Sunday, March 27, 2011

on the status of Africa (AMREF)

It’s mother’s day, (at least in some countries.)

A day to honor the woman that gave you life, nurtured you through childhood, tortured you through puberty, and is probably now on speed dial on your mobile.

It is also a good day to remember that childbirth is something that we in the West take for granted, but in most of the world remains a high risk activity that in no way guarantees a happy outcome.

“Women do it all the time,” people like to say

“it’s natural, women have been doing it for centuries.”

Yes, this is true, but women have also been dying in the process of giving birth for centuries, and they still die in the thousands today.

An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 women die during childbirth every year, approximately 1,000 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and most of these deaths take place in Africa, ironically the birthplace of humanity.

Full disclosure here: I was approached and asked to write a post on AMREF for mother’s day. I was asked if I would be willing to lend my facebook page status to their cause and their campaign. Given that this is what I do for a living. Given that this is one of the things closest to my heart and what I blog about, how could I say no? For one week my status will be shared with updates from Maria Casingo, a 28 year old mother living in South Sudan with her three kids, the youngest only six days old, or as they say in kenya, someone who is "same same, but different" to me.

For one week my social media will give her a voice and my friends will have a chance to listen.

will you join me?

AMREF works in sub-Saharan Africa supporting mothers by training midwives to prevent mothers from dying in pregnancy or childbirth in hard-to-reach remote areas.

(But don't take my word for it, press on AMREF to check out what they do and who they are for yourself.)

This Mother's Day they are asking that you share your Facebook status, profile picture or Twitter stream, (by visiting AMREF Facebook page.) You can also raise awareness by tweeting about the campaign and including the hashtag #StatusofAfrica.

..... just saying.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is the Field making you Fat and Ugly?

Another wonderful guest post by Satori Worldwide. This one really hits home because I am always finding that work and children take priority to exercise (because that is just selfish and vain), even thought I've had various health experts tell me I should exercise (for my asthma, my allergies, stress...). And when I am on mission.... how the hell am I supposed to exercise in a different hotel room every night?!

sound familiar? read on...

oh! and I think this applies weather you are an aid worker or not...


Periodically I have Fat and Ugly days. Admittedly, they are often the result of prolonged personal neglect (not eating or exercising well, being extra- busy with work, not sleeping enough… and let’s not forget the equally defeating effect that hormones can have on a gal’s life). In my mind, when I am staring at myself naked in the mirror, hair disheveled, gut protruding, shoulders hunched, I am indeed, without a shred of doubt, Fat and Ugly. Oh ya, and lazy too.

When it comes to getting me back on the tread-mill, this is not the most inspiring attitude.

And it helps even less when there is no tread mill to get on…as is often the case hardship duty stations. In the absence of a gym, and without fitness instructors to goad me, when I am forced to be more creative about maintaining physical fitness, this mindset is tantamount to forfeiting the race before I even get to the starting line. Excuses are much easier to make.

Even though physical fitness is universally recognized as essential to well-being-- not to mention among the most effective ways of managing stress, processing difficult emotions, and building immunity-- many aid workers complain that it is hard to stay fit in the field. This is valid (more on this problem in an upcoming post) but my suspicion is that there may sometimes be something more insidious at play than a simple lack of facilities. When I confronted this problem in myself, here is what I learned:

Time to Switch off the Script!

If you have a hard time engaging in physical activity, it’s worth paying attention to the story you are telling yourself about why you “can’t’ do something, and ask yourself: is it absolutely true? Many of us have been hobbled by experiences from our past—old injures, smarting memories of being laughed at in the playground, or smoldering rivalries with an athletic sibling-- that have no business limiting us today. If this sounds like you, your ‘script’ is like a barbell weighing you down. It’s time to take a load off and replace those stories with something more inspiring.

Enough with the Olympians; Forget all that ‘Expert’ Advice.

As the Desiderata says “Do not compare yourself to others, for there will always be greater and lesser people than you.” One could also add: “and there is nothing wrong with being average”. Thanks to the media many of us have become so used rating ourselves against the achievements of high-performance role-models that our perfectionist side has stymied us. So make your last- best-score your measure of achievement and get on with the show. Try not to get caught up in the latest fitness or nutrition rage but instead, learn to listen to what your body is telling you by following this simple process:

Step 1) do what you normally do (eat what you like, do what you like)

Step 2) wait 30-45 minutes, and see how you really feel (physically AND emotionally)

Step 3) try something different, and repeat steps 1 and 2

The result you get is a far better indicator of what will work for you in the long run than expert advice.

