Helen Mumford Sole - Merlin Field Trip to Liberia

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Thanks again to everyone who’s been reading the blog. I’m leaving it up for the moment as it’s still getting lots of traffic.

Just wanted to let you know that Peter and I have pledged to raise $10,000 for Merlin before the end of the year. Amongst other things we’ll be running in the Washington Marine Corps 10k on October 25th.

If you’d like to sponsor us or simply donate to Merlin, please go to www.firstgiving.com/helenmumfordsole.

We’re running with 13 of our friends and neighbors and our collective goal is $25,000. Please help us to get there.

PS If you’d like to see the photos from Liberia, some of which are very moving, please email me at Helen@LoveAndGratitude.com.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Blog 12 - Who are you?

While I was in Liberia, I was aware of the paradox of scale. On the one hand I was overwhelmed with the size of the problem, depressed by how much there is to do, and how long it will take …..On the other hand, I realize how easy and inexpensive it is to change the lives of individuals. A single clinic doesn’t change the mortality rates for the nation, but it does change the mortality rate for the village in which it’s located. Because of the clinic, real people live who would otherwise have died. People are healthier and better able to contribute economically and socially to improve their own lives and therefore the lives of everyone in the village.

A newly trained midwife, doesn’t revolutionize the appalling national statistics on infant and maternal mortality, but she does enable mothers in that village to have access to clean and safe deliveries, and their new babies to be born with the likelihood of living longer than 5 years. This can change, at a stroke, the fate of whole families and whole villages.

A new generator doesn’t light up Monrovia, but does make sure that a clinic can be open 24 hours a day and admit emergencies around the clock.

$7 doesn’t eradicate malaria but it can buy a net to protect a child. Nets plus the vaccinations that Merlin provides mean that these kids can have an expectation of growing up in good health and have every chance to take their place and contribute to society.

In the end, it all adds up. Merlin changes the lives of individual people, thereby changing the lot of the villages in which they live, thereby ultimately changing the fate of the nation.

Broken down like this, I no longer feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task, rather I feel motivated to do my bit to change the lives of individuals… and therefore villages ….and therefore the country. And when the plight of all of the fragile countries like Liberia has been improved, then the world will have changed for the better….and that will be because people like us, who I now realize have everything, will have done something.

When my daughter says that she’s thinking of becoming an aid worker after she leaves university I can’t tell you how proud I feel. I don’t mind whether or not this is her eventual career, I’m just proud that it’s even in her mind. When we’re flying out of Ghana and she’s writing down ideas of how to raise money for Merlin at her boarding school, I can see how this trip has changed her perception of the world.

When my son finds himself unable to buy a hoodie, because he says they all seem ridiculously expensive, and when pressed it turns out that they’re considerably less costly than at home in the US, I realize that it’s his understanding of what money can buy that has changed. Later in the same day, when Katy and I are agonizing over whether or not to buy some scarves, Ed reminds us of a Liberian villager called Fromo who we met at a rural Merlin clinic. Fromo bounded over to introduce himself and was clearly delighted to see us. As Ed said, Fromo was at a clinic because he was ill, he possessed nothing but the clothes he was standing up in, and was as happy as could be. Ed asked us if our scarves would really make us happier….

My children have never experienced personal hardship as we now understand it. They have their issues of course, but they’re not the issues of poverty, conflict and aggression. I feel so grateful to Merlin that they enabled Katy and Ed to be exposed to an aspect of the world from which they’ve been sheltered. I suspect it will have changed their lives forever.

We’re now in Cape Town in South Africa and this afternoon we toured Robben Island, which is the prison in which Nelson Mandela was detained for 18 years. As I walked round, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t become more involved with anti-apartheid campaigning when I was younger. Sure I went to the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988, but if I look into my heart I know that that was more because of the great line up of bands rather than because I had anything more than a passing support for the cause.

Having become involved with Merlin, I’m determined that I won’t walk past this cause. I’ve seen firsthand what’s happening in a fragile state and can’t ignore it any longer. 

If there’s been anything in these blogs that makes you think that you’d like to help Merlin in any way please contact me or Merlin directly. I’m at helen.mumfordsole@hotmail.com  and you can click here for Merlin.

