Category Archives: Dignity

The Dream Team

Today was our first full day at the Aberdeen Women’s Clinic in Freetown. The breadth and calibre of work here is overwhelming, but the gamut of circumstances that puts these women and girls in such precarious positions is equally infuriating.

For example, we met 28 girls, aged 12 – 17, who are pregnant, many as a result of being quarantined during the Ebola crisis and the majority through abuse. Added to this, almost all the girls were orphaned as a consequence of the epidemic.

Known as the Dream Team, these teenagers are taught how to take care of themselves, about personal hygiene, nutrition, prenatal care and post-natal care. How do you become a parent when you have barely had one yourself?

A Dream Team lesson with Aminata.jpgAmi %26 a fistula patient.jpgAmi %26 Panny meet The Dream Team.jpgAs we grow up.jpgAWC young patients.jpgDare to Believe.jpgDream Team baby 1.jpgDream Team craft class 2.jpgDream Team dare to believe.jpgDream Team mother %26 baby.jpgGirl in green.jpgMembers of The Dream Team.jpgYoung fistula patients %26 dream team.jpg

The project manager, another Aminata, was worthy of an Academy Award. The vitality, enthusiasm, and aspiration she instilled in these youngsters, who have more than enough reason to disengage in life, appeared awestruck. They told stories through song, shared their personal experiences to reduce isolation, and talked about their dreams.

Towards the end, they had a 15-minute nap to dream about the future they might one day have as a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher or a midwife, and that being a teenage mother was not the end of everything for them. It may sound clichéd but if these beliefs enable these girls to lift themselves out of abject poverty, then dreaming must surely be the best medicine in the world.

Also posted in Marginalised People, Uncategorized

The Aminata Maternal Foundation in Sierra Leone

Nine years ago, I could never have conceived travelling to Freetown in Sierra Leone with Aminata Conteh-Biger.

With us are the Aminata Maternal Foundation Chair Penny Gerstle and SBS Dateline journalist and filmmaker Amos Roberts, who is filming a documentary about Aminata and the foundation, which is due to air in Australia in mid-November.

The Aminata Maternal Foundation was launched at a small party in North Sydney on October 15th. Maternal mortality in Sierra Leone is among the worst in the world. A woman in this tiny West-African country is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, we had the privilege of meeting Freedom from Fistula Foundation staff member Lois Boyle, who oversees the funding of the Aberdeen Women’s Clinic in the Sierra Leonean capital. Our first project will be to fund a project through the centre to support a group of teenagers who are pregnant, many as a result of being quarantined during the Ebola crisis.

The clinic delivers over two hundred babies a month, attends to 12,000 children a year in the outpatient clinic and perform 1,000 fistula operations. The clinic has a well-earned reputation for managing obstructive labour. The cost of surgery would be a whopping $900, so the service would be out of reach for 99 percent of women. The Aberdeen Women’s Clinic provide the surgery free.


Our visit has two purposes.

The first is the film the documentary. Much of it is related to Aminata’s background as a former refugee from Sierra Leone. Aminata was resettled to Australia by UNHCR after she had been captured by rebels during the civil war and kept as a slave wife.

Today, Aminata and her husband Antoine have two young children Sarafina, 4 and Matisse, 3. It was due to complications during Sarafina’s birth that prompted Aminata to act. Both she and Sarafina nearly lost their lives and had Aminata given birth in Sierra Leone both she and Sarafina would have likely died.

We are also here to meet some of the women who have suffered complications during pregnancy, birthing or post-birthing and to learn about the reality of the situation here and what practical support we can provide to help reduce maternal mortality.


Also posted in Marginalised People, Uncategorized

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe World Premier

 If you truly want to understand the plight of women in war, I encourage you to go and see firsthand the genius of director Ros Horin, who has written, produced and directed this eye-opening documentary about her play of the same name.

The candid way Ros explains her frustration and ineptitude to help woman such as these is something we can all relate to but she has succeeded where we have only thought about it. A stark show about brutality, rape and the strength of women – many congratulations to Ros and the four breathtakingly strong women who put it all on the line to be heard – I cannot think of a greater example of dignity.

 The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe World Premier

We are premiering at the Sydney Film Festival!

We are very excited and honoured to announce that The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is making its debut at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival on June 9th at the Event Cinema George Street.

For those who missed the film screening at the Chauvel please join us for the official world premier of this moving documentary and Q+A with the women and Ros after the screening. Be sure to grab your tickets as the film will only have the one showing.

It is a public event open to all audiences. Therefore, if you have already seen the film, please encourage friends and family to join us as it will be a wonderful evening that offers the unique chance to hear the women share their experiences in the Q&A.


