Hope for Widows – Malawi

Emotions are universal and transcend culture. While sometimes expressed in different ways, feelings of faith, love, happiness, and hope are observed wherever you go. Fathers watch their children play with pride sparkling in their eyes whether strolling through a big city park or along a sandy village road. Children express delight and wonder when handed colorful balloons whether at a birthday party or on a crowded city bus. Mothers give eyes of warning that stop children in their tracks – everywhere in the world. There is a universal humanity in our shared emotions that connects people around the globe.

As members of global societies, grief is the turbulent partner of love. Grief over loss of loved ones is universally gut-wrenching. Ceremonies of grief and commemoration of loss vary in diverse societies, but the emotions of those left behind demonstrate a deep connection humans share. Pain, denial, anger…we have been here – or will be at some time – to face these hardest losses of our lives.

Now, imagine this! For widows in Malawi, the grief and deep loss suffered when losing you husband is overshadowed by broader items on the hierarchy of needs. In Malawi, a woman is viewed as belonging to her husband, along with his other assets and property. Regardless of how the money was earned, when a man dies, there is a system of “property grabbing” that allows the family of her husband to claim their house, items within the house, and all saved money. Often, in these darkest moments, Malawian widows are so desperate financially they have no choice but to drop their children at orphanages where their basic needs can be met.

Amess Nthala became a widow at the age of 26. Of small comfort for her, she was one of the 30% of Malawian women who did not lose everything during this time. But, while working at a local orphanage to make ends meet, she began encountering more of the 70% of women who did. Instead of judging their need to put kids in the orphanage, she investigated root causes of something that seemed so unthinkable. The bottom line for her was their lacking sense of empowerment and inability to use their skills to support themselves. They were broken, left without support, and could only anticipate a life of grief and helplessness.

Photo Credit: Catherine Allison

Amess knew this had to change and has made it her life mission to empower widows – not by defining themselves as weak or needy – but by creating a network of shared support and entrepreneurship skills.

Hope for Widows is a powerhouse organization using innovative practices that create change. Here are just a few of the ways they meet widows where they are to empower independence and success…

*Widows meet each week for a time of fellowship and sharing. At each meeting, one widow’s business plan is supported by others who lend profits from their own businesses. As a treasurer takes a list of attendees, she notes the amount of money each person invests in the business owner of the week. When I attended, the circle of generosity traveled from person to person who shared funding to support a woman needing supplies for her charcoal business.

*Amess has created a workspace in her home for sewing, knitting, and jewelry-making. Women receive financial gains from the products sold and money is also shared with Hope for Widows to create sustainable development. Money is used to support current project including the watershed purchase of land where rental properties will be built to fund the business center of their dreams.

*The women use knitting machines to make sweaters for school uniforms. What is especially unique about this system is that their products are sold to the local orphanage in an agreement that benefits individual knitters, the organization, and the children at the orphanage.

*Amess is also committed to providing educational opportunities for this group. During my recent visit, a group of 30+ women met in a brick outlet of the local church where we spent time discussing grief, mental health, and the power of admitting when you are ‘not ok.” Women responded positively at the acknowledgement that grief is not a straight line of emotion where people “get over it” and that the impact reaches far and wide in their own lives. As they have already created systems of support, it is my hope they felt challenged to dig deeper into the power of conversations about mental health and related healing.

Sharing time with women from this group was powerful. Instead of talking and unfulfilled actions – this group readily committed to systems that support everyone. The labor of one person is to the benefit of many. While the topic was serious, we laughed, danced, and benefited from Amess’ fiery translation.

Property grabbing is an issue that doesn’t receive much attention. In fact, I have heard others say the plight of widows is often overlooked by the human rights and feminist communities.

There is something you can do to support Hope for Widows. Sometimes, the children of the women and other youth in their community are held back from attending school because they do not have the funds for a school uniform or annual fees. The costs of these items combined is $25 per year. $25 to keep a children in school for a year.

I have set up an easy way to get money to Hope for Widows for the specific purpose of paying for uniforms and school fees. If you would like to contribute to their cause, feel free to reach out.

Posted in Africa, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Girls Network Malawi – Amazing!

Just her name makes me happy. Pronounced as “ooh la la,” there is a sense of beauty, appeal, and fun. But, there is more to Ulala than a beautiful name, within her is a beautiful heart, dedicated work ethic, and desperate need to help young women in Malawi and beyond.

Ulala is the founder and CEO of Girls Network Malawi. She participated in the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Program in the US and was selected as an honored fellow of the 2018 Obama Foundation Leaders Africa program. At the heart of all her accomplishments, Ulala is a teacher.

