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Cyclone Winston: A very personal account

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I love this photo. It was taken about 6 months ago during a trip to RakiRaki, the community we support in Fiji. I am sitting with our in-country Coordinator, my long time friend Urmila, outside her humble, corrugated iron home. We had just finished the meal she always makes me when I visit; spicy tomato relish, okra curry and roti. The best Indian food I have eaten has come from her kitchen, griddles and pots over an open fire in a clay pit.

I remember how content I felt that Sunday, we had just farewelled a group from the German International School, our great supporters who had been visiting the schools we work with in the local community and we were sitting outside on the porch overlooking the fields and mountains. If you’re lucky, in the afternoons a sea breeze will cool things down as it did that day, and the quiet can calm a frenetic city girl like me.

Urmila’s grand daughter was helping pick and sort chillies from the bush and we all just sat chatting. I realised in that moment that it felt like home. It’s familiar to me after 10 years of visits and the family who live there have become my extended family. We work together for the same cause but as Kym, one of our team members said after her first visit some years ago – It’s personal for me now.

We have recently posted photos of Kajul, Urmila’s daughter, the very first Girl to be supported by our program. She has graduated school and has started Uni and we couldn’t be prouder. So it was upsetting to hear from her late Saturday night, away from home staying near Uni, worried about her family and scared by what was coming in the form of the most destructive cyclone not only in Fiji’s recorded history, but in the Southern Hemisphere.

Urmila had also been texting me, assuring me that she would be moving to the local school to take shelter and that they were taking the government’s warnings and direction seriously, they have been through many a cyclone, but nothing like this.

After we lost contact I followed the storm closely and felt sick to my stomach when I read it would be making landfall in RakiRaki. Kajul texted one last time and said that her mum and family hadn’t been able to get to shelter after all, and I tried to imagine a scenario where their home was able to withstand the force of Category 5 Cyclone Winston.

In March last year I was in Vanuatu days after Category 5 Cyclone Pam slammed into that island nation. I could not process what I was seeing having been there the week before and many times before that. The destruction was unforgiving and did not discriminate. So my heart stayed firmly in my throat until I heard from my friend today.

Urmila is in shock and distressed. Their house and all their possessions, their animals and their livelihoods are all gone. They survived because they were able to make it to a neighbour’s house that was sturdier. Her husband is badly hurt, his face having been slashed by flying debri.

There is no clean water or electricity and the information is still sporadic. I am going on occasional texts and Facebook messages from her eldest daughter in Nadi. Emergency services haven’t made their way there yet, trees are still down and we have no way of knowing yet how our Girls and their families are doing.

What we know for sure is that the damage is widespread and devastating, many, many people are homeless.

The families we work with will need help getting back on their feet. We will need to replace school books and bags, uniforms and travel passes. While the Fiji Red Cross and other services will help with blankets and water, medical treatment and emergency items, we will be IT for helping our Girls get back to school.

Their families are vulnerable for many reasons, but what upsets me the most in times like these is that they can’t just rebuild and get on with it. There is no home and contents insurance, no local Salvos or Vinnies or food trucks. They live in remote, rural areas and are now exposed with nowhere to live. Also, our Indo-Fijian families don’t have clan or village land to go home to.

It feels overwhelming right now, so we’re just going to do what is in our hand to do. We’re going to get the Girls back to school, replace chicken coops and veggie patches and help our much loved Urmila and her family recover.

If you would like to help us do that, we (and they) would be very grateful. It is life changing work we are a part of. As one of my favourites Glennon Doyle Melton says, “we belong to each other.”

Thank you for the offers of help that are already coming not even 24 hours later, we are truly humbled and love your compassion in a time where there is so much need everywhere we turn.

Please click here to go through to our GIVE tab. 

We will be in Fiji in May and will report back to you with pics and stories,

In solidarity with our friends and the community we support,

Vinaka,

Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’

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Wings to fly : the story comes full circle

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About five years ago I had a call from a friend in Fiji, Urmila, a Red Cross volunteer I had worked with when living there. Her daughter Kajal was about to start high school and she just needed a bit of help in getting her there. It wasn’t a lot of money and I said sure, let’s do it.

We talked on and off for the next year and then during a phone call one night, she told me that there was another Girl, Shiwani, who was also struggling with staying at school and whose parents had made the decision to take her out. She had no shoes, couldn’t pay the $1 travel fare each way and was behind in her fees. But, like Kajal, Shiwani had potential to go even further than high school, she could reach for university studies and had dreams of a different future. Both of them would be the first women in their family to do so.

So we talked about how Urmila with her community networks and heart to make a difference could increase access for these Girls to get back to school and stay there. I then called a few friends I knew would be on board, registered ‘a Girl & her world’ as an NGO and we hired Urmila as our Fiji Coordinator. We also got busy fundraising!

The rest as they say, is history, last week we sent 62 Girls back to school who would otherwise not be there.

Kajal and Shiwani graduated from high school in December. Shiwani will be doing nursing and Kajal is about to start a degree in secondary education. {This gives me goosebumps just quietly, we have walked a very special journey with them}.

Our team brought Kajal to Sydney a few weeks ago, to give her that precious gift of travel, the privilege of being able to see with different eyes and be changed by experiences. She’s been to Palm beach, Manly, Luna Park, Taronga Zoo, she’s fed native birds and been caught in Sydney storms and met up with our great friends and supporters, students from the German International School.

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She’s just finished teaching me how to make her mother’s amazing tomato relish and a big batch of roti, and I asked her a few questions:

Jane: What do you think your life would look like if you had left school early, what would you be doing?

Kajal: I think maybe I would just be working in a shop somewhere or maybe I would have been married early and be having babies now instead of going to university.

Jane: What are looking forward to the most about going to Uni?

Kalal: I’m excited because I’ll be able to stand on my own two feet and be independent and head towards earning my own money.

Jane: You’re studying to be a secondary physics and maths teacher, which is a four year degree, what do you think will be good about being a teacher?

Kajal: I think I’ll be able to look out for disadvantaged girls who aren’t able to school and maybe help those girls in school who need help in any way, such as those who may need extra help with their studies or those who can’t afford the extra excursion trips. Also in many rural schools, there isn’t any toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms and sometimes girls need sanitary pads, but don’t have access to them. I can help them when I am a teacher.

Jane: I have a lot of love and respect for your wonderful mum who is of course our Fiji Coordinator, tell me something you have learned from watching her in action in that role.

Kajal: I have learnt how to be strong and how to be organised and how to be an independent worker  – as well as how to be loyal and faithful to your work.

Jane: If you have a daughter one day, what would be one life lesson you would teach her?

Kajal: The things I have learnt from my mum, don’t wait for other people to make things happen for you, stand for yourself and be strong like your grandma!

We are very proud of you Kajal, Shiwani and our other 2015 graduates Dipeeka and Swastika!! The world is at your feet Girls!

Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’

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‘Thinking outside the Christmas shoe box’

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It’s around this time each year that we start thinking about western consumerism on overdrive Christmas. For some this is a joy, for others a burden.

Mostly, we relieve ourselves of a sizeable amount of cash and eat and drink more than is sensible. Harmless fun? Celebratory? Making memories with our families? Yes, all of these.

I love the prolonged time with people I don’t see enough of during the year and enjoy the traditions. I love the break from work, the time for reflection and gratitude, and the richness of a story about a child born in poverty to an unwed, outcast teenage girl. A child who would grow to challenge the very core of the power structures of his day and eventually get himself killed for it.

So it does often feel counter-intuituve to me that such a rich story has morphed to become a celebration often so crass and anxiety producing.
I’m sure that this is why good hearted, well intentioned people want to make it more than that, to give to others, especially those who are disadvantaged and living under the heavy weight of poverty.
We want to teach our kids about giving and for this, an activity like filling shoeboxes with colourful stuff to send overseas seems ideal. Before I worked in development, heck, it was an annual event at my house.
But here’s the kicker, helping in this way hurts.
Except in response to emergencies when specific aid agencies and local people can identify the material things they need to recover, this way of operating is harmful.*
I hear you, this is akin to telling a child Santa isn’t real, it’s devastating – we want to feel good about our giving! But really, that’s kinda my point. It’s not about us.

Giving in this way disempowers local markets and economies,
creates inadequacy
contributes to the type of consumerism that let’s face it hasn’t worked out so well in the west;
creates dependency (what happens when the shoeboxes and pretty things stop coming?)
is never able to be fairly distributed, someone will always miss out
adds to environmental degradation as developing countries don’t have recycling systems for plastic packaging and toys that will soon break;
and does nothing to address the causes of poverty
In fact in development circles it’s called ‘bad-vocacy’; Bad Advocacy.
No one is empowered, communities are not changed, and problems remain.
Does a sweet, little program like this have to solve all those problems I hear you say?

The child receiving the gift feels valued, they experience a moment of joy, they’ve never had a Christmas gift before!
AND you’re teaching a kid in a wealthy country to think outside him/herself.
What’s so bad about that?
Well, firstly, we need to acknowledge that we often don’t understand the setting, that we assume that all kids play with toys or observe a Christian Christmas. In some of the countries where I work, Christmas is often a celebration with special food (if available), flowers and palm leaves from the village woven into patterns, and a day set aside for community. Plastic, colourful toys are nowhere to be seen and are not missed. In other countries, it’s not observed at all.
Of course any kid would love to receive a gift in a pretty box, but it’s a gift from a faraway benefactor, it doesn’t fit culturally and can displace tradition. I also can’t imagine how I would feel if my children received new iPads or laptops for Christmas or expensive designer label clothes that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford while my gift was much more humble and about my time or my cooking. Context is everything.
Even if it’s a practical gift, it’s bound to create rifts between those who receive the boxes and those who don’t and many times, mum and dad in poor communities are trying to make a scant living at the market by selling these items; toothbrushes, stationery, or even dolls (are the gifted dolls white just out of interest?), it can undercut a living.
On teaching our kids about giving – Brian Howell writes ‘Our children certainly learn a lesson through these give-away programs, but it’s the wrong one. They learn that the problem of poverty is primarily a problem of “stuff.” One person told me that I was being “astonishingly cynical” about a program that does good by teaching our children to be generous. She defended her view by saying: “I have found that the connections that are formed by doing things like this can be used to foster further participation in missions and outreach in all ages. For example, “Remember those kids you gave presents to? They also need…’” But that’s just it. Through these kinds of temporary give-aways, we’re teaching our children, and ourselves, that the real problems of poor countries is lack of resources and their ongoing, insatiable need. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
‘The real problem of poverty is a problem of access and opportunity, not stuff. Giving stuff contributes to what Jayakumar Christian calls the “god-complexes of the non-poor.” ‘
So what’s the answer? You knew this was coming – cash. And learning. Find out about the agencies who work through local people on the ground addressing issues that resonate with you and your family – who are responding to the needs as identified by people experiencing them.

 

Local people always know the solutions to their own problems, they often just need friends to link arms with and move things along a bit.
We like to say that ‘a Girl & her world’ helps mend wings, the Girls we work alongside do the flying.
If you want to feel more connected than just giving cash, save up to take your kids overseas, connect with organisations that can provide photos and track progress visually for you. Volunteer. Become informed.
We have a Crowdfunding appeal open to help kick start 60 Girls back to school next year, and we’re taking orders for cakes, selling our beautiful new cards and gifts-in-kind.  FullSizeRenderYou could give local stationery, chickens, veggie gardens!

The cash we raise goes through our pretty wonderful local coordinator Urmila in rural Fiji to the needs on the ground, and she works with local schools and community networks to Get. Stuff. Done.

Our team is so proud of the difference she is making and it is our privilege to be part of it.

It’s not my intention to make you feel bad or discourage your desire to give, but the longer I work in this sector the more I feel we need to talk. I’m a big fan of grown up dialogue so please, comment away, disagree with me if you like!

 

We are so grateful for the ‘a Girl & her world’ community and the generosity that is changing lives, many of them ours,

Warmly,
Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’
*Even in emergencies, however, cash is always best unless you work for one of those aid agencies or have a relationship with the local people who are asking for specific items. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on cash not stuff. This, by my colleague Bron after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu also paints a great picture.

 

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