Official Premier – The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe
Thursday June 9th, 6:00pm
Event Cinemas George Street 9
525 George Street, 2000
Tickets required

Buy tickets
About the film:
The film follows the story of four inspirational African women, now living in Australia, who, under the guidance of theatre director Ros Horin, collaborate to let their life stories be transformed into an extraordinary  theatrical experience.
This film charts their personal journeys from trauma to healing and public triumphs, as the Troupe’s show moves from a stage in western Sydney out to the world. It tells an inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of story-telling through the arts.
Also posted in Genocide, Marginalised People, Movies, Philanthropy, Refugees, Uncategorized

Meet Khalid – a refugee from Darfur

On the Chad Sudan border, there exists an inhospitable place that reaches 40 degrees Celsius most days with winds over 100 kilometres an hour, 180,000 refugees from Darfur in Western Sudan rot in 12 refugees camps. Persecuted by their Government and paid militia known as Janjaweed, which means the devil came on horseback, most have lost numerous family members and some walked 800 kilometres across the dessert to safety. Their only crime, they are African not Arab. Most people here arrived around the turn of the century – these days, 16 years is the average stay in a camp.

I was privileged to visit four of the most northern camps back in 2009. The people I met humbled me with their stories but one, in particular, stood out from the crowd.

Meet Khalid (His name has been changed for protection purposes).

Kounoungou Crop Maureen %26 Mohammed UNHCR M Collins-c41.jpgKounoungou Mohammed President of the Journalists Club-c95.JPGKounoungou Mohammed Using My Camera UNHCR M Collins-c10.jpg

When I met Khalid, he was 19 years old and in terms of UNHCR policy, he did not meet any of their criteria for resettlement. He had been at the camp since he was 12. Despite little to no education, he spoke four languages and yearned to become a journalist.

While I was there, Khalid and I spent a day together. I asked this ambitious young man to show me his world. I met many of his friends, some had been there as long as if not longer than Khalid. A few months earlier, there had been some excitement in the camp as UNHCR had begun resettling refugees to the United States. None of these young men felt that way. They knew the truth and had two choices: stay in the camp with no progress or prospects until UNHCR deemed it safe for them to return home or join the Janjaweed and rape, kill and maim their own people.

In a two-hour masterclass, I showed Khalid how to use my Canon 1DX SLR Camera. He picked it up quickly and was soon moving settings to accommodate landscape and portraiture. The speed with which he absorbed information was astounding, and I couldn’t help but feel sad at the thought of such a talent rotting there in hell on earth.

At the end of the day, Khalid asked if he could use his refugee card to cross country borders. I showed him my passport and explained about visas. I knew then that he was close to running, and who could blame him, he had his whole life in front of him and no way out.

Today, seven years on, Khalid remains in the camp. He is a teacher now and has some sense of self-esteem but he still hopes that, one day, he may become a photo-journalist, reporting on events in his country that has seen much of the population marginalised purely based on race.

Also posted in Genocide, Marginalised People, NGOs, Photography, Refugees, Uncategorized

Syrian Refugees and Deng Thiak Adut


The moment I start talking about refugees, most people’s eyes begin to glaze over. The rhetoric and beliefs about the topic here in Australia is so out of whack with reality it used to infuriate me. Instead of boiling away in a pit of anger, I decided to do something about it and this was one of the key reasons this blog came into being. My other intention was to help these marginalised people restore their dignity by having their story told. In order to truly heal from persecution a person needs to be heard. This is something I experienced over and over on my recent trip to Rwanda and if ever there was proof that it worked, Rwanda is it.

So two extraordinary things happened here in Australia this week. Firstly, the Abbott Government agreed to repatriate 12,000 Syrian refugees, and I congratulate them for it. In recent years, Australia has accepted a total of 13,750 per annum so this is a huge step forward in what appears to be a change of heart for our Prime Minister.

But for all those people who have doubts about refugees and their impact on the Australian community, this week’s stand out was the acknowledgement by Western Sydney University to recognise the success of Deng Thiak Adut and , believe me, his story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘against all odds.

Decide for yourself.

Also posted in Genocide, Marginalised People, Refugees

Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas

On my second day in Volcanoes National Park, I visited the KWITONDA family, a group of 22 members. When born, baby gorillas weigh less that human babies, between 1.5 and 2.5 kilograms. Mothers breastfeed for between three and a half and four years. While breastfeeding, females do not reproduce, hence limiting the potential to accelerate population growth and why census’ are only carried out every five years. I’d like to introduce my friends.

A94O1128.JPGGorilla Baby 1-c17.jpgGorilla Family 1.jpgHello 6x4-c18.jpgI just can't help myself 6x4.jpgI must eat my greens 6x4.jpgLost in Thought 6x4.jpgMunyinya Silverback 1.jpgMunyinya Silverback 2.jpgMunyinya Silverback 3.jpg

Here is a breakdown of gorilla age categories:

  • 0 – 3    baby
  • 3 – 6    juvenile
  • 6 – 8    sub-agile
  • 8+       females can breed (typically, 4 – 6 babies in a lifetime)
  • 8 – 12  males known as black backs
  • 12+      silverbacks


Also posted in Movies

Gorillas in the Mist

The mountain gorilla or to use its species name gorilla beringei beringei is the 7th most endangered animal on the planet. This species of gorilla is only found at the confluence of three countries: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, a meagre 880 mountain gorillas struggle to exist alongside man’s warring. Admittedly, the numbers are increasing, albeit slowly, but they are also marginalised by ongoing fighting in these countries, Rwanda back in 1994 and, more recently, in the DRC. Poaching is also an issue. Another census is due in 2015, and conservationists are hopeful the number of animals will exceed 900.

Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is home to 480 mountain Gorillas made up of 19 families. Ten families are visited by tourists while the other nine are monitored for research purposes only.

The journey to visit these bewitching creatures is not for the faint hearted, but the surrounding countryside is spectacular, traversing a series of five volcanoes. It is easy to understand how the title Gorillas in the Mist came into being.

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The first family I met were HIRWA made up of 19 individuals, including a set of male twins. The boss, a 27 year old silverback named Munyinya, was nothing short of regal, at once gentle and powerful.

In gorilla families, it is the silverback who entertains the children. The boss of a group is usually the oldest member but always the dominant one, he can weigh a staggering  220 kilograms. Only the silverback can touch the females in their family.

Gorillas live between 45 to 55 years. The females live longer than the males due to the amount of fighting the males endure. The animals’ diet consists of over 200 species of plants, and they can eat up to 15 percent of their bodyweight in a day.

Meet Munyinya:

Munyinya Silverback 1.jpgMunyinya Silverback 2.jpgMunyinya Silverback 3.jpg



Also posted in Movies

Rwanda 2015

Today, I thought I would show you Rwanda as it is in 2015, 21 years after the genocide. There is a lot to be learned here.

I have included some photographs that show what you can expect to see in the Land of a Thousand Hills.

Patchwork 6x4.jpgTraditional Dancing Girl 6x4.jpgView to Volcanoes 6x4.jpgWoman Carrying Cattle Feed 6x4.jpgYoung Gorilla 6x4.jpg

  • An after affect of the genocide is that the Rwandan population is made up of 64% women and 35% men
  • 66% of Rwandan politicians are female
  • There are no plastic carrier bags in Rwanda, recycled paper only
  • Rwanda is litter free both in the cities and in the countryside
  • Everybody smiles and says hello
  • Rwandans talk about the genocide, recognising that it is the only way to move on with their lives
Also posted in Celebrity

Reflection – A Sunday afternoon by the pool in Kigali

To be fair, I didn’t come up with this title. It’s from a fictional book about the genocide, and follows the relationship between an ex-pat businessman and a Tutsi waitress. And, no, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is beautifully written.

Yesterday morning, a driver from the Mille Collines Hotel took Lena (A contact from OZ), Dieudonne (A genocide survivor) and me to a market frequented by locals in Kimironko.

It was interesting, meeting the local population and admiring the spectacular array of fruit and vegetables on sale. When we returned, Lena had a business meeting so Dieudonne and I sat by the pool and listened to live music.

Milles Collines Pool.jpg

Without warning, I felt my throat constricting and eyes filling with tears as a well of emotion rose up and consumed me. I took a long slow walk around the garden and gave myself a good talking to. There seemed to be something hauntingly poignant about sitting in ‘Hotel Rwanda’ with a genocide survivor, trying to comprehend the scale of everything I have heard and seen over the past four days. It took another two hours for me to breathe easy. Being here is the ultimate lesson in forgiveness.

Also posted in Genocide

Warning – This blog contains some confronting remarks & images

The Kigali Genocide Museum and Memorial Gardens

Today was never going to be an easy day. 259,000 victims of the Rwandan genocide are buried here. Personally, I find that number staggering and impossible to comprehend.

Shocking Statistics

  • The genocide lasted 100 days
  • 1,000,000 Rwandans lost their lives
  • 300,000 children were orphaned
  • 85,000 children became the head of their household
  • 2,000,000 became refugees
  • Two-thirds of the population were displaced

As most of you know, I have researched this subject in great detail but there were still several things that shocked me today.

  1. A common thread for survivors of the genocide here is that they knew their attackers, many were friends or neighbours. To know something is one thing. To hear individual survivors tell their personal stories and call their attackers by their names was harrowing. One lady said, “Patrick, my next door neighbour, came to kill us. The family were not well off and we had paid for their children’s education.”
  2. Part of the museum is dedicated to children. There are numerous photographs and below each a list of details:
    • The child’s name
    • Their age
    • Their favourite hobbies
    • Their favourite foods
    • Their favourite person
    • How they died

I will spare you by not citing an example.

Hotel Rwanda 6x4.jpgKGM Stain Glass Window 6x4.jpgVictims Photos 6x4.jpgVictims Skulls 6x4.jpg

3. Near the end, at the bottom of one display, there was a photograph of two round faced nuns, one with wire rimmed glasses. Immediately, my heart went out to them, they were here to help and must have witnessed heinous crimes and even lost their lives. The text beneath the picture explained that these two women were convicted for ‘crimes against humanity’ as they had handed a church full of Tutsi to the Interahamwe militias who had killed them all. Both women were sentenced to 10 years in jail.

To end on a positive note, many survivors whose family members are buried here spoke openly about how much they loved the Memorial Garden and how it was a place where they could feel both close to their loved ones and feel loved in return.


Also posted in Genocide