She began her career at a high school in Malawi where the system presents many challenges for teachers and students. As with many, her first years of teaching were busy and filled with new responsibilities. As her first class of students prepared for graduation, she reflected on their progress and successes during years spent together. There was much to be proud of. However, what she also found during this reflection was that somewhere along the line, within her average class of 55 students, there were 8-9 girls who did not complete school to fulfill graduation. What struck her most was that she really didn’t even notice this gap and wasn’t sure of the reasons her female students didn’t succeed.

With research and reflection, she discovered the reasons they faded out without much communication or intervention. Some of the root causes for leaving school included early marriages with families seeking one less mouth to feed in their homes, challenges with menstruation supplies that kept girls missing multiple days of school each month and falling behind, shame caused by UTIs which can be inaccurately linked to stigma of HIV, pregnancy, and lack of understanding of how education could have a positive impact on their lives.

Instead of sitting by and making excuses, Ulala began to meet with girls for one after school session each week to provide mentorship and education on issues that mattered to them.

At the end of her training in the Mandela Washington program, each participant was asked to make a commitment to using what they learned to enhance their programs. Ulala committed to building an organization that would provide a network for girls at other school to experience the same type of outreach, mentorship, and education.

At this time, Girls Network Malawi meets with girls in six schools, with the help of on-site teachers, and supports 420 girls. Activities focus on physical health, reproductive information, mentrual hygiene management, gender-based violence, and more. Girls are active participants in the sessions as they learn to advocate for themselves and care for their own needs. For example, during recent sessions, girls learned to make reusable sanitary pads that can be used to keep them from missing school. During this process, they learned a great deal about their physical health and ways to prevent infections and address monthly challenges.

Ulala realizes that there is still great stigma in addressing mental health proactively in Malawi. In many countries, just the words mental health lead to parents who are unwilling to provide consent for support as there can be great shame in this topic. However, that doesn’t stop Ulala. She recognizes there is a great need and continues to seek professional development on the topic while partnering with other organizations who have common purpose.

During my time with Ulala, I was not only impressed with her focus and drive, but also with her great attention to detail. From the moment we met, she had a plan for our time, lists of information, and had taken care of all the major details of our painting and workshop sessions. She had also created partnerships with multiple organizations who would benefit from collaboration. This diligent focus allowed me to be a collaborative mission partner doing a small part to support her much greater investment. I loved it!

In two short days, we painted a mural with teens from Samaritan’s Trust which is an organization that finds children living on the streets and takes them in for vocational training and leadership development. We also partnered with Chikondi Girls Project and Rehabilitation Hope – two organizations providing support for children, teens, and young adults. Together, we shared information about mental health and the importance of raising visibility through proactive conversations and education with young adults.

When I start to be overwhelmed by challenges and hardships I have seen along this journey, I think of people like Ulala – who are not sitting by and waiting for change – they are making it. The contagious appeal of her energy is inspiring – and helping me to consider ways to extend this journey to the time when I arrive home again. While there is much work to be done, I know that there are many people willing to do the heavy lifting needed to create change in their communities.

Thank you, Ulala for inviting me to be your mission partner and friend. I hope we meet again someday and will happily watch your continued journey to make a difference.

Posted in Africa, Girls Network Malawi, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Obama Foundation Fellow, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Painting with Respect

Malawi is a picturesque country known as the “warm heart of Africa” based on the notably friendly nature of the people and the highly safe environment. While strolling the crowded streets of the Lilongwe, the capital city, greetings by strangers are common as they warmly engage with short conversations and authentically kind smiles.

This type of quick meet and greet is typical and takes place upwards of 50 times per day. Personally, I like the interactions, but they are so similar and rarely specifically memorable. Instead, they flow together as pleasant snippets of an overall nice day.

In this crowd of conversations, lucky for me, there was one not be forgotten. On an aimless, but purposeful meander through a grocery store parking lot, on a mission to buy some fabric to have dresses made, a young man matched pace with my stride and introduced himself with, “My name Respect.” He had likely noted my circling walk that distinctly lacked a plan and offered conversation and an offer to join my quest for the nearby market.

As we walked and enjoyed our conversation, I asked Respect about his work. His response was, “I am an artist.” It felt like a flash of Divine intervention… a purposeful meeting and invitation to work together. Not having secured a local artist for a hope mural in Malawi, I feel an immediate assurance that Respect would be the guy. As I told him about the Hope Travels project, we decided that he would begin the mission of locating a community space to paint. We agreed it should be in a highly public spot where the message of hope would feel valued and fruitful.

After we separated, (with fabric purchased and dresses ordered), he was back in touch within hours to report that a local screenprinter had agreed to let us paint his storefront. We met again so I could check out the space which is adjacent one of the small river bridges connecting two markets and in a central spot within the vegetable section of the market. All of these factors contributed to the location being a bustling hub of activity.

Initially, the storefront was dark and fading – looking like it had evolved over the course of time. It was a place you might pass without taking a second glance as you busily shopped at nearby potato and tomato stalls.

