Monthly Archives: August 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Looking back, looking ahead

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In the year following Hurricane Katrina, Cleo and Martin Sylvester lived in a FEMA trailer while they put together the financing they needed to rebuild their own home. Photo by Steve Thackston/Oxfam America
In the year following Hurricane Katrina, Cleo and Martin Sylvester lived in a FEMA trailer while they put together the financing they needed to rebuild their own home. Photo by Steve Thackston/Oxfam America

On the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina , Andrew Blejwas, one of our colleagues who has been working with many of the communities on the US Gulf Coast, looks back on the long years that have passed since that storm turned so many lives upside down and revealed so much about injustices in our country. Here are a few of his thoughts:

Four years after Katrina, a lot has changed. Many homes are rebuilt, there are far fewer trailers than there were just a year ago, and communities are beginning to get back on their feet. But not much has changed either. There should not be more homes to rebuild, there should not be any families still living in trailers, and communities should have more support getting back on their feet.

Though Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were one-time events, the issues they helped unmask in the region are pervasive and long-standing. It’s going to take more than just a few years worth of work to reverse the poverty and social injustice that are pervasive on the Gulf Coast of the US. Oxfam is making a commitment to address the long-term issues that affect the region and will continue to work with dedicated partners there who are already working tirelessly to do just that.

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Reflections on Senator Kennedy’s passing

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Yesterday, the body of U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was transported to Boston for a public memorial at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. All day, the doors of the library have stood open to mourners. Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser shares his reflections below.

Oxfam’s Raymond C. Offenheiser listens as the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy speaks at an event in Washington, DC, in February 2006. Photo by Christopher O. Banks
Oxfam’s Raymond C. Offenheiser listens as the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy speaks at an event in Washington, DC, in February 2006. Photo by Christopher O. Banks

Today marks a sad day for those in Boston and for the nation.

For those of us who have spent decades working on human rights—whatever our political leanings—Senator Kennedy was an institution. We always knew where he stood. We could always count on his office to take on the tough request, to tackle the thorniest issues, to champion the most controversial issue. As one of the few organizations to express concern about the invasion of Iraq and the humanitarian catastrophe that followed, we were strengthened by Senator Kennedy’s leadership on this issue.

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Ethiopia travel diary, part 2: A taste of beauty and hardship

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I just got back from an incredible first trip to Africa, where Oxfam and our partners are helping people overcome drought in southern Ethiopia. This post continues a series of blogs that I wrote along the way.

This morning I sat in on a great interview with Terefua Bagajo, one of the data collectors for Oxfam’s drought early warning system (DEWS). I was happy to hear her say that DEWS  is not only helping local people predict and prepare for droughts, but also improving women’s standing in the community.  “Women speak more now, and women are listened to in meetings,” she said.

Borena women from Gutu Dobi.
Borena women from Gutu Dobi.

Although, after meeting Terefua—and many other confident, charismatic Borena women—I wonder how anyone could not respect what they have to say.

Women, even young girls, do a lot of the heavy lifting here. They care for children, prepare food, and walk for miles to collect each day’s drinking water.

And with the last three years’ decrease in rainfall, times are not easy for them and their families. There’s sometimes only enough food for one meal a day. The dried-up corn withers away in the fields. The majestic, humped Borena cattle, which traditionally form the wealth of the people, are growing skinnier by the day. But the women carry on, undaunted by obstacles beyond anything I’ve ever had to face.

And despite what we’d consider a lack of material comforts, this is also a place of real beauty, where people take pride in their culture and their community.

Women and girls glimmer with elaborate jewelry and patterned shawls that bloom, flower-bright, against the washed-out blue sky. Traditional incense perfumes the warm air with a sweet-smoky scent. Recently, people started painting their earth-walled houses in colors made of clay—brick red, dove-gray, soft pink—trying to outdo each other with graceful, swirling patterns.

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Ethiopia travel diary, part 1: Behind the scenes

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I just got back from an incredible first trip to Africa, where I learned how Oxfam and our partners are helping people overcome drought in southern Ethiopia. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing some travel blogs that I wrote along the way.          
                                                                                                                                                                                                                
I’m writing tonight from our hotel in Moyale, a dusty border town perched right on the line between southern Ethiopia and Kenya. We’re here accompanying a film crew as they document Oxfam’s drought early warning system (DEWS), a project that’s helping the region’s semi-nomadic people, the Borena, predict and prepare for droughts.  We’re hoping the finished film will draw attention to the fact that it’s the world’s poorest people–like the Borena–who are hit hardest by drought and other effects of climate change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Of course, Moyale isn’t exactly the glamorous place that comes to mind when you think of a film shoot. The town seems to have only one street, our hotel is only a “hotel” in the loosest sense of the word (in that it’s a building with a roof and beds inside), and while we have electricity and running water, we rarely get both at the same time. (You haven’t really woken up until you’ve taken a cold, trickly shower at 5 am, lit only by the pale blue glow of a headlamp.) So far, the highlight of our stay was the night my colleague Selome convinced the hotel restaurant to make something approximating French fries. 

