Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions

On taking the next journey…

travel quote

Photo taken in Collingwood Bay, South Island, New Zealand

Travel Quote of the Week: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.”       – Martin Buber

After a few months of rest and recuperation at home from my last humanitarian work in South Sudan, I am finally leaving for my next assignment in another country.  When I was offered the new job, I immediately accepted without researching about my new host country.  I have heard about it in the news as the world’s longest running civil war.  But other than that, I am unaware of its other aspects (such as cultural, geographical, historical, economical among others).   Although I have read the crucial bit of the country’s profile particularly on the security aspect (I know I can just google the information or read from my briefing orientation notes), but I prefer to learn more while in country rather than depending on available literature prior my journey.  I am excited to find out its uniqueness to my previous other host countries and to explore its road less travelled destinations.  It will be another challenging experience for sure, but I know that at the end of it all, I will come back home with new learnings and a much wider perception on how to live life to the fullest.

To all my followers, I apologize once again if I will not be as active as I promised I would be  in blogging this year.  Nevertheless, I will still continue to find time to post once in awhile if my situation permits to do so.

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Categories: New Zealand, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Travel Quotes | 2 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning

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This is my interpretation of last week’s Photo Challenge: Beginning.  When I learned that I will be staying in a tent, camping in remote areas with minimal basic facility or none at all (including shower and toilet!) in South Sudan, I decided to cut my hair short.  I  love having long hair and Ive had it for years.  But because it needed a lot of maintenance care like regular shampoo or conditioning, having a long hair in a hardship condition will not be easy (at least for me as I have the tendency to be very vain when it comes to my long hair!)

This photo is a painful reminder of the sacrifice I made for a humanitarian mission.  It also signifies a beginning for yet another new chapter of my life and a beginning of a new journey…far different from the comfortable material world I live in!

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: | 14 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy

One of the joys of working in Africa is interacting with the local communities in rural villages.  In South Sudan, local people, old and young, greet each other by shaking hands.  They are always curious as to the purpose of my visit.  Some would even stop by to chat with me asking about my country or other personal stuff like are you married, why you don’t have children etc.  Often I am mistaken as Chinese.  They greet me with Ni Hao (Hello in Chinese) or call me simply as China.

But what I like the most is when children excitedly shout Khawaja everytime they see me driving or strolling around the village.  Khawaja is the term that South Sudanese use to refer to foreigners particularly white people.  It is always a joy to hear children shouting Khawaja while waving at me with a big smile.  I am the only expatriate in my team, hence, I get all the attention.

One time, we passed by a primary school and students aged 4-7 were all waving at me shouting Khawaja.  On the way back, we decided to visit the school to conduct a mine risk education.  As soon as the car stopped, about a hundred children rushed towards the car all eager to see me.  I was mobbed by children all wanting to have a glimpse of the Khawaja!  Some even wanted to touch me and shake my hand.  Luckily the teachers came on time and asked them to go back to their classrooms. Before I left, I taught them how to do the flying kiss gesture.  Since then, everytime I pass by that village, children would greet me with a flying kiss.

However, in far flung areas, this is not the case.  Since white people are rarely seen in the area, young children are scared of me.  One time, we were mobilizing the community members for another mine risk education, when about 4 young children passed by.  I called them to join us.  As I approached the children, they were so scared that they started crying (shrieking actually) and ran away as if they have just seen a zombie walking.   The adults were laughing at me.

There was also one time where I heard one boy asking my colleague whether I am a man or a woman because I was in jeans and wearing a cap.   South Sudanese women always wear dresses, sarongs or skirts, rarely you will see them wearing trousers.

Children in the main town are more welcoming.  They are always excited to greet me usually asking me to take a photo of them.

So for these week’s photo challenge, I am going to feature photos that show JOY.  Here are some of the children I have befriended during my field work.  They were the ones who requested me to take photos of them and film them while they sing a song for me.  It was a joy to watch as they show off and pose for the camera.  They were so happy when they saw their photos and videos.

