Chapter 9: Liberia – my final thoughts

I feel quite sad this is my last post from my journey through Liberia. I am being asked whether what I have seen, or the challenges I have come across have changed the way I see and do things? simple answer? Yes, they have. 

Above anything else, I have realised how important it is to appreciate what is around you and not take everything for granted. I don’t feel guilty that I have hot and cold running (clean) water, nor that I have light at the flick of a switch. It isn’t my fault that I have been born into a western civilisation, however, seeing poverty, suffering and anguish first hand has made me less likely to complain and more likely to acknowledge the good things that life throws at us. I am probably more inclined to find my moment and #LiveIt

I am now more aware that people in countries such as Liberia are not “basket cases” as someone was over heard describing all African countries, but that they are strong, resilient, hospitable, friendly and determined to succeed. Their main problem is that they are living in a country, which, over time and through civil war, has been mismanaged. They need education and guidance to help them become self sufficient and prosperous.

I hope my blog posts over these past two weeks have shown the importance of Oxfam’s work, how they choose communities to help, how the projects work and what the underlining positive outcome of all the projects  - if you lift one life, you are lifting whole communities.

Liberia…my journey.

Chapter 1: Oxfam offers a glimmer of hope

 

Chapter 2:  Journey through the country

Chapter 3: Oxfam’s Livelihood Programme

Chapter 4: Living like a local

Chapter 5: How do you choose who to help?

Chapter 6: Saving for change

Chapter 7: Virtuous Women

Chapter 8: The importance of Water, Health & Sanitation

Oxfam rely on donations to support their incredible work. It really is the case of lift one life and you will lift whole communities.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

Chapter 8: Liberia – The Importance of Water, Health & Sanitation

One of the many things we take for granted in the Western world is our use of a common tap, or a faucet, as they call it in the USA. Such a simple device and often overlooked. I can’t remember the last time I turned the tap on and thought – is this water safe to drink? Such questions are ones that we never have to address. To live in a country where questioning water quality is a continuous task, is something that was very new to me.

Living in the twenty first century, you make the assumption that everyone has access to clean drinking water, that everyone has access to hygenic toilets. But honestly, that just isn’t the case. In Liberia today 60% of the population have access to “improved” water, 18% have access to improved sewage sanitation and 5% have access to flushing toilets. A large proportion of the people, mainly in the urban slum areas, are defecating in openly in the streets or directly into the rivers – which also act as a water supply for washing and cleaning clothes. There is nothing pretty about faeces, especially when it is human waste. Seeing it – and on several occassions – standing in it, is really not pleasant at all. Not only is it unhygienic and poses increased health risks, but it is also humiliating for the people and offers them no sense of dignity. Especially for women. As a woman, I know how uncomfortable it can be on a monthly basis, so having no clean, safe and private area to use the toilet must be so degrading and distressing.

The WASH (Water, Sanitation and Health) is a major project, so big that Oxfam must work in a consortium with five other agencies to actually tackle this enormous problem. Oxfam is the lead agency within the consortium and reports directly to donors and fellow partners. A key benefit of working with other agencies is that you can share learning, technical and design development and use the strengths within each partner. The programme is monitored and results evaluated, with results being shared with the Government. Some examples of issues currently being worked on are hygiene promotion in rural areas, issues with hand drilling for water, issues with gender and disability, looking at how to scale up the project and roll out to everyone, household and public latrines. The issues are massive – education is key, as well as funding to support building of new latrines and water distribution centres.

We looked at four areas: water pumps, water distribution centres,  pubilc latrines and household latrines

The Oxfam-funded water distribution centres have been set up in slum communities. These centres are locked and gated facilities with large water towers, and open daily from about 7am-10pm. The centres are not connected to a mains water supply – such a thing doesn’t exist in Liberia – but are fueled by a diesel generator that pumps water directly from a drilled bore hole in the ground. These machine dug holes are about 40metres deep, which provide “clean enough” drinking water. Every morning, women queue at the water distribution centres and fill their 10 galloon water butts for 5LB$, which is about 5 US cents – and about 3p in sterling. Apart from having to get up every morning to go and get water, these women amazed me with their grace, strength and agility to carry such weights on their head!

Oxfam’s role in a project like this was to build the water distribution centre and educate the community on how to form an elected Water Board who would be responsible for recruiting a water distribution manager, and responsible for the cleaning, maintance and purchasing of the diesel required to fuel the centre.

In smaller communties, Oxfam has built a number of public wells offering free water. These pumps get water directly from the ground, again about 40 metres deep, and give the local families free access to “clean enough” water. Each hand pump serves about 50 houses, but each house can home up to three families. The pumps are always open.