But it’s worth it when Oxfam staffers, film crew, partners, and equipment load ourselves into three trucks for the hour-long drive to the Borena communities where we’re filming our story. This morning, Alan (the producer) and Milton (the cameraman) even strapped themselves and their camera to the top of their truck as it sped along the bumpy dirt roads—ostensibly they wanted to capture the unique landscape as background footage (or b-roll) for the film, but I also think they enjoyed the adrenaline rush.

To give you a glimpse of what the film shoot really looks like, check out a short “behind the scenes” clip that I shot today on my hand-held camera. As you can see, we often attracted a pretty big audience:

[flv]http://oxfamamerica.s3.amazonaws.com/filming-with-an-audience-eth-vid-for-blog.MP4.FLV[/flv]

Read my next blog from the trip.

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Remembering Refugees International’s Ken Bacon

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Ray Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.

Just writing a personal note today to convey our deepest sympathies to the Refugees International staff at the loss of their president Ken Bacon.

I recently joined Ken for a meeting with Richard Holbrooke where Ken spoke with his characteristic passion and conviction about the importance of development aid that is designed for and with the same people who will benefit from the aid. At the time we spoke briefly about his illness, his smile and humor masked what was a much more serious prognosis.

It’s been great having Ken as a colleague and friend in our field for these last years. I have always felt that we could count on Ken and RI to take courageous stands and do it with grace, sophistication and yet toughness. We have appreciated those moments when it has been possible to collaborate on an op-ed or a high level meeting. Ken has always made the inter-institutional collaboration a pure pleasure.

I was delighted and touched to hear the wonderful eulogy that Scott Simon did this Saturday on Weekend Edition. It summed up Ken’s life beautifully. And his message and farewell to all of us was vintage Ken. We all, particularly those of us in the humanitarian field, need to take his message of hope and carry it with us close to our hearts every day.

We will all miss Ken’s presence, his generosity of spirit, and his commitment to the values that we seek to represent every day.

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Ethiopia: the place of nine hearts

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Loko Dadacha, on the left, stands with family members in her village of Gutu Dobi.
Loko Dadacha, on the left, stands with family members in her village of Gutu Dobi.

It’s been hot since I got home from Ethiopia a few days ago and we’ve had the fan churning all night–stirring the air, stirring my memories. I wake up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. Where am I? Negele? Moyale? Abbi Adi? Is that the wind skimming the hill where Loko Dadacha lives? Is it rustling the new grasses on the pasture in Dida Liben? Is it swirling a cloud of red dust from the road? Continue reading

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You can call me Loko now

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Huka Balambal checks the water in an irrigation ditch he built along the Dawa River. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson
Huka Balambal checks the water in an irrigation ditch he built along the Dawa River. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson

I have a new name, and I’m thrilled with it. It’s Loko—a Borena name that means tall and thin.

The sobriquet was a gift, bestowed on a starlit night over the coals of a dwindling bonfire, by our Ethiopian partners with the Liben Pastoralist Development Association, or LPDA. Several colleagues and I had just spent two days with them trekking to some of the hardest-to-reach places I’ve ever been on any Oxfam story-gathering trip. The mission was to see some of the work LPDA has undertaken since last year’s drought and food crisis left so many people in this region near the Kenyan border facing hunger and hardship. Continue reading

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Phone call from Ethiopia

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No place in Africa is quite like Ethiopia. Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam America.
No place in Africa is quite like Ethiopia. Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam America.

Our colleague Anna Kramer is on her first trip to Africa, and just drove from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa to the southern border with Kenya, near Moyale where she and Coco McCabe are working on a video about climate change. It’s a long trip but a great way to see a beautiful country.

She left us a phone message we can share with you here:

I recommend listening–you can get a sense of Anna’s powers of observation and her enthusiasm.

If we hear more from Anna and Coco we will pass it along as it becomes available…

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Hillary Clinton in Africa

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Here at Oxfam we are following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tour of Africa closely. She seems to be tackling some of the tough issues: political violence in Kenya and democratic reforms and government accountability in Angola (which just became the largest oil producer in Africa, with an economic growth rate of 18 percent).  Nor is Secretary Clinton is shying away from one of the continent’s worst crises: widespread gender violence in eastern Congo, where 600 civilians have been killed and thousands of others have been raped since January. For those who are following the situation, Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam’s director in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  blogged about his first-hand experience in Congo. Colleagues here at Oxfam America shot a short video about gender violence in Congo that includes some striking testimonial from Congolese women.

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, so the fact that the conflict in DR Congo is in the news seems fitting. It’s been 60 years since we set out to ensure that civilians would be protected from violence. If you want to know why the Geneva Conventions are still relevant today, think about life in the Congo—especially for women and girls.

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