Category: International

Billy Wingrove on freestyle football, HIV and South Africa


From rural South Africa to White Hart Lane I’ve been working in some interesting places lately and I’m really excited to share with you our latest video – which stars top freestyle footballer Billy Wingrove!

Donate to the British Red Cross South Africa HIV fund

As the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, Billy’s been finding out about the bigger contest the country is facing – the challenge of dealing with HIV.Red Cross volunteer hugs a woman

Last month, I met some amazing people in KwaZulu-Natal, including Mertie Mberekwana. Although she is HIV positive, she is one of the bubbliest people I’ve met. She told me how scared she was when she first found out and got very sick. But once she started getting antiretroviral treatment her health improved dramatically.

Mertie said: “After I got better, I got a feeling that I have to go out there and help others as the Red Cross people helped me. It is now my passion in life.”

Now Mertie is a dedicated Red Cross volunteer. I spent an afternoon with her as she traipsed through the long grasses of Amahlongwa, carrying two heavy bags of food in the midday African sun.

She visited two people that afternoon, oBilly Wingrove holding football in a stadiumne was bedridden and one was deaf. Both of them are living with HIV and I could see how important Mertie was to them, not only for the food she brought but also her friendship.

The stigma of having HIV is a major factor in the spread of the disease. Fighting stigma and educating people about HIV is a major part of the Red Cross’ work.

I was so impressed with how the South African Red Cross is providing enormous support to people engaged in a daily struggle living with HIV.

Also while I was there, and despite not being a football fan, I couldn’t help but get infused with World Cup fever sweeping across the country. I think there may even be some soccer stars of the future honing their skills in the Red Cross football team!

Anyway, check out Billy Wingrove’s world-class tricks and don’t forget to pass it on.

© Image 1 Sarah Oughton/BRC

© Image 2 Ash Sweeting/BRC

Moving on (Haiti)


Leogane - epicentre of Haiti's earthquakeThese words seem to sum up the world’s attitude to places like Haiti. Once in the eye of a media storm of attention and public good will, understandably the focus has moved on. The recent election, the world cup, economic woes, another celebrity / political / sporting scandal understandably capture our attention. I too am beginning to move on from Haiti as the last of our immediate response programmes come to a close. Rest assured though that the Red Cross focus on Haiti has not diminished as our recovery team take up the baton and undertake the necessary detailed planning of our engagement for the coming years. In fact we’ve been liaising closely together since the start with an eye to next steps.

One team in particular, our mass sanitation emergency response unit, subject of several blogs this year, has come to an end though the work it has been carrying out will continue. A longer-term team is now continuing to work with the people in two large camps to meet their sanitation needs. This is so important. The initial rapid emergency latrines we put up are designed to last two to three months and we are working to replace them with sturdier and more enduring models. We’ve already replaced 50 of the rapid ones. I’ve been impressed with how well the 300 we’ve put in have fared, particularly so in places where the surrounding families have paid such close attention to the cleanliness of them. A welcome reminder about how important it has been for us to engage community around key hygiene practice messages.

Red Cross water and shelter in HaitiWe’ve organised the removal of 30 tonnes of garbage from the camps each week and improved camp drainage, critical to prevent disease spreading during fierce rains. Additionally, eleven bathing blocks have provided extra privacy for females and males to wash. These are good achievements, but there have been great challenges in handling such a dense urban environment with little space to build and high water tables. The difficulties in meeting all the needs in a social context where pre-earthquake ills have transferred into the camps where we are working have kept us on our toes too. We’re still there, still engaging, making progress but also in it for the long haul.

For me, what remains now is to formally evaluate the performance of the sanitation team and to ensure that we incorporate all the lessons learned into the preparation, equipment and ongoing training of future teams for the next big disaster. There won’t be much time to rest on any laurels though. There’s plenty to take the place of Haiti. This week alone we are reacting to the first hurricane of the central American season, Agatha; to escalating food insecurity hitting Niger and Chad; to deepening humanitarian crisis in Somalia and Yemen where fewer and fewer humanitarian agencies are able to continue operating due to security considerations – though the Red Cross with its careful, neutral positioning can and does.

Volunteer to cure the back to work blues


Big Red Cross Bus in Bishop AucklandApologies for my silence, dear reader, I have been away on holiday and took a temporary blogging breather; not even I love the Red Cross enough to blog from a sunlounger.

Many people feel pretty gloomy coming back to work after a spell away but not me (apart from having to cycle home in torrential rain yesterday). I call it the ‘Red Cross effect’, where exposure to good works induces a feeling of perpetual wellbeing.  

I had only been back in the office five minutes on Tuesday when I heard about all the great stuff  I’d missed while I was away…

Thousands of parents had gone to the Baby Show in Birmingham on 21-23 May, with many getting a dose of our life-saving  children and baby first aid courses via demos from staff and volunteers.