When it comes to the issue of water, much of the hardware is in place. What is important now is the delivery of education regarding basic hygiene, to prevent against diseases. Before the intervention of Oxfam and the WASH consortium only about 25% of the population had access to drinking water, it is around 60% now.

Toilets. Ah, Liberian Toilets! Well, as I discussed in my previous blog, out in rural communities the toilets are dug straight into the ground with two boards either side for you to squat. I didn’t really have a problem with this because I have used this system in Sweden. I lived in Stockholm for 8 years, and we often visited friend’s summer cottages, which were located in rural areas. One of these had such a toilet. I remember being heavily pregnant at the time so I found it very uncomfortable to use!

In slum areas around 80% of people are open defecating as there are no sewage systems in place. It literally is a case of pooing in a plastic bag and throwing it away “Mind Your Business” shouted as the plastic bags are thrown through the air. We saw some public “toilets” which were rickety structures on the river side. The human waste goes straight into the river. Awful during the day, would be frightening at night – don’t forget there is no electricity in the slum areas so NO light at all. These toilets are especially dangerous to young women, as violent crime against women is sadly all too common.

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Oxfam has funded public toilet blocks in some slum communities. Again, as with the water distribution centres, Oxfam has educated and trained the staff to run the public toilets as effectively as possible. The government too has installed County Council toilet blocks, which is a positive thing. The problem arising is that it costs 10 LB$ per person (half price for children) so often families can’t afford to use the facilities. We saw several sites where human waste was literally infront of the public toilet blocks.

We did see something positive though. We went to the equivalent of the Blind Association. These toilet blocks have been specifically designed so that blind people using their stick can guide themselves to the toilet.

The final project we looked at was my favourite. The last day of our remarkable journey through Liberia – was the hardest for me. The stories of the slum communities where desparately upsetting. The stories from women how difficult and degrading it is to use horrible riverside “toilets” – especially during their menstral cycle or when pregnant, or the fears they face when needing the toilet during the night. I found it very difficult to see hope in all the suffering…

But then I found the Tiger Worm….

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It is my resounding positive memory of Liberia. These wriggly little earthworms, which we dug up from the soil, maybe the answer to many people’s prayers. A new eco-toilet has been designed which is remarkably simple and inexpensive to build. These lovely little worms – 2 kilos of them – are put in the toilet system and live there happily consuming the human waste. To make this system even more exciting, the worms produce their own faeces which can be collected and used as a fertiliser!! It is an amazing, yet quite simple thing. We met with the Monrovian County Council who have promised to roll out more of these Tiger Worm toilets based on the results and findings of the Oxfam project.

Meet Diamond – a beautiful Liberian lady who has one of the Oxfam pilot Tiger Worm toilets in her home…. She is proud and extremly happy, and has noticed a big difference in the health of her children. Not only has she a Tiger Worm toilet, but she was educated on the basic hygiene message of WASH YOUR HANDS!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my own children since arriving home from Liberia – Have you washed your hands??!!!!

Oxfam rely on donations to support their incredible work. It really is the case of lift one life and you will lift whole communities.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

 

Chapter 7 – Liberia: Virtuous Women

When I told friends and family I was going to Liberia, a few people had already heard of the Virtuous Women project. I was quite enthusiastic about meeting these ladies as they are seamstresses and craft makers – right up my street….

The original co-operative started in 2008 when they were awarded a contract to sew uniforms for schools in Monrovia. With the support of Oxfam, the ladies have had training in needlecraft and business management, have elected their own board and have now opened their own retail shop in downtown Monrovia. Nelly Cooper, the chairlady, is an enthusiastic leader and cares greatly about the women in her community. The women have been trained in tailoring and weaving using traditional looms, and so far, the Virtuous Women project has trained over 130 women. This project has now ended and the funding has stopped. It was interesting for us to see just what positive impacts such an Oxfam project has had on the lives of so many women.

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Unfortuately the original building given to them by the ADED agency is in an unsuitable location, not near the homes of any of the ladies. Due to the lack of public transport, the ladies had use of an old school bus, but since this broke down 5 months ago, the women are finding it increasingly difficult to commute to the factory. So sadly, this spacious and airy room, full of old pedal sewing machines [#sigh] stands empty! Finding the funds to open up in Monrovia is the problem today, it is just too expensive for them.

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Athough the original project based out of the factory is currently on “hold” until a new central Monrovia location is found, there are some amazing success stories that I want to share with you…

Meet Gertrude, started off as an apprentice in 2008 and trained as a seamstress. Not only does she now make all her own clothes, but she has set up her own shop and trains young women herself. Gertrude’s shop “Gertrude’s Business Centre” now employs 4 ladies, making everything from school uniforms to wedding dresses. What inspires me so much about Gertrude is that she is from the slum areas of Monrovia. She found girls who were sitting around not doing anything and asked them if they wanted to learn a skill. I greatly admire Gertrude. Coming from very little herself, with the training and guidance from Oxfam, she is now a business women and making a profit – feeding her family and sending her children to school. Not only that, but she is now training others. I asked her  how she felt about her new skills and how it had changed her life:

“People have respect for me. It really makes my life improved. After making my first wedding dress people came to embrace me and it made me feel happy.”