If there’s been anything in these blogs that has made you want to donate, then please go to Merlin’s website at www.merlin-usa.org

And finally, I’d like to thank you for reading this and ask if you could please let me know who you are! Please send me an email at Helen.mumfordsole@hotmail.com with ‘blog’ in the subject field, and I’ll know that you were with us on our journey.

 

4:42 pm edt          Comments

Friday, August 7, 2009

Blog 11 - Guest blog from my husband, Peter Sole.

Tuesday began with a visit to Monrovia YMCA, a magnet for kids of all ages and a great place for Merlin to reach youngsters for healthcare intervention and education.  We met Vivienne and Dexter who are funded by Merlin to operate a drop-in center at the Y. They also train peer educators who work in the community to raise awareness and improve outcomes around sexually transmitted infections, one of the top 5 healthcare issues in Liberia, general sex education, teenage pregnancy and so forth.

The YMCA’s ancient and occasionally leaky building is absolutely throbbing with kids of all ages, and it’s obvious from the concave steps in the concrete staircase that this place is exposed to a phenomenal amount of traffic. A room full of 7 and 8 year olds cavort around while watching a Michael Jackson video. 3 computer labs hum with 25 workstations each. 150 kids watch or play basketball in the gym. In another room 50 sit at a horseshoe shaped table engaged in a debating class. The library has more people in it than books. I exaggerate only slightly.

Everywhere posters proclaim: Personal Accountability, Teamwork and Collaboration, Tolerance, Openness and Honesty, Leadership and Contribution are what count at the YMCA. This is a very inclusive place, membership is open to everyone at no fee. For kids who don’t have the right clothes, sports shoes and T-shirts are provided so everyone can feel at home regardless of how humble their means.

The National Director, a young man in his early 30s, is inspirational, charismatic, self-assured and wonderfully articulate about the YMCA’s mission and its importance for the development of young people to become the next generation of Liberia’s leadership. From a rural area himself (and you’ll be pleased to know I resisted making a joke about The Village People), he owes much to the YMCA who recognized his leadership potential and provided the necessary support and mentorship to prepare him for his current job. He is an outstanding role model and living proof of what can be accomplished when opportunity and nurture are combined with talent, enthusiasm and a desire to serve.

Apart from the sheer energy that pervades this place and the very tangible atmosphere of fun and fellowship, the most striking thing about the YMCA is the feeling of optimism and hope that it engenders. However bad things are outside, and they are very bad for just about everyone, inside the Y anything seems possible. The raw material for Liberia’s future is being honed, developed and inspired on a daily basis while Merlin is taking care of their health. It’s a perfect partnership.

I left feeling good that we are members of the Greenwich YMCA and in some small way are contributing to the global organization. But I’m appalled and feel embarrassed by the dramatic contrast in facilities. In Greenwich there’s a recently donated $6m Olympic-sized swimming pool. In Monrovia, there isn’t even running water – except when it rains and the roof leaks.

I’m glad that in spite of everything, even in Monrovia, it’s fun to be at the YMCA.

 

Note from Helen

We've taken some dramatic photos that capture our experiences of Liberia. Unfortunately, I can't post them from Africa because there just doesn't seem to be enough bandwidth to load them. If you'd like me to alert you when they're available, please just send me an email with 'Photos please' in the subject line to helen.mumfordsole@hotmail.com and I'll be sure to let you know about them. Helen.

6:23 pm edt          Comments

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Blog 10 - White paint and Women

We slowed as we approached a wooden bridge over a small ravine. This is always an alarming moment because it’s very obvious that the bridges are not constructed to withstand the weight of a large 4x4 with 8 people in it. Suddenly at the side of the bridge, 3 figures emerge, who have been at the water’s edge below. One of them is a tall strikingly statuesque young woman who looks ghostly. She’s naked except for a long skirt of brightly colored African cloth. Her body from waist to crown, is covered in thick white dusty paint. Even her hair is whitened. It’s hard to tell how old she is but she’s probably in her mid to late teens.

The scene is startling and dramatic and I ask Torwan the Merlin health coordinator for the area, why she was dressed and painted in that way. He told me that it is traditional for women and girls to wear white paint for three months after they have been genitally mutilated. It is respect and recognition for all to see that they have been through an important rite of passage in rural Liberian culture.

