Monthly Archives: July 2012

What do you mean I can’t just write, I have to be fit too?

The hardest thing I find about being a communicator is being back in the office.  Sitting at my desk surrounded by reports, being bombarded by meeting requests and wading through an insurmountable number of emails gets me down.  I miss the long uncomfortable drives in an old four-wheel drive, I miss the heat and sweat and dirt.  I miss listening to stories.

They warn us before every trip overseas about reverse culture shock. I’ve been travelling for more that ten years and I still haven’t quite mastered the trick of settling back in.  This time I tried to be prepared.  I lined up social events with friends, I booked a debrief with a Councillor, I even arranged to spend a weekend with my mother.  The problem with all of this is that my plans changed.  Suddenly I found myself in Melbourne when I expected to be in the mountains of Bolivia, I was merely cold when I expected to be freezing.  And all of the great plans I had put into place are still a few weeks away.

There is always chocolate.  The trusty bowl of fun sized chocolate bars sits comfortably on the coffee table in the lounge room and offers some sense of normality.  But now every time I reach for a delicious treat I recall the advice given to me by one the trainers on the emergency communications course.

‘The best advice I can give you is to make sure you are fit.’

I choose to believe that it was pure coincidence that as he was speaking his eyes dropped to my tummy rolls, which I have affectionately named Tim and Tam.  (For non Australians Tim Tams are the most incredibly unbelievably delicious chocolate biscuit in the world).

His words echoed those I heard earlier from our resident emergency security guru who warned me that I need to get fit in order to pass the next level of required security training.

So given my current state of hometown blues and apparent lack of fitness I have spent the last week searching the internet for exercise ideas.  I thought about trying Krav Maga but I am probably a little too old for that.  Then I thought maybe I could try Tai Chi, but I’m hoping I am still considered too young for that.  I already have the Zumba DVD set, which is great, especially with the added swoosh of the wooden floorboards but I’m not convinced my out of step salsa will be enough. So I have decided to commit to making a phone call to inquire about maybe joining kickboxing gym if they have classes that suit my schedule.

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She told me she just prays her baby makes it through the night

Two weeks in Senegal and I can tell the temperature and time of day by the ratio of my skin to sweat.  With the exception of one night in the capital city of Dakar I haven’t had working toilets, air conditioner, showers or reliable electricity.  Thankfully memories of MacGyver reruns have allowed me to temporarily fix some of the more basic amenities when desperate.

I’m hot and dirty. I’m growing tired from the early starts and late evenings.   Mentally, I’m exhausted from interviewing people in French, which is then translated into the local language.  I am frustrated and unsure if the story I will tell is going to help the people in Senegal.

I interviewed a young mother Awa (not her real name), a girl really at 17, with a malnourished baby.  Initially I only noticed how beautiful she was and how adorable her child.  As we started the interview I learnt the baby was 15 months old.  The shock was probably visible on my face.  She was so tiny; I had assumed she was only a few weeks old.  I remember looking at Awa and seeing how much she loved her child.  She held her so tenderly, tried to feed her, and brushed the flies and dirt away from her face.  She cared so much for her child I couldn’t quite make sense of it.   This area of Senegal is affected by the West Africa Food Crisis and they have not had good rains for five years.  Without the rains and good crops, food is scarce and many families are struggling to find food.  The elder women in the village kept telling me that when they were young it was easy to survive but now it is just so hard.

At the emergency communications training I attended two weeks ago they talked about slow and rapid onset emergencies.  Rapid onsets, like your tsunamis and earthquakes are devastating and demand the world’s attention; slow onsets like droughts are much harder to respond to.  We know they are coming and we can see the potential and there are some amazing things being done to help prevent them escalating, but these stories are not likely to make front page news.

I thought it would be easy to gather stories and take photos that would make people want to do more to help.  I had expected to and was prepared to see obvious distress and desperation.  Instead I have seen loving families smiling for the camera.  I see their hope and thankfulness that there are international aid agencies helping them.  The cynical part of me thinks I won’t be able to get people interested in this story.