For me, Gertrude is a perfect example of how money raised by Oxfam lift one life, and by lifting one life you inevitably lift others…

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

Chapter 6: Liberia – Saving for Change

In my blogs last week, I looked at the history of Liberia and about its people; what they have had to endure since the early beginning when freed American slaves colonised an area of western Africa where 16 different indigenous tribes lived. I think at the time, 1822, President James Monroe probably thought what he was doing was for the best. Why wouldn’t freed African slaves want to return to Africa? The colonialist’s lack of integration with the local tribes created an elite hierarchy, which ultimately led to discrimination of local people. Schools were established, but only students with an African-American name could attend. Even today the 5% of the population descended from the freed slaves are still thought to be the elite. The current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of those descendants.

Oxfam’s Livelihood Programme: Saving for Change gives the people the opportunity to control their own future and brings savings and lending services to poor and remote rural communities. With little or no savings, poor people cannot go to the banks to ask for loans, they will either be refused straight away, or they cannot afford the repayment interest rates.

How does the programme work?

Oxfam works with partners, such as VOSIEDA, within the field, and train villagers to create small savings groups. The  majority of these groups are run by women, and to quote a Mr Dixon – a Liberian man we met in the Sainkor district in Monrovia – “Women are more honest than men. Women have patience.” In Liberia, it is the woman that manages the household and the money. Women have to bear the resonsibility of the wellfare of their children, mainly that is because of learned behaviour, but also because so many more men died in the Civil War than women.

Once the group is established, they elect a chairwoman and agree how much money per week they will pay into the scheme. The groups usually have around 18-20 women who pay anything from $25-$100 Liberian dollars per week. [Current exchange rate 1 US$ = 85 LD$]. The scheme cycle is one year, so if the women decide to leave the group before the cycle is over, they can’t take their money out. They are allowed to take out a loan from the group at a 10% interest rate. As soon as the loan is paid back, they can take out more loans. As these groups are all female, when they meet they discuss social issues to, so the members of the group support and guide one another. It gives the individual members a sense of belonging, and strength by creating solidarity.

One of my favourite characters we met on our journey was Old Woman Somah. As her name suggested, she was really old with an amazing face that was captivating, she had an aura of calm and sensibility around her and was obviously well respected in her community. The village was named after her husband, Mr Somah, its founder. He was killed during the war. For several years during the war, Old Woman escaped the rebels by fleeing from village to village and living rough in the bush. She joined the Savings For Change programme after her son died, as he was the main money earner. We asked if Old Woman had another name when she was born, everyone laughed! “She has always been Old Woman.” I’m  not entirely sure that is right, but it’s a great name!

Old Woman’s 19 year old grand-daughter, Elizabeth (in red) has two children: a daughter called Love and a son called Wilson. She is really keen to become a member of the group as she is wanting a loan to set up a business buying and selling food. She had to drop out of school to look after her children and has to look after the financial wellfare of her children on her own. The schools don’t offer Sex Education or Family Planning. A lot is discussed openly on radio programmes at all times of the day, but in rural communities very few people have access to the radio. The nearby clinics do teach the young girls about Family Planning, but there is a cost for contraception, and again, the same problem that we have been coming up against our entire trip – the people “can’t afford it”.

It’s frustrating to see this – young girls such as Elizabeth – pretty, intelligent, determined – hasn’t had any sex education, can’t afford contraceptions (if she even knew about what was available), has to drop out of school when she became pregnant, therefore is uneducated. Has even more children. Doesn’t have enough food to feed the children…. It’s a frustrating vicious circle that comes down to two main things: EDUCATION and MONEY.

If I look at our system in the UK – we are similar to Liberia in that our state schools are free and we have to pay for uniforms and lunch, but the UK local government offers free lunches to children from families with low incomes, plus all our text books are free. In Liberia there is no government funding for low income families and they have to buy all their own school books. In the UK we are given free sex education at school, have access tofree family planning from our local GP and can claim free contraception. In Liberia, nothing is given freely.

The Oxfam Saving for Change programme is making a difference as it is giving these women the opportunity to set up businessess so that they can start earning a living and making a profit. A very simple system, but one that is functioning and starting to lift lives and communties.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

Chapter 5: Liberia – How do you choose who to help?