No one knows the statistics for female genital mutilation in this country but it is thought to be widespread, and is commonplace in the clinics where girls and women go to be treated for resulting infection or later childbirth.  Throughout our time in rural Liberia, we had seen many girls daubed with what looked like white powder, although we’d never seen it as thickly applied as today. It was so commonplace, that we hadn’t thought to ask about it as it didn’t seem so strange in such a dusty country. With complete shock, I suddenly realized that all those girls we’d seen had actually been recently genitally mutilated. Lots of them were younger girls of maybe 7 or 8, and the thought of this process being done to their unblemished young bodies with a blunt razor blade, and no anesthetic or pain relief makes me recoil with horror.

I try to reconcile this horrific practice in some way. In general I believe we have to be very careful not to judge other cultures and apply some kind of misguided Western cultural superiority, after all cultural imperialism is still imperialism….. but  it’s impossible for me. I can’t reconcile it at all and I’m really struggling to see this in any way other than barbaric.

However undeveloped Liberia is, this also seems anachronistic in a country that has elected Africa’s first female president, where women are fully emancipated, and where there is a real will to establish female rights and equality.

This experience happened 3 days ago. I’ve seen several girls since then with white dusty markings and I feel a now familiar surge of horror and distress. The image of the statuesque young woman, emerging from the side of the river, her features hidden by the thick paint, remains very strong for me. In fact I can’t get it out of my head. It’s one of my most vivid mental snapshots from Liberia….and it haunts me.

5:49 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blog 9 - The Alchemists

I’ve now seen several medical facilities including a hospital, 4 clinics, a health center and a teenage drop-in place for HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and the first thing that strikes me over and over again is how basic everything is. 

When I say basic I mean an urban clinic with only 1 tiny room for ante-natal screening, delivery and immediate post natal support. I mean a lab for blood, urine and fecal testing that doesn’t have electricity so samples have to be dried using the heat from candles inside an old tin can. Waiting rooms that are outdoors, covered from the sun by simple roofs, and chairs that are rows of long wooden benches. Treatment rooms that are not as well painted as the inside of our garage at home. A Clinic that is open 24 hours a day for the delivery of babies where the staff on duty at night have to wait in the dark for their patients, because the power generated from the solar panels won’t last all night. Pits where placentas are buried. Bathrooms that are outside and are just holes in the floor. No running water, but water pumped from wells and that has to be boiled and filtered. I mean really, really basic.

The second thing that strikes me is how much can be achieved with so little. This is due to the outstanding skills and dedication of the Merlin staff and country health workers who work the magic that turns so little into so much for so many.  We must have met about 30 or 40 Merlin people while we’ve been here all of whom are deeply impressive. Each has story to tell, and sadly I’m only able to pick out a few of them here.

There’s Jan who runs all the projects here in Liberia. She’s a veteran of aid work and has worked all over the world including Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and other places too. She has two grown up boys and when they were small they travelled with her. Her unflappable demeanor, practical approach and open style inspires confidence right from the start.

Then there’s Dickson, the driver. He’s Liberian and has worked for Merlin for 7 years, long before the conflict finished. He’s currently saving the money for phase 2 of his home improvements. His first house was shelled during the war so he has been building a new home for his 7 children. So far he’s built the walls and he and his family are living in a tent inside the walls until he has enough to build the roof. He’s very proud of his daughter who has just got a degree from the University of Liberia.

There’s Anna, who I met only briefly over dinner because she left the next day to go to Grand Cru, a very remote place in the south of Liberia. She was a fast track civil servant at the British Foreign Office who left to join Merlin. Merlin are not yet in Grand Cru and her project is to open it up and build and staff new clinics in this most difficult of territories. I can’t begin to imagine how incredibly difficult it will be to create this infrastructure from nothing, in such a disconnected place.

There’s Miranda in Buchanan. Buchanan is Liberia’s 2nd city but has none of Monrovia’s city feel. It can only be reached by 4x4 along a potholed and unforgiving road that shakes your bones and leaves you feeling exhausted. It’s in these remote conditions that Miranda manages Merlin’s 14 clinics and hospital as well as the compound within which her staff work and the security that goes with it. Miranda is focused and completely on top of her game, and you can tell she lives and breathes this post. Having said that she’s tired and is counting the days until her month long vacation when she can see her boyfriend and parents again.

Torwan works with Miranda and oversees several of the Buchanan clinics. Respected by his field staff and extremely knowledgeable about local issues that impact the delivery of healthcare, he gave us a remarkable insight into the silent practice of female genital mutilation that is still commonplace here.