I heard that Tesco has now raised more than £582,000 for the British Red Cross and DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

And our first aid volunteers had kept revellers safe at the One Big Weekend event in Bangor on 22-23 May as well as runners at the Edinburgh marathon on 23 May.

I was also delighted to see our Volunteer’s Week Big Red Cross Bus had started its journey around the country.

How’s that for a busy week at work (for everyone else). It gave me a little glow to hear about it all. Of course, you don’t need to actually work here to enjoy the Red Cross effect and banish your post summer holiday back-to-work blues.

Why not become a volunteer?  Pay a visit to the British Red Cross bus (find out where it’s visiting) before 12 June, to discover the dozens of varied and flexible volunteering roles we offer. You never know, you might snap up a bargain designer bikini from the onboard shop for that next holiday while you’re there.

How the rainy season is affecting people in Haiti


Maxime Jean, survivor of the earthquakeAs the rainy season continues in Haiti, an increasing number of camps are beginning to suffer adverse effects.

The drainage systems of camps formed in fields are making life, for many, particularly difficult. However, some settlements, such as Automeca, where the camp committee has worked closely with the British Red Cross on developing drainage systems, are better able to withstand the rains.

Last month, I was in Haiti making a short video about the emergency operation. It’s vital that good water and sanitation conditions can be maintained to avoid a massive public health disaster and I got to see how the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was getting prepared.

I spoke to Maxime Jean, 43, who lives in a camp in Leogane – which was at the epicentre of the quake – where the Red Cross is now working. He said: “I was outside my house with my daughter when the quake happened.

“My wife and son were inside the house and it came crashing down. I can’t say how they survived but only God knows the answer to that.

“After the quake, I went to different communities, meeting people and getting them together in camps and trying to get the help they needed, such as water. I did this because I believe that if someone needs help then I should help them.

“The Red Cross is helping us build these latrines. I went to the office to speak to them about the fact that we needed help and now it’s being done.

“They are also doing hygiene promotion with us, to teach people to wash their hands after using the toilet – I mean they know this but we are reminding them because people are forgetting.”

At the moment, the heavy rains are causing damage to latrines in some temporary settlements. A major concern is the potential for widespread diarrhoea, which can be fatal for children, as well as the increased levels of mosquito-borne malaria.

latrine building in haitiThe Red Cross is continuing to improve and maintain sanitation facilities in vulnerable settlements by building tank latrines – as opposed to pit latrines – which are better able to withstand the rains.

Conditions for people in the camps remain extremely challenging. However, all the work that has gone into preparing for the rainy season means the public health disaster that was feared has so far been avoided.

The next big test for Haitian communities struggling to get back on their feet will be the hurricane season, which typically starts in May.

The Red Cross is helping 120 camps get prepared with early warning systems for dangers ranging from epidemics to flooding. It is identifying large communal shelters and evacuation routes, as well as training community members in first aid and basic search and rescue.

Health and hygiene promotion also remain a priority and volunteers are handing out mosquito netting, cleaning drains, collecting rubbish and improving sanitary conditions.

Finally, medicines and relief items are being prepositioned in Port-au-Prince and other areas in case the roads become inaccessible.

Hygiene promotion, song and dance in Haiti


Liz Brunwin works in first aid education and was delegated to Haiti to work with the British Red Cross mass sanitation team

It’s my first time out with the hygiene promotion team and I’m in La Piste camp for the morning. As I do the support role for the mass sanitation team, my day is usually spent in the office tent working on the finances and administration side so it feels really good to be out.

It’s 11.00 and the sun is fierce. But that doesn’t stop people gathering as soon as the first beats start pounding out from the sound system. The three clowns take their position on top of the truck and off it goes, winding slowly and loudly down the lanes of La Piste with its infectious repetitive beat. It’s difficult to take your eyes off the three clowns who are busy shaking, gyrating and strutting their way up and down on top of the truck, cutting an impressive image against the blue sky.

Immediately kids of all ages, teenagers, and adults all emerge from their closely packed shelters and start dancing, singing and swaggering alongside the truck. More and more people emerge until over a hundred people are following along. Over the music the MC is working the crowd, encouraging people to join us and putting across a few key hygiene promotion messages. Lots of kids trail the truck all the way as it makes its way up and down the lanes of one area of La Piste and finally back to British Red Cross’s Hygiene Promotion tent which is at the corner of the camp.

The sound truck parks up and people gather around the cleared space which serves as a stage for the rest of the morning’s activities. A couple of hundred people line up behind the temporary square barriers, little kids at the front, people at the back straining to see the action.