Joy

Joy

Joy

Joy

Here is the video I took of my little friends as they embodied life’s simple joys.

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: , | 17 Comments

Remembering the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

On December 26th, 2004, a tsunami generated by a 9.0 earthquake under the Indian Ocean slammed into the coastline of 11 countries including countries from East Africa, South Asia and South East Asia.  The quake created 50-foot waves onto the shores of the affected countries resulting to about 150,000 casualties making it the most destructive tsunami in history.

9 months after the tsunami, I went to Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India, Eastern part of Sri Lanka and in Central Thailand to produce a documentary film on the rehabilitation efforts of humanitarian organizations that have not been given much attention by the international media.

Almost all the countries situated around the Bay of Bengal were affected by the tsunami. In India, the most affected is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprising of 572 islands out of which 38 are inhabited.  Andaman and Nicobar Islands is located right at the center of Bay of Bengal just north of the earthquake epicenter causing extensive damage to the Andaman Islands.

In Port Blair, the capital mainland, most of the areas were still submerged in water.

Asia Tsunami

Asian Tsunami

What was used to be an agricultural land area, the tsunami has turned it into a lake of seawater.  Instead of the farmers plowing their rice fields, they fished for food.

Asian Tsunami

We also travelled to Little Andaman, one of the most affected islands about 10-hour boat ride from the mainland.  It was my most scariest boat ride ever!  While at sea, we experienced heavy rain, almost like a big storm. I thought we were going to die as big waves splashed through our old dilapidated boat.  People were vomiting everywhere.  I and my crew decided to go up the deck as there was no ventilation inside.  We were drenched from the combination of rain and big splashes of waves (I was imagining how we will survive if a tsunami happens at that moment!).

Asian Tsunami

At the deck, after the big storm

Little Andaman was not quite lucky compared to other Andaman Islands.  The entire island was ravaged.

Asian Tsunami

Almost a year after, clearing operation still left unfinished.  It was as if the tsunami has just happened the day before we arrived the island instead of 9 months ago.  There were still fallen trees blocking the roads, debris scattered everywhere and people have no permanent housing built yet by the government at the time of our visit.

Asian Tsunami

Due to logistical challenges, the rehabilitation process was way too slow.  Most of the humanitarian organizations operating in Little Andaman were from religious sectors such as the Catholic Church.

Asian Tsunami

The most primitive tribes in the world live in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  They have little contact with the outside world.  It was reported that most of the indigenous people have escaped the disaster because they live on higher ground or far from the coast.  Some believed that it was because of their oral tradition which taught them how to flee into the hills or elevated areas if the earth shakes that saved their lives.

Most of the deaths in the islands were recent settlers or immigrants.  We visited some of the affected communities and interviewed some of the survivors. We were also able to reach one of the indigenous tribes but we were not allowed to take photos.

In commemorating the 9th year anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami today, here are some of the photos of the tsunami victims whose stories of survival, resiliency and hope have touched me immensely.

Asian TsunamiAsian TsunamiAsian Tsunami

Asian TsunamiAsian TsunamiAsian TsunamiAsian Tsunami

Categories: Asia, India, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | Tags: | Leave a comment

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community

Last Sunday, December 15, heavy fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of the newest country in the world, South Sudan. Hundreds of people have been killed and about 20,000 seek refuge at two UN campuses.  According to the Human Rights Watch, there is likely that the fighting can lead to civil war as South Sudanese soldiers and rebels have executed people based on their ethnicity. About 500 people have already been killed and the fighting have now reached other states in the country.

As I continue to monitor the situation in the news, I thought of the times when I felt that sense of community among South Sudanese despite of their different ethnicity. The only thing that I can think of is working with my Community Liaison team in the field. I am the only expatriate and the only woman in my team. My local colleagues belong to different tribes and ethnic background. Seeing them coexist as teammates, workmates and eventually as close friends is a joy to watch. It is even more exciting everytime we camp together with the technical team whose members are mostly soldiers with different ethnic background. They play football and cards together, watch football match together, they eat and share meals together, they camp together and travel together. They often teach me the differences in their beliefs and tradition without being offensive to one another. There is always that sense of belongingness and identification as one people – as South Sudanese.