Helene is French, a graduate in business, and has dedicated her career to managing the Finance, HR and legal aspects of NGO field operations. Her boyfriend is a member of the American Bar Association and works on legal and contract issues for charities that specialize in that field. An impressive and inspiring couple who are at once both light and serious and make you ponder the superficiality of our normal lives.

Vivienne and Dexter are Liberian and they work for Merlin in the drop-in center housed in the YMCA in Monrovia. They are passionate about their work educating young people about reproductive health, and counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS. They speak directly and brightly about sex, sexually transmitted infections, and condoms and it’s no surprise that the statistics in their neighborhood are trending in the right direction. We met the head of the YMCA in Monrovia who could not have been more fulsome about their work.

Ginny runs the clinics in Monrovia. This is a difficult job because of the overcrowding and squalor of the inner city areas and shanty towns. Ginny is lively, happy and engaging and very committed to getting her clinics the formal accreditation and recognition they deserve from the Ministry of Health and Clinton Foundation assessors who audit them.

These people, and many more like them that I don’t have the space to introduce here, work in the most difficult of conditions. Many are far from home, where nothing is familiar or reliable and there’s no real time to acclimatize. They have jobs that they can never leave behind at the office. Even on their rest days they are thinking and talking about their tasks. They live in very basic housing with no luxuries and unsurprisingly, they get tired. But in spite of all this, they continue day after day to make things happen that are otherwise impossible.

What they do with donated money is alchemy. Be assured that every dollar they receive is directed efficiently and effectively to the people and projects that will benefit the most.  Giving money is the easy part. These people double, triple maybe even quadruple the value of the funds we give with the priceless effort they put in. It’s like watching miracles.

8:44 pm edt          Comments

Monday, August 3, 2009

Blog 8 - Life and Death....

Today I cried. We were visiting the Liberian Government Hospital in Buchanan which is a large facility with over 170 staff, run by Merlin, funded by IrishAid and staffed by nurses and doctors from all over the world.

As we drove up we saw hundreds of Liberians, mainly women and children sitting in the shade of the covered area that acts as the waiting room for the out patient clinics. The hospital opens at 9 and some of the people arrive at 5am to make sure that they are sufficiently high in the queue that they’re certain to be seen by a doctor or nurse that day.

We were shown the operating theaters by Doctor Andrew, a medic from the Philippines. We had dinner with him last night and heard how he had been working as Merlin’s surgeon at the hospital for the last 18 months. He returns home this weekend although his replacement hasn’t yet arrived. As the only surgeon, Dr Andrew is on call 24 hours every day. We asked him how many people he treats every day. We should have asked him how many lives he saves every day because that is the nature of his work. He operates on at least 8 or 9 patients each weekday.

A touring American surgeon is visiting the hospital for 1 week. His specialty is correcting cleft palettes. This is a heartbreaking affliction in this country as families often reject their babies if they’re born with this defect. Posters were put up over the last month advertising “Project Smile’ and urging people to bring their children. This morning over 300 mothers have asked for their child to be operated on, which is more than can possibly be accommodated.

As we tour the hospital, I keep my tears at bay, through the labor ward, the women’s ward where many were dying of AIDS, and the men’s’ ward where gruesome wounds were being dressed, and even the children’s ward. Here, there are 17 beds and 27 children have been admitted. On the left is a little boy, maybe 2 years old who is convulsing with malaria. The nurses are rushing to him. On my right a mother shows me the body and legs of her 3 year old son, who has been burned so badly that his beautiful black skin now only remains on his lower legs and face. The rest of him is pink. The soup cooking on the open fire, was accidentally spilt all over him as he played close by. Burns are a very common occurrence on the children’s ward.

In the bed next to him is a little girl who can’t be more than 1 or 2 years old. She has a mass growing in her stomach and has a distorted body. Her mother holds her up to stand on the bed and she’s tiny. I ask how old she is and I’m stunned that she’s 4 years old, nearly 5. That’s the same age as my little girl, Lizzie, who is probably twice her size and maybe 3 times her weight.

As we leave the ward, we walk outside where there’s a little hut. The door is ajar and we can see a table inside it. On the table wrapped lovingly and completely in beautiful Africa cloth, tied with string at the neck, hips, knees and ankles, is the unmistakable shape of the body of a small child. It was that that was too much to bear, and brought my tears.

