“Everyone has their own opinion of aid; good bad or indifferent. Today, that argument was settled for me once and for all. As I sat eye to eye with a 21 year old commerce student, whose circumstances now mirrored my own as a direct result of aid, it was the affirmation I have sought for four years. It was an emotional, inspiring and overwhelmingly real encounter with the reality of aid and charity work.”
Fair trade and aid are often argued to be two sides of the same coin; models of development. After spending the past two weeks digressing the impact of fair trade, today was our chance to research aid and compare the impact of the two models from the perspective of championing aid agencies in India.
A world away from Australia, in the south of Delhi lies two little offices that are both fighting for big causes: health care, education, empowerment, equality and the eradication of poverty. Asha and Compassion are two incredibly different, impressive and awe inspiring organisations that reside in the slums of Delhi. They are truly the unsung heroes of development.
Our first stop took us on a little road trip to visit the Compassion site in the community of Chandan Hulla. The drive was made particularly entertaining by the crazy morning Delhi traffic and our host, Joshua who talks even more than I do (which is seriously hard to do). Compassion is an international aid agency that provides support to children living in extreme poverty in over 26 countries. Their main focus child development. There aim is to educate children in order to break the vicious cycle of poverty.
This particular site, Rehoboth Child Development Centre, had been an established community huh and sanctuary for many years before gaining Compassions support 7 years ago. Through this partnership and the child sponsorship program this centres social impact has increased ten fold. This illuminated and enhanced the power of their grassroots aid work in this community. This project currently supports 162 children- all of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds. Through sponsorship children are provided with 75% of their tuition funds, school uniforms, books, after school classes (religious studies, tutoring, English, creative arts), a meal after school and the refuge of the community hub for children in need. In addition, the 5 children currently without sponsor families still receive support through the program.
Aside from the incredible dance routines the children performed for us and the delicious food at lunch- the most striking thing about this organisation was the transparency. I was invited to look through children’s profiles to dissect the personal and educational progress and furthermore through the financial reports, receipts and budgets. Every cent was accounted for, documented and released for public record.
Secondly, through speaking to the children I was able to disseminate the impact of their sponsorship. The students were so enthusiastic and blissfully happy when speaking about their sponsor families. The children took incredible pride in what they achieve in their own lives as a result of this partnership. Gaining insight into how students and their families felt about foreign aid and support was incredibly inspiring, overwhelmingly so. It was the perfect example of how large scale, global aid directly impacts the lives of individuals, children, families and the community as a whole. The visit was the physical affirmation of the importance of developed charity work in Australian and alike that is so often criticised. It highlighted the need for aid in the most poverty stricken communities in India and around the world.
You can support Compassion through their:
Asha aims to provide aid in five pillars; women’s empowerment, community development, education, healthcare and financial inclusion. This organisation provides a form of aid that tackles the roots of poverty and provides communities themselves with the tools to combat these issues. Instead of employing staff- community members are trained in educational and medicinal practices and equipped with supplies to treat basic health care such as immunisations, pain medication and referral for further treatment. It employs a holistic approach to development and whilst there is a focus on childhood development, women and adults also remain a primary focus. They have further tackled pressing issues in the community such as violence, substance abuse and homelessness.
Walking to the community centre, to see the work first hand, was my first real insight into the other side of India, the real and raw India that is talked about but rarely seen, especially by foreigners. Even after several years in the aid sector, my heart immediately fell into my stomach as we watched children desperately searching through the rubbish across from their makeshift houses built of sticks, broken plastic sheets and thrown away clothing. Just another realisation of how incredibly fortunate we were to win the lottery of birth here in Australia.
As I struggled to maintain composure, we settled into the community centre in front of an audience of women community leaders, college and primary school students. As we began interacting with the various members of the community, I was constantly surprised and inspired at every turn. The work of Asha truly moved me and changed my view of the world from the students to the women leading the way in their community.
Firstly we began by talking to the college students; the people who are in similar situations to us- but at the same time very different. Whilst talking to them, I realised I was sitting across from a 21 year old, studying commerce, who was sitting his final college exams. I began to understand that I was talking to someone who was at exactly the same point in his life as I am in mine, yet our lives couldn’t be further apart. I hate that, I hate how completely and utterly unfair that is. Yet, I know that without the work of Asha he would not have even completed the equivalent of year 12 or had the opportunity to attend university.
The college students continued to explain that their biggest issues remained the inequality between private and government school students and their inability to fluently communicate in English. Asha provides students with school uniforms, clothing, tuition fees, tutoring, food and school support. They also continually encouraged them to strive for greatness and to demand equal opportunities, educational and alike. Asha has even set up internship opportunities for students in leading domestic and international firms. These students were finally being presented with opportunities that would have been otherwise impossible without the mediation of Asha.
The primary school students further added another layer to this incredible meeting. They left me questioning how unjustly different the life of an Australian child is compared to that of an Indian child living in poverty. After performing various dances (including some hard core free style and backflips), we were told about their youth committee where they raise monthly funds (5 rupees each) to give to elderly couples or people in greatest need. How incredible, right? The students told us that they want to be scientists, police men and women, soldiers, lawyers, doctors and teachers. I loved meeting them and more so that they all have hopes and dreams, they all want for something more than the life they live now. They all want the same thing as we do.
Lastly, we met the incredible women who are slowly but surely changing the world. The women who are overcoming restrictive gender roles and transforming the community. Incredible, powerful women who are strong and courageous. We learned about their new role in the community educating villagers about health, hygiene, education and more. Talking to these women made the world look brighter, it completely diminished the argument against aid. In translation, one of the medical leaders said “We are illiterate. We were at the bottom of the community hierarchy. We were laughed at. Now, we are supported. People ask for our help. People look up to us. We are helping our community.”.
