Saturday 20 July 2019

An accident of birth: Lorraine Keane in Africa in reflective mood


Lorraine Keane, pictured on her recent visit to the Sitti zone in Ethiopia, said she knew she had to make a long-term commitment to help. Photo: Simon Burch
Lorraine Keane, pictured on her recent visit to the Sitti zone in Ethiopia, said she knew she had to make a long-term commitment to help. Photo: Simon Burch
Misa Alige and Zeinaba Abdurazahar in the concert hall turned camp. Photo: Simon Burch
Lorraine at one of the tap stands provided by Oxfam. These stands distribute 50,000 litres of water every day to those in need
Lorraine at IDP Millennium Camp in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia
Asha Mohamad introduces Lorraine to baby Omar
Amina and friends offer Lorraine a farewell cup of coffee at Millennium Camp
Hibo Tahir at the reservoir
A house in the desert community of El Heley

'Tell the princess lady I painted my nails myself," was the translated message from Samia (pictured right, on Lorraine's knee), a five-year-old Ethiopian girl living in abject poverty in a tiny village called El Heley in the Sitti zone of Ethiopia.

I took her tiny hands in mine and admired her nails, stained with the juice of orange berries to match the colour of her sandals, which appeared to be three sizes too small and falling apart. In the midst of the devastation that surrounds her - the hunger, the disease, the violence - all she wants to do is play dress-up and to feel pretty, and be like any other little girl her age. Just like she did before drought and hunger forced her family to struggle to survive. She has absolutely nothing, but she beams the most wonderful smile when I tell her how beautiful she is. How ironic that the fundraising initiative helping her and many others like her is called Fashion Relief.

I think back to all the rails of clothes donated to raise money, and wish I had one of those dresses to give her. But the proceeds of Fashion Relief - a project supported by Oxfam Ireland - are providing something much more important. I am here to witness some of the farming and water-supply initiatives made possible by the money raised by so many generous Irish people and the hard work of the Oxfam staff.

It has been a long journey, from idea to organisation to completion, and now I am seeing, first-hand, the results of all of that. It is by far the most difficult part of the journey, but also the most rewarding.

Misa Alige and Zeinaba Abdurazahar in the concert hall turned camp. Photo: Simon Burch
Misa Alige and Zeinaba Abdurazahar in the concert hall turned camp. Photo: Simon Burch

I have gone on many trips to the developing world over the years - Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Haiti, Guatemala, the Philippines, Tanzania and, just before Christmas, Ethiopia. Since my first trip almost eight years ago, I knew I had to make a long-term commitment to help in any way I could. I know how lucky I am. I am in a very privileged position where I have access to media friends and contacts, and together, we're a vehicle for communicating stories.

The Fashion Relief story began when I read an article online about how Oxfam was struggling to alert people to the world's worst ever hunger crisis. I was shocked, not only because it was the worst famine ever - 20 million people (the equivalent of over four times the population of Ireland) were on the brink of starvation and likely to die unless the rest of the world did something - but also because I hadn't heard anything about it in the mainstream media. How could millions of people - families, mothers and children facing starvation - not be big news? This story clearly wasn't getting the media attention it deserved.

I had been planning a long-overdue spring clean and clear-out, and this story made me realise that, like many people, I have too much stuff. It seemed so wrong that some people on our planet have nothing and some of us have far too much. I decided to sell off a large part of my wardrobe. When I told friends and family what I was thinking of doing, they all offered to sell some of the things they didn't need. Oxfam Ireland was the perfect partner because of their link to fashion through their network of shops nationwide. Getting donations and support from friends in the media, entertainment, fashion and sports industries was easy - no-one said no. They gave their time, talent and some very valuable pieces of clothing and jewellery to help us.

Last year, on Sunday, May 13, we filled the RDS in Dublin with rails of designer, high-street and pre-loved fashion. Models gave up their time to show some of the outfits on a catwalk in the centre of the room. Friends and Oxfam volunteers worked the stands and sold to the steady flow of buyers all day. We had hoped to raise €30,000-€40,000, but when we closed the doors, we'd raised almost €70,000. The left-over stock was delivered to the Oxfam shops, and raised even more money in the weeks that followed.

Six months later, I was on a flight to Ethiopia to see how and where the money was being spent. I started my visit in the Sheik Bilal community. I heard harrowing stories of hunger and drought, where families used to drink dirty water from a pool, struggled to plant crops for food, and lost their precious livestock to starvation. Everything they had was represented by their animals.

Following severe drought in the past two years, Oxfam has been helping this community in Ethiopia get back on its feet. To deal with the families' immediate needs for food, water and medicine, it provided 5,500 of the most vulnerable families with 900 Ethiopian Birr per month, the equivalent of €28.

Lorraine at one of the tap stands provided by Oxfam. These stands distribute 50,000 litres of water every day to those in need
Lorraine at one of the tap stands provided by Oxfam. These stands distribute 50,000 litres of water every day to those in need

The families worked to help clear the land required so that Oxfam could drill seven boreholes between 200-300 metres deep. These wells now provide the water for many communities, and are complemented by water-trucking, dam-building and reservoir repair. The life-saving intervention in the region reached over 171,000 people.

Families were also paid to destroy sick livestock, so they had cash for new animals, and meat to eat. Families in need were given 6kg of meat per week. With the cash, people could buy fodder for starving animals, and water them at reservoirs. Veterinary pharmacists travelled on bikes to help take care of animals and provide drugs. Almost 400,000 animals have been vaccinated.

As communities began to recover, Oxfam, working with the Pastoralist Welfare Organisation, secured funding from the EU to scale up the programme, and focused on building people's resilience to be able to cope with the next weather-related crisis. In Sitti, where I visited, I was amazed to hear that this meant 200,000 people - 50pc of whom were women - were supported to earn a living through endeavours such as bee-keeping and farming.

Women experience significant gender inequality in Ethiopia, and Oxfam's programmes make sure that women have opportunities that equal those of men. In a country where women produce most of the food, carry out about 16 hours unpaid care-work per day, and usually go hungry themselves to feed their children, training them in farming, and providing training and support on water, sanitation and hygiene is crucial. Women are also educated in health care and nutrition.

Houda Mohamed is the programme manager for Oxfam in the Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, and is responsible for the overall work in the area. "Climate change and weather-related problems, together with limited livelihood options and the challenges women face, mean we wanted to move people towards agro-pastoralism, where they could settle and learn to grow their own food," she told me.

"Women and children used to spend hours walking their animals to locate food and water, and the reservoir we repaired means they can focus instead on growing food, as their animals are healthy."

Asha Mohamad introduces Lorraine to baby Omar
Asha Mohamad introduces Lorraine to baby Omar

Humbling experience

One hundred and fifty households received cash to clear the desert scrub to reach and repair this reservoir. "I can't even talk about all Oxfam does here," said Hibo Tahir. "We cleared two hectares every 15 days. We used to drink water from a dirty pool."

Meeting these people is always a very humbling experience. They have so little, but Oxfam has given them the resources to be able to feed and educate their children, and they now have hope for the future.

Two consecutive years of higher-than-average temperatures and a lack of rainfall left pastoralists and their families facing chronic water shortages, and unable to cope with other weather-related shocks. The drought has also left millions of small children malnourished. Last year, by July, the number of children under the age of five suffering from malnutrition had reached a staggering 3.5 million, while 350,000 children of the same age were found to be severely malnourished. Access to food is also being hampered by conflict among rival groups, which has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes across the country.

Oxfam is helping communities cope with hunger and drought by providing seeds for crops that are more resistant to drought and pests, and training the growers to get the best returns possible. They are also building water points and irrigation schemes that help in producing more crops and fodder for livestock. They are teaching communities how to farm the land, providing them with the tools, seeds and training necessary to succeed, then supporting them to sell and make a profit from their produce so that they have another source of income - because there is a strong chance they will need it.

My next journey took me deep into the Somali desert. The place was so barren, it resembled a lunar landscape. I don't think I have ever been anywhere so remote, yet over 50 families had set up home here. They live in huts made from clay that is so dry, it is as strong as terracotta tile.

The roofs were mostly made up of a mix of plastic sheeting and old clothing to protect the structures from the rainy season, which inevitably brings severe flooding. This is recycled clothing in its purest sense. If you look closely, you can see the Levi's logo on what was once a pair of jeans. Shirt sleeves, T-shirts, all sorts of donated clothing - nothing goes to waste, and it all serves a purpose: to provide shelter from the extreme climate.

In this desert community of El Heley, agro-pastoralists benefiting from one of the wells are now cultivating an oasis. Jamile described how life was before the wells generated water. Her family has a mix of sheep-and-goat hybrids (known as geeps or shoats) and would travel for three to four hours a day for water with the animals. "Now we are settled and have enough to eat," Jamile told me. "We sell tomatoes and onions in the town, and now grow watermelons, too." Their diets had improved, she said, and they have good nutrition. They built their houses near the well and formed a community, which now also has a school. Lives have been transformed.

I see it with my own eyes. By Oxfam digging a borehole hundreds of metres into the earth, wells have been created, which provide clean water for families and their livestock, and the necessary irrigation needed to farm all year round, even during drought, allowing a community to settle, survive and be self-sufficient.

Another challenge facing Ethiopia is the number of internally displaced people fleeing conflict, hunger and drought - with some fleeing to the cities. Oxfam is now supporting almost 100,000 refugees. I visited Millennium Camp in Dire Dawa, home to 920 families from seven different clans, 70pc of whom are women and girls.

The camp was a recreational centre and concert hall until September 2017. Oxfam is the only agency supporting these people with sanitation and hygiene, transporting and storing clean water, and operating tap stands that distribute 50,000 litres of water per day. Oxfam provides soap, underwear, sanitary pads in hygiene kits, and worked with the clans to build pit latrines and showers. Over 400 households got cash support for three months to get them back on their feet.

Women were given energy-saving stoves to reduce the need for collecting firewood, and the camp's water points were set up in safe locations to give women protection from abuse by men.

The government provides 15kg of rice per household per month - not enough for good nutrition, or to prevent malnourishment in children. The onsite clinic doesn't have enough medicine to treat health conditions such as respiratory diseases.

The people living here have nothing but the clothes on their backs, which, by now, are well worn and ill-fitting. As I arrive, I am immediately struck by the poverty around me. I don't know why it has hit me so hard - they are no poorer than the families and communities we have visited in the desert and rural parts of Ethiopia over the last few days.

Maybe it's because we are in a city. It's not a desert, deep in the countryside, but the conditions are similar. Everyday life (albeit basic) is still going on outside the car-park walls. I'm thinking, 'How would we cope if thousands of us had to seek refuge in one of those vast outdoor car-parks at the airport, with no food, no water, no money and so very little to protect us from the elements?' When you change the location and put the people in a situation we can identify with, such as a city, once again you realise that if it wasn't for the random luck of our place of birth in this world, it could so easily be any one of us.

I am also struck by the warmth of the people and the welcome they give us as we arrive, wanting to show us around. In a way, they are proud of their camp. We see the facilities that Oxfam has provided - segregated corrugated-iron shower structures, laundry areas with man-made sinks for washing clothes, and water stations that facilitate hygiene and provide 55,000 litres of clean, safe drinking water every day.

It sounds ridiculous to be writing this, but these people were just so happy and so grateful. I must have been asked (through a translator) a dozen times to thank the Irish people. They know about us, they know we are helping them, and that is very humbling. I felt like saying, 'Please don't thank me, you don't need to thank us - you deserve this, you are amazing'. And they are; in fact, they are very like the Irish - warm, friendly, with a strong sense of community, where family is the most important thing. They are also incredibly resilient.

And just like the Irish, I wasn't allowed to leave before being offered a cup of something. In this case, it was a cup of coffee. An old paint tin was produced out of nowhere for me to sit on, and as I watched my friend Amina, an Ethiopian woman probably of a similar age to myself, roasted Ethiopian coffee beans by hand on a small wood fire, in the shade of a small tree.

I could feel the eyes of her and her beautiful children on me as I took the first sip. Honestly, I enjoyed the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted, and it was an experience I will never forget. Who needs to speak a language? All we need is a bit of compassion and empathy, love and understanding. I think they enjoyed watching my reaction almost as much.

And I thought again about little Samia, with her painted nails to match her worn sandals. As I sat looking at Amina and her children, I thought about how much I was missing my own daughters, but I got more upset thinking about how chance, luck, misfortune - whatever you want to call it - meant that these children are in this situation through no fault of their own. We cannot ignore people like Amina and her children, or Samia and her family.

We have to continue to help, and I am more determined now than ever before to continue with Fashion Relief - to make it bigger and better this year. I hope you can join me in some way at one of our events. Donate a few items, volunteer on the day to take a stall, or just come along and shop for a bargain. You'll be helping to keep a smile on the faces of so many wonderful children like Samia, who deserve a childhood, an education and a future.

Fashion Relief will take place in City Hall, Cork, on February 17; The RDS, Dublin, on March 10; and the Galmont Hotel, Galway, on March 31. To organise a workplace donation drive for clothes and accessories or to volunteer on the day, please contact: If you would like to sponsor an event or make a donation, see for more information

Lorraine would like to thank sponsors Actavo, Ion Solutions, and Cater-Hire who will help cover overheads for each Fashion Relief event, which means more of every cent raised across all three events will help families in crisis in countries like Yemen and beyond

Photography by Simon Burch

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