I grew up in northwest regional Victoria.  The surrounding lands of this community with its sparse horizon and low lying scrub reminded me so much of home.  I couldn’t help but remember the pain and frustration my home town went through during the recent decade of drought.  I remember farmers selling off their land and water rights just to make it through the month, families moving to the city for work and I remember the brave faces and jokes about the weather.  Behind those jokes I remember the silence that emanates from someone who has given up hope for their future.  These memories haunted me as I looked at the welcoming faces crowding around me in this remote part of Senegal.

It was only when I asked, ‘what is the last thing you think about before you go to sleep?’ that their smiles faded and they trusted me with their fears.  Fathers remain anxious the rains won’t come and they won’t be able to provide for their families. Mother’s are worried they won’t be able to feed their children.  Awa is scared her baby will not survive the night.

I would love to add a joke in here to lighten the mood of this piece but I honestly can’t think of one.  I am distracted by the sweat running down my face on to the keyboard. But if you feel the need to laugh feel free to picture me as I spend the next hour with my arm down the toilet cistern trying to make it flush.

Hmmm, not sure if I am just extra tasty or if she is making a comment on my writing.

I won’t complain about carrying my luggage again. This little boy is carrying a 20kg bag of grain on his head.

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Emergency Communications – The Training

I’ve never been all that great with technology.  I once had an IT person tell me I should not be allowed near computers after I had just handed in my third laptop in two months for repair.  It never bothered me because as a writer, all I really need is pen and paper.  As an emergency communicator however I am going to need to be a photographer, videographer, interpreter, interviewer, social media expert, information manager, media spokesperson and writer.  In other words I need to start learning how to do stuff with thing-a-ma-bobs and what-ya-ma-call-its.

As part of the World Vision emergency communications training we’d been instructed to bring audio, video and camera equipment as well as laptop, mobile phones, satellite phones and B-Gans (remote satellite thingy).  This required a bag all of its own plus extra space in my regular suitcase.  Add to that the usual first aid kit, gastro kit, mosquito nets, and survival essentials and suddenly my usual small wheely case and shoulder bag was replaced by a larger wheely case, a large specialised equipment back pack and an over extended shoulder bag.  I have NEVER travelled with so much before and still had nothing to wear.

Having lugged all of this stuff up and down numerous flights of stairs, through customs and on planes I was determined to make use of it all, even though I really have no idea how to use a video camera and only slightly more of an idea on how to take good photos.

We were tested with a mini simulation on day two. We had to produce a video of at least 2 minutes, have three photos with captions, a social media plan, and interview notes.  We were given three hours.   Easy.   We brainstormed enthusiastically over a range of crazy ideas including the idea of using an ancient oak tree as a symbol for climate change.  Then we realised that no one in the group was 100% sure what an oak tree looked like.  In the end we decided to be extremely clever and make a story about finding a story, David Atennborough style.  Our filming was Oscar worthy. Oscar, our video guy was great and our acting was superbly overdone.  In fact everything worked really well until it came time to download and edit.

We couldn’t connect.  We tried multiple cords, different card readers, and advise from multiple experts.  You know you need help when the four video guys in the room look pensive and then walk away saying they aren’t familiar with that kind of video camera.  Luckily we had been using an iPhone to capture behind the scenes footage for our social media, and with some carefully placed images and re-scripted sound recordings we were able to piece together a story.  Lesson of the day – always have a back up and yes iPhones are that good.  Sub lesson of the day, don’t take equipment with you unless you 100% know how to use it and keep it as simple as you possibly can.

I have made a lot of mistakes during the training and with each mistake I oddly start to feel a little more confident. Listening to the trainers recount their rookie mistakes helps you to realise you have to find your own way of doing things.

I am now waiting for the connecting flight that will take me to Senegal in West Africa.  I’m going to visit areas affected by the current food crisis due to poor rains,  poor crops and increasing food prices.  I’m not sure what I am going to see or what stories I will find.  I am sure that I will stick with my trusty Canon 7D and G12 cameras, completely ignore the “fancy” video camera and make sure my iPhone is ready to save to the day.

For a mere 14kgs I can video, record sound, and take photos

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