You can support Asha Society here:
Both of these organisations demonstrated to me the necessity of aid, particularly at the height of poverty. We were able to see first hand how aid positively impacts the lives of individuals and the community.
Today I learnt, that although fair trade is a multi-tiered systemic approach to development, it cannot replace the role charity and aid have at the crux of poverty. Fair trade allows an economic solution to farmers and artisans, however it cannot directly impact those out of reach of this model, those who do not partake in the process of commercial trade. These two models have to be synonymous in order to create sustainable change in communities. The implementation of both forms of development allows less communities to fall through the gaps, and due to the population and need of India this is crucial.
It’s not a case of which model is better, but which model works for this community. Instead of choosing one over the other we need to decide how both models be implemented simultaneously to create widespread, systematic change to overcome poverty and increase economic stability.
Until next time,
See you in Dharamashala!
Shani X X
After stepping off the plane and into the jeep, you could be mistaken for believing you have left India and stepped into a sea of tranquility. Which is half true- we now sat 20 minutes away from Nepal, an hour from Bangladesh and four hours from Bhutan. The hustle and bustle of Delhi had been replaced by endless tea fields, whilst the speed sign have change to elephant crossings and the all too familiar pollution faded into the most fresh, sweet smelling air I can ever remember. the ethereal beauty has immediately engulfed me. This is my little slice of paradise.
After winding around the mountains for two hours, we finally found ourselves in the brightly coloured Makaibari village. Passang, our host father, then lead us through the blossoming gardens to our beautiful little cottage overlooking the rolling hillside plantation. Passang, a Himalayan expedition guide, lives in this village with his wife, son, daughter, sister in law, nephew, cousin, mother and father, which we meet in quick succession mostly as the conversation consisted of ‘Namaste’ and broken Enlgish. After our introductions we decided to follow the loud cheering near by, which lead us to the local soccer match where it seemed the entire community had gathered to support and bet on the match- this happened every night following. We watched the crowds erupt every so often before making our way back home for incredible local food, home grown tea, intellectual conversation and a little concert from these two beautiful souls in preparation for the big day ahead.
Our fair trade explorations began by meeting the pioneer of Makaibari tea, Swaraj Kumar Banerjee- also known as the ‘Rajah of tea’ and the ‘Lord of Darjeeling’. He is a man with luscious hair, quick wit and an endearing presence who broke the silence by jeering me about breaking boys hearts (apparently I look the type). Not to mention his beautiful golden labrodore at his side and horses which he later let us ride- what a man?! He is a fourth generation owner who oozes passion and commitment to empowering the local village through organic and fair trade products. Rajah is a local hero who holds the respect of everyone in the community, he is an internationally renowned, living legend in the tea industry and organic sector. He was described to us, firstly by an intern as “more than a figure head, more than a boss- he is a community member and leader” and secondly, by Passang as “a really great man”.
Makaibari is one of the oldest tea gardens in Darjeeling, where production commenced in 1859. It consists of 1,575 acres nestled amongst the gorgeous hills sitting at 4,500 ft. It was not only the first organic farm of it’s kind in the region, it was also the first tea plantation to gain the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) certification and to implement permaculture and fair trade practices. The plantation employs over 650 workers year round and supports their families and the community through fairtrade premiums, health care, education and equality movements. The main focus of the organisation is to “promote child welfare, women’s empowerment and creating hope from hopelessness”. They seek to achieve economic, environmental, political and social stability.
“One of the remarkable things I’ve found about this place- the community members are not looked at as labourers or workers. Everybody seems happy here. The environment, economic and welfare aspects are exceeded. There is an entirely holistic model of fair trade going on.” – Madhuwanti Mitro, research student.
Through talking, interviewing and experiencing various ‘partners’ (as Rajah calls them), consisting of community members and workers, we began to see our first glimpses of the impact fair trade has on the community.
Makaibari is leading the way in the region for many reasons including gender equality, health care, education, livelihood and community development. These impacts are directly related to the fair trade premiums they receive (Makaribrai tea is the first organisation who we have met that actually receive the premiums), which Rajah matches equally. The social impact both Makaibari and fair trade has had on this community was inspiring for me; it was finally an example of how this model can be successfully implemented to progress humanity. Below I have highlighted the greatest social impacts:
– Health care: Free health care is available for all workers and their families, including doctor visits who come into the village twice a week (Sunday’s and Thursday’s). If any serious incidents occur there is a hospital located 3kms away and a 24 hour ambulance to assist with transport. This incentive is completely funded by the plantation and there is help with vaccination, family planning and birth control from the government. The plantation will cover any public hospital bills and if the accent is serious and private health is required this will also be covered.
– Infrastructure: Basic housing is given to each family working in the plantation. They can then add to their lands for example rooms for home stays or gardens to become more self sufficient. Premiums have also supported the building of a library, community centre and health care centre.
– Food: Workers recieve food rations every 15 days which consist of 1kg rice and 2kg of flour, in addition to what they grow and buy. Many farmers are self sustaining with gardens in their back yard.
– Home stays: The home stay were set up by the plantation as an additional source of income for the community. This money is directly funnelled back into the community with 450rps of 700rps given to the family and the rest for community projects and staff wages.
– Economic opportunity: Community members canapply for micro loans to buy live stock and plants for gradens. Pollution free and green houses get a subsidy for these which is extremely common in the community.
– Education: One of the seven villages has a government high school that was funded by plantation management. After completing high school, the plantation supports 10-12 further students by providing scholarship from the fair trade premium for higher education. The community has Two primary schools. Most workers don’t want an education as they are working, however they do get training in the factory and in Darjeeling for 6 months that is paid for by the fair trade premiums.
– Women’s empowerment: The plantation funds 3 months maternity leave for workers and milk and food rations every 15 days milk and food for children. There are also many women in empowered social roles such as supervisors, head of the workers body, the pharmacist, and in management roles. In 1982 was the first female election- completely revolutionary for the times in India. Around 80% of workers are women on plantation. They also have a say where household money is spent and money generated from the home stay is given to the women of the house.
– Pension benefits: the current retirement is 60 years old. Workers then receive the pension of 1000rps per month. This is for those whom do not have a family to look after them in employment.
Aside from the incredible social impact fair trade has had on the village- the reality of life for people who work on the plantation still lacks in many areas, specifically fair wages. This is not as a consequence of fair trade as a model, rather the Indian government itself. The average work day begins at 7:30am and ends at 4pm for factory workers, pickers, pruners and labourers. They walk long distances in almost any condition, often with heavy loads carried on their backs and/or heads. They stand in the fields for extended periods of time and the work is undoubtedly physically and mentally exhausting. Despite these facts, workers are paid less than minimum wage. Pickers, such as our host mother, only make 120rps per day or $2.50 Australian which is 80rps less than the national minimum wage and 15rps below the legal wage. This is as a direct result of unjust and unfair legislation under the Plantation Labour Act that restricts workers wage. Even if both parents work in the plantation their wages is not sufficient to send their children to a standard school or to cover basic living costs. To put this into perspective, over 75% of their salary is spent on basic living necessities such as food. This means saving is practically impossible and so to is the opportunity to change your circumstance.
As a result, the main issues the plantation face going forward are highly unique compared to other fairtrade organisations we have met. Thus far, I have found the majority of organisations face lack of awareness and demand. This is not the case for Makairibi, their demand far outweighs their supply as ‘quantity and quality are not synonymous in the tea industry’. Instead, they face the instability of workers. Due to poor working conditions and income laws, as the next generation become more educated they seek opportunities outside of farming and the tea plantation. Speaking to our host family we soon learned that they do not want their children to continue that line of work.
The sad truth is that if wages, in comparison to working conditions, remain the same- our beloved Darjeeling tea is in danger as there will be no workers to continue this trade. Until there is a government revolution; in which workers can gain an increased wage, the plantations will continue to lose workers at a steady rate.
During my stay at the plantation and every other day I continue to learn through this experience. Everyone I meet my alters my perspective and view of the world- particularly in respect to fair trade. As a result, I continually circle a number of questions around my head that I would like to share with you. - Is fair trade certification always the best option? Do social enterprise and aid offer other models that can more easily create change?
– Is it enough to look for fair trade certification or does it depend solely on what the organisation does with the fair trade practices? These organisations may not be living and working the ten principles of fair trade and oraganisations without the certification may already be working ethically but cannot pay for the formal certification.
– Therefore, does fair trade certification actually matter or will organisations who already act ethically and pay fair wages continue to do so without certifications? Organisations such as SEWA may not have the certification but have an incredible social impact and continue to increase profits for producers and workers in an ethical and sustainable way. Simply paying for certification is not enough, practices have to be implemented and controlled.
– Who does fair trade benefit most readily- organisations or individuals?
– If the challenges to fair trade are external, how can these be overcome?
– Even with fair trade, wages remain far too low as a result of the governmenta. How can it continhe to be a sustainable model for change without political justice?
And finally, before I finish my ramblings for today (which you’re probably sick of), I do want to note that I am struggling to overcome that we are encouraged to look at fair trade through the Indian perspective not Australian. Although these two countries are not comparable in a practical sense, it upsets me that we have such large discrepancies without having a global view and standards of livelihood, wages and equality. I do not understand how we continue to enable these inequalities. We continue to turn a blind eye and allow the developing world, like India, to accept that this is simply a fact of life. We are all human. We can all choose to be better, to do better. We can and should choose to support fair and ethical products to close these gaps.
Until next time, see you in Indore!
Shani X X
You’re born in India; a society that is not traditionally accepting of minority groups such as women, disabled, migrants, gays etc. You were born into a family of four- two parents and two daughters and they really want a son. Your father is a grocer and your mother is a homemaker (you fall into a low social class). Finally, your family is blessed with a boy and by the age of three they find out you have cerebral palsy. Can you imagine what your future would look like?
This is the life of my new friend Rohit, one of the many wonderful faces of MESH (Maximising Employment to Serve the Handicapped).
Fortunately, he was born in Delhi, into a family that continuously sought out information and support for education, healthcare and rehabilitation. Through his family’s support, Rohit has been presented with opportunities of employment and despite his severe case of cerebral palsy, he now runs the MESH store in Uday Park, New Delhi.
As I opened the door to the store this morning, I was immediately greeted by the smiling Rohit. I was awed by his enthusiasm, work ethic and ability to adapt to each task in the workplace. His strength took my breath away, his joy inspired me and above all I fell in love with the way he has found peace and happiness within his disability, work and life. I am also incredibly glad that organisations such as MESH exist in India, and in our world, to give people like the wonderful Rohit employment opportunities.
MESH is an Indian organisation committed to working with people with disabilities and those affected by leprosy. They aim to provide these persons with the ability to achieve social and economic integration through trading, capacity building and employment opportunities. It allows people in the community, who would struggle to sell their products in traditional markets, to produce handmade products and generate an income. MESH works with communities across pan India and exports their products to a range of markets both domestic and internationally (9 countries including Australia, UK, US,and Germany). A large percentage of producers and artisans are from leprosy affected communities. MESH has also received accreditation from the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and has already connected with over 900 artisans across 34 producer groups in India.
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with Jacky Bonney- one of the most significant agents of change of fair trade in India. She has been a part of MESH for over 20 years and has just transitioned from head of operations to an advisory role. After studying her nursing degree in England, she left her life to help leprosy affected communities which she did for 25 years prior to her work with MESH. The time I spent with her has given me more understand of fair trade than my previous four years of study and experience. I connected with her on a deep personal and professional level and her commitment to fair trade has left me inspired, motivated and empowered.
Therefore, I would like to share the below interview with the incredible Jacky Bonney.