I ask this question over and over again. Out of a population of 3.5 million people in Liberia, how do you decide who to help? There are so many that are in need of support and guidance, where do you begin? The answer to this question is not taken lightly by Oxfam, it is really important that the beneficiaries chosen are those which will make the largest impact in their own community.

Agriculture in Liberia is low and currently unsustainable, close to 30% of the population is food insecure, a frustrating fact when you consider that the soil is rich and rainfall abundant. Farmers are poor and do not have the access to new technologies, improved seeds and are unable to take loans from banks as the interest rates are too high. The key purpose of Oxfam’s Livelihood Programme is to enhance income and increase food security; not only increasing production to meet family food needs, but also create a surplus so farmers can sell their rice at market.

The low-land (swamps) are communal lands owned by the community, but Liberia still has an “Eminent Domain” rule, which gives the government the power to take over any land in the country. In regions such as Grand Bassa, this has caused enormous anger and even lead to uprising when the government practically handed over community land to the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. It is hoped that Oxfam’s work in the South East regions of the country will encourage the government to support continued rice cultivation.

When it comes to rice cultivation projects, Oxfam works with the Country Agricultural Office, an arm of the Ministry of Food, and partners such as CATALYST.  Regions are targeted and assessed for number of farmers, their history of farming techniques, and size of community. By talking directly to the Town Chief and Town Elders, proactive farmers can be identified and selected. One of Oxfam’s key aims is to put women at the heart of everything that they do, so in this selection process, the target is to find 45% women with preference to widows, single, older or vulnerable women. The community is responsible to elect a Manager and a Chair Lady who’s responsibility is to manage aspects of work and social difficulties.

23 communities in the Grand Gedeh and River Gee counties have been chosen by Oxfam to develop 1822 acres of low-land swamps.

The demonstration plot is the first to be set out and is used to educate farmers how to construct the channels and walkways between the plots. Through the rice research centre, a new Liberian rice grain has been developed that grows successful in such swamp lands. Oxfam has funded the purchase of millions of rice seeds to get these rice projects off the ground, as well as giving the farmers all the training, tools and equipment required to clear and farm the land.

These are some of the hard working farmers in the Pronoken pilot programme – I absolute loved their desire to expand their rice fields. Not only can they see the actual financial rewards of this new way of farming, but they have formed very strong social bonds – especially the women – they are proud and determined and are very much empowered. They really were an inspiration to me!

Leaving the Pronoken was quite sad, I realised that this was the end of my journey “in the field” – it’s simple ways of life was quite refreshing. I took strength from the women who had suffered loss and tradgedy during the Civil War, but who now are farming and actually becoming business women. They are resilient and focused on improving the quality of their life and the people around them.

Let our 9 hour road trip back to Monrovia commence….

I have to finish on a funny note… our fantastic driver, Mr James Wilson, taught us many a wonderful thing. In a country where there are virtually no toilets on the road between Fish Town and Monrovia, we at first didn’t understand the expression “Just need to check the tyres”…… we soon realised that no tyres were actually being checked – in Liberia, it’s just a way of saying you’re going to relieve yourself! I have yet to try this expression in the UK.

James also introduced us to lots of new music, especially “Shining Star” by Pat Thomas.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW7I2OiG3gw]

It soon became our Road Trip song – we needed something to entertain us on the long 9 hour journey back to Monrovia…. Disappointingly, we have subsequently found out that Pat Thomas is from Ghana, and the song is NOT about Liberia!! However, to us it is – “I keep on trying till my star will shine” – that is what Liberians are doing everyday.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

Chapter 4: Liberia – Living like a local

We were asked, whilst still in the UK, would you like to stay the night within a local community. The prospect was both exciting and a little bit unsettling. What would it be like to be a Liberian Local?  

When I was a university student, my best friend & I spent two long summers working in Ocean City, Maryland. I used to be so proud of my “O.C. Local” bumper sticker… Sun, Sea, Surf, Sand, Life Guards, Beach Volleyball, Handball, Parties, Good Food and Red Stripe Beer about sums up what being an O.C. Local was to me – don’t judge, I was a student after all! It’s funny I’m thinking of that time in my life, nearly 20 years ago! In O.C. we had everything we needed at our fingertips, never wanted for anything. Plenty of cash tips from waitressing [English accent always goes down well in the US] and lots of afternoons off work to relax and do nothing.

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Being a “Sarbo Sweeken Local” in River Gee county, Liberia was probably the complete opposite of my experience in O.C. Liberia has English as their official language, but for every day speech they use Liberian Special English – basically a patois English. Communication was strained, but not impossible.  Of the six of us in the travelling group, four of us decided we would stay overnight with a family. Sarbo Sweeken is a small community of rice farmers, many of whom are Oxfam beneficiaries. We spent the afternoon getting to know the locals and played for ages with the children – we’d brought balloons with us, which the kids loved!