After a short detour with Respect to his home city near Lake Malawi, it was time to start painting. With paintbrushes in hands, Respect and his friend Max created a storefront that regally stands out in the market now. Bright colors draw the eyes to a stunning African village scene. At their work evolved, all eyes were on the store and many who passed stopped to compliment their work.

For me, there was something therapeutic about just being able to sit back ond watch their talents in action. As the scene unfolded, village huts, trees, people in motion, and a moonlight covered the walls.

Of particular note to me was the high quality of their lettering – even though I saw it happen – it was hard to believe the perfect, decorative letters were done without a stencil and evolved from their steady hands. Messages of hope in English and Chewa will greet all visitors of Lizulu Market and proudly highlight the location of the “Amazing Signs” shop.

Sometimes, well actually often on this journey, I have had a strong feeling guiding hands were directing my purpose and relationships. With Respect, I have no doubt this was the case. His name is a perfect description for the kindness shown during our time together – rarely letting me lift a package, always concerned about my well-being, and anxious to share the finest parts of Malawi.

I am so grateful for Respect (also known as Arone), Max, and Amazing for their deep commitment and contributions to this project. This HOPE mural is something special and a reminder that transformation is always possible.

Posted in Africa, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, StreetArt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope Travels & Kindness Rocks

When I first watched Megan Murphy’s “Origin” video on The Kindness Rocks webpage, there were a few things that connected me to her mission. First, she had an affinity for heart-shaped rocks, which is also my favorite hunt when walking rocky shores. It feels so exciting when I find them – like a special treasure – lost in a sea of extraordinary. Take a peek at my favorite, found in Iceland!

But, more important than our heart rock connection, I listened as Megan shared about how she began having beach walk “conversations” after losing her parents in her early 20’s, looking for signs and symbols of their responses during her daily life. For her, discovering rocks and sea glass were like the words she needed to hear to know her parents were paying attention as her life evolved. One day, with a Sharpie in hand, Megan left rocky words of inspiration on her favorite beach, and was inspired by a text from a friend who found one, guessed she was the person who left it behind, and told her how much that small gesture meant. And with that, a movement of kindness was created.

In my own life, and especially while far from home with the freedom of a rested and attentive mind, I have the luxury of the same types of conversations Megan has – but also with the ability to keep my eyes and heart open for those returning signs of continued connection. Losing people in my life froze time in those relationships, but also became the trajectory that guides how I live life and relate to others years later. In retrospect, losing my parents in my early 20’s cuts particularly deeply because I wasn’t a great version of myself – carrying a independent spirit that was also selfish, stubborn, unappreciative of their influence, and bit rude. I wasn’t aware of their lasting legacy in my life, and some of my memories make me cringe. Losing my brother years later brought a different kind of sadness because we shared more years of life together and his influence and sense of humor are sorely missed while facing life’s new challenges. With all that said, Megan’s message of seeking signs resonated because I do the same – feeling comfort in my belief that we are still connected – and I can use their lives – and their strengths gained to help make a difference and share hope.

After watching Megan’s video, I knew I wanted to connect Hope Travels with The Kindness Rocks Project because they both promote simple ways for people to build communities while traveling. Sharing rocks, like Hope Travels, tangibly promotes the power of small acts of kindness. The goal of The Kindness Rocks project is simple – to connect many, inspire & empower others to join us in creating a kinder world! The concept of the project is simple – paint a rock, add a loving message, and leave it behind for someone to find. Often, rocks are built by communities who put the rocks together in gardens that are not only artistic, but leave a space for people to assemble as a community.

I reached out via email, like I have done with hundreds of other potential partners on this journey, and her immediate and positive response supported my notion that there was something special about Megan and her mission. She not only responded positively, but shipped a package of rocks, markers, and activity cards for my journey. As a woman on a mission to pack lightly, I had to laugh at the fact there would come a time when I was literally carrying a box of rocks.

Photo by Megan Murphy

My first venture into creating rocks took place on the last day of the “Hope Travels” and “More Friends Than the Mountains” projects in Kurdistan/Iraq. After traveling through Kurdistan sharing hope through community murals and kites in partnership with Jason Everett and our Kurdish partners, it occurred to us that each child we met was so unique – bringing their own colorful and glorious personalities to the camps where they lived.

Photo by Jason Everett

Painted rocks seemed like a way to not only share kindness, but to symbolically showcase the beautiful children confined to these challenging circumstances. We met with small groups of children and the center educator as Hassan Sham IDP camp where we talked about how there might be times when you feel you have nothing to share, but in reality, you actually do – the gift of kindness. Children designed messages of kindness, hope, and Kurdish pride that added a bit of color to their play area.

