Helen Mumford Sole - Merlin Field Trip to Liberia

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Thanks again to everyone who’s been reading the blog. I’m leaving it up for the moment as it’s still getting lots of traffic.

Just wanted to let you know that Peter and I have pledged to raise $10,000 for Merlin before the end of the year. Amongst other things we’ll be running in the Washington Marine Corps 10k on October 25th.

If you’d like to sponsor us or simply donate to Merlin, please go to www.firstgiving.com/helenmumfordsole.

We’re running with 13 of our friends and neighbors and our collective goal is $25,000. Please help us to get there.

PS If you’d like to see the photos from Liberia, some of which are very moving, please email me at Helen@LoveAndGratitude.com.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Blog 5 - Welcome to Liberia?

It wasn’t the burnt out and abandoned plane that we passed on the runway as we landed, nor the white helicopters bearing the UN insignia that were the most striking first impression of Liberia. Even more noticeable was the lack of noise and bustle. No other planes were landing, taking off or taxiing. No cars, lorries and people wearing ear protectors were buzzing around the tarmac.  It appeared that it was just our plane that was arriving that afternoon.

It’s not as hot as I was expecting, which is just as well as there’s no air conditioning in the airport building. Liberia is very close to the equator and it’s the rainy season so humidity is extremely high. This accounts for the lush and verdant tropical landscape. It also explains how oppressive the atmosphere feels, although now we’ve been here just a few hours it’s already becoming less noticeable.

It’s not just the weather that’s oppressive. Roberts International airport has repeatedly been the scene of fighting as Liberian factions fought to take control of it during the many phases of the 14 year civil war.  This has left the building half derelict, covered everywhere with barbed wire, and with a potholed and unfinished car park that’s smaller than the one at Old Greenwich elementary school and nowhere near as full.

The airport is in a completely gated and wired compound. The police guard the gate, to check you in and out. A crowd of people stand opposite ,either begging outside the gate, or waiting for the opportunity to come inside and hustle you there. There’s a large sign amongst them saying ‘Do not urinate here’.

I only noticed one other sign while I was there. It said ‘Welcome to Roberts International Airport’ in 1970s style lettering.  There were only two things that felt  welcoming: the first was the white 4x4 marked with the green Merlin logo; and the second was the 5 bars that incongruously appeared on my mobile phone.  

7:29 pm edt          Comments

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blog 4 - The liberty of taking things for granted

In the last 14 hours I’ve been in 3 countries. I left the one I live in (USA), to visit the one I was born in (UK), before being welcomed into this one (Belgium) which is like the inner sanctum of the country club I’ve belonged to since birth. Tomorrow I’ll be flying to a 4th which is Liberia and the first of our African destinations.

I’ve never felt so much at liberty to roam the world and this trip has made me become conscious of all the freedoms I take for granted.

By virtue of my passport I’m free to leave the country I live in, and welcomed in most others. My education (and the internet) renders all the information of the world available to me and I’m free to investigate and research any trip I want to take. Courtesy of our economic circumstances in the largest economy in the world, I have the freedom to buy tickets to almost anywhere I might want to go. Access to excellent medical care from the day I was conceived, and a supply of nutritious food to eat, has given me the freedom that only good health bestows, which means I have no physical handicap to impair my ability to move around confidently. Because of the culture to which I belong, I’m free to travel alone without asking for permission and with no fear….and I could of course go on. The list of freedoms is seemingly endless. 

Contrast this with Liberia. This country was formed by freed slaves re-patriated from the US in 1847 and is so-called because it represents a people’s new-found liberty from slavery.  What irony there is in that name. Years of oligarchy, rounded off with vicious 14 year civil war, have left 75% of Liberians living below the poverty line of $1 per day, 80% of them are out of work and over three quarters are illiterate. State expenditure on healthcare is $4 per person, compared with over $6000 per capita in the US, so it’s no wonder that almost 1 in 4 children die before their 5th birthday, and life expectancy is 42 years. Only 6% of women have access to a modern form of contraception and the birth rate in Liberia is the highest in the world.

In other words, we’re going to a country that shares none of the freedoms that I so unthinkingly take for granted. Merlin is helping to restore some of these basic freedoms by providing healthcare to over 1 million Liberians through the 52 health care clinics and 5 hospitals that they operate having educated and trained local healthworkers to staff them. I’m looking forward to seeing their work and know that it will give us new perspectives.

