement for social change. We are building critical mass” a wave of exhilaration swept through me, from head to toe.

Being part of this transformative grassroots movement across Africa is the culmination of my life experience. My diverse career in journalism, my endless studies in psychology and my decades of devotion to raising children has steered me along a meandering track but now I’ve returned to my core values and quite possibly the work I was born to do.  

The prospect of living with the purpose of improving the quality of life for the poorest of the poor fills me with joy, love and empowerment. Ever since I was an idealistic university student in my early 20s, the struggle for human rights and social justice lit a fire in my belly. In my feisty youth I was enraged and pained by the unfairness of inequality, poverty, cruelty and suffering.

So here I am, sitting in a circle with a dream team of dedicated Tostan staff - Molly, Birima, Yussuf, Marmie, Daniel and our skilful translator, Cherif - and 20 other eager participants from around the world: America, England, Australia, Denmark, India, Morocco, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Swaziland, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. 

A Celebration of Diversity 

What a colourful mixture of cultures we are and yet we are united by a passion to make a difference.

We’ve all come to this large round room, styled on an African thatch-roofed hut, at the impressive training centre and accommodation based in Thies, the fourth largest city of Senegal in West Africa, two hour’s sultry drive from the bustling capital of Dakar to be trained in the Tostan method of community-led development.

“Tostan” in the local language of Wolof is an evocative word meaning “breakthrough”, the breaking of an egg, when the little chick emerges to start a new life. This unique program has been the catalyst for spreading transformation, indeed giving hope and new life to a multitude of resource-poor communities.

The dynamic organisation is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, bringing education about health and human rights to hundreds of remote villages throughout West Africa, transforming life for millions of women, men and children.

The fertile seeds of knowledge have miraculously sprouted life-enhancing projects in food production, clean water and sanitation, healthcare, schools, solar power and income-generating projects such as tie-dying fabric, soap making, poultry farming and the greatest achievement of all, ending the harmful practice of female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage of precious young girls. 

Tostan Founder and CEO, Molly Melching is a pioneer with the rare combination of strength and tough determination mixed with the softness of empathy and compassion that comes from years of witnessing gruelling hardship and brutal deprivation and misery.

An America raised in the conservative midwestern state of Illinois, Molly, as an adventurous 24 year old exchange student landed in Senegal in 1974 for a six month stint of studying African Literature at the University of Dakar. That was 42 years ago and she’s still living in her beloved Senegal, with a fierce devotion to the Senegalese people.

Devotion to A Cause

Her devotion to Senegal led Molly to master both fluent French and the traditional language of Wolof and immerse herself in the culture by living in impoverished villages and truly understanding the people and their needs and aspirations through a process of non-judgmental, respectful “deep listening”.

She came to understand that ignorance, or simply a dire lack of basic information, was at the root of so much unnecessary suffering. Without scientific explanations in their own language, villagers often attributed the cause of sickness, death and misfortunes to “bad spirits”.

She also realised that knowledge is the key to empowerment; specifically knowledge about health, anatomy, hygiene and germ-transmission, child development, human rights, problem solving, conflict resolution and good governance.

Through her many years of patient, compassionate listening to the locals’ heartfelt values, yearning aspirations and deep desire for community wellbeing, Molly developed a comprehensive (some 2000 pages) education program to be taught by local village facilitators in their own language spread over three years.

While other well-meaning charities, NGOs and government agencies have often swept into poor communities, identified needs and imposed solutions, which were doomed to fail, Molly’s radical approach was to empower villagers with essential knowledge and allow them to join the dots, make their own connections, experience the thrill of light bulb moments and discover for themselves their needs and solutions. And the approach worked!

Tostan’s transformative Community Empowerment Program (CEP) has been so successful, it’s attracted funding and support from UNICEF, UNFPA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the  Carter Center, Hillary Clinton, the London-based Orchid Project and hundreds of loyal donors. The program's been scrutinised by curious academics, monitored and evaluated and won numerous prestigious awards including the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for "extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering." 

Rocket Launcher for Social Change  

Once we human beings know profound truth, we can’t ‘unknow’ it and knowledge becomes the rocket launcher for unstoppable social change. With Tostan’s guidance, village participants organised themselves into Community Management Committees (CMC) with enthusiastic elected representatives (over half of whom are women) meeting regularly to discuss problems and initiate creative projects. Village reps also began gathering at monthly regional meetings that have now become a political force.

During our training CMC members joined our circle to share their experiences. The women, resplendent in their beautiful African dresses and headscarves, were once shy and silent and now travel by horse and cart from village to village as dynamic awareness-raising activists and respected leaders in their communities.  We were also honoured to listen to a respected Imam explain how FGC is not condoned by the Muslim faith.

We were delighted to visit two villages in the district that have been working with Tostan for several years: the Village of Keur Simbara and Keur Thiem Saware.

I will never forget the warm, jubilant welcome as beautiful women and men in their colourful clothes and laughing children lined our path and clapped, drummed, danced and sung as we arrived to join their gathering to hear proud reports of their amazing projects and watch touching performances about all they have learned about human rights.