Photo by Jason Everett

AlHadaf, a nonprofit in Amman, Jordan that supports refugees and foster parents, became the center of rock painting activity. Children and adults designed beautiful creations during art therapy sessions focused on the power of kindness. Art therapy can seem daunting for non-artists, but there is something disarming about this project that allows everyone to connect and share in the process. Many of the refugees at AlHadaf are waiting for asylum after being forced to leave their homes and lives behind because of their religious convictions – so it wasn’t surprising that many of their rocks combined messages of faith and hope. Their beautiful collective garden proudly welcomes them back to the center each week when they participate in English lessons and vocational classes. Again, I was struck by the connection between the people and their rocks – the idea that each of us holds unique beauty and messages worthy of being shared.

In Jordan, the rock projects took hold as I became more adept at connecting this project with mental health education.

After these initial experiences, Kindness Rocks projects have become a staple of the Hope Travels effort to develop global partnerships related to positive mental health and sharing hope. Wherever I go, I carry paintbrushes and markers, but I have also learned to just hunt locally for rocks.

My most recent rock project was a HUGE undertaking with partners at a community center in Namibia. Fourteen years ago, Patricia Sola and John Mafukidze began cooking food out of their kitchen and bringing it to nearby informal settlements. From this humble beginning, Hope Initiatives South Africa (HISA) currently works to empower hundreds of children each day through education, food and nourishment, and capacity building. Their community center sits in the middle of Kilmandjaro informal settlement, surrounded by small houses made of corrugated aluminum.

The center is a constant hub of activity for many children, often who are vulnerable as they face serious challenges in addition to hunger, such as trauma, abuse, neglect, limited access to education, and minimal healthcare. Outside of their daycare and early childhood programs, HISA provides children with hot meals and a place to enjoy each other safely during after school programs.

Driving through Kilimandjaro Settlement feels heavy as the houses are small, full, and often have limited resources and water. The appearance of the large green HISA structure is welcome – especially when you hear the loud laughter and fun pouring through the fences.

When I met with Steph, who is a Peace Corps volunteer, we talked about the powerful prospect of adding more color to this space and building community spirit by having the kids do the work. After completing our first mural projects, we introduced idea of painting rocks by working on a project that combined rocks artistically created by students in Community Unit School District 201 with those painted by children at HISA.

Photo by Julie Graham

Then, we moved to large boulders where children often sit to enjoy their meals, that we thought would look great with a splash of color. Naturally, this turned into a Kindness Rocks project that we deemed the “World’s Largest Kindness Rocks Garden.”

When working with on murals with Leena, an artist in Mauritania, I learned how to include large groups of kids in painting projects. While the prospect can be daunting, and paint is naturally spilled often, we used all kinds of techniques to ease the process. Here are a few to others to consider…

  • Giving each child a small container of paint created from a cut water bottle equals less mess
  • Buying a 5 gallon tubs of white paint and separate bottles of colorful dye equals many options of colors
  • Finding patterns that are easy to create like polka dots, puzzle pieces, and sponge painting equal involvement by more kids at the same time
  • Having an area for side work equals involvement by kids who are just too young to follow a plan, but are eager to be involved
  • Recognizing leadership within the ranks of the crew makes set-up and cleaning easier as their training comes in handy as the project proceeds
  • Overall, the best lesson I have learned, which is also my best teaching advice is to never underestimate the power of children when their mission is clear and systems are set up for their success

Our jumbo garden was a massive undertaking for a labor force consisting of 4-13 year olds, but after seven days of painting under the hot Namibian sun, we did it.

It was chaotic. It was creative. It was a bit exhausting. But, the children beamed with pride and ownership as these plain rocks transformed into messages of hope, love, peace, and more. People drawn into the center by children were happily provided tours of their work and an overview of the messages shared.

Megan Murphy has been a valued and appreciated partner in our rock painting projects, and I look forward to spreading her mission as my travels in Africa culminate in Malawi and I move on to SE Asia for the final months of the Hope Travels journey.

You can learn more about the work we have done to support the work of Hope for the Day on a global positive mental health Hope Travels mission by joining our Facebook group here.

Posted in AlHadaf, HISA, Hope for the Day, Hope Initiatives South Africa, HopeTravels, Kindness Rocks, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Namibia, Refugee, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Visiting A Mauritanian Prison

Volunteering in a Mauritanian prison sounds foreboding and like something that should incite fear and skepticism. Instead, for seven days of painting, I entered the boys and women’s prisons feeling inspired, eager, and energized by the importance of the work being done to provide opportunities for growth and education by the team of Foundation Noura.

I connected with Foundation Noura through my friend Kim who was visiting Mauritania with a medical team from the US. During their stay, this Noura team traveled to various prisons throughout the country providing days of medical care to incarcerated men and women. At each prison, they worked to form positive connections while offering gentle and nurturing treatments and medication for common illnesses.