My host family were Martha & Redemon Kilchee. Their home consisted of two traditional clay brick structures with palm thatched roof  - one was a kitchen, the other their sleeping quarters with a large communal area with a zinc roof. The night I arrived it rained heavily and it was almost impossible to hear the converasation because of the rain thundering on the zinc. The kitchen had an enormous fire – I was surprised how hot the room felt, but oddly it was quite comforting even though it was nearly 30C outside. In the corner of the kitchen stood an enormous water butt. Each day they have to walk to the water pump and collect enough water to fill the butt, then use this water for all their daily washing and cooking needs. The “toilet” was a hole dug in the ground surrounded by a modesty screen and the “shower” was a separate area with another modesty screen around. Showering involved heating water on the stove, transfering to a bucket and carrying it to the shower area. It reminded me of our camping holidays as children – having stand up semi-bath type washes. The showering process took so long, it would be impossible for the whole family to have time to get washed every morning.  The sleeping quarters were sectioned off rooms with a loose curtain for the door. I felt very priviledged as I had a large wooden double bed and mattress, obviously Martha & Redemon’s room. There were three other rooms, so I guess everyone else had to just squeeze in.

Martha, aged 35, is mother to eight children. Seven of her own aged between 3 and 17, and a step-son aged 16.

Redemon is 37. He works one plot of land for rice (tenth of an acre), which is not nearly enough for him to feed his family. He is desparate to take on more plots, but needs to wait until the rice fields have Oxfam funding for an extension. He has chickens on his land and a small vegetable plot where he grow cassava, pepper, corn and plantain.  He has to foreage in the bush to find more food. He sets traps for animals such as porcupine and grass cutter (part of the rodent family), catches fish in the river, and picks banana, pineapple and palm nuts directly from the tree.

There were such stark differences between our homes. In my home, I have lots of paintings and framed photographs of friends and family on my walls, and lots of ornaments or vases of flowers in each room. I agonised for weeks over which shade of off white we should paint the ceiling and which shade of green we should paint the kitchen walls. The Kilchee’s home was absolutely bare of any such personalisation – it really could have been anyone’s home. Only some of the internal walls were white washed, most were just the natural clay colour of reddy brown. As the walls separating each sleeping area did not reach the ceiling, you could hear all the conversations, so there was very little privacy. The whole home felt functional rather than personal.

Their home had no electricity, running water or sewage. What surprised me the most, especially being such a lover of social media, I did not miss electricity. It actually felt great to be cut off from twitter and Facebook, and I was never once bored. What I did miss was light bulbs. There were no lights at all in the evening so the place was literally pitch black. I couldn’t believe it when I walked into the kitchen area and nearly stumbled of 10 year old Ida who was gutting fish in complete darkness!

Breakfast was WONDERFUL! About 6.30am a lady came round carrying a bowl of fresh pumpkin on her head – Martha bought a couple of pieces, made a fresh chilli paste, put her rice on to boil and started to prepare pumpkin soup for our breakfast! Meanwhile Alfred prepared the palm nuts to make the palm cooking oil.

Later on, more traders came round with the most amazing array of wares to sell.

What was accutely noticeable to me was that each child had a job to do, even the little ones helped with separating the palm nuts from their cones. From the moment the children wake, they have their daily tasks to do before breakfast. It was sad also to note that only the older boys went to school – they looked really smart in their uniform. I noticed they went without any breakfast. The two girls, Ida (10) and Lovette (8) didn’t go to school. I was told that they don’t have enough teachers to teach every year group. The girls stayed home and did chores with their mother.

The life of a Sarbo Sweeken local is continous. There is always something to do. It is physically demanding and is certainly one lived one day at a time. They need Oxfam’s intervention to help them establish their rice fields, then they can at least be self-sufficient and feed their family.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-zip-wire

Thank You!

Emma X

Chapter 3: Liberia – Oxfam’s livelihood programme

Before I started fundraising for Oxfam I understood their ethos – give someone the tools and education and they will start to build a new life for themselves. So in essence, giving them a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Although ironically, whilst in Liberia I had a discussion with an interesting American who informed me about an agency who were giving out unconditional cash grants, ie, cash handouts to chosen beneficiaries without any kind of restriction. I was, and still am sceptical, but it seems to be quite successful. Even so, I personally I still feel you can’t put a price on education – by educating a few, you are helping a whole community.

Looking at the Oxfam Rice Cultivations is a great example of how education has changed whole communities. 

For a Liberian – Rice is King. A Liberian man has not eaten unless he has eaten rice!