This week’s Photo Challenge allows us to interpret the word COMMUNITY in any way we want. As a way of tribute to my South Sudanese friends and colleagues, I am featuring that sense of community I witnessed in South Sudan to show to the world that amidst the fighting and tribal wars happening in the country, there is still the presence of ethnic diversity among its people — that feeling of oneness and belongingness where one matter to one another.

In particular, I am going to share one of my experiences…one that I will forever remember during my deployment on field with my team. We often travel in convoy, usually in two cars or more if the technical team are with us. I love seeing our land rover vehicles in convoy cruising in the countryside. We are always mindful of following our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) when traveling because of the insecurities in the areas we go to. Often, we communicate via radio to check one another making sure that we don’t lose sight of each other while on convoy. Because of the bad condition of roads in the country, we often encounter road accidents along the way which makes us stranded for more than an hour sometimes almost the whole day stuck in the middle of nowhere. This is where I often see the spirit of communal unity and cooperation among my local colleagues as well as with the nearby communities.

One day, we were on convoy with the technical team (about 5 cars) heading to a far flung village when we encountered a road accident. A truck was stuck in the middle of the road blocking our way. My men hurriedly went down to check the situation.

south sudan

They immediately offered to help.

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Two of our vehicles got stuck also when we tried to maneuvered to the side of the road.  The road was muddy and slippery with huge puddles everywhere. This is always the case when it is rainy season.

South Sudan

Nearby villagers also volunteered to help. It was a sight to behold. South Sudanese of different tribes and ethnic background working as one community.

South Sudan

After all our vehicles managed to pass by, everyone cheered, shaking hands and hugging each other for a job well done.

As the new conflict arises in the country, my prayers goes to my colleagues and friends hoping that they will remain to be the way they used to be — as one family, one community.

There are several images that I wanted to share but I opted not to show them in public to keep the identity of my South Sudanese colleagues.

For more on the current situation of the South Sudan Unrest, please visit UNMISS Videos on YouTube.  Here is one of the videos uploaded:

 

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: | 3 Comments

Being In Tune With Nature

On my previous post, In the Midst of Hardship, I described the difficulties I have encountered in the field while on deployment for a humanitarian mission in South Sudan.  Towards the end, I discussed some of my coping mechanisms.  One of these is being in tune with nature.  How do I do that?

Every morning, I am awakened by the sounds of my ‘little’ friends.  Their presence give me a reason to get up.  They actually push me to wake up every morning!    Why? Watch this and LISTEN!

Who would not want to wake up with their charming tweets and chirping sounds?  Their soothing and calming natural sounds help me connect to nature and the world outside.  And when Im out to greet them, they always make me smile with their colorful looks.  Guys, meet my very cute ‘little’ friends!

south sudan birds

Every morning, they come and visit me at the campsite.  I am not familiar with bird species but I have not seen such kind of small little birds in different colors in its natural habitat.  (I only see birds like these in pet shops or inside a cage kept as pets at homes).  They do look like the bee eaters but I am not sure.  Although they have their local names, I prefer calling my ‘little friends’ according to their colors.

Yellows (photos above) are often my morning companions.  They come in groups as early as 5:30 am.  They often stay on top of the trees or shrubs and sometimes join me while I drink my coffee outside my tent.

Blues (birds below) are my companion at work.  I always see them around when I am visiting the communities, usually distracting me when they start flapping their wings and create their unusual tweets.   One time, I was giving a Risk Education session and I saw one on top of a branch making funny posses as if catching my attention.  I couldn’t stop myself from admiring my ‘little’ friend that I had to excuse myself from my participants just so I am able to take a photo of Blue.

south sudan birds

Blacks are my afternoon companions.  I often see these little fellas when I go for walks in the village or to watch the African sunset.