Members of the Noura team are some of the most passionate people I have met. As noted on their webpage, they are committed to developing relationships with prisoners that break cycles of relapse and encourage people to use time of incarceration for rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry into society. In addition to their work in prisons, they lead literacy and sewing programs that teach independent vocational and employability skills. From my first moments at the airport, until my early morning departure, Noura team members were distinguished partners who provided careful guidance and important insights into navigating Mauritanian culture and values.

Foundation Noura has open doors to partnerships and great favor earned through their long term commitment to Mauritania, often during challenging times. In 2009, Christopher Leggett, the organization’s leader who developed the original prison and micro finance programs, was assassinated by members of Al Qaeda in the streets of Nouakchott.

For many organizations, this would have been the end of the story. However, because of the deep relationships Christopher and his family had formed with Mauritanians, and their continued investment in this important work, Foundation Noura persevered. Christopher’s powerful legacy is embedded in Mauritanian prisons today through a variety of education and medical programs based on his humanitarian goals.

While planning my visit, the Foundation Noura team, lead by Christopher’s wife Jackie, her husband Brad, and their good friend Alfred, connected me with Leena, a Finnish artist who has lived in Mauritania with her family for 10 years. With the coordination of the Noura team, including supply shopping, transportation, and introductions at the prisons, we were ready to begin our first project of helping the young men to create a positive learning space in the new education room built by Noura for this newly constructed prison. With the young men, there is great urgency by everyone involved to set a strong foundation for learning when they are in this facility before they are transferred to the men’s prison at age 18.

Aside from a desire to reinforce positive interactions with the young men, we felt there is great power in self expression strategies like painting. When sharing mental health workshops for Hope for the Day, we use a metaphor of a shaken soda bottle to symbolize the internal tightness people develop when tensions arise. Self expression strategies are the depressurizing valves that allow us to let out some air before a big explosion. For many, art can be one of these positive valves – and we hope that boys would experience this value of their time painting.

Another main goal was to design projects where the boys could be actively engaged in designing their space. When they walk into the room to learn and participate in Noura classes, we aimed to encourage a sense of pride, connectedness, and empowerment, success, and accomplishment.

Geometric patterns are easy to paint with a masking tape design that easily includes many people in the planning and painting process. We used this technique, along with specific color choices and small designs to represent various parts of Mauritania. As you swivel around the large room, the colors and designs symbolize the geography, landscape, and culture unique to the ocean, desert, villages, and Senegal River of Mauritania.

Our second project was a Zentangle wall where each young man was represented by his unique small design which was added to a wall previously adorned with a large plaque honoring Mr. Leggett. The attention to detail was fun, as each artist developed a unique style around messages of hope written in Arabic, English, and French. From a distance, this looks like a collective mural, but upon closer look, the style symbolizes the individually beautiful gift of each artist.

The third designs were a collection of mandala patterns. Mandala patterns are a common art form in many cultures and are often connected to relaxation. Each of the young men was involved by adding their individual creation around a center ring. Again, each person was represented as an important part of a larger system.

As our days flowed together, we were able to enjoy the familiar faces of the artists and prison guards. I looked forward to our arrival and the long days passed so quickly. We enjoyed lunch made in the prison kitchen and tea shared by some of the young men. It started to feel like a comfortable routine of having our hands full of paint with a bunch of guys who were eagerly doing the same. Throughout this time, it easy to see the positive impact that Foundation Noura was making there – with team members feeling familiar and engaged each day.

Speaking of the guards, this experience revealed an undiscovered stereotype lodged in my heart. I must have developed impressions of what guards are like from books and movies. Never having visited a prison – I imagined them being unfriendly or aggressive. I love when I am pushed to realize my own limited thinking, because each day at this prison, we were welcomed by friendly guards who consistently encouraged the young men to be positively engaged in the process. Often, a guard would gently guide brushes in the hands of the boys as you would expect from a mentor or father figure.

The prison leader exemplified the power of positive leadership as he set a strong example for everyone by consistently checking in and making sure that everyone’s needs were met.

I am certainly not idealizing prison or pretending this is a desirable experience, but I think it is noteworthy that hope can be found in unexpected places. Foundation Noura believes that all people were created with skills and abilities that should be encouraged and developed, and they put their words into daily actions. The message of redemption and the importance of dreams were apparent, tangible, and necessary here. In each interaction with the adults, there was great urgency to create meaning with impressionable young people – something that doesn’t have to be restrained to prison walls.

Thank you to the Foundation Noura team. You have made beauty from grief and shown a remarkable focus on healing. Thank you to Jackie and Brad for your dedication to serving others and finding a way to include me on the team. I felt so welcomed into the Noura family. I am forever grateful – and look forward to returning to Mauritania someday.

Posted in Africa, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mauritania, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Traveling with Doctors in Mauritania

Mauritanian landscapes are breathtaking. During the airplane’s incoming descent, the Atlantic Ocean reveals itself, but unlike most other cities, the Nouakchott coastline stands bare. Instead of typical beachfront properties and busy highways, sand travels as far as the eyes can see with only narrow roads heading toward the city.