Our 10-day training course was enriched with singing, dancing, theatre and animated discussions and full-on participation in the same practical, hands-on ways villagers learn new information and skills. 

For someone like me who usually sits in a workshop passively listening to the instructor and scribbling notes, I was gently pushed out of my comfort zone to brainstorm and perform on the spot but what a powerful way to learn! I've absorbed the knowledge deeply into my whole being, anchored by positive memories.

In between sessions we enjoyed scrumptious traditional meals served by elegant Senegalese ladies in the cool, spacious dining room where the effusive conversation bubbled over the spicy dishes as we shared stories and ideas! 

A Plan of Action

On the final day we all presented our action plans to the group. I teamed up with lovely Millicent, an experienced nurse and midwife from Kenya, and together we created a vision for bringing the Tostan Empowerment Program to the remote rural communities where she lives. I will be writing much more about this exciting project over the coming months. Stay tuned!

In the Gratitude Circle the hugs of affection between everyone were genuine and heartfelt and tears of love and appreciation flowed freely.

Pure Joy 

By the time the farewell dinner celebration came around, we had all bonded and become good friends. Wearing our colourful African boubous and khaftans, each of us in turn danced across the hall with sheer exuberance and elation to music from our country of birth to receive certificates from Molly and Birima. Young Daniel and I busted some very unusual moves for Australia!

And then we exchanged gifts with our “long-lost brothers and sisters” from different countries, extending the hands of friendship and solidarity across the world. 
My new sister Nomcebo presented me with a stunning traditional shawl from Swaziland and I gave here a pretty floral plate and chocolates from the little English village of Tenterden! 

An Inspiring Mentor

And spontaneously, as a fitting finale, our impromptu ‘African Women’s Choir’ sang a rousing verse of You Raise Me Up to Molly Melching, a fearless champion of social change, who has become our inspiring hero, empowering us all to take the transformative Tostan program and principles of human rights to poor communities everywhere.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

This is the beginning

I’m going on a journey into the unknown and I want you to join me as I face challenges and miracles.

I’m not climbing Kilimanjaro or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. My journey is not as physically gruelling as those heroic feats. Mine is a journey of the mind and heart; a journey with a goal, not for personal achievement, but to make a contribution to others.   

I am documenting my journey in this blog called Humanity Matters. Throughout my career as a journalist I’ve written about what matters; Family Matters, Relationship Matters, Health Matters, Travel Matters, Midlife Matters. And all these subjects really did matter at different stages of my life.

However as I approach 60, I’ve arrived at a vantage point where one subject concerns me deeply and urgently: the suffering of humanity. I am gripped by a passionate desire to work to reduce suffering and increase joy.

I want to live a life of purpose and meaning and I want to Make a Difference - a positive one – to the lives of others. When this desire took hold five years ago, I lacked focus. I did some volunteer work in Ghana in 2012. My efforts were well intentioned but generalised and undirected. There are so many worthy causes and charities to work for, I wanted to embrace them all.

Then two years later I started asking myself the question, ‘If I could pick one worthy cause to champion, what would it be?’ And ‘Bingo’ I got the answer.    

I’ve long been horrified by the shocking human rights violation, the vicious crime against the innocent, the ultimate form of child abuse – the deliberate maiming of millions of little girls through the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

I researched and wrote about the subject for over two years to understand the complex issues and to discover the most effective way to put an end to an entrenched custom that dates back 2000 years that condemns little girls to an unimaginable trauma and a lifetime of pain and suffering.

Can you imagine 8000 girls a day, that’s three million girls a year, are subjected to FGM around the world. Tragically 30 million girls in the next 10 years will be maimed if we do not stop this crime. Already 200 million women are living with the horrendous health consequences of being cut as a child.

That’s when I discovered the work of pioneering American educator Molly Melching, who while living in Senegal for many years developed an innovative program of empowerment for girls and women.
Her work, through the charity Tostan, is so successful; I want to join her team to introduce the life-changing program across Africa. 

“Tostan” is a Wolof word meaning the hatching of an egg, the precise moment the chick emerges from the shell. The evocative word expresses the essence of ‘break through’ and ‘new life’.

And I am inspired. I want to stop FGM – not just from a safe distance – but on the ground – in the country where a rusty razor blade is used on tender flesh on a daily basis.

And so I am setting off on a journey next week – a slightly courageous one - to Senegal in West Africa to be trained in Molly’s method with the big dream of taking the Tostan program to remote villages throughout East Africa.

This is a heavy, disturbing issue and it would be easy to feel outraged with anger and bitterness that fuel a fire in the belly against this child abuse and the old women who inflict it, the mothers who allow it and the patriarchal social system that demands that ‘brides be clean’.

However I would rather be motivated by conviction; to be inspired by what I stand for, which promotes value (while anger devalues). And what I stand for is empowering women in Africa; human rights and social justice; protecting children; humanitarian work and compassion and kindness.

Do you stand for these values? Will you join me on my journey of discovery and read my posts because Humanity Matters; it really does.