As a humanitarian photographer and storyteller, Helen Manson has traveled to our program sites to help tell the stories of the people we serve.
Helen also served as the keynote speaker at our 2021 Healthy Women, Healthy World Virtual Luncheon. She spoke of the life-saving medical care she has seen firsthand and the people who left a lifelong impression on her heart. Here is an excerpt of what she shared…
Editor’s note: The images included below are courtesy of Helen Manson.
Tonight I want to take you with me on a journey both behind the lens and behind the curtain of the work that Medical Teams International does. I’ve seen their work firsthand in action in multiple countries. So I’m going to take you with me on a trip to Uganda and Tanzania, and I’m going to tell you exactly what I saw, the all important context behind it, who I met and do my honest best to show you the realities of the absolute rollercoaster the Medical Teams doctors, nurses and staff get on every single day. Ready? Here we go.
In early 2018, I was contacted by the country director of Medical Teams International in Uganda to say that he’d like me to capture the work his team was doing on the Congolese border with refugees. In the weeks that preceded this, Congolese refugees had begun fleeing across the border as rebels started burning down houses and killing anyone who got in their way. I headed out on a tiny five-seater plane a couple weeks later. For most of the year, an average of 50 people crossed the border from Congo to Uganda each day. But in those last few months, a whopping 500 were crossing each day in a sudden influx. Thousands upon thousands of families would now wait up to a week at a transit centre before being transported to the nearest refugee settlement about a 7-hour drive away. Medical Teams International were the ones that greeted them on arrival. They were (and still are) the provider of health and nutrition services for newly arriving Congolese refugees and at the time were scrambling to scale up as fast as possible to meet the overwhelming need.
On touch down I asked to be taken directly to the border so I could see for myself what it was like for people arriving. What I saw was absolutely exhausted men, women, teenagers, children and the elderly coming on foot carrying all the possessions they had to their name on their backs. Many had no shoes anymore. They were thirsty, hungry, worn out and gutted. One by one they were loaded like cattle into the back of a large dusty UN truck and taken to the transit centre. As the truck rumbled down the road and I stood in the back with them, no one spoke. I was struck by the somberness of the moment as the country they had lived and built a life in went further and further out of view.
Once they got to the reception centre, they were met by Medical Teams and UN staff members who immediately hosed their shoes down (for diseases), gave them all a vaccination for measles and put them in lines to register as refugees in Uganda.
Malnutrition assessments were taken on all children and pregnant or lactating women. Taking it all in, I slowly wandered from tent to tent, makeshift building to makeshift building, temporary shelter to permanent shelter observing all that was going on. In one tent, I saw a woman giving birth. She was on the floor and there was a rip in the side of the tent for impromptu air flow. She didn’t make a single sound. The two local Medical Teams staff members that were there worked with the little materials they had to try and help this mother and her newborn survive. They were confident, calm and professional and had that space cleaned up after her delivery within minutes. She then lay on the dirt floor with a cardboard box folded in half for a pillow. Her tiny baby sleeping peacefully under the one blanket she had to her name.
In another tent I walked in to see a small commotion happening. Turns out a 1-week-old baby had been abandoned and hadn’t been fed since the night before. The people that brought the baby over to the staff said the mother had left very early in the morning and taken her belongings. She wasn’t coming back. That hit me hard.
In one of the buildings I watched as an 18-month-old, too weak to stand, was weighed in at 13.6 pounds because of malnutrition. An exhausted grandmother waited ever so patiently for the Medical Teams doctor to give her PlumpyNut.
PlumpyNut is used as a treatment for emergency malnutrition cases. It supports rapid weight gain by giving a child lots of nutrients in a paste like form from a tear open package. Sometimes kids are so weak they can’t even chew.
This really simple, basic intervention can stop a starving child from impending illness or death. I remember thinking, thank goodness Medical Teams was there and [the clinic was] well stocked.