The barren, but soft landscape can pull tires in and it’s not uncommon to see remnants of popped tires lining the steamy roads.

All of these things make traveling in and out of the capital city of Nouakchott challenging, which limits access to medical care for many of the small villages throughout Maritania’s interior.

My friend Bakary Tandia introduced me to Gory. His great, great grandparents founded his village hometown where many members of his family still live. Gory is a Soninke village settled next to a Fulani Village named Djeol. While he resides in the US now, his affection for Gory was clear when he introduced me via email to the Bamanthia Tandia, president of the “Association pour les Ressortissants de Gory (ARG). He described Gory as a beautiful village strategically located between a towering hill and the famous Senegal River. People living in Gory share all of the infrastructure like schools, a health center, and marketplace which leads to extraordinary bonds and strong community cohesion. However, medical needs can persist beyond what is readily available.

To my great benefit, during my time in Mauritania, the ARG hosted their annual caravan to Gory with over 45 medical professionals who provide a weekend of healthcare for over 2,000 people. The health screenings are headed by natives of Gory who invite members of other nearby communities as well. Doctors travel to the weekend event from locations in Mauritania and Senegal. Senegalese doctors are appreciated because of the added dimension they bring to the process as many have experience in this type of caravan in Senegal and it’s always nice when doctors who grew up in Gory return each year.

ARG is a nonprofit organization that has been providing healthcare to the village of Gory for 20 years. Their medical caravan began during an outbreak of bilharziasis caused by the stagnation of the river years ago. Even as those conditions have improved, the needs for ongoing health education and treatment continues. Doctors continued to embark on this journey each year because of the great humanitarian outcomes, but also because of the positive exchange between the professionals who attend.

Bamanthia Tandia coordinated my visit to Gory which began with a pick up in Nouakchott. I was warned the first 70 km were smooth riding, but after that, we should be prepared for rough roads and police checkpoints that would slow us down for the balance of the seven hour ride. The roads were bouncy for sure, but outside of one flat tire, my roadtrip partners and I made it to Gory seamlessly – arriving at about 11:00 PM on Friday where people filled with village square and large platters of food were waiting for us.

The center square of Gory is a bustling place – an empty courtyard surrounded by open-doored residences and containing only two trees. Throughout the weekend, one tree housed the men in shade and the other near the cooking area was for the women. The underbellies of the trees were never empty. From morning to night, there was always a place to belong as there was no question that everyone seemed welcome. Whenever I passed the women’s tree, I am drawn in by their smiles, shouts, and the way they waved me to sit down.

On Saturday morning, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast of bread and milky tea together. Saying together is an understatement on this weekend in Gory – as I mean it was the entire village consistently eating meals together in the square. Large pots simmered from day to night and large platters were distributed and returned by children who clearly knew their jobs well.

Eating communally with all hands in the same platter is common practice with a hand washing pitcher and bucket offered before and after the meal. Everyone sits on a blanket and eats rice from their own area of other platter with everyone digging into the shared meat, fish, or veggies in the center.

This is an easier process if you can master mashing the small mix into a bite-sized ball before eating. I never really mastered a solid ball and seemed to be the only person who ended the meal with a blanket, shirt, and face covered in rice. Licking the rice directly from the hand after the meal was fun – like it felt sort of like it was breaking a rule – but it wasn’t.

The symbolism of not wasting a morsel of food feels like a responsibility of all diners and also a reminder of how wasteful I can often be. Extra food scraps and bones are saved for the local animals so really – nothing is wasted.

After breakfast on Saturday, the large group of doctors moved to their locations at the local medical center and high school. When we arrived, you could see that people arrived by all modes of transportation as the area outside was lined with horse carts, donkeys, truck emptying large groups of people every few minutes from their beds.

Hundreds of people were already lined up waiting for specific appointments with the team that included pediatricians, gynecologists, neurologists, dentists, and more. The busiest lines seemed to be the places that would cause the most immediate pain – especially the dentist corridor that was filled with people waiting for exams – but often waiting to have aching teeth pulled.

I had the opportunity to visit many of the rooms where patients were being treated.

Even though the halls were lined with patiently-waiting crowds, each treatment room held one person who was being respect as an individual, as they received quality care.

The doctors volunteered their days to be here and took advantage of the opportunity to use their gifts to serve people who were willing to wait hours to see them. Patients were given prescriptions when needed and were able to visit the free pharmacy room to get what they needed.

My friend Hatta is an ENT physician. She worked in the small space until every last patient was seen on both days – totaling over 50 patients on her first day. As I sat in her room, I watched her kindly tend to the needs of sore throats, swollen glands, and ears clogged with wax. One boy and his mom celebrated when a large chunk of wheat cereal was dislodged from his ear.