What happens next can only be described as a good old ‘dance off’. Volunteers from the audience – a young girl and then a couple of teenage boys – each proudly take a turn at being centre stage, wiggling and shaking with the crowd whooping and shouting along. Each is rewarded with a bar of soap for their efforts. Two or three of the hygiene promoters from the Haitian Red Cross then take their turns.

I’m enjoying the performance, watching quietly from the side lines, but to my surprise I suddenly hear the MC shout out for “Miss Liz” to take a turn. As it’s my first time in La Piste I’m being invited up! My initial attempt to decline politely falls on deaf ears and suddenly I’m on my feet, dragging Borry the British Red Cross Hygiene Promoter along with me. We make a joint attempt to ‘get down’ but it feels in comparison a pretty tame and awkward British style of dancing! The crowd were spared very much of this though, as we quickly stepped aside for the main event to begin.

The hygiene promotion team perform a humorous play addressing issues of good hygiene practice and the importance of hand washing and then the clowns go on to demonstrate through comedy sketches ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’ use a squat latrine. This includes things like not to put rubbish down the latrines, how to wash your hands after use etc. All this is interspersed with regular periods of music where the whole crowd dances along.

It’s clear that hygiene promotion issues are not the easiest subject to address, but woven within the relaxed atmosphere it’s easy to see how people are now warmed up to make them more receptive to hear some key messages. People are gathered simply to enjoy the music, watch the dancing and soak up the mood and it’s great to give them an opportunity to do that. It’s also great that they get to hear some important messages whilst they do!

How sport helps the Armenian Red Cross educate young people about HIV


Karen Young, from Scotland, is spending a year in Armenia as part of a volunteer exchange programme, the international youth volunteering programme.

Well, yet again I am starting my blog entry by saying that we are very busy here in the Armenian Red Cross Youth Department!  We have been finishing off our campaign to promote awareness about lonely elderly people in Armenia as well as doing school sessions on HIV and setting up a new branch of our Smiley Club for kids in a second dormitory.  I love the fact that we are always busy here – it can be very tiring, but it is good fun and we know that what we are doing is really making a difference to people’s lives.

The HIV programme is fully up and running at the moment – we have been going to schools all across Armenia to give sessions on HIV and also to organise a basketball tournament.  The tournament is part of the “We play against HIV and AIDS” programme – which uses sport as a way to educate people about HIV.  Schools play against each other to generate interest in the cause; afterwards we conduct the peer education session and leave posters and information leaflets in the school gym for the kids to read over the next few weeks.

I have helped out with a few of the matches and sessions now, including going with other members of the team to a school in Gyumri (Armenia’s second city).  It was really interesting to see the difference in the response between Yerevan and Gyumri, which is a very small city and, as a result, somewhere where young people are significantly less well informed about sexual health issues than their peers in Yerevan.  This is something that the Armenian Red Cross are working to change, and the response from both staff and pupils was very positive.

Las week we had a charity dinner as part of our campaign to raise awareness about lonely elderly people, and the results were very positive; especially when you take into consideration the fact that this was the first ever event of its kind for the ARCS, and also not a very common type of event in Armenia.  It was a massive achievement for us – we raised over £800 and, more importantly, passed on our message to some very influential people.

We have also been out collecting money again in the streets of Yerevan, again in support of our grannies and grandpas, and the response has been very encouraging.  Again we received a lot of thanks and encouragement for the good work we do as volunteers, as well as of course raising a bit of cash!

All in all it has been a very active and productive period for us, and it is very nice to have a “quiet” week or so where we are mainly writing reports!  What with all the extra hours we have been putting in for the campaign, and the fact that I spend the best part of my spare time climbing mountains and hiking across the countryside with my fellow volunteers, I am exhausted!  But exhausted in the best possible way – and at the moment I wouldn’t swap my volunteering experience for anything – even a well paid job!

Being a volunteer in Armenia, especially when jobs are so few and far between and financial matters still dominate the headlines, is a welcome reminder that there is so much more to life than money and security, and that we volunteers are “paid” in rich experiences and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Photo: Trygve Utstumo via Flickr

Karen’s time in Armenia is funded through the Youth In Action programme from European Voluntary Service. To find out more, email

Home from Haiti (nearly): Round the world in 22 days


I’m losing track of what time it is, what day it is and (almost) where I am. Having been in Haiti covering a team leader gap in our emergency sanitation team there, the volcano eruption in Iceland put a stop to plans to come back home.  The end result is 6 countries visited, 9 hotels (or tents) stayed in, and a day lost – sort of.

When news of the volcano reached me I had left Haiti and swapped the discomfort of a camp bed in a mosquito net inside a rather hot tent for the comfort of a hotel bed in Panama – there for meetings at the headquarters of the Red Cross in the Americas.  So, unable to get back, I decided to carry on and our excellent charity travel agent, Ian Allen, did a great job of rearranging flights and re-routing me via New York and on to the Philippines.

