East Africa

Life in a Volcanic Dessert

As we bumped along the dirt road to what looked like the middle of nowhere, we suddenly pulled in view of what appeared to be a brand new center. It’s off-white buildings perfectly constructed. Even the ground had been covered in rocks to give the compound a feeling of wealth—but that was just an illusion.

Now all that remained was an abandoned center, cut off from funds, full of women, children, and older men inhabiting the rooms, once meant for classrooms. We were hours outside the city and with a minority people group living there, the government overlooked the needs. Others had come to help, but they also had given up, as seen by the classrooms now used as makeshift homes.

When our trucks pulled up with food, clothes, and blankets for this small community, it didn’t take long for word to spread. Soon children and women swarmed the vehicles. We quickly realized that what we thought would be a small gathering of village elders, had turned into a community event. Later that day, we learned that another organization was also planning a distribution that day, which may have led to the community already on alert for distribution of aid.

Mira stood out in her bright blue hijab, the colors bouncing off the background of brown dust. She had a baby slung on her hip and one of her daughters following her around as small children often do. Though she had another child, he was out playing with his friends. Mira isn’t sure what age her children are, as age isn’t something often kept in their community. Instead, she was more concerned with what they would eat and if they are safe.

Asna appeared quiet and uncomfortable, she nestled her little girl in her lap, and after few questions began to smile. She was pregnant. Joy came across her face as she told us, and one could see that having children out here was no small feat. Later when we were eating with the village elders, we learned that many women do not have access to a hospital. If there is an emergency they will go by ambulance to a town several hours away, but for the majority, having a baby is something done at home.

Agnus reminded me of myself. She had a gold nose ring similar to mine, she was tall and sturdy like me, and even had a 4-month-old boy just as I did. It’s funny, seeing yourself in someone, yet living completely different lives. I can’t imagine the hardships that Agnus faces. While we were blessed with a beautiful windy day, there are many months out of the year that their home is considered one of the hottest habitable places on earth. Temperatures sore above 100 degrees, and when you only receive water once every 10 days, surviving becomes that much harder.

Several of the women who received rice and beans at the distribution

Asna pictured with her daughter

Asna pictured with her daughter

Agnus pictured with her children

Mira pictured with her daughter

We asked the elders how we could help relieve their strain for fresh water. Living in the middle of a volcanic desert doesn’t provide much access to clean water, or even dirty water for that matter. There is a water source 30 minutes away by foot, but it’s not much help, when there is no irrigation system for the water to reach the village. When asked what would happen if the water trucks do not come, Muhammed* replied matter of factly, “We would die.”

In our line of work there are often two things that help people get out of the poverty cycle—nutrition (provided through water and food) and education. But here, in a small village, of forgotten minorities, there is neither. The children do not have a school to go to, though they live in abandoned classrooms. Muhammed said that the older children are becoming restless and starting to cause trouble. The lack of basic needs is why these people feel helpless. Though they keep on having babies and caring for their young, they yearn for more—a place where they can send their children to school and not have to limit their intake of a water, a luxury we so often take for granted.

But since we now live in the country, we have the opportunity to keep helping, to keep loving, and to keep going to the hard and forgotten places. So it's our hope that we can soon send some teachers into this community and begin educating these kids, because we really believe that one of the biggest helps in getting out of the poverty trap is education. 

We feasted on goat meat and more

The fed us enough for days

Ya know, when you get a flat, and it takes 5 gives and two goats to get it done...

Because it's not a trip unless you come back with a goat. Don't worry by the time we were done we had one more goat in the back. Yet, sadly these goats will be dinner soon. :)

I am still amazed at to how they get up there!

Baby toes and the most colorful meal I've ever seen!

The boys hanging out.

Ezra was not into this flat tire thing...

This beautiful girl and her father live in a hut on the side of the road that takes us to our destination. We stopped and gave them some of the food we had for our distribution.

goats on trees

La Bonne Cuisiniere (The Good Cook)

As part of a NGO here in the Horn of Africa we strive to not just deliver aid and leave, but to develop valuable skills that will help people pull themselves out of poverty. One project that has been running for several years is The Project House.