One doctor sat in a center area sharing diabetes prevention information. As I sipped the sweet Mauritanian tea I have grown to love, I watched him passionately point at large posters and repeatedly say the French word for sugar….sucre…sucre…sucre.

Pregnant women lined outside the classroom housing the gynecologist – some for an entire day – and entered a space where two women were receiving exams. Parents sat in line as placeholders for children who could be found running off energy in the courtyard to pass the time.

The line for the psychiatrist was hard because you could see many solemn people needing a place to talk and be heard. While the doctor graciously listened, you could see that the need was overwhelming and he wished he could take more time with each person. I asked about treatment options and he said that today, he was there to listen and offer support. I was happy to introduce him to the Hope for the Day webpage resources.

Generally, I walked around and took it all in. Being alone in Mauritania invites interaction. I think when traveling, everyone has a certain group of people who seek to connect. For me, outside of children, it is teenaged girls. As I filled time throughout the day, groups of giggling teens would take me by the hand – only being able to say things like “Nancy” and “selfie” and then posing me with their friends and teaching me to sing the “Gory! Gory! Gory!” chant. There really isn’t much I won’t do to make people laugh.

For all the connectedness that village life can offer, the remote nature of living in the Mauritanian interior makes consistent and comprehension medical care difficult because of the long distances to hospitals equipped with necessary medical resources. ARG addresses this need by bringing hospitals to the people. For the entire weekend, the two makeshift hospitals were packed, with some people waiting in line for more than one service. Most people could be treated near home, and those who could not, were referred and encouraged to make the long journey to a hospital.

My time in Gory was special. First off, almost everyone I met was related to my friend Bakary Tandia. I felt like I was representing his celebrity status as so many people shared their connections to him….an uncle, a friend, a cousin, a Kung-fu partner. I also received great privilege from my hosts Bamanthia Tandia and Dr. Hayda Tandia who made sure that my accommodations were comfortable and that all of my needs were met. I was able to sit under the women’s tree for hours – enjoying their laughter and some origami-folding for kids.

I enjoy the simple, but universal message of making origami hearts because when I have no words to share, I can always motion loving affection as I hand over my beating paper hearts.

We also tried to fly some kites in Gory where I thought I would have to convince and assure the teenagers that this would be WAY FUN with a bit more wind. But, nope, they ran, laughed, and cheered as pulled kites behind them.

On our way home, we experienced two more flat tires. The bursted tires lining the road should have been my first clue that this might happen, but each time, there was a carload of returning doctors who stopped to give us a hand. And, it gave us a chance to enjoy a few extra cups of tea and this beautiful sunset.

Being an honorary Tandia for my weekend in Gory was an experience I will never forget. Thankful for all of the doctors and planners who see a need and do something about it. Your medical bags and truck beds carried more than medical supplies, you traveled with HOPE and LOVE and are an example of the type of person I want to be.

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mauritania, Medical Caravan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Paperforwater, Poetry, Self Care, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting to Know Mauritania

I arrived in Namibia yesterday, feeling anxious to spend the next few days writing about my time in Mauritania.

Each morning, noon, and night during my visit was filled with activity. So much that it was hard to effectively process what was happening in this unfamiliar country. Before leaving for this trip, I met with a friend named Sean Tenner to discuss potential connections in Africa. He talked about Mauritania and his important human rights work with Bakary Tandia. To be honest, as he shared, I wasn’t sure I had heard of Mauritania and could definitely not find it on a map.

Months later, Mauritania wasn’t on my itinerary until my friend Kim told me she would be visiting in March. Although it was a big detour, I decided backtrack to West Africa to spend time together, and I am so happy that I did. Not only was it wonderful to reconnect with this deeply inspiring woman, but Mauritania proved to be one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.

During the past weeks, I met so many kind and generous people. It challenged my senses and travel abilities in good ways. The sights and sounds lit my heart and soul at almost every turn. Before I detail specific projects there, I want to share a few general items about the people and things that make this such a special place.

There is great vibrancy in Mauritania that can truly overwhelm the senses. The desert landscape is filled with soft sand and seashells. Brightly painted walls often fade and peel from the high salt content that leeches upward from the sand. Walking through crowded streets require a constant “head on a swivel” to avoid donkeys carrying large carts of goods or people selling every basic human needs – especially deliciously simple culinary treasures.

Mauritania is an Islamic Republic with varying cultural groups. In a short time, I sought to learn about the cultural norms and differences between each group, but there is much more to know that I currently do.

Walking through the streets, many women are covered in beautiful clothing called melafas. As far as the eye can see, one melafa is more beautiful than the next – a seven foot scroll of lightweight fabric that requires special ties and wraps to effectively cover all parts without trailing behind. More often than not, I needed help to get mine just right, and was like a young child who needed help tying my shoes as I helplessly sat by and let others do the wrapping.