South Sudan Birds

And finally, Reds, my favorite traveling companion.  I see them often in the bushes along the roads.  They distract me from the tough rough roads that I had to endure traveling in far flung villages.  Sadly though, I was not able to take loads of good photos of Reds because of road security issues, we can’t stop regularly just for picture taking.

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South Sudan birds

South Sudan offers a variety of Bird life because of the presence of wetlands.  It is one of the things that I love traveling in the field.  However, because of insecurities, cultural considerations and the kind of work that I do, I am not able to practice photography using my DLSR camera. Good thing I brought my compact digital camera with a very good Leica lens.  (There are a lot of places especially in the main towns and cities where taking photos are prohibited.  I was once caught by an undercover National Security personnel while taking photo of the River Nile. I had to delete the photo in front of him while explaining that I was taking photos only to show to my family because of its biblical relevance.  Since then, I am careful of taking photos particularly in the city/town proper!)

Instead, my photographic memories compensate to my lack of photographs.  Indeed, watching my ‘little’ friends in their natural habitat help me take my mind off my hardships. Their relaxing sounds help me fall asleep, unwind or wake up to.  They brighten my day and make my difficult situation a bit more pleasant to live with.

 

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | Tags: | 4 Comments

In the midst of hardship

I have been working as an international development worker since 2006 and have worked in several developing countries.  However, my humanitarian mission in South Sudan is by far the most challenging and most difficult, yet the most fulfilling job i’ve ever had. I would not trade this experience for anything….not even my past ‘Gasm’ Travels!

Here is a peek of my humanitarian lifestyle, in the midst of hardship.

My deployment entails travelling with my team (a group of 4 male national staff) in far flung places often on unpaved rough roads,….

South Sudan

in muddy, flooded highways…..

South Sudan

notwithstanding the imminent dangers of road accidents, robberies, car hijacking and ambushes….

South Sudan

as well as the Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) or unexploded ammunitions and anti-tank landmines and other remnants of war that are scattered in roads, in farms and gardens, in the bush, communities even within town centers.

This was taken during one of our clearance operations in one of the communities in Central Equatoria State. This is a main busy highway connecting a village to the main town. Unknowingly to many, there were a number of unexploded air bombs and mortars half buried on the ground which if detonated can cause a massive explosion.

UXO

When we reach our destination, we first look for a place to camp either within the village center or outskirt of town.

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Here are the various campsites we had so far….from Western Equatoria State to Central Equatoria State to Eastern Equatoria State….south sudan

Yes, I sleep in a small tent (which is often leaking when it is raining!)

…And this is my home…..welcome to my humble abode!

south sudan

….and this is my office….

South Sudan

Welcome to our kitchen! We hire a cook from the village.  We use charcoal in cooking.  If there is no borehole nearby, the river water serves as our water source. 

South Sudan

What we eat depends on how much budget we still have and what is available in the village market.  At the beginning of deployment, often there is meat but after a few weeks, my local teammates end up eating the same kind of food….the greens, a local leafy vegetable cooked in peanut butter.

South Sudan

A typical meal of South Sudanese is a combination of Greens and Ugali (made of cornmeal flour).  It is also the cheapest and most available food in every village.  Here is how Mary, one of our hired cooks, prepare the greens.

south sudan

There was one incident during our last week of deployment where we ran out of money in the field.    Luckily I always have my emergency canned goods stored.  However, the guys opted to hunt for food.  It has just rained that night.  I was inside my tent preparing for bed.  I saw them with a cup kneeling under a bulb light as if doing some rituals.  The next day, I asked them what they were doing outside my tent.  They showed me a cup full of flying ants.  These are the insects that come out after the rain.  They told me that it was for dinner.  They showed me how to prepare it, removing first the wings and drying the insects under the sun.  Then after a few hours, they fry it in oil then greens are added.  Voila! Sauté Flying Ants with Greens! (By the way, they also eat it raw!)  I did try it, it was not that bad…it was just like eating…um, well, insects…:)

south sudan

Well, that is not yet the most difficult ordeal I have to go through.  Bathing, pooing and peeing are what I call the worst in humanitarian hardship.    I have never cursed my being a woman because of these toilet issues!  I struggled a lot on this aspect especially as I am the only woman in the team.