Traditionally, Liberian rice farmers grew their crops on high-ground above the water table, typically only harvesting once a year. Before the Civil War, Liberia was able to produce enough rice to be self-sufficient, therefore avoiding the expense of having to import rice.  There were government run shops selling Liberian grown rice throughout the country.  During the war, most of the farmland went to rack and ruin and many of the farmers were killed or fled to neighbouring countries. Rice cultivation became almost non-existant. The people were starving and unable to feed themselves.

The Oxfam Rice Cultivation Project has educated the farmers to grow rice in a completly different way. Instead of on high-ground, the rice was to be planted in swamp land. At first, many of the farmers were sceptical and afraid to change a farming techinique that had been passed down through generations. But, slowly, the farmers began to see that the new farming methods enabled them to harvest up to three times a year – which, given enough land, would be able to support not only their own family, but have enough rice to take to market to sell for profit. We met farmer after farmer, all beneficiaries of the Oxfam project, all of which whom had a similar story. The majority of the farmers we spoke to were women – women who had lost their husbands in the war, or whose husbands had just left them.  [With the lack of sex education at school, it is the young women who need to be responsible for any unwanted pregnancies, and support the child on their own. It seems to be all too easy for the father just to move to another town in a different district, without any form of paper trail or means of tracing him.]

Before planting can take place, the swamp land needs to be cleared before the rice plots and irrigation channels are marked out. Each acre is divided into 10 plots. It is the final aim of the programme for each farmer to farm 10 plots, or 1 acre. But, as it stands today, the average number of plots per farmer is about 4-5. This is down to a number of reasons from women farmers not being able to manage large plots on their own, to communities having too many farmers wanting plots. Extensions to the rice fields is desparately needed.

In one of the large communities, Seboken, where we sat and listened to the Town Chiefs and Elders, and the women farmers, just how their lives have been changed because of Oxfam’s help. Almost 40% of the community are now able to feed their families and actually make an income through rice cultivation. They are wanting to expand, are looking to the future, and planning how they can purchase power tools to enable them to farm more. They have the desire and determination to succeed – Oxfam has really just opened the door – it is the local people who are now running through it!

We were curious to know what the people were going to do with their new found income – simple….

  1. Send their children to school [education is free, but many families cannot afford to buy uniform, books or lunch, so have not been able to send their children to school]
  2. Buy medicines for their family when they are sick
  3. Put a more solid zinc roof on their home, instead of the weak thatched roof

Simple priorities that are no different from my own. The main difference really is I don’t ever think of not sending my children to school – they just go automatically. And, if they are poorly, I automatically take them to my local doctor’s surgery. I guess the majority of our homes are built to strict building regulations so the quality of the roofing material is never in question.

Thinking back to the unconditional grants option – maybe that programme could follow the Oxfam project – Oxfam teaches the people how to make the most out of the crops, and the grants enable the farmers to expand and grow…But that sounds like a perfect world…

The stories were wonderful to hear! I think sometimes we are quite dismissive of giving to charity if we know the money is not being spent on our own people, but the division between what we ALREADY have and what they have NEVER had is so great, I would like to think we can do both. Help ourselves, but also help other people. By giving to Oxfam, 84% is feed directly to projects such as the Rice Cultivation Project – direct to Oxfam in Liberia, and not syphoned off by politicians.

I am hosting an Oxfam event on Sunday 9th March at the Morpeth Rugby Club. We are trying to Zip 100 men and women, across 200ft from a 150ft high mobile crane! Having fun and raising our goal of £12,500. If my stories have inspired you, please help us reach our goal by donating via….

https://get-together.everydayhero.com/uk/morpeth-town 

Thank YOU,

Emma X

 

 

Chapter 2: Liberia – journey to the country

The day after having our initial briefing session at Oxfam HQ in downtown Monrovia, we were packed and ready for our journey “to the field” – final destination, a place called Fish Town. As the crow flies is only 215 miles, but on Liberian roads – 396 miles. For any type of driving, nearlly 400 miles is quite a trip, but on Liberian “roads” this journey took us over 9 hours. The main roads in and around Monrovia are good, American in street design, so long and straight, and tarmaced.

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But as soon as you get to the outskirts of the capital you are on to red dirt roads. Dusty red dirt roads. Visiability poor. Dust everywhere – have I already mentioned that?

Looking back on my trip, I remember feeling delighted to arrive in Ganta, a town right on the border with the Ivory Coast, thinking it hadn’t been THAT bad a journey…. However, from Ganta to Fish Town was just awful – no other word to describe it. Not only dusty red roads, but enormous undulating sections of the road, which would make perfect moguls for skiers, but for us sitting in our 4×4 felt like we were on a rickety old roller coaster for hours and hours….