Finally, I made my way over to the line for the Office for the Prime Minister. The sheer numbers and the smell were overwhelming.
It was there I spotted a group of four young boys aged 6-12 huddled together and all alone. I enquired as to their situation and discovered they had arrived without parents at the camp. They were unaccompanied minors. Three of them were in matching t-shirts, and it took everything in me to stop the tears from falling as I looked at how scared and vulnerable they were in that moment. Who would help them get food? Who would give them a blanket to sleep under? Who would kiss them as they went to sleep that night? The local staff worked with the UN to find a foster grandmother for the interim.
You need to know that Medical Teams is large and powerful in Uganda. It numbered 1500 staff throughout the country when I was shooting these images. And most of those staff were on the front lines of the refugee crisis, whether that was on the border of Congo or South Sudan. They were efficient and effective and had their work down to a fine art. They were caring and kind, whilst also firm about procedures and practices being at the highest standard possible in this unique situation. The context within which they were working was all consuming and exhausting and most staff were working long days. As I left I remember feeling so grateful that the people coming over the border were falling into the arms of an integrous, honest organisation like Medical Teams who were doing the best they could, to keep refugee families alive and healthy.
Most recently, in March 2019, I was invited by Medical Teams to photograph their work in the hospitals within the refugee camps of Tanzania near the border of Burundi. The most efficient way to visit the remote site was to arrive via UN plane and drive a couple hours to the camp.
Day one was my favourite as we spent it with the newborn babies. Many of the women were so excited to see foreigners that they invited us to photograph their babies — and get quite close while doing it. At one point I found myself briefly sharing a bed with a fellow female and had to smile at how beautiful the spirit of sisterhood is, even though we didn’t speak the same language. Even though we were both a million miles from home.
I always like to take my Polaroid camera on these trips, and on this occasion, it felt so special to be given the incredible privilege of taking their child’s first ever photograph before then giving it to their brave, strong mama. The room was warm, the place was clean. Care was taken. Babies were being loved on.
On one of the days I spotted through my lens a little boy and his mother in line waiting to see the doctor. They stood out to me because of the beautifully tender way the mum was holding his [seemingly] lifeless little body. She had such a gentleness to her and through an interview we found out that her 3-year-old son was very ill, unable to walk and struggling to breathe.
After seeing the doctor and being admitted to the wards, we later found out he had severe malaria and pneumonia and his treatment began.
We moved through to the Women’s Ward and I saw 9-year-old Kentia. She was lying on a hospital bed while her mother wept over her frail body. She shook rapidly, her eyelids barely opened and when they did her eyes would roll back into her head. I found myself desperately praying that the medicine entering her veins through the IV drip would work faster — no child should suffer this way, and no mother should have to watch it.
We learned from the nurse that she had been struck by another acute, severe case of malaria.
Later that same afternoon, as we were leaving, I noticed another very sick little girl about 8-years-old on an oxygen tank. As we left the camp that night, I was scared not knowing if these children would make it through the night.
In the morning, I could hardly wait to get back to the hospital to check on yesterday’s patients. As I walked into the pediatric ward, the first thing I noticed was that the 3-year-old boy from yesterday was now sitting up!
Later that day I even saw him outside drinking water from a soda bottle all by himself.
The 9-year-old girl whose mother had been weeping over her was now sitting up too, her recovery was slower, but progress was being made. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
And then I looked to my left and there lay the other sweet little girl from yesterday. She now had her eyes closed and her mother and her aunty were trying to feed her whatever they could. She was attached to oxygen and it wasn’t looking good. All of a sudden, she started making a noise I’ll never forget and the next thing I knew, the doctor placed his hand gently on my back and whispered it was time to go. I held myself together until I walked out into the sunlight and then I completely lost it. Sobs came up from the deepest place they possibly could. I’ll never forget that moment.
Once I had composed myself, we decided to go check in on some of the mothers that we had spoken to in labour the day prior. I walked in the door, was given a pair of gumboots and told to head into the labour room. And within minutes I watched twins come into the world. The twins were a surprise. The mother had no idea.