Sometimes, we are lucky to find a public latrine nearby. Otherwise, we will do a makeshift latrine and bath area (my ass prefers this as it is more a ‘bit’ hygienic compared to the public latrine!) Or if not, tall bushes along the road or behind a big Mango tree will do. 🙂

south sudan

Top Photos: Public Latrine; Middle Photos: Makeshift Latrine; Lower Photos: Bathing Area

But in the midst of hardship, I had to find ways on how to divert my mind and not be affected by my difficult situation.  Here are some of my survival tactics:

When living in the tent is becoming unbearable, I would close my eyes and imagine I am camping in the wilderness of Australia.  When it is rainy and cold, I imagine camping in the highlands of Scotland.  It makes things more bearable just thinking of those beautiful places I have been to and reminisce those ‘gasm’ feelings I had during my travels.

I learned that in hardship situations, meditation and imaginations help a lot.  When I am fed up with eating canned foods or greens, I  would crave for something so I can focus on having it. So I will count the days till the end of the month when I can go back to the city  and treat myself with proper good food!

Lastly, being in tune with nature can have positive effects on mental and physical health creating balance in our inner ecology despite the ever changing environment.  The smell of wet earth after the rain, the amazing African sunset that brightly colors the horizon and the chirping of the birds in the morning are some of the reasons why I love working in the field.

Amidst these hardships, I have learned to relax, to accept and to go with the flow.  As what the saying goes, ” The more difficult it is to reach your destination, the more you will remember the journey. ”

Watch out for more on my survival tactics in my future posts…..

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | Tags: | 13 Comments

A Glimpse of Hope for South Sudanese

hand

We were on deployment in one of the remotest villages in Central Equatoria State when I took this photo of my South Sudanese colleague’s hand reaching for the flag using trick photography. You can create trick photography using the following techniques: 1. making your subject seem abnormally large in comparison to the rest of the setting; 2. making your foreground and background look as if they have little or no distance between them. I did the latter.

Last July 9, 2013, I was privileged to have witnessed the celebration of the 2nd  independence day of the newest country in the world, South Sudan.

After   decades   of  civil  war,  the  Republic  of  South  Sudan  finally  gained  full  independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Development  progress  is  somehow  evident  already  in  the  capital,  Juba,  in  terms  of  infrastructure  and  real    estate development. However, the city is still far from being a modern capital city.

The whole country still lags  behind  in  terms  of  basic social services and other infrastructure facilities like paved roads as well as having an airport with no international civil  aviation standards and river channels not having been made navigable.

There is no electricity supply yet in most part of the  country  including the capital Juba.  Businesses and offices make much use  of  generators.  Water  supplies  are  mostly  from  boreholes  or  River  Nile  fetched  by  water  tank  trucks, and being delivered daily to every household.  Drinking water are mostly from imported plastic water bottles available at small shops.

Aside from the limited access to social services, widespread epidemic diseases has been plaguing the country, with Malaria and Typhoid cases rising in numbers.

Social unrest and tribal wars that causes widespread conflict displacement in certain states  have  also  escalated  since the country gained its Independence. Other crimes such as robberies, ambush, car  hijacking, and killings  have  intensified  the past few months particularly in the main roads leading to Juba.  Expatriates humanitarian NGO workers have now  become primary targets of crimes since the beginning of this year.

Only  after  two  years  of  independence, the  government’s  reputation has already been tarnished by rampant corruption and  political  instability.  Hence,  South Sudan  entered  the  international  community  as  one the poorest countries in the world with more than half of the population surviving below the poverty.

However,  despite  the  immense  challenges  facing  the  country,  its  people  are  still  hopeful  that  the country can move beyond these social problems and eventually enjoy its status as the newest sovereign nation in the world.

But for now, South Sudanese are celebrating their new found freedom, relishing the end of decades of war.

Peace and prosperity to South Sudan!

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | 11 Comments

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