Most things in Mauritania are enjoyed communally. When visiting the home of another, you are quickly offered Mauritanian tea which is unlike any I have had before. Mauritanians work diligently to froth their tea with a cup to cup method of tall pouring. In the end, the small glasses are half-filled with froth covering a small amount of minty, sugar-filled tea. It’s taken in one quick sip – and three cups are typically offered consecutively. In Mauritania, people have strong throats that quickly down the steaming hot drink. My slow paced style of blowing on each tiny sip offered some amusement.

Frothing the tea is much harder than it looks. I tried and failed – spilling more than I saved for drinking.

Eating is a shared experience with all hands dipping into the same platter for delicious rice dishes filled with vegetables mixed with meat or fish. As I ate from the platter, I often noticed others pulling apart the best parts of the fish and moving it my way – sharing the best of what was offered in this beautifully concrete way. Eating with the right hand is common practice with a small bowl offered for hand washing before and after the meal. Being a “lefty” made this something that required thought – and a few easily forgiven missteps along the way. It’s common to end the meal by licking the hand of all food remnants so as not to waste what was provided. I enjoyed every delicious meal I ate – not only for the bursting flavors – but more importantly for the friendships created by this type of intimate sharing of daily meals.

Walking through crowded markets and sandy streets offered many snack options. Food served on the roadside is always a favorite for me. Our morning routine always included fresh loaves of hot break and hard boiled eggs. Bags of mandarin oranges were also a staple for snacks and desserts.

I am typically not a meat eater, but while traveling, I aim to eat what is offered and recognize that my ability to not eat certain items is a privilege I have lived with for years. Meat here is fresh – so fresh that a central meat market in town is actually a field filled with goats and cows. Non-refrigerated meat is always something that takes some getting used to as it is sold at small kiosks hanging from hooks and sitting on wooden counters. I tried a bit of camel meat and goat when I was here and can’t really judge how it compares to other meat as it has been so long since I have eaten it…but I think it was pretty good.

Mauritanians have very open homes that welcome guests all the time. It is not uncommon for people to drop over late into the night to share time together. While traveling to a small village where a companion’s “mama” stayed, we didn’t hesitate to make a quick visit that woke everyone up to say hello at 1:00 AM. I enjoyed the tent-like living rooms in many homes where guests were welcomed. While passing one family, they quickly invited me into their space to enjoy some tea and nuts together. Welcoming friends and strangers is a regular practice here with food always seeming to be ready to share.

Family is important here with all members of the family considered as mamas, brothers, and sisters. Children are overseen by all members of a community and are encouraged to be respectful by shaking hands and greeting adults they meet. Although there were language challenges when communicating with children, common smiles were always a way to share nice moments together.

Taxis are a main form of communication in the main city of Nouakchott with old cars driving along main roads carrying as many passengers as possible down straight routes. Getting a taxi on busy roads made me very happy to my friend Leena could navigate all destinations.

Women and men are generally separated in the car, seating all together in the front of back seat. Three people in the front was typical, but the back seated held as many people as the driver could fit – generally four adults. There were a few occasions where we had to push ourselves tighter and tighter to close the door. During these times, I decided it was best to be the last one in the car because you squished on top of the pile. During one ride in a small hatchback, our car held seven squeezed adults with a noisy sheep baa-night in the back.

Mauritanian people are not particularly outgoing at first, but generous and kind. I tend to be a bit touchy when first greeting people – so I often had to navigate how much was too much. Over the course of my time there, I met many exceptionally generous people who shared much of themselves in different ways.

During my 16 days in Mauritania, I…

*Worked with a local artist named Leena on painting projects to support the work of Foundation Noura at both the boys’ and women’s prisons. Leena’s and her husband Mikka are from Finland and moved to Mauritania ten years ago. They have fully invested themselves and their four sons in being Mauritanians. I learned so much from them during time in their home.

*Traveled seven hours from the city to a village named Gory with over 45 doctors who spent the weekend giving free medical care to over 2,000 people.

*Visited three different teachers to learn more about the kindergarten programs they offered in their neighborhoods. In one case, we spent an entire day making instructional materials from easily found trash items included flip flops, milk cans, and water bottle caps.

*Visited a sewing cooperative operated by Foundation Noura where women learn important sewing and business skills.

*Met with a teacher of an adult leadership class to learn about his programs and offer some general ideas for group activities and learning plans.

*Shared kites with children and teenagers in three places including a group who attended weekly Korean language classes offered at the Korean Cultural Center.

*Enjoyed making origami in many places along the way.

*Enjoyed a sunset meal on the sand dunes with many others who enjoy this Sunday evening time with family and friends.

As I sit enjoying the quiet of my Namibian hotel, I miss the pace of Mauritania. Iam fondly thinking of my desire to return someday soon. For now, my pictures and memories will have to suffice. I hope you will enjoy my upcoming pictures and posts about this wonderful place.

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mauritania, Medical Caravan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment