Ordinary heroes effecting extraordinary change

Climate change is a massive deal. It’s so massive, it’s pretty difficult to know what – if anything – little ol’ me can do about it. I’m not an oil tycoon; I don’t run the government; and I don’t have a time machine to go back and fix some of the terrible environmental decisions humanity has made. I am simply an ordinary person, leading a (fairly) ordinary life.

Thankfully, Tearfund has hit upon a way in which I – and you – can do something that could help to change the situation. Off the back of their latest report entitled The Restorative Economy, they’ve launched a campaign for people to become Ordinary Heroes. I guess it’s basically encouraging us to become slightly less than super heroes, which must mean a slightly more ordinary costume – maybe a pair of M&S knickers over a pair of black leggings, rather a full-on Superhero jumpsuit? [Apologies, that illustration has possibly gone a little too far!!]

The promotional video for Ordinary Heroes. 

The premise is that if we all, as individuals, commit to making lifestyle changes the combined effect will be considerable. Christians have a good track record for this kind of collaborative action, and Biblically, it builds upon the parable of the mustard seed – even from the smallest of seeds can big things grow. Last night, at the launch event for the report and campaign, we were encouraged to wave coloured paper in response to potential commitments we could make, that could begin this momentum:

  • Fly less. Yes, I travel to the US around once a year and my last 2 trips to Belfast have been flights, but I’ve just made a trip to France via Eurostar (and it’s my preferred route there) and I do take the ferry to Ireland when it’s feasible. Texas is a little trickier, sadly…
  • Use a sustainable energy provider. Once I’m in the position to make such decisions, I will do. My current house – given the environmental passion of its owners – definitely already do this.
  • Eat less meat. This is one I’m already committed to. Ethically, I’m well on the side of vegetarians, I just appreciate bacon and a good burger too much to go fully vege, but my cooking at home is almost meat-free out of habit.
  • Spend money/invest wisely. Yep. I’m the child of passionate boycotters, so I’m well versed in this. I’m also thankful to be living down the road from a Co-Op – an excellent source of Fairtrade produce, especially wine! When I have money to invest, I’ll look into this…
  • Buy Fairtrade. See above! But I’d be up for campaigning to see more products go this way.
  • Take political action. Next month, we’ll have a new government. Later this year there’s a UN Climate Change summit. Both are excellent opportunities to raise the issue. Potentially, I’m even up for the mass lobbying of parliament on June 17th.

A climate change campaign may seem like an odd thing for a Christian development organisation to launch. What do they know about the environment? Actually, an awful lot. The thing is, while we might see the odd effect of global warming in the UK, those in the most marginalised areas of international society – who Tearfund work with – experience it at first hand and it’s a massive issue for them. They want to know what organisations like Tearfund are going to do about it.

Several years ago, while working for the Methodist Church, I had the opportunity to meet with Methodist partner churches from all over the world. I vividly remember a representative from the Church of Bangladesh giving a very emotional speech about the impact climate change was having upon his community NOW! [It resulted in me going off on a rant about why on earth our building had a vicious air-con system.] A friend in the South Pacific wrote a book on the theology of the Ocean and the potential impact of rising sea levels upon the Pacific Islands – as someone born on one of those islands, I can’t bear the thought of those communities being lost due to the ignorance and idiocy of industrialised societies.

Matthew Frost

At the launch, Tearfund CEO Matthew Frost spoke of visits around the world where the question of Climate Change had cropped up time and again. He and his Tearfund colleagues had witnessed at first hand the impact these changes had had upon the poorest in society. From villagers in Peru losing water supply owing to disappearing glaciers; to extending deserts in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the question is being asked: “What can you do to help us?”

The report is a good read. Theologically grounded, but accessible to all (there’s a shorter summary that does its job well) it makes clear the case for taking action. As Christians, the case is compelling. We were created by God to steward creation and quite frankly, we’ve done a pretty rubbish job of it! I hope we can make a difference, before it becomes too late…

The Restorative Economy(Incidentally, an article about the launch written by me & using the same title as this blogpost will be appearing in the religious press next week. I couldn’t get away with referencing knickers in that piece, so I felt the need to write something else here too!)


In an emergency…

It’s been three weeks since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines.
Three weeks since 13 million people had their lives torn apart.
It’s nearly three weeks since a DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) appeal began for those affected.

In the British world of international aid and relief, DEC is a very good thing. Founded in 1963, it’s a coalition of aid agencies (currently numbering 14) that joins forces whenever there is deemed to be a disaster that meets its criteria. Usually, these are disasters on a massive scale, requiring huge amounts of resources, and that the coalition of agencies would have been supporting anyway. In working together, duplication is avoiding and funds can be channelled more effectively.

The Typhoon Haiyan appeal is the second DEC appeal of 2013. In March, the Syria Crisis Appeal was launched (and is still going, as that situation is far from resolved), and on the 12th of November, the Philippines Typhoon Appeal began. As part of the appeal, DEC organised a Q&A event to enable supporters and agencies to ask questions about how the funds were being spent and how aid was making its way to those who need it. Thanks to Tearfund, I was asked to go along and participate as a blogger and live-tweeter – a great privilege, which hopefully didn’t annoy my Twitter followers too much. [Actually, as I said at the time, I don’t really care if they were annoyed, as supporting and communicating about the appeal is really important.] As I result, I learnt a lot of things that are definitely worth sharing. (And, in case you’re wondering, I’ve not shared them sooner thanks to a lurgy that struck me down within hours of the event finishing.)

DEC_BTTowerNov2013_0072_smallThe panel in mid-flow.

That photo of the panel says a lot. In that line up we had represented (right to left): Islamic Relief; British Red Cross; Tearfund; CARE International; World Vision and, with the microphone, the CEO of DEC. The beauty of DEC, aside from the work it funds, is that its a place where Islamic Relief sits alongside a Christian agency like Tearfund or CARE. (Other Christian agencies in DEC include Action Aid, CAFOD & Christian Aid.)

A big issue at the moment is how money donated in such campaigns is spent on admin – is the money given in good faith really getting to where it needs to be? In the case of DEC, yes. In actual fact, the cost of admin is massively reduced by the collaboration of the agencies involved, because they’re sharing costs. In the case of the typhoon appeal, less than 4% of donations is spent on administering the funds.

DEC_BTTowerNov2013_0070_smallRight at the bottom of the big screen is a shot of Plan UK’s Phillip Rundell live from Manila. 

A lot of time at the panel was spent explaining how aid was being distributed. One of the reasons why the effects of the typhoon have been so extreme is owing to the remote nature of the islands concerned. It took a long time for aid to reach some of the most isolated victims, but hearing a Plan UK team-member sharing what was happening via Skype from Manila, demonstrated the lengths relief agencies are going to in order to get supplies out there. It’s extreme – in some cases requiring banana boats sailing down narrow rivers that are barely wide enough to get through. Air drops often aren’t possibly, neither is driving. But they are finding ways to manage it.

Don’t forget about these disasters once they disappear from the news. At the time of writing, there is no mention the typhoon on the home page of the Guardian or the BBC website (or their world news sections). It’s been three weeks and time moves on. But things haven’t moved on very far in the Philippines. As the media coverage scales down, the aid ramps up. These agencies are in it for the long-haul, looking to re-build better (a model that was used to great effect in the Boxing Day Tsunami aftermath), and provide assistance according to the priorities of the local people.

The immediate response to typhoon warnings reflected the impact of work done in the area following the tsunami. In many areas, the population was evacuated to safety, in line with a disaster warning plan. It saved lives, but obviously didn’t help to save homes.

All in all, it was an enlightening, reassuring and heart-breaking hour. These agencies are doing fantastic things in terrible circumstances. Humanly speaking, we can’t do a huge amount to stop typhoons causing devastation, but we can do our best to support those left vulnerable afterwards. Here’s how you can help.

DEC Typhoon Appeal

One final thing, when doing a Q&A with the hashtag #AskDEC, it’s probably inevitable that some Brits might assume it had something to do with TV presenting duo Ant & Dec. This resulted in some amusing, yet slightly inappropriate tweets finding their way into the timeline…

Enough is enough

Yesterday, the Church of England lectionary invited us to remember the Ugandan martyrs of 1886 and 1978. The earlier martyrs are credited with the resurgence of conversion to Christianity in Africa in the later 19th century, while the martyrs of 1978 were victims of persecution under Idi Amin. (This persecution is the reason why Archbishop John Sentamu fled to the UK.)

I’m not tremendously au fait with the calendar of saints’ days and remembrances, so this came as something of a surprise to me during college worship yesterday morning. Within minutes of the service beginning, we were listening to a recording of Ugandan singing. I shut my eyes and was instantly transported back to the church in Ogongora, where I’d heard near identical singing just three months ago. [Funnily enough, I’d only been remembering on my way to college that today marks exactly three months since we returned.]

Dave’s video of the singing at Ogongora church.

It’s highly appropriate that this date falls at the beginning of a week in which the IF campaign holds a massive gathering to highlight the issue of global hunger and injustice in the final weeks before the G8 summit begins. This Saturday, thousands will gather in Hyde Park to campaign for an end to hunger and poverty. (Sadly, I can’t be there thanks to a Vicar Weekend.) Next Saturday, a similar event will take place in Belfast, prior to the summit beginning on June 17th in Northern Ireland.

This connection wasn’t lost on the person leading the service, as we meditated on the Feeding of the Five Thousand and prayed for those in Uganda who still face the injustice of poverty today. I saw that injustice at first hand on our trip – like the nursery school children whose lunch (provided by the church) might be their only meal of the day. The children whose chances of making the most of their education is negatively impacted by the fact that their parents can’t afford to give them breakfast or lunch. The grandmother who goes hungry so that her grandchildren will be less hungry.

Serving lunch in OgongoraLunch at Ogongora Nursery 

If you’re able to get to Hyde Park this Saturday, or Belfast’s Botanic Gardens a week on Saturday, then DO! If you can’t, you can ‘show your face’ in support of the campaign, via this link.

The work we saw as part of the PEP programme in Uganda is making a massive difference – but it’s not enough.

What IF there was enough food for everyone?

(Probably) A Final #TFBloggers Post

If I was being terribly honest, I’d have to say that the biggest impact that the Uganda trip has had on my life over the last week has been to do with sleep – or rather a lack of it. The sleep deficit from Sunday night’s flight has barely been filled. The (seemingly insignificant) three hour time difference reared its ugly head at 5.30am every morning until Friday. My sleep (what there has been of it) has been filled with peculiar Malarone fuelled dreams that have had me awakening in a cold sweat on more than once occasion  [Bizarre dreams have included former Archbishop Rowan swimming the Thames and Denise van Outen as a dinner lady…]

Final Day of MalaroneYesterday was the final day of Malarone. I rejoiced via Instagram.

The thing is, I’ve not really had time to fully process the trip yet. I’ve said to a few people that the processing process has been tricky, partly owing to the reason we were in Uganda in the first place. We were there to blog and the immediacy of that blogging was key to the trip’s success. So on one level, there was a certain amount that we processed immediately. But it also meant that we were constantly doing things, leaving little time for reflection. The past week has been crazy busy and no end is in sight, at least this side of Holy Week, when I may finally get a day off. Vicar weekends, theological conferences and a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians deadline are all conspiring against me. There is still a lot of processing to happen, but I’m not entirely sure when that will be. At some point there’ll also be a debriefing session with Tearfund [if you ever go on a trip like this, ensure you get a debriefing opportunity, they’re vital!], but a lot of the reflecting and thinking will be up to me.

In all probability, this will be the final entirely Uganda trip related post. But the processing will continue via writing for a little while, just in other locations. There are some follow up articles to be written for different publications in the coming months, which will probably build upon some of the themes I began ruminating on in my writing here. [I’ll share the links as and when they appear. One of my current internal debates is whether to face the wrath of the Guardian Comment is Free commentors – comment is free, but it can also be fiercely brutal.]

The children of OgongoraUntil next time, Ogongora.

I’d also like to use this post to thank Tearfund for giving me this opportunity in the first place. In particular, a massive thank-you is owed to Holly (who came up with the idea of a bloggers’ trip and made it happen) and Katie (who supported Holly’s idea and came with us) – I’m so grateful for all you’ve given us through this experience! I’m very conscious that I’m only a small fish in the huge pond of Christian blogging. There are plenty of other bloggers and tweeters who would have leapt at this opportunity and done a fantastic job of it, so I count it a massive privilege to have been given it. It will be an adventure whose memories will last a lifetime and I’m sure it will continue to impact my life in many ways in the years to come.

It seems only right that I should also flag up the Tearfund campaign we were in Uganda to witness for ourselves. If you’ve been inspired by any of the stories and experiences I’ve shared over the last couple of weeks, do take a look at See For Yourself and find out about more of the ways in which lives across the world are being transformed through community mobilisation.

Driving Uganda

If you’d ever told me that I’d write a blogpost about an episode of Top Gear, I’d have laughed in your face. Yes, I’ve sporadically watched the show, but given as I can’t drive, let alone own my own car, its attractions are limited. Most of the joy I’ve drawn from it has been its theme tune and the fact that I can’t hear it without remembering my sister dancing to it clad in a yellow catsuit in a school dance show about 13 years ago! However, on Sunday night/Monday morning, I started receiving a flurry of tweets about a Top Gear special, featuring Uganda. In fact, more than that, just hours after we’d been to the ‘official’ source of the Nile at Jinja, the team were challenged to find the actual source of the Nile. Bizarre.

So, clearly catching up on this programme had to be high priority on returning to London. (Once I’d caught up on two weeks of Call the Midwife, obviously.) I watched it last night, and was fascinated…

Top Gear Africa special

Roads had been a hot topic of conversation while we were in Uganda. At our security briefing a month before leaving, road accidents were identified as one of the biggest risks on our trip – we were given strict instructions about the quality of vehicles we could use and the importance of seat-belts. We spent a lot of time in the vans (6 hours reaching Soroti, and at least an hour’s driving each way in order to reach the villages each day) and their quality was varied. Bex spent most of the week dosed up on Qwells thanks to travel sickness. One of our scariest moments was on the very first day, when we had to do the last 90 minutes of the drive to Soroti in the dark, on unlit roads whose surface was virtually non-existent. Reaching Ogongora required much jolting over roads that were more like overgrown footpaths. We had 4×4’s and decent suspension, but my hips still bear the bruises sustained from banging into the car door handle repeatedly.

The risk of a programme like this, so soon after our return, was that I would be irrationally incensed by the men’s actions. After all, Clarkson isn’t the world’s most sensitive man and what on earth would they make of the poverty so hugely in evidence at the sides of the roads they drove along?

Fortunately, it got off to a good start. Within minutes of watching Clarkson et al begin their challenge, I was laughing. They had all bought estate cars for under £1500 – estates? We were in proper hard-core vans with local, knowledgeable drivers and we struggled. How on earth would three Brits cope? Then there was the scenery – it was delightful to see it again a matter of hours after actually being there. I continued laughing as they gloated over how much better the roads were than they’d expected – little did they know just how quickly they would deteriorate.

Their first issue was in fact the same first issue we faced – the traffic of Kampala. Our start was delayed by nearly 2 hours on the first day because the vans got stuck in traffic. We were surprised, but soon realised that traffic in the Ugandan capital is on another level to anything I’ve ever seen in London! (Unlike the Top Gear team, we did not have to overnight in a traffic jam.) At one point our driver tailgated an emergency vehicle to get past a very, very long line of traffic. Obviously, I don’t condone such behaviour, but I bet Clarkson would!

However, there were moments when I found myself yelling at the TV. Particularly at the point when they stopped somewhere for the night and Clarkson was not complimentary about the hotel they found. Well, what the flip did he expect to find in rural Uganda?? Did he know that (in all likelihood) just metres away from the bed he found disgusting, people were sleeping without even a mattress? Really, who gives a toss about how a car is performing when people are living below the breadline? I guess the same could be said for every regular episode of Top Gear set in the UK…

Lake view from the roadOne of the stunning views we witnessed during the drive from Soroti to Mbale on Sunday morning. 

Despite all of this, it was a good watch and I will be tuning in next week for part 2. It makes me wonder what I’d have thought about the programme, had I watched it before the Ugandan trip was even mentioned – would I have got annoyed and angry? Possibly, and probably for good reason. Would I have sighed at the beauty of the Uganda countryside? Probably not. Would I have kept pinching myself to remember that only 36 hours previously, my feet had stood on that land? Obviously not.

[Incidentally, in other Africa related TV news – yes, I am aware of the Richard Curtis drama Mary & Marthaabout malaria. It’s downloaded, but I suspect I won’t watch it until things are a little less raw. I suspect I’ll find next week, with all the Comic Relief documentaries, quite hard work.]