How Musical Chairs and Face Painting Break Barriers

How Musical Chairs and Face Painting Break Barriers

I loved musical chairs as a kid. Usually it involved winning a cake, so what's not to love about that! Although watching children play musical chairs can be and adventure, especially when it's their first time learning the game.

African Beach Trip

When living in Africa there are things you come NOT expect. You celebrate on days where the water runs, electricity is solid, and you don't pass out from the heat. Even though most of those things are regular in our country, I prefer to never expect. 

Zero Tolerance on FGM

I first heard of FGM when I was watching Half the Sky. FGM or Female Gentile Mutilation is an ugly, not very known, reality. Popular in many parts of Africa it's a practice that dates back generations. And for many, it's a practice centered on old wives tales. 

I'm not going to describe what happens, because to be honest, I'm not even sure I can. But I want to tell you my story in facing this horrible tragedy. 

We were in hot East Africa and I was sitting in a room with three other women. They begin to describe their work with their girl's running program. We talked about how the girls managed to get proper nutrition, what their school schedule looked like, how their parents felt about them participating in a running group, and what they considered to be some of their biggest challenges. 

It seems that every month there comes a time in a woman's life when things just aren't so pretty. Nodding in agreement we understood, but you see that was just it—we didn't understand at all. In fact, we had NO idea. For when girls hit puberty they are often subjected to FGM. Even though many countries have outlawed this practice it still happens, and because in many places it's illegal it happens in unsupervised, unclean places. But when a woman has undergone FGM she doesn't just experience her monthly time like everyone else. She goes through a pain so strong it rivals childbirth...and this happens every. single. month. *jaw drop*

So these young girls already facing a lack of food, clean water, and proper shelter, now face a pain so unbearable most of us would be upside down in pain pills after minute one. As they go on to describe what happens to these girls my mind goes wild. I completely understand these women's concern and I'm even more proud when she tells me how she's stood up for these women. She's fought for their safety by going to their parents, telling them the real truth of what they are doing to their daughters, and even offering them education. 

A few days later I found myself in new whirlwind of a new country. This time I was in the thick of it. I was no longer in a place that considered this illegal, but in fact, 90% of women had undergone FGM, and all from the push of their own mothers. But that's where Dr. Edna comes in. I got the privilege to meet Edna and hear about her fight in FGM. She has a hospital in the city where she trains and sends out midwives. These midwives not only help with delivery but they help with educating locals on the reality of FGM. 

Meeting Dr. Edna and hearing her talk about all the great things her hospital is accomplishing. (side note: I need to work on my smiling...life of always being BEHIND the camera I guess)

Meeting Dr. Edna and hearing her talk about all the great things her hospital is accomplishing.
(side note: I need to work on my smiling...life of always being BEHIND the camera I guess)

Dr. Edna telling us about her initiative to train and education the women and men that work for her. 

Dr. Edna telling us about her initiative to train and education the women and men that work for her. 

I realize I'm not in a position to train midwives or stand up to mothers, but I am in a position to educate you. I can tell the stories of the women I've met and I can give you options to help. 

1. Donate to Dr. Edna's hospital directly: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/EAHF/

2. Donate to Global Aid Network. GAiN works in several countries around the world that help combat not just FGM but also in helping provide washable famine pads to women and girls. I've actually gotten the privelage to help work on this campaign and love watching it in action! Read more here: http://www.gainusa.org/engage-luopads/

2. Share stories like the one above and educate yourself. Here are some articles from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/female-genital-mutilation

Building Dreams Inside a Refugee Camp

Sweat rolled down every inch of my body. My clothes soaked up water like the children’s toy that just plopped into a glass of water. But it didn’t matter; adrenaline pumping as my senses took in the surroundings. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but for the middle of nowhere there sure was a lot of activity—women carried jerry cans back from the community well, children followed along, stopping to look at whatever creepy-crawly moved in front of them.

Soon our SUV rolled to a stop. After crossing through rough terrain a security checkpoint and a little smooth talking we made our way to the make-shift sewing center.