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The journey to the field did give us time to reflect and talk to our Oxfam Programme Managers and hear their stories about life in Liberia, how the war affected them and how they see the future of Liberia. As a single mother, hearing one particular story about how a mother, packed and ready to flee the country, was prepared to execute her own son rather than leaving him behind with the Warlord General, had me in pieces. The horrors of that time, to me, are indefinable.

We passed plantation after plantation of rubber trees – first time seeing these for me – reminded me of Canadian maple tree plantations. The bark is scored around the tree and a small bucket is attached to collect the liquified rubber. Once collected, an acid is added to the liquid to solidify the cake like shapes, and immediately exported.

Before arriving in Fish Town, we overnighted in Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh County, the 8th largest town in Liberia (population 24,000/2008). Pre-war it was reknowned for its timber production and timber products. I saw very little evidence of that today.

I love the fact that we had been booked into “Florida Guest House” – after 9 hours travelling we all thought this was hilarious. Blame that on tiredness, dehydration and brain information overload. In fact, that night almost everything we tried to say seemed utterly hilarious – even stories about Norway, which in fact turned out not to be stories of Norway at all…..

Our first morning in the field, my diary entry summaries it well:

“Remarkably, I’m the first one up.  I seem to be waking up early here – not sure why. 5.30am. I’m on the veranda of our guest house watching the bats flying around. There’s a constant buzz from the insects and a large rumbling noise from the generator. All the compund walls are covered in rolls of barbed wire. WOW – PEACE! The generator has turned off. All the sounds are natural now. The cockerel has started crowing.”

I really feel I have arrived in Africa and it is nothing like I imagined. The sights, sounds and smells are fantastic. I am feeling happy.

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When I was invited by Oxfam to join one of their communication tours of a poverty stricken country, I was instantly filled with pride and honour. I was absolutely delighted and said “Yes” without question. I thought of all the regions in the world that it could be, and of course thought about where I would love to go… A couple of months later, I got the call to tell me I was going to Liberia – “Fantastic!” – put the phone down, and thought to myself “Where is that?”!

Liberia – Western Africa – bordering Sierra Leonne in the North, Guinea in the North West and Ivory Coast in the North East and South. My first reaction was of fear. I’ve watched Leonardo Di Caprio as Danny Archer in Blood Diamond many times, it really is a must see movie. Oddly enough, whilst in Liberia I met a UN chap who knew the person whom the Colonel Coetzee character was based on. I asked him if the movie was close to the truth… he was quite for a while, then simple answered “Yes”.

Before I arrived, my impression of African poverty has been taught to me by watching all the very distressing images and footage from our annual British famine appeals, whose key tactics are to shock us into donating money…. Crying children. Flies. Depression. Disaster. Hopelessness. Devastation. My friends and family were fearful of me travelling to such a destination. “Will you be safe”. “Will you be sick”. To be honest, I was pretty nervous myself.

Liberia was absolutely NOT what I expected. I found a country full of energy, vitality, colour, noise and vigour. A people who outwardly are hospitable, happy, full of life, very proud, resilient and have a determination to succeed, but underneath are worried about their future and are still coming to terms with their past.

Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. Colonised by American and Caribbean freed slaves in the 1820s, it officially became a republic in 1847. Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves’ descendants comprising only 5% of the population. It was relatively calm until 1980 when William Tolbert was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe after rice price riots. The coup marked the end of dominance by the minority Americo-Liberians, who had ruled since independence, but heralded a period of instability.

By the late 1980s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990. Mr Doe was publically and viciously executed.  Fighting intensified as the rebels splintered and battled each other. In 1995 a peace agreement was signed, leading to the election of Mr Taylor as president.  The respite was brief, with anti-government fighting breaking out in the north in 1999. Mr Taylor accused Guinea of supporting the rebellion. Meanwhile Ghana, Nigeria and others accused Mr Taylor of backing rebels in Sierra Leone. Matters came to a head in 2003 when Mr Taylor – under international pressure to quit and hemmed in by rebels – stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government steered the country towards elections in 2005. It was not until 2006 that Charles Taylor was eventually arrested by UN Peacekeeping Forces and ultimately sent to trial in The Hague where he was convicted in 2012.

It really saddens me to know that Charles Taylor is being held in prison here in the UK, however, one consoltation is that he is now 65 years old and he is sentenced to serve 50 years in jail.

Around 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s civil war (10% of its population at the time) and hundreds of thousands more fled the fighting. The 14 year long civil war absolutely destroyed the country and its people. It has left a country with limited infrastructure – in fact we cheered every time we were on a tarmaced road (there really aren’t that many) – has no mains water, sewage or electricity. Electricity is fuelled by petrol driven generators in the cities, and the rurual villages manage without electricity at all.

