Alana currently lives in South Sudan and is running a development project across the worlds newest country. Alana will be regularly contributing to the Photo Road to speak of her experiences and her travel in the Global South.
It’s shameful, but I don’t watch the news for extended periods of time. When I do sneak a peek, it’s to feel informed, but I usually end up feeling sad or disempowered. I’m no fool. I understand that news programs are designed to draw viewers in and keep viewers engaged by using strategically timed teasers and big headlines. Regardless of what is happening in the world, the news feels, on par, bad. Even if I’m not watching highly exaggerated left wing or personality-driven right-wing broadcasts, the stories of the day are overwhelmingly dire. The feature is often the tale of someone’s downfall, stories of corruption or natural disasters. All this calamity is sandwiched between commercials for cars, antidepressants, insurance, liquor and other products that feed our fear or promise temporary relief.
I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t look for the good or the truth, my outlook can become hopeless. Having spent 15 months in Port au Prince after the 2010 earthquake, I couldn’t avoid the coverage of the August 14 earthquake. This was, of course, after months of debilitating gang violence and the assassination of President Moïse. And as if more than 2,000 people dying and 12,000 people being injured wasn’t enough, Hurricane Grace came and dumped rain and destruction over the nation, ultimately slowing rescue efforts.
It felt like déjà vu from 2010… crumbled buildings, lost lives, intense grief and then tropical depressions – at least the 2021 version of the story didn’t include a devastating cholera outbreak. It’s easy to understand why people would write-off Haiti after watching the news. After billions of dollars towards rescue, relief and reconstruction, buoyed by countless prayers, the situation repeats and initially generous people start to look for someone to blame. I personally know that Haiti is full of resilient and creative people who need our continued support instead of our contempt.
Watching this unfold just days before the surreal coverage of people hanging on planes trying to get out of Afghanistan before the US exit was gut wrenching. What was the point of it all – just to return to what seems like the starting point? I find myself wondering if there are others out there like me, broken and disillusioned, but actively making the decision not to lose hope?
In the midst of last month’s news cycle, I had an amazingly hopeful experience. Six years ago, when I was in South Sudan working on another project, I met a small local group that was trying to empower women. The director was strangely optimistic about the future of South Sudan and seemed to have endless energy. At the time, I had become a bit overwhelmed with the pressure of meeting all the contractual demands of my project and I found their simple and practical effort inspiring. They just wanted to help women – to learn how to read or to save money and learn about their rights as citizens and human beings. Unexpectedly, they reenergized me, so I bought their product and visited their small centre occasionally on weekends. They continued to tell me about their aspirations so at Christmastime, instead of buying gifts for my nieces, nephews and cousins, I purchased some sewing machines for the group of ladies.
I’ve worked for a charity for a long time so I know how gifts are managed, but their gratitude made me feel like a rockstar. I had to remind myself that I would have spent the same amount on gift cards and sweaters had I been back in Canada. After I left the country, I lost track of them.
Three weeks ago, we reconnected in the same way that we met – at a coordination meeting for people working with women, but this time it was over Zoom instead of in person. I recognized Sharon’s voice when she was giving some comments about menstruation and after a brief side chat, I arranged a visit.
Their office had changed locations from a storefront to a stand-alone building with space for staff, meetings and training. As she gave me a tour, she explained that I could visit their old location where I would find three recipients of the old sewing machines who now had their own shops. The front hall of the new office had another three machines where they taught sewing classes and made school uniforms for 84 different schools and they made 100,000 facemasks to protect people from COVID-19. Their newest project is making reusable, washable sanitary pads for students. (South Sudan happens to be a country that still doesn’t have gender parity in schools, but increasing opportunities, changing attitudes and resources, like reusable pads, are helping to change the situation for girls.)
If you only watch the news on South Sudan, you’re likely to hear stories about economic woes or the challenges with the young nation’s peace process. We don’t hear about the growing movement of South Sudanese who have a bright vision for the future and work hard to shift trends and improve their communities. Great things are happening because of courageous women like Sharon.
You won’t hear about people like Sharon on Fox, CNN or CBC. What we do hear is that in rich nations, life expectancy is falling and millennials may never have job security and pensions. But I like to remind myself of the Millennial Development Goals set for 2000 – 2015. They were audacious and almost crazy to imagine, but after 15 years of joint efforts, generosity and hard work, the state of the world changed. The number of people in the middle class tripled, undernourished people dropped by half, HIV infections plummeted, 147 countries met their targets for creating access to clean drinking water and astoundingly, most countries achieve gender parity in schools.
Consider what it takes to have unreasonable levels of hope – the type of hope that changes communities and countries. If you can, look for stories behind the statistics and headlines. If you can, try to imagine how things can be in 5, 10 and even 50 years. It’s probable that in many of the hardest places in the world many could be in the same position, but they won’t get better without a little audacity.