What does fair trade mean to you?
It means giving an opportunity to people on the edges a chance to get their product out into the market place. There is no doubt in my mind that is what fair trade is about. By marketing their product, we enable them to have access to income generation which leads to empowerment. With empowerment they can make choices that impact their livelihood such as education and healthcare.
Do you believe fair trade can change the world by helping to alleviate poverty?
Yes. But I think it is a tool among many in changing the world. Advocacy, education and equality are all tools as well- they all need to be integrated. Fair trade cares about the little people- small crafts- and if we don’t care about them, then no one else will. However, fair trade can not be seen as an alternative to giving arms or aid- they need to be a united tool in changing the world.
What has the community impact of fairtrade been?
Fair trade has forced us to become more professional, established and systemised. This has become fundamental in the empowerment of producers and artisans. The impact has been widespread throughout the community through training, capacity building, and increased opportunities. It may not always guarantee increased wages or fair wages but it does empower individuals to undertake, create and negotiate opportunities. It is allowing us to think globally, environmentally and sustainably.
What has the impact on the community been?
Communities are beginning to support those people by giving them roles in the community. It may be things like being a watchman or farming, but it is something that empowers them. But socially fitting them into social groups, friendship circles, churches and marriages is something that still needs work. It is improving. Parental views of children with disabilities and leprosy still needs drastic change in our society.
What are the obstacles of fair trade?
The main problem is people’s understanding of the role fair trade can have in poverty alleviation and development. People in the west are so ignorant about fair trade due to the message behind it. However, in developing nations it is a completely alien concept- it is unknown. Therefore, it is our job to educate them about fair trade. Fair trade is also difficult because it is not cost effective. The way we do fair trade is not effective. The opportunity for exploitation exists and allows the middle man to take unfair profit margins.
What are the main issues MESH face?
Healthcare and education in our producer groups need drastic funding. But the main issue is obtaining regular orders. Artisans need regular orders so that they can begin to plan a life.
What elements of fair trade are the hardest to adhere to in India?
Fair wages, because the term fair wage is so undefined. There is living wage and minimum wage- how do you definite a fair wage. The issue is people need to calculate what they should be paid and how do they decide that? They have little education and sense of self worth.
What do we need to do in Australia to promote fair trade?
You need to think in your daily life- ‘I need to buy this, can I get it fair trade?’. We need to begin to substitute our products for fair trade products. If we continue to purchase fair trade we create economic stability. People need economic stability not wealth you see- that is how we change lives.
How do we support MESH in Australia?
Buy fair trade products. You can buy our products through Oxfam, Uplift, Yo My Sisters Scarf . You can also volunteer with us in country or within Australia itself.
Lastly, she asked me what fair trade means to me:
Coming from a western background and perspective, I always had his picturesque, perfect view of fair trade. I thought it plain and simple, it was about giving a higher profit share throughout the product line and most importantly to the producers. Since coming on this trip my views, thoughts and feelings change every minute. The reality is in Australia we focus on fair wages or increased wages but what we do not realise is that over here- in the crux of it- people perhaps aren’t receiving much more income or a fair wage but what we do see is a dramatic increase in social impact. We see improved livelihood through capacity building and empowerment as a result of fair trade. Fair trade, to me means, providing equal and fair opportunity to all.
Please take a look at the incredible work of MESH at http://www.mesh.org.in
Day 3 down and I am already feeling mentally exhausted, 10 kilograms heavier and unbelievably grateful. I can’t wait for what comes next and to try some extra spicy Indian food!
“People in India aren’t poor because they don’t want to or can’t work- they’re poor because there are no opportunities to work.”
– Katish, Eco Tasar
My mind is reeling beyond all sanity. I cannot seem to keep my thoughts straight for even a minute to process today and organise my feelings. Today has become a blur of mixed emotions, challenging interviews, incredible experiences and exceptional food. Today questioned everything I thought I knew about fair trade, exploitation and development. Today changed my life.
This morning I woke up feeling incredibly excited for the day ahead and after finishing a traditional Indian breakfast of curry and roti, I was all set to be chauffeured (I’m one of ‘those’ tourists) to today’s first stop. When I arrived at the head office, I was ready to be inspired and enlightened by a fair trade organisation that I thought was changing the world- I had my note pad and camera out ready and I waited for the magic to happen. Instead what I got was a brutally honest account of the practicalities and realities of fair trade as a business.
Coming from a westernised background and perspective fair trade has always seemed fairly black and white to me: we need to increase the percentage of profits shared with the artisans, producers and farmers in order to increase livelihood. Fair trade has always been, in my mind, a bridge to overcoming poverty and inequality. Although the I still believe it is, I now understand that we can’t continue to have this perfect, basic and simplistic overview of fair trade. The bitter truth is; fair trade is a business and in the essence of business the aim is to create profit.
Before I delve too deeply into today’s learnings you need to understand that I genuinely believe Eco Tasar is an incredible organisation; they have reached over 35,000 families in rural and semi rural India with their mission to holistically create wage opportunities for a large number of small producers. In my opinion that is what fair trade is all about- creating opportunities which in turn enables income generation, capacity building, equality, empowerment, education and increased livelihood.
But when began speaking to the CEO, Kitish, I initially found myself getting agitated, frustrated and annoyed by what seemed like unwillingness to listen to my opinions, thoughts and feelings on fair trade and the lack of any common views. My questions seemed to be going unanswered and I felt confused, angry and disappointed due to my preconceived ideas of this interview. I was most greatly shocked when he described his motivation for entering the fair trade industry was simply because he has found a way in which to differentiate his product (fair trade certified, handmade handicrafts and clothes) in a blossoming market being the U.S., Canada and Australia.
However, my earlier thoughts began to disintegrate being replaced by admiration and respect. I began to cherish his honesty and views of the industry and it quickly became apparent that my prior feelings mostly stemmed from huge discrepancies in what we each believed the concepts of fair trade, fairness and exploitation to be. I began to understand that fair trade is far from black and white, it’s more like 500 shades of grey and some ideals are not comparable between countries. I now understood that this was a corporate view of fair trade in comparison to yesterday’s policy and development perspective. Kitish explained to me that my problem with this was that I “want to make the world a fairer place in a flawed system full of greed and injustice”. He allowed me to understand that in a world of technology in such an overpopulated country it is not always better for the community to pay a few people fairer wages but rather a lot of people lower wages (still deemed fair under legislation and fair trade standards), because situations such as unemployment creates greater opportunity for exploitation.
“Situations create opportunity for exploitation”
From this meeting I learned that demand for fair trade is crucial to creating opportunities and change through fair trade. In this case developed countries, meaning us in Australia, hold the power and responsibility to demand fair trade from our suppliers. By purchasing goods and services from exploitive organisations we enable situations that cause exploitation which reduces livelihood. I learned that fair trade, similarly to aid, is impacting communities in a positive way but it still resides in a flawed system. I learned that fairtrade accredited organisations still enable human rights violations such as child labour because it is simply impossible to find communities in India who won’t use children for certain labours. I learned that something can still be incredible and world-changing even if it is flawed. I learned the importance of buying fair trade because our decisions on one side of the world determines the livelihood of another. Above all, I learned that there is a long way to go in fair trade and that is why I am here.
P.s. I also bought that incredible [fair trade] 100% silk scarf and learned how it is produced. Who ever thought I’d care so much about a worm? Yup, I love those little critters.
Please note: Again, I do not protest to be anyone other than a human, trying to understand the world I live in. This is simply my way of coping and organising my thoughts and feelings. It is my attempt to make sense of the world. I am open to hearing your thoughts and feelings, however I will not tolerate hate, anger or derogatory comments.
It’s funny, during every single history/international relations class I’ve ever taken the same questions arise; How did we let that happen? Why didn’t we do more? How many lives could we have potentially saved? In my experience, most of our questions don’t foster hate for those who caused such pain in the world, but sorrow and regret for our own inaction.
Yet here we are, again, facing what has been labeled the largest scale humanitarian crises of our time and we are once more securing our part in history as another generation that were blinded by national boarders and failed to care enough about our fellow human beings. Our treatment of Refugees will undoubtedly be written in the history books as a failure of humanity, another embarrassment and something that future generations question why and how it could happen.
I have been writing this piece for over a month now, deciding if I should post this or not, wondering what backlash it would receive and that is exactly why this has to be posted. Then the Paris attacks occurred yesterday and my heart absolutely broke and I knew I needed to blog- because this is exactly why I created this space.
Yesterday my heart broke for so many reasons, to the point of being unable to function yesterday. I curled up in bed and felt there was no real reason to get up today. After having time to process, I realise this is the time to get up and say something and definitely not the time to lay in bed. allowing hate, sadness and pain to overcome and quieten my voice.
– Firstly, my thoughts and heart are with the people of Paris. I cannot fathom what the people of your city and country went through on Friday, more so, the fear and pain of those involved- it is completely incomprehensible to me. I find it hard to believe that these vile and inhumane attacks can occur in the 21st Century.
– Secondly, both my heart and soul were shattered that the media was so active on updates and reports of the attacks in Paris but continue to neglect other terror attacks across the globe. Don’t get me wrong- the media should be actively reporting on such issues, my problem lies in the fact that there was little to no media coverage of the suicide bombing at a funeral in Baghdad that killed 60 people or in the bombings in Beirut only two days prior that killed 30 more people. Why do we care when the attacks are on a developed country with a majority of white skinned, Christian or Catholic citizens? Why do we care when the city is familiar to us rather than a city that is war torn and impoverished? I am really curious to know- who actually knew about these other attacks? Point in question.
– Thirdly, I am disgusted to read the comments on social media that suggest refugees are responsible for these vile acts of terror. Comments such as: “We just let 20,000 of these fuckers in, your in danger Australia”, “Stop worrying about other countries and protect yourself” and “Close the gate Australia, we are next. SAY NO TO REFUGEES”. I am beyond angry. I am heart broken. I am sad. I am feeling deeply wounded for those who have had to flee their country in order to escape acts not too dissimilar to these in order to live out their basic human rights. I am sad for the refugees that are fighting to gain freedom and continue to be labelled because of their country of birth, skin colour, religion and circumstance of life that is unimaginable to those of us whom were lucky enough to be born in the first world such as Australia, America, New Zealand etc. Do not be mistaken- the only difference between refugees and yourself is you that won the lottery of birth.
“Do you not realise these are the people Refugees are trying to run away from?”
– Fourthly, I am heart broken for every single muslim I know, love and care about. We know that ISIS is not Islam and terrorism has no religion. You do not deserve the illtreatment of people who choose to be uneducated upon your religion and condemn you due to misplaced anger and hate. You are human. You are worthy. You have the same human right as any to believe in whatever religion you please. I stand with you.
So, please, continue to mourn the attacks on Paris yesterday which President Obama describes as an attack on “humanity and our universal values”. But please, pray for those who continue to be kept in camps, those who walk thousands of miles, those who are simply running for their lives. Send your love and thoughts to all those facing terror, anger and adversity in the world today.
My thoughts and prayers are with the millions of displaced humans all over the world, those who have lost loved ones as a result of terrorism and war, those who continue to live in fear, those who face adversity due to their religion, faith and place of birth and those who feel hopeless in our world. I will stand with you.
“Returning hate for hate only multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
This year has been a year of endless adventure, growth, new friends and projects, applications, interviews, countless rejections letters and phone calls, new commitments, inspiration, fear and incredible highs with a few lows thrown in for good measure. I have been to 9 different countries, three different continents, travelled with two of my best friends, bought a new car, got a new job at one of my dream organisations, volunteered at five different establishments and moved in with my soul mate.
It has been one of the best years of my life.
And today I finished (fingers crossed that I don’t fail) my final assignment ever, in three days time I will be sitting my final class, and in 16 days time I will be sitting my final exam. This is the end of an era. I am saying goodbye to 17 years of continuous study- which has made up 80.95% of my life. It all seems so real now, being an adult, paying bills, working the daily grind… So I guess all that remains to be said is: what comes next?
The truth is, I really have no idea and that not only excites me but scares the shit out of me. I have always known what was next, first it was high school and then university and then I thought at the end of it all I would be saving the world. The truth is all I have ever really known is school… and for the past 7 years I have let it consume me. For the longest time, I thought school was the only thing I could do well. Teachers/lecturers liked me, I received good marks (most of the time- thank you data analytics) and I began to excel in extracurriculars. Study, at times, has been my salvation, my lifeline and my source of inspiration but it has also been at the route of my anxiety, stress and physical/mental breakdowns. I have become a master of completing an assignment in one day, extending or shortening the word count, adding extra references and bluffing my way through formulas. Best of all, throughout this period I have met people who inspire and challenge me and those people who have life long friends. I met one of the great loves of my life and the best friends I will ever know.
As for what comes next- I really don’t have any idea, and thats okay. What I do know is; the best is definitely yet to come.
Shani x x x
One of my very good friends once told me “I am the sum of little pieces collected from my favourite people”. Since hearing these words I have been somewhat obsessed by with finding out more about the people who have donated a piece of themselves to building me. The truth is, despite all else, I am unequivocally blessed to be surrounded by the most remarkable people who shower me with unconditional love and support. Therefore, I would love to share a little bit of the people who inspire me most with you all. And there is no one better to start this series off with than my grandparents and oldest friends; Peter and Francis Cain. Not only did I want to start with them because they are incredible people who truly do inspire me, I also vowed (on my bucket list) to tell them how much they mean to me.
My grandparents are seemingly like anybody else in the world, I mean this in the best way possible. They live a good and happy life (sounding a little like Noah off the Notebook here…). Like us all they have endured hardship and experienced success. They have felt immense love and have now been married for 55 years. They have given endless and unconditional love. They have raised 4 children and 9 grandchildren together, all equally as incredible (although, I am obviosuly the favourite). They have also been and done many other things in their lives. As I said, they are pretty much like everyone else… Only they are not- they are so, so much more.
My grandparents are the centre of gravity in my world. They are the glue to our family. They are my oldest and most loved friends.They are the super human in every way possible.
Some of you may know that I was raised by my dad, but most of you wouldn’t know that these two people were collectively my missing parent. Along side my wonderful father, these two people ensured my siblings and I never went without anything- love, support, toys, a full lolly jar, mac and cheese, spaghetti etc. We have always felt their unconditional love and support, but more than that they absolutely spoiled us rotten, as all grandparents do. Some of my best memories are spent in the company of these two people and for that and so many other reasons they are two of my absolute favourite people in the entire world. Here are just some of the reasons I love them so much:
My favourite things about Nana:
Now you have to understand that we spent A LOT of time with Nana. Days spent with Nana were unquestionably the best days of my childhood. When Nana stayed with us she would make my sandwiches for school (stras and sauce, obviously) and without fail she would always cut the crust off. She would also clean our room the way that only a Nana can… by clean I mean even our cupboards and draws were rearranged. Then when we stayed at Nana and Pa’s we got to run wild, when Pa wasn’t home anyway! Nana would take us to the movie store and let us get 5 weekly movies and sometimes even an overnight rental. She would also give us two dollars to spend at Triggy’s milkbar. We got to stay up all night and sleep in the lounge room- what more could you want? I’ll tell you… Nana would even make chocolate milkshakes and our favourite foods pretty much on request! She is also the kindest person with the biggest heart and the most gentle soul. She loves her family more than anything. Also, I have only ever heard Nana swear once (and even then it was only the B word)… over Brooke on The Bold and The Beautiful.
My favourite things about Pa:
Pa is ridiculously tidy! Even on Christmas, we will just have finished unwrapping presents and the vacuum cleaner is straight out. Even when we are on holidays at Lorne, we are under very strict instruction to keep then annex tidy. Pa always says what he wants, even if it is politically or morally incorrect. There is no watching TV around Pa, because he will not shut up the whole way through it with snide comments. It is a well known fact Pa does not do take well to Americans. I love that Pa plays the organ. I also love that when Nana is in bed reading he takes her some tea and toast. Pa loves technology- he even has a smart phone, tablet and laptop- that’s impressive. Apparently Pa used to swear in the shed where he was out of earshot from Nana. I absolutely adore that Nana and Pa both volunteered to help those less fortunate at St.Vinnies and they attend church every Sunday.
To show everyone how special they really are, I formulated a series of questions about their lives and asked them individually to answer them. Reading them back, I am filled with so much emotion. These answers truly do represent how they are, or at least how I view them- loving, funny, selfless and completely unaware of their brilliance. I loved hearing them describe each other and how they would answer the questions in a similar way. I love that neither of them see how truly remarkable they are, but I wish I could also show them how special and loved they are. Above all, I am so glad I have this small snippet of them to keep forever to share with my family and all of you. I hope you all love their answers as much as I do. The honest truth is, I feel beyond lucky to have the pleasure of being their grand daughter. They have shown me what true love looks like in the face of everyday life, illness and hardship. They have the relationship I aspire to have and are the people I wish to be more like. They have taught me how to live, how to love and how to care for others. I am who I am, largely because of these two immeasurable human beings. I would not change one thing about either of you. I love you so much, we all do. I hope you know that.
1.What have you spent your life doing:
Pa: Me? Ahhhhh, working.
Me: Doing what?
Pa: I left school when I was 12 to work. My main jobs were, well, I was an accountant for 10 years. Then I joined the ambulance service for 20 years and then I became a funeral director from 1993 until now. What’s that 12 years? I think that’s about all I have done.
Nana: Oh, What have I spent my life doing? Oh, well, I suppose until I got married I just went to school and worked and got married and had children and looked after them.
Above: Pa in the ambulance service.
2. What did you do in your spare time?
Pa: I was involved in clubs- APEX and Rotary mostly. I bowled. I was a football umpire for a number of years. Involved in sports. I kept myself busy.
Nana: Well at the moment, I am not able to do a lot so I knit and sew and do Soduko.
Me: When you were younger?
Nana: While the kids were at school- I was always active in the school sports and canteen, and then I used to go to the gym two days a week when the kids were all gone, I was a member of Probis, I worked for St.Vinnies
3. What is the happiest moment in your life?
Pa: When I met my wife.
Nana: Oh, Gosh, that’s hard. The day I got married was very happy. The birth of each child. But I can’t name one, that’s a bit hard.
Above: Nana and Pa’s wedding day.
4. Are you afraid of anything?
Pa: Spiders- hahaha. Crocodiles. All creepy things. Nothing worries me too much though.
Nana: I don’ think so, Im pretty fearless. Haha. I would go up in an air balloon or I would, yeah, I would do anything. Im not afraid of anything
5. If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?
Pa: Oh, god, I don’t know. What would I change Shani? I would try and make the world a better place to live in. But how I would do that is another debatable point. Try for peace, I guess.
Nana: Oh gee, I don’t know. What could I change? Oh gosh, I would change the equality of wealth distribution in the world. The politicians waste so much money and there are many people who need so much more. But what can us ordinary tax payers do to change that?
6. What were your parents like?
Pa: Quiet living, family orientated.
Nana: My father was a typical father of the early 30’s, he was the bread winner and that was really all. He wasn’t overly affectionate or attentive. He earned the money and worked hard. He was a good man. My mother was very caring. She was a caring person. Very loving. She was also the typical wife of those days to my father, she looked after the house and the children. I always had the love and respect of my parents.
7. Can you describe Nana/Pa to me:
Pa: Nana? Ah, in her own way she is loving and caring. She will do anything for family; she loves her family so much- they mean a lot to her.
Nana: Pa? Ah, gee, in later years he has been such a wonderful support to me. Perhaps, earlier he was the typical husband and he earned our money. He was always great and we were always happy. I never had anything to complain about. I wouldn’t change anything.
8. Describe her/him when you first met?
Pa: Ah, we were at a dance, and she was dressed in a brown skirt and white jumper. And a bloke said Im going to dance with her and I thought, I’m going to get in there first. You only had to look at the photos of her to know why I went for her. She is beautiful. I wanted her to be mine.
Nana: I was half involved with another person. And when I weighed them both up, I found him to be the more reliable man. He was handsome and kind. I enjoyed his company, we were good friends. He was always a good man.
Above: the most beautiful woman on earth.
9. What do you like most about yourself?
Pa: Myself? Ah, What do I like about myself? Im pigheaded- haha. I generally say what I want to. Even if it’s wrong. That’s about it.
Nana: Myself? Well I don’t know that I am much haha. I wish I was a different person, more outgoing. I wish I was one of those ladies that people said I wish she would shut up. I wish that I could talk more to others more easily. I am a quiet retiring person.
Me: Nana, you’re more than that. I think you’re a good mother and grandmother? Are you proud of that?
Nana: I have loved being those things. I think I am a caring person and I always help others when I could.
10. Where is your favourite place to travel to?
Pa: Close- Mission beach in QLD. We just went there recently this year after 25 years. We love it there. And Darwin of course, with the girls and kids here.
Nana: Ohhhh, well anywhere up the east coast really, but I would say a little beach resort called Yeppoon. Its so lovely, I could retire there happily.
11. What are you most proud of?
Pa: Oh I am proud that I left school at 12 and a half to work and I was successful in my jobs. I am proud of the fact that I don’t regret anything that I have done. I would do it all again.
Nana: I am not really proud of anything much. I suppose I am proud of my four children. They are all good, happy and honest people. They have mostly done very well for themselves and achieved good things. I am very proud of my grandchildren and what they have achieved. I am proud of you all, all of my grandchildren. I am proud of my family. I am proud that perhaps they have grown up to be good people partly because of their me an their upbringing.
12. What do you love most about your family?
Pa: They are still together in one piece. There is no arguments or distance. We are all peaceful and loving. I love when we can all come together in the one place.
Nana: More or less what I just said. They are kind, caring, loving and good people. I am so proud of them.
Thank you for answering my questions Nana and Pa. I hope you like this.
Shani Lea x x x x
Last week I was speaking with an acquaintance of mine, after a while the conversation turned into the cliched ‘hopes and dreams‘ topic. The conversation went back and forth, before she asked me what I want out of the next ten years. After I have finished telling her, she turned to me and said “You are far too young to have your life figured out. You should be having fun and making all kinds of mistakes, not worrying about the world!”. I brushed the comment off with a laugh and shortly after I said goodbye and jumped in my car. On the drive home I become completely overwhelmed by her comments, I then thought about all the similar conversations I have had since coming home from South America. I began to realise I was not offended by her, but so upset by society as these comments occur far more frequently than the opposing, positive comments such as “Good for you! You go change the world”, “That’s impressive” or even “I support your dreams”.
I have never shared my story, my soul or my goals for praise or sympathy- rather, I bare my inner self in hope that I can inspire, motivate and help others through my ideas and experiences. What strikes me most about these comments, is that I am not sure when having ambition, drive, passion or intention was something not to be celebrated? Since when did being our age- my age or any age, define what we could want for our own lives? When did it become ‘cool’ or the ‘norm’ to spend our youth wasting the opportunities we so blessed with, getting drunk, making mistakes and not caring about the future? I might be alone in this, but I am not impressed by that. I am impressed by the stand alone characters. The people who strive to be different, those who fight for change or shine with strength, humility and grace. I love those people.
Don’t get me wrong, I have made my share of mistakes and I will forever continue to do so, like us all as a fatal reaction to being human. I also love having a wine… or ten with my friends and for the first time ever, only last month, I stayed out until lights on (are you proud Dad?). I am by no means saying that our 20’s are not time for this- they certainly are! But they are also a time for finding meaning, building networks, making life long friends, falling in love- a lot, dreaming, working hard, seeking mentors and advice, travelling, learning and whatever else you want to do. And for me that is the beauty of it all- doing what ever the hell you want.
Dr. Seuss was right when he said ‘you will never be younger than you are right now’. We will also never have as much time to do all that we want with our lives. I am sure we are all aware by now that time goes by far too quickly. Now is the time to be ambitious, courageous and brave. And I for one am going to spend what little time we are so graciously given living with absolute velocity, striving towards anything and everything.
I guess, through all of my rambling, what I want to say is this:
1. If you don’t know what you want in your 20’s, if you are still figuring out who you are- that is completely fine. It is normal. I do believe that throughout our lives what we want and who we want to be will continually change and no one ever truly has all their shit together.
However, if you have ambitions, unimaginable goals or a freaking 10 year plan (like I do)- well, GOOD FOR YOU! That is perfectly fine as well. There is no right or wrong with how you chose to live, ever, in this life.
2. I say to you- say yes to everything, take chances, get lost a million times over, have fun, allow others to help you and follow your instincts. There are no limits, those who wrote history and changed human civilisation were never certain they would.
3. If someone confides in you, if someone shares their soul with you, if someone allows you to share in their dream- DO NOT undermine them, dismiss them or point out their shortcomings. Celebrate them. Build them up. Discuss it with them. Help them. There is more than enough negativity in the world without diminishing someones light that breaks through the darkness.
“I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I cant change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit.” Charles De Lint
Shani x x x
As my own words fail me, Robin Williams description of depression as “the erosion of ones self, an insidious cancer and like cancer there is no reasoning or cure” seems to fit better than a sweater and cup of tea of a winters morning.
The statistics alone demonstrate the harsh and heart breaking realities of this devastating illness. The facts render depression second only to heart disease in the leading medical causes of death in Australia. Suicide, as a bi-product of depression and disability is also the leading killer of Australians under the age of 24, exceeding road accidents. Beyond these stats lie thousands of stories that confirm how horrific depression is and the impact it has on ones life holistically. In all reality, the truth is that depression is a monster that takes and takes until there is simply nothing left.
But for me, depression saved my life.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2011, but it extended far beyond this. Beyond having the chemical imbalance that allows one to be susceptible to heightened forms of depression and anxiety disorders, it stemmed from past pains, unresolved tensions, insecurities and my pessimistic and unparalleled stressful nature. I constantly felt feelings of worthlessness and believed I had to prove myself worthy of love. As these feelings festered, I became numb to all of life’s sensations. By the end of 2012 my life was unrecognisable, I was tangled in a web of self destruction. For the past year I had been throwing up daily due to stress with rapid weight loss, isolating myself to the point of having no connections to anyone and I was desperately trying to find someone to put me back together, to fix me. I was extremely thin, unhealthy and lethargic. I had absolutely no ambition or motivation, I couldn’t concentrate on anything let alone a university degree and I found myself falling short of finding anything about my life that I loved. Basically, my depression had broken me to what felt like the point of no return. It tore my entire universe apart, held me upside down, shook me and left me standing naked in front of the whole world. Not only did my depression take a hold of my life, it took my family and friends prisoner as well. What I didn’t think about or realise was the immense pain it inflicts on everyone around you. It eradicated friendships and relationships by the dozen and terrified those who witnessed the peak of my despair. Like I said, it spares nothing and no one in it’s path. It is an entirely selfish illness. Yet, despite the trail of destruction left by cyclone Shani, I am beyond grateful and completely in love with my depression and here is why.
Having depression stripped me back to my very core, and Mr. Williams was correct, it eroded my entire self until I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had lost all feelings of familiarity. However, it was only when I had lost myself entirely, that I was able to begin finding myself. Aristotle once said ‘Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’. And for me, no words ever rang more true. I became a blank canvas and I, alone held the brush (without an artistic bone in my body). I began to explore who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, what I loved and what I didn’t, what I believed in and anything else you can think of. I studied religion, politics, economics, anthropology, I worked tirelessly, I sought friendship, guidance, mentorship, and I travelled far and wide. The best part about going on a journey of self discovery is you find much more than you ever hoped for. For me, I found yoga, food, people, dog videos on youtube, friendship, places and above all myself. I became a lover of life- Amante de la vida.
Don’t get me wrong, in the height of my depression it was the most difficult time in my life and I am very fortunate to have undertaken the process of recovery. It is only after the storm I can say, in light of the wonderful ability to look in retrospect, that depression taught me the most essential life tools. I learnt how important it is to build a network of people (friends, family, colleagues) who support and love you unconditionally. It taught me the value of surrounding myself with people who challenge me and question the world around them, people who ooze positivity and share the same zest for life as I do. It showed me it is more than okay to cut out any negativity in your life whether it resides in past loves, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family, a job, a social organisation, sports, clothes, bad food- like broad beans, gym memberships- it can be anything that ceased serving your life in a positive way. I learnt how important it is to have morals, beliefs and passion. Depression taught me I had to learn to love myself before I could love anyone and anyone could love me. It taught me how vital it is to have fun, to find the good in every situation and to cherish the fleeting moments of perfection like standing at the Golden Gate to Machu Picchu, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, sleeping in on Sunday mornings with