It has a population of around 3.5 million, struggling to find work and decent education. It produces nothing itself so imports everything, even though it is one of the most lush and fertile countries in the world. It has plenty of natural resources such as rubber, iron ore, timber, diamonds and gold, but is not capable of  processing anything. Out of 184 countries listed, based on Gross Domestic Product per capita, Liberia is currently 180th poorest.

My work with Oxfam was to look at some of the projects Oxfam has funded, and are currently funding, and reflect on how these projects have changed people’s lives. As a fundraiser, my question really is quite simple: are my efforts really making a difference?

After two weeks in the field, I can tell you categorically, YES, Oxfam’s work in Liberia IS changing lives. What I saw changed my opinion on Africa, on Liberia, on community spirit and it has changed how I view my own life. We saw absolutely wonderful things and we saw absolutely dreadful things, listened to stories of extreme happiness and pride and to stories of sheer horror and tragedy. 

Over the next couple of days, I’d like to write a couple of blogs on the different aspects of the work we saw with Oxfam, with my main aim to explain just what Oxfam is doing with our money and how it is saving lives.

 

 

I was so delighted when Alnwick Garden agreed to let me organise a stylised wedding shoot in the Pavilion Room and their grounds. I had been trying since late September to find a suitable date, but it wasn’t until 8th January that all parties could confirm! This actually worked out perfectly as the garden was closed for maintainance so we had the whole grounds to ourselves! What a privilege!

We designed a new range of wedding bunting in bright 100% cotton fabrics to give a rainbow affect – using 9 diferent tones and colours and a red bias. I knew the garden would be fairly bare in January, so I wanted to bring a bit of colour to the shoot.

As with all our stylised shoots, we work with a number of bridal specialists who we are happy to recommend.

Our gorgeous Terry Fox and Claire Pettibone dresses were loaned to us by Kathryn Trueman Bridal – Kathryn’s shop is one of my favourite places in Morpeth. It just sparkles as soon as you walk in and Kathryn & her staff are just so warm and welcoming –  it makes me want to get married all over again!! When I was sent this snapshot of the dresses Kathryn had chosen for the shoot, I knew it was going to be beautiful!!

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Kathryn organised hair by Bassu in Morpeth and make up by Rachel Claire Giles and Kate from K-Beautique, and models Amber, Chantelle, Bromwyn, Tyler and Calvin.

Our photographer for the day was one of my favourites – Adamskii – I’ve had the pleasure of working with Adam on lots of shoots as I know I’m going to get fantastic images! It was a long day, none-stop and freezing cold, but we managed to take shots in the Pavilion, around the fountain, near the Poison Garden and at the Treehouse….

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All the event styling was by another Morpeth business Flawless Weddings & Events - which has just opened at 36 Newgate Street, Morpeth – working with Ailsa is a joy, and so much fun too!!

I love using Instagram, and through that have met Bubblegum Balloons – a fantastic balloon company that creates bespoke balloons! I couldn’t resist asking Sally to make me one for our theme – it was FANTASTIC!!!! A 3ft red balloon with rainbow tails!! It really did have the WOW factor! Here’s my favourite shot of the balloon – bearing in mind Calvin is 6ft 4″ you can see how big this balloon is!!! Thank you Bubblegum!! X

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I wanted also to have a sensational cake. I scoured pinterest for ideas of rainbow cakes and biscuits, but didn’t see anything that really excited me. So, I turned to one of my favourite cake designers Tammy at House of Boutique Cakes, based in Washington, Tyne & Wear, and told her the style I was after and left it at that. I didn’t see the cake until the day of the shoot – and WOW!!!! Tammy had made a faux cake, an edible cake and a selection of biscuits – they really were stunning. And yes, we ate all the cake, which was DELICIOUS!!!

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For our bouquet I thought it seemed odd to bring fresh flowers into Alnwick Garden in January – so I called on one of my favourite companies Love Bouquets, based in Manchester, to loan me on of their stunning crystal button bouquets. It was just gorgeous – sparkley and pretty – I really want to keep this one myself!!!! Big thank you to Natalie for this precious loan… X

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Our final THANK YOU is to Poppy at Papaver Designs. Poppy is one of the North East’s most creative wedding people – she works with paper and hand cuts the most intricate bespoke stationery, lanterns, pictures and images. We had three designs from Poppy – a Rainbow – Bride – Groom. Here’s a sneak peek of the Rainbow.

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I don’t want to post too many photos of the shoot, but here are a couple of my favourite Behind the Scenes shots…. including a little shot of our LOTTIE vintage bunting at The Treehouse!

If you want to hire our wedding bunting, please check our website for details http://www.emma-bunting.co.uk

You can follow us on Instagram/Pintrest Emma Bunting UK, or on twitter @EmmaBuntingUK

Love Emma X

 

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