It’s hard to wrestle with both the tragedy of death and the celebration of new life within 10 minutes of each other, but I guess that’s the business end of hospitals and the truth of what Medical Teams does. Just when this world seems ruined beyond repair, a baby is born. Before this hospital and the many others now in the camps were there, lives that could have been saved were lost for stupid reasons like medication for malaria wasn’t available. Now, that is not the case. If someone gets a treatable illness like malaria or pneumonia, they have a good chance of survival and the drugs to help them.
I count it as one of the most incredible privileges to be asked to help bring these stories to life. To shine a light on some of the darkest places in our world and to share the work of remarkable NGO’s like Medical Teams giving everything they’ve got. I have no answers for you or myself as to why things are the way they are. I have hope though. I see it in the faces of staff committed to working around that clock to bring healing. I see it in the relief on a mothers face as she’s given medicine to care for her precious baby. The simplicity and dignity of that is not lost on me. I see it in the bouncy nature of little children running around after homemade soccer balls because the care they received at a Medical Teams clinic was the difference between life and death for them last week. Please know your love, action, donations and prayers for these people is felt and makes an impact beyond what you could ever imagine.
There’s a quote that reads: “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it. But, I’m afraid he’d ask me the same question.” I think about this quote all the time.
Today, we’re here as part of a women’s luncheon called Healthy Women, Healthy World and I can’t help but think about the fact that 50 percent of the planet are women. And a good proportion of those women are wealthy, healthy, educated and safe. And the rest aren’t. I believe with all my heart there’s got to be a greater connect between us and them in so many areas. For starters there is no us and them. There’s only us. I hate that I can have this great life and another woman with three kids just like mine will struggle all her life. I want to do absolutely everything I can to support other women and children. I think the very fact that each and every single one of you have come to this luncheon today tells me that you think about that too.
The work Medical Teams is doing though Healthy Women, Healthy World is one very important way we can do that. Because when we give, we say to another mama that we see you. We hear you. And we might not live next to you or even in the same country as you, but we’re going to stand alongside you and build a circle of protection around you and your family.
In Tanzania, you’re helping mothers and babies survive birth and it’s working. Your gift to this program helps make sure pregnant women receive the care they deserve. It ensures their able to give birth in a clinic with the help of a skilled birth attendant — even during a global pandemic. And if something goes wrong, they’ll have access to emergency care like a C-section. You do that when you give to this program. Once their babies are born, you help mums learn the importance of breastfeeding. You provide vaccines and treatments for pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. You enable doctors to check for malnutrition and supply nutritious food so children can grow healthy.
In Uganda, your support enables Medical Teams to be the first people on the front lines as refugees cross the border. It enables them to provide a health screening and vaccinations to families on arrival into a transit center. And it provides for the continuation of their care through the staffing of clinics and the stocking of medicines after families move from the border to the refugee settlements.
Before I started doing humanitarian photography and storytelling, my honest temptation was to imagine that people who endured such things “on the news” were somehow different to me. Maybe somehow they don’t feel things like I do, maybe these mums get used to it, maybe they expect less, care less, want less, need less or even feel less. But painfully, over time, I have come to see that they are exactly like me. And what they endure as mothers living in poverty is in no way easier for them just because they are poor.
Today we invite you to join us on a journey to bring healing to a hurting world. We invite you into a story of an organisation that is packing a serious punch. We invite you into a community of women helping other women and the little ones they love too.
Helen Manson is a multi-award-winning Kiwi humanitarian photographer and storyteller. Helen’s work has taken her around the world to some of the most challenging environments documenting famine, refugee settlements, post war environments, child sponsorship, micro-enterprise, trauma counselling and disaster zones. When she’s not “shooting in the field,” you’ll find her on a bike ride with her husband and three kids around Auckland’s beaches in beautiful New Zealand.
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