As we approach Liberia, it’s already changing us. Just last night, when I was delayed for 4 hours, with my 4 year old, at Liberty International Airport, believe me it was escape rather than liberty that was on my mind.



5:54 pm edt          Comments

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blog 3 - It's a strange thing....

It’s a strange thing that we only notice what we’re thinking about….

My first car, back in the 80s, was a tiny dark blue Renault 5. As soon as I got it, sales must have increased dramatically because thousands more Renault 5s appeared on the roads overnight.

Likewise, during each of my pregnancies, the popularity of having children must surely have soared, because a disproportionate number of women seemed to be pregnant at the same time. 

Now we’re on our way to Africa it’s clear that Africa and Liberia are dominating the airwaves.  Every time I turn on the TV, read twitter, browse the net, or open a newspaper it seems to me that Africa is a hot topic right now. 

Here’s an example: I know that statistically the most played MJ song over the last few weeks is Thriller; and yet everywhere I go, whether in the car or the shopping mall, the DJ’s favorite is Liberian Girl.

It’s funny how that happens isn’t it?

Of course in my energy world, we believe we attract to ourselves whatever it is that we’re thinking about, so these things should really be no surprise.

Yesterday, when I opened my email I was sent a link to a YouTube video*. It’s lovely to look at and listen to, and opens with a fantastic thunderstorm. Have a look at it and you’ll see why it’s so relevant on the day of our departure to the wettest country in Africa during their rainy season! Click here

*My thanks to Alex Kelemen for sending it to me.

11:38 am edt          Comments

Monday, July 27, 2009

Blog 2 - The Richest Man?

At this time of year we usually go on our annual family holiday. You would recognize the format because I’m sure it’s just like yours, and however exotic the destination, we know what to expect because the vacation will be pretty much like the one we had last year…and the year before …and the year before that…

This trip’s completely different though. In fact it seems really inappropriate to use the ‘h’ word at all. The purpose of our trip is to see for ourselves first hand what it is that Merlin does.  We want to learn and understand what happens in the field so that we can speak with conviction about Merlin’s work. Seeing truly is believing.

Not knowing what to expect, however, has lead to some serious crises over what to pack. We’ve decided that we should take only rucksacks. I’m sure there’s no real reason why our wheelie suitcases won’t work perfectly well in Liberia, but somehow it seems important to contain the ‘holidayness’ of the trip and be more, well, real.

Our rucksacks are a modest 65 litre size so whilst they contain a decent amount of stuff, they also contain our excesses.  By the time we’ve put in our vast supply of pharmaceuticals and medications to combat the bacteria, viruses and insects we’re going to meet, there’s not much room left for anything even vaguely resembling a little black dress.

But then again, this is a trip where it’s worth remembering that  ‘The richest person is not the one who has the most but the one who needs the least’. This was a tweet today from Robin Sharma, and it’s become our packing mantra.

It’s pretty good as a mantra for packing – even better as a mantra for living.

11:39 pm edt          Comments

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Blog 1 - The First Inequality....

We've been to the doctors more times this week than in the previous 12 months. The 3 visits we've made have all been for vaccinations to protect us from some of the terrible and killer diseases that affect Liberia. In our left arm we've had shots for Hep A, Hep B, and yellow fever. In our right arms we've had typhoid and polio. We walked away from the clinic with more than new found antibodies and reassurance. We also left with pills for malaria, heavy duty antibiotics in case of severe diarrhoea, Tamiflu and various chemicals to protect us from the sorts of biting insects that are best avoided. For someone who doesn't even keep Tylenol in the house, I've had many shocks to my system.

The biggest shock came right at the end when I was presented with the bill. All that, for 4 of us, cost almost $4,000. Whilst I'm sure that this was the best $4,000 we've ever spent, I can't help but think of what this could have bought for the people in the country we're about to visit. 

For example, for less than $4,000 Merlin can train a community midwife for 2 years, and then kit her with everything she needs to deliver healthy babies to healthy mothers for about 2 years. In a country where over 80% of babies are delivered by unskilled birth attendants and almost 2 out of every 10 die, this seems a much better bang for buck than 25 shots in a clinic for over-nourished westerners.

So it's started. This is only the beginning of the heart breaking real world inequalities that we're about to witness, and I'm wondering how we'll be changed by the ethical dilemmas we'll be forced to consider.

9:50 pm edt          Comments

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