This is the reality of very high infant mortality, where almost a quarter of children die before they reach their 5th birthday. 2 of my children stand next to me as we realize what we are seeing. At that moment I feel a profound sense of gratitude that they’re with me.

How lucky we are to be born in the Western World.

 

*Pictures of Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, opening the Merlin hospital in Buchanan http://www.merlin.org.uk/Lists/News-Detail.aspx?id=779

 

6:56 pm edt          Comments

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Blog 7 - Former government minister shows us round Monrovia

Today we were shown round Monrovia by Emmanuel, who was Liberia’s Minister for Information and Tourism from 1970 to 1973. The 70s were his heyday and they were also the rock n’ roll years of Liberia, when Monrovia was a lively bustling city with a healthy tourist industry and was the destination for visitors from all over Africa.

The Hotel Intercontinental Ducor was built at that time and must have been spectacular. It sits on the highest point of Monrovia overlooking the Ocean and has a breathtaking view of the sweeping peninsula far below it. It was abandoned during the civil war, and was looted and stripped bare by the squatters who lived there for 10 years.

Today, children still play in the pool but now it’s empty and they slide from the shallow to the deep end on empty jerry cans. The fantastic views from the old dining room cannot be missed, though the windows have long since blown out. The reception area houses beds for the army and 1 floor up there’s a make shift classroom with a blackboard pinned to the wall run by Mercy Schools. 

This building is far from exceptional.  Road after road in Monrovia is full of the ruined shells of buildings. The looting and stripping that has gone on subsequently is so comprehensive that it’s difficult to determine which buildings are falling down and which buildings are going up. Except that there are many buildings lying derelict and hardly any being built.

And in between all this, the poorest people in the world go about their daily business scavenging a living out of this ruined city.  Running water piped to every home, and widely available electricity are a distant memory as is an adequate food supply and decent sanitation. Shanty dwellings are everywhere and the beautiful beaches are impassable as they have become the bathroom for most of the city’s dwellers.

It’s heart breaking to see what’s become of Monrovia and its people. It makes us ask ourselves what can we do to help. If you were here, I know you’d feel the same.

5:03 am edt          Comments

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Blog 6 - The Boys Playing Soccer

It takes about an hour to drive from the airport to Monrovia. The road itself is excellent, repaired recently by the Chinese, who have not sent money to Liberia but have supplied labor and plant to rebuild roads, bridges, and buildings. Every renovation and rebuild project seems to be labeled with Chinese characters.

There’s a small amount of traffic on the road. There are aid agency vehicles just like ours, typically white 4x4s with the agency emblem on the top and sides.  The UN is everywhere. There are also small trucks piled high with sacks, then with Liberians perched dangerously on the top. And there are state taxis, just a few, and surprisingly sprayed the same yellow color as those in New York City. 

The first village we drive through after Roberts International Airport is called Smell No Taste. The huts are built of wood and mud, usually with no walls, or else they’re reclaimed from the ruined shells of concrete buildings bombed out in the war. Families sit outside under trees, gathering around fires and cooking pots, and small, maybe too small, children play games and chase each other.

The strange name of Smell No Taste came about after the 2nd World War when the US built the airfield for their airforce and erected a military camp right opposite to the village. Each day the villagers would be subjected to the most wonderful cooking aromas as the US cooks prepared the food for their soldiers and airmen. Sadly they received only the cooking smells as there was no surplus food for the villagers to eat. The village soon became known as Smell No Taste and the name has stuck so solidly that no one we speak to can remember what it had been called originally.

A few miles and several more villages along, having passed UN army barracks and many churches, the density of the villages increases and we see fewer mud and more brick built dwellings. It’s clear that we’ll soon be in the city. As scrub gives way to city, we come across the last large stretch of sand. It’s a soccer pitch, with white goal posts at either end. Boys are playing soccer and there are lots of people gathered on the sidelines. As we draw closer we can see there’s something not quite right. And then we realize what it is. Every boy on the pitch is on crutches and has only one leg. We don’t like to ask the driver to explain it to us, we just silently acknowledge that we are witnessing what we’ve read about – the brutal amputation of limbs by warring factions.

In this hour’s drive we have a snapshot of Liberia.  We see evidence of the ravages of war on the infrastructure, the economy, but most strikingly of all, on a generation of young men.  

9:34 pm edt          Comments


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