Be adventurous

Ok, so there may not be a gym where you are, but what resources might be in your immediate surroundings that you could take advantage of? Open your mind here, because even in the most war torn countries you will find people keeping up with indigenous practices (dance, martial arts, or even climbing coconut trees) that may be an interesting way to stay fit AND connect to the local culture at the same time.

If that doesn’t work, look to your peers. Do you have any friends or colleagues that have dabbled in physical practices-- like yoga, biking or boxing-- that they would be willing to guide you in? This will not only keep you fit but will also create community around you, with the added benefit that you will be accountable to your peers to stay on target with your fitness program.

Bite off what you can chew

Beware of setting your expectations too high, because it’s a set up. How many of us have decided that come Monday, we are working out every day for an hour and never drinking/smoking or eating a morsel of unhealthy food again, only to discover that we can barely make it a week before we realize we can’t keep it up? What’s the point, we think, we are failures (says our script) and it’s too hard anyway (says our excuses) so pass the chocolate cake!

Baby steps is the secret here. Set yourself achievable goals and reward yourself (with something healthy, of course) once you’ve accomplished them, and it will be much easier to keep up your momentum up.

Bottle the Benefits

When you do manage to get out there, and you are feeling really good, take a snapshot of that feeling by closing your eyes and picturing yourself right where you are. When you are feeling unmotivated, close your eyes and remember that image again so you can remind yourself why you need to do this. It’s simple, but it works.

Get over the selfish talk.

When there are always more important things to do, remember that physical exercise makes you more effective and efficient in almost every aspect of your life, so you are doing everyone a favor by taking the time to do it.


At our Satori Sabbatical in May, we will be experimenting with different physical practices that suit life in the field. Join us and build your own tool-box for resilience by deciding what works for you. Go to www.satori to learn more. We also collect research on practical and creative ways to stay healthy in the field, if you have something to contribute to the discussion by contact us

Monday, March 21, 2011

self portrait twelve months- March

Dad was busy, mom was sick, and the kids could not have been less inclined to be photographed, (I'm physically holding down trouble), but it was this day or nothing. Not bad under the circumstances no?

PS this is part of my project to do one self- family portrait every month this year. You can see January and February by clicking on the word

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

on Japan

Last thursday night I had the strangest dream. We saw a factory far on the horizon and there was a large green round ball, and then green smoke begun coming out of it, lots of it. And then another chimney next to it begun smoking, and then another, and then another, until the whole horizon was filled with chimneys and that green smoke. Then large, menacing waves of CDs (yes, CDs, go figure), started coming at us, that is when we knew- in the dream- that there was something big coming, something that might change everything as we knew it. We were scared.

This was last Thursday, I woke up to news about the earthquake in Japan. It was only when the tsunami hit that I started thinking about the large waves in my dream. When nuclear worries begun, when that green smoke started, well, smoking, I couldn't help but think about all the theories of the butterfly effect, of synchronicity, how we are all one and what happens in one end extends through space and time, like waves through a pool, and if the even is large enough, it might reach the whole pool...

Today, this week, this month, we are all Japan.

But lets not forget to keep an eye on the Middle East revolution. It was our eyes that kept the people of Tahrir Square safe, lets keep looking out for the rest. At least that we can do.

Monday, March 14, 2011

on aid worker's families & a distorted perception of the world

My eight year old niece says that Peru is a disorganized country:

"it's very disorganized, some houses are really beautiful, and others really ugly. Some cars are really nice, and others are falling apart"

It took her a whole two days to figure this out. yep, someone forgot to "organize" the wealth according to need.

This is something that aid workers' families have to deal with early on. When we lived in Cambodia my kids were still too small to understand why the children we passed on the street had shredded old clothes and no shoes. But we weren't, and some of the things you see, some of the things you have to live with, once you have your own children as comparison, become a lot harder to look at in the face.