Not totally random as I was due to undertake a monitoring trip there later in the month to review British Red Cross support to the typhoon response there from October 2009. So, via an overnight in Hong Kong, I ended up in Manila, crossing the international date line going backwards, hence the ‘loss’ of a day – not sure if I will ever get that Sunday back! I can’t say I enjoyed the 16 hour flight from New York to Hong Kong but at least I cleared my email inbox.  It’s pretty sad that I got excited about finding a power point in my seat to keep my laptop going.  Unfortunately the reality of this kind of work means a constant prioritising, even more so since the Haiti earthquake, that results in less important emails getting put aside for a clear space.  For me clear space is often when flying, so couped up with not much room, and with apologies to my neighbours, I tapped away all flight.

I’m now heading home via Kuala Lumpur, home of the Asian Red Cross headquarters, having had a very productive visit to the Philippines. It wasn’t quite a thriller in Manila but very impressive was a red cross shelter programme, where local government was lobbied on behalf of landless, vulnerable people to allocate new and safe land that we could build homes on.  These families all lived in very precarious locations, being extremely poor, on the edge of rivers and lakes, and in flood plains. We are building typhoon resistant shelters, complete with latrines, that are definitely a step up from what they had before and, most importantly, are in safe places.  I say “we” but actually I should say “they” as they are the ones constructing their own homes, under the supervision of our trained carpenters.  To see a tremendous sense of self ownership and pride in their new homes with gardens already planted around was great and helped make the long trip away from home feel worthwhile.

So six countries and six different cultures to get to grips with.  Good fun if a little head spinning at time, less fun was being in a wet and cold New York with light clothing designed for hot and humid climes! Oh well, nearly home, though I think my longsuffering family will ensure I stay grounded for a bit at least.

Haiti through the looking glass


From Catherine Lengyel, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies  reporting delegate in Haiti:

The first thing that strikes me as I drive along the main road into Port-au-Prince is the sight of Haitian flags snapping sharply in the breeze, along the flowery median, as if this were a place with not a care in the world. It is disconcerting, and I feel a bit like Alice. My eyes need only stray a fraction either way for the illusion to be shattered.

The mirror breaks into millions of shards, each as painfully sharp as the next.

Concrete slabs pancaked one atop the other, next to houses teetering at gravity-defying angles, next to tents, next to tarps, next to sheets, and old curtains, and shawls, and plastic, and anything that could possibly serve as a semblance of shelter, teetering and tottering up and down the muddy, worn hillsides.

This is where people now live, three months after the earthquake. Not for a day, or a week, or even a month. But on and on, into the unforeseeable future. This is as far from Wonderland as one could possibly get.

I have seen how hard my colleagues have been working to help, and there has been much progress. Blue tarps, and tents with red crosses or crescents dot the cityscape. Solid-looking latrines stand in professional rows. Children cavort at water points, before carefully balancing buckets of clean water atop their heads. Healthcare is being provided where none existed.

But turn another corner, and the mirror shifts once again. Hand painted signs cry out for help. ‘Nous avons besoin d’aide ici’. An arrow points this way or that, to yet another pocket of misfortune, where the latrines, and water, and tents or tarpaulins have yet to materialise. Our driver, neatly attired in a crisp shirt and pressed trousers, tells us simply that he too is living on the streets. We drive past what was once the university, now a field of rubble, and where many of his friends died.

I feel ashamed to have complained, the day before, at being drenched by the rain as I ran between my tent and the canteen, at the Red Cross base camp. A woman well into her sixties is pounding a hand-hewed stake into the hard ground. Some bits of cloth are folded to one side. She is re-making her small shelter, a rickety construction of cloth and sticks, which was washed away by the same rains I was cursing. She smiles politely and pounds tirelessly. A little farther up the hillside, a young man opens his door – a long piece of cardboard – to let me peer into his narrow A-frame structure. There is just enough room for him to sidle in next to a bed, neatly made up in vibrantly-coloured ‘Little Mermaid’ sheets.

The mirror cracks again, at this glimpse of individuality amidst such potentially soul-destroying hardship. But that is the point, I suddenly realise. Because we are working to help so very many – up to 400,000 people at last count – we end up counting our progress in terms of the tens of thousands of households that we have assisted.

Life may be nothing but a pack of cards, as Alice said, and indeed much of Port-au-Prince remains as precarious as a house of cards. Still, what we can and are doing is to help to re-stack the deck in their favour, despite what sometimes feel like insurmountable odds. Nevertheless, in our race against time and misery, it is important for us to remember that each and every one of these people has a story, and a life, of their own.