Camera strapped to my hip I bent my tall frame and entered in. Inside the dark sauna were around 20 young women working on their latest projects. Their smooth, black skin only accented their brilliant white teeth. It made me wonder what a Crest ad campaign manger would do if he walked in here! There was only one way they could avoid the yellow and brown stained teeth of their male counterparts—no kat. The highly addicting drug that drove so many into desperation, if chewed long enough, would stain anyone’s pearly whites. But these ladies were different. Their white teeth alone showed me they had determination.

 After the teachers introduced us we made our rounds to talk to the girls. Each one proudly held up their latest creation as I snapped a photograph. But the real joy came when I turned the camera around. You see, it’s funny how we Westerners react to the back of the camera. We squench our nose and usually follow with some sound of “ugh”. Immediately coming up with reason why we need to lose 5 pounds, get a haircut, or never wear that shirt again. But anytime I’ve turned the camera around to someone in the developing world I get a different response. I get joy, usually ensued by uncontrollable laughter. Whether it’s elderly men, young women, or children, they are fascinated to see their portrait! And now that they’ve discovered this little gem of the digital age, they want more. And being a photographer sent to capture stories, I never complain!

After capturing a few shots we stopped to talk to a young girl named Ayaani*. Her hot pink scarf immediately caught my attention followed by her shy demeanor.  But soon she began to open up, telling us of how she had arrived to the refugee camp when she was 8 years old along with her parents and two siblings. At only 16 years old she has spent most of her childhood living in make-shift house made of UNHCR tarps. She appreciates what she has now, because even though she doesn’t have much recollection of what happened before they arrived to the camp, she knows it wasn’t safe, and she knows this camp saved her life.

They told her she is in the process of going to America, that her family along with 6 others will soon be approved. Her face lights up as she tells us through a translator how she doesn’t want to be ignorant; she hopes to study both English and French.

Being in a refugee camp seems to always-illicit dreams of getting out to the Western world. Growing up watching friends and even enemies get tickets to the West creates a fascination of something better to come. I wish I could tell her of my friends who’ve made it and how living in the West isn’t always better. Fighting to overcome a new culture, language, and being too old for school, having to figure out a job with little to no education presents a new kind of hell none of us could imagine. But of course I can’t say that. In fact, what I really want to do is give her a hug hand her my phone number and tell her to call me as soon as she lands. But that wouldn’t be wise either. So instead, I muster up a smile as I choke back tears.

Each of the girls in the sewing center have a unique opportunity. They have the privilege of learning. They are given a skill that allows them to bring home some income, but more than that it allows them to bring home dignity. They are blessed to have teachers and supporters pouring into them, looking them in the face and telling them they are worth it!

So join me in praying for these ladies. Pray for their dreams and aspirations and pray for those who are pouring into their lives, that will never ever stop.

*names changed for security reasons

Ayaani showing off her latest creation.

Tina and I posing with two of the female teachers.

Group Shot of the sewing teachers

Group shot of some of the girls in the sewing program.

I absolutely LOVE this photo of Nami, one of the teachers. Her joy was seriously contagious. 

If you'd like to hear more about how you can play a part in helping us fund more projects like this leave your email below in the comment section and let's get together for coffee or over skype!

Kenya: Meet Grace

In October of 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to East Africa. While I only spent a day or two in Kenya, I was able to go out and visit with the Maasai People. The organization my husband and I work for, Global Aid Network,  has a trusted relationship there and throughout the years they have helped build schools, water wells, and more. I spent the day getting to know some of the ladies as well as hearing the stories of the kids who attend the school. The first set of photos are of Charity. She is so precious! Her mother led us into their hut and then let us photograph her family. She wanted her Bible in her hand as we photographed them so everyone would know she was a Christian. Then her and several other ladies proceeded to sing and dance for us.

I also had the privilege of meeting three brothers. Who are really the cutest things possible. They had to walk over 3 miles to get to school everyday, which is evident by the holes in their shoes. But now thanks to the new school they can attend classes in their own village! And hopefully get some new shoes soon.

And one of my favorite stories is of Grace. She was not allowed to go to school like the other kids in her village. Her father would beat her and force her to work all day long. Our Kenyan partners heard of this and every time they would visit they would ask Grace's father to let her go to school. Finally after numerous times of asking her father agreed. Now Grace is healthy (since she receives food at school), she is happy, and her father does not beat her and force her into child labor. "The change is significant!",  Joshua and Tabitha (Kenyan partners who work in this area) tell me.

"O My Soul, Faint Not."

"O my soul, faint not, faint not." 

Strong words from some of my favorite artists, Jenny & Tyler. The words from this song (and their whole album for that matter) helped get me through a trip that not only tested my faith in God, but own personal values and future. There is so much I could say about my time in the refugee camp in East Africa, but to sum it up, there wasn't enough time.

One look at the faces of people hurting, starving, dying and it's enough to make you want to weep. But to live amongst them, to walk the path they walk is something I could never do. Yet there was happiness. There was joy. And there was laughter. Yes, there was heartache and death in a place where hope is not even familiar, but there was life. Mothers with their children, children with their laughter, and one white girl in a sea of hurting.

"Oh my soul keep up, keep up in love."

Listen to Faint Not by Jenny & Tyler

P.S. If you are in the Dallas area stop by Crooked Tree Coffee House where many of these photos and the stories that accompany them are hanging on the wall. And if you make it in, be sure to tweet me @jessicalee2819

Holding on to Hope: Meet Fatixya

Jess Pics Mog Day 2 Fatxiya.jpg

As we went back to our hotel and I found myself alone in the silence, I began wondering what I was doing here. Had I come in vain? These thoughts danced around in my mind as I fell asleep waiting for another day...another day of heartache.

As we drive around the city our guarded guides take us to another camp. You can imagine that in a place where visitors are scarce, news travels fast that we have come. People emerge from their paper tents. Crowds start to form as they look for a sign of hope. Children start to laugh and gaze in anticipation. And my heart begins to get too close to my chest.

I meet a family on the other side of the barbed wire. I can't seem to find a way in so I'm stuck, once again, as an outsider from their world. I ask her name. "Fatima," she responds in a quiet voice. Through my translator I begin to find out that she is the grandmother of the seven kids all huddled up next to her. Her daughter was one of the lucky ones to be picked for the distribution. I begin making faces at the kids, probing them for laughs, when I notice a young woman in a bright pink head-dress. She seems to know the family and I found it it's Fatima's niece, Fatixya.

Fatixya comes over eager to hear what's going on. She politely answers my questions as I learn she is 27 years old and only arrived in the refugee camp 3 weeks prior. She told us how she has 2 children and her husband divorced her. She has walked days just to get to a place that offers not much more hope than from where she came. I notice that Fatixya is pregnant. She looks down at her covered round belly and says, "Yes. I am 8 months pregnant. I am in a lot of pain."

Knowing there are no hospitals or doctors on call in the forsaken place, I ask her where she plans to have her child. She looks over her left shoulder at the camp across the street, "in my tent." My heart breaks, and tears begin to well up. But I notice something strange. She isn't crying, she isn't sad, and in fact, she's almost laughing. She has a beautiful smile across her face. I ask Hassan, my translator, why is she smiling.

He asks her, looks back at me, and says something I will never forget, "She is happy because you are interested about her."

I bow my head, part in prayer, and part in shame. My heart pounding, my eyes blurry, my head spinning, what am I to do with that? I look up at Fatixya and smile. She may be smiling because I want to hear her story, but I'm smiling because she gave me hope. Hope for her people, hope for their openness to one day escape the heartache of war, famine, oppression, lifelessness. Hope that when I go back home to my cozy bed and all you can eat buffets that I will no longer be stagnant. Hope that her story can change the hearts of our Western comforts. Hope that one day I will return and bring Good News that they so desperately need to hear. Until then I smile. Because in our smiles holds a thousand words. It holds hope. It holds love, and most importantly it holds the truth of something greater. That when times are tough we continue to press on. We strive to fight and push back the darkness. And whether we are fighting in refugee camps in Africa or the suburbs of small towns, there is darkness everywhere, and we must fight.

While I only spent a few minutes with Fatixya it was enough to change my world. I glanced over my shoulder to answer a question from one of my colleagues, and by the time I turned back around she was gone. I had my camera in hand, planning on how to take Fatixya's portrait, but now she was gone. No one could find her,  but I did happen to snap one photo of her  before we talked. It was all I had left of that conversation, but it was all I needed.