Then there is the fact that your children grow up as part of a small, expatriate, rich elite, (by comparison, you are rich, even if you are not,) and are often separated from anyone that actually belongs to that country, and you have to wonder what that does to your kids’ self identity and interpretation of the world. Although many people try to fight this, promoting that their children play with the neighborhood kids, it is not always, easy, first, you will often not share the same neighborhoods as the locals, be it for practical or safety reasons. Your kids will not always be able to speak the local language, and even when all these things can be ignored, you have to wonder what it might feel like to be one of those kids and be invited into the bedroom of your child, filled to the brim with new shiny toys. Hard as some of us may try, it is an impossible friendship almost for sure destined for failure.

It is not so different as an adult. I grew up traveling myself, but my parents always made a point of putting us in a local school so that we would form part of the local community as opposed to the expatriate one. I learned to speak English, in a fourth grade classroom in New Jersey. But unlike in the business world, the places we get posted to don't necessarily have local schools that have the quality I feel we owe to our children so that some day they will be able to access top western universities. They are in languages like khmer or Dutch which are not really very practical, nor is it realistic, (or fair,) to expect that your children will be learning a new language every 5 years.

I started working for the UN in South America, which is not only a language I already mastered (as my own mother tongue), but is also where my family is from, and where I had lived for part of my childhood. Integration should have been easy, and it might have been had I gone there with a business, but in the development sector there are wide differences between the benefits, (and sacrifices,) that are expected from the national staff and the international staff. To start off, my colleagues had a life, a family and friends they had grown up with, so it didn’t always occur to them that the new comer knew no one in town, and that when they bid me farewell on Friday I would speak to no other adult until the next Monday. Small towns promote integration, big cities don’t. But more to the point, when they did start integrating me, inviting me to their homes, and I reciprocated by inviting them to mine, somewhere down the line someone would always make a snark remark about how the young new kid in town earned more than most of the local staff, even if they had been working there for years. They came to my room, saw my new shiny shiny toys and resented me for it.

It isn’t always like this of course. Some destinations make it easier to integrate than others as well. But for the most part, you end up accepting what at the outset of your career was unthinkable: that you cannot really integrate, why? Simple, you are different. In wealth, but also in background, interests and needs, and with time it just becomes so much easier to make friends with the other expatriates who have similar background and issues. They understand what your life is about, what the challenges are, and it means that when you have to start your life over from scratch, at least you have that gained.

This even happens when you get posted to HQ duty stations. We currently live in Holland, Europe (where both my hubs and I mostly grew up), and everyone speaks English. All the issues around wealth are gone, but still, my youngest goes to a British crèche, and although the oldest attends a Dutch school, she goes to the international class which is imparted in English. Why? Because we are not staying, because she already speaks three languages, and because Dutch is not very useful (trust me, if it were Chinese or Arabic she’d be learning it, we would all be.) I work from home, and my hubs is in an IGO, which means that we actually had more Dutch friends in Cambodia than we do here, and again, you have to wonder what that is doing to your child’s perception of the world.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

it's the little things

this is my daughter filling a plate with water for her imaginary cat. She's in the kitchen, but really, she is somewhere else, some dreamland we are all born into and then loose at some point.

It's the little things in the every day life that I want to capture, because they are the most beautiful ones, but also the ones we so easily forget.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

on photographing the human spirit

I'm obsessed with trying to capture human realtionships. Maybe it's to do with the fact that -before everything else- I qualified as a clinical psychologist. Maybe it has to do with the fact that even before that my ultimate passion was acting. Maybe it is all one and the same, still today I seem obsessed with observing, understanding, and sometimes trying to capture the little gestures of life that give away the spirit. It's what I hope makes me good at my job, and allows me to approach people that live such different lives from mine.

I love how the body speaks. I love that for the most part it does not know how to lie. Maybe that is why I love photographing children so much, because they don't even try to tame that beast. They let it roam free indifferent to weather it looks good or not.

I love how they are not afraid to touch, squeeze, hug, kiss. There is an honesty there, a transparency that we loose with time, with age, with so called wisdom, that we only rediscover to some extent when we are inhibriated and we let our bodies, and our faces run wild with spirit and expression, and then shudder whenever someone photographs it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

self portrait- Twelve months- February

Boca Leon, Peru

This is part of my plan to take a portrait of my family -myself included- every month this year.

This is Februrary. We were in Peru, visiting extended family and taking a break from the cold winter. We were a group of eleven which included 7 children, and we were visiting more children, so this is the only shot that I managed to get without other midgets and munchkins running through it or posing with us.