I’ve taken many journeys to report on the international work of the British Red Cross; from the jungles of Sierra Leone, through Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains and into the slums of Haiti to name a few.
I’ve often been asked which country I’ve most enjoyed visiting. Like being asked what your favourite all time song or film is – I find this almost impossible to answer.
The scenery is usually stunning, but as a humanitarian writer it is the people who interest me most. I’ve had the privilege of listening to many people who’ve given me the gift of their story. They are stories about overwhelming struggles with poverty, adversity and disaster. But mostly they are stories about the triumph of the human spirit.
This is my last day as international writer at the British Red Cross and so I’d like to share some of my favourite photos and stories from the past five years.
1. South Africa [easyrotator]erc_83_1368176701[/easyrotator]
In KwaZulu-Natal district, one in seven people aged two and over are living with HIV. It makes me wonder if the people who’ve made decisions to cut global funding for HIV programmes have ever visited South Africa.
Surely it would be a different story if only they’d go and visit someone like Patricia Miya who shows amazing dedication to her six orphaned grandchildren, despite the incredibly challenging circumstances of their lives.
Another grandmother, whose story really moved me, was Mnyamezeli Mbongwa. Her large household has received more than its fair share of tragedy, yet it is also one of the most laughter-filled homes I’ve ever visited. Spending time with these women was simply a masterclass on living with absolute love and humanity.
Bride kidnapping, domestic violence and sex trafficking are just some of the dangers faced by women in Krygyzstan. Programmes like the Red Cross’ support for improving the economic and social position of women are so important. Nazira is one of many women who made that clear to me.
She said: “As a young woman I was kidnapped and forced to marry a man I didn’t know. My life has been hard but I am a survivor. My husband would only let me be a washerwoman. He drank a lot of alcohol and used to beat me. It was difficult to leave as I didn’t know how I’d support myself and my children. I thought I had no way out.
“But six years ago I did leave and I started going to the Red Crescent. As well as finding out my rights, I learned there are a lot of ways of earning money and through the course I learned to sew and make clothes. Now I have my own house! The people at the Red Crescent made all the difference to me, because when someone believes in you it makes you stronger.”
I visited Haiti three months after the earthquake, which struck on 12 January 2010. It’s hard to imagine the extent of the carnage, but it looked something like a war zone with piles of rubble everywhere. People were still very much in shock.
The Red Cross had launched its biggest ever emergency operation in a single country. Seeing Red Cross workers from around the world work tirelessly together alongside the Haitian Red Cross was a reminder of what the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is all about.
Outside of the capital Dhaka, Bangladesh is a stunning country full of light, colour and water! People live on every spare scrap of land amid a delta of rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal.
Almost half the population live in poverty and have little to protect them in the face of cyclones. In 2011, I visited survivors of Cyclone Aila in Shingherchack. People there live on narrow fingers of land on the edge of the sea where there is a strong sense of the fragility of life.
One man I met was the magnificently named Dina Bondhu Boiddya. He and his family lost everything in the cyclone, but today with support from the Red Cross they have a new thriving business as crab farmers!
5. Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone was my baptism of fire as an international writer – I made my first trip there in January 2009 and my main task was to produce two short videos (with the help of a cameraman), something I’d never done before!
The Sierra Leone Red Cross has been working since even before the civil war ended in 2002 to help rebuild peace, and it continues to do so today. I love this vibrant programme and along with the country and the people with their rich cultural traditions – I admit – this is my favourite place to visit.
During the war a lot of the traditions of singing, drumming and dance were crushed and the Red Cross has worked hard to help revive them. When I interviewed Emmanuel Tommy, secretary general of the Sierra Leone Red Cross, he told me about the annual peace festival they organise, he said: “It’s a chance to sing with your former enemy, dance with your former enemy. It’s not easy but it has happened.”
I remember camping at one village deep in the jungle and we were the first white visitors they had ever had. The community was very proud to welcome us to their home and in the evening they got the drums out, started singing and together we danced the night away under the stars.
That experience showed me why the local Red Cross workers were investing time in reviving their cultural traditions. It’s this local knowledge, understanding the local context and having locals lead the way that has always made me so proud to work for the largest humanitarian organisation in the world.
All images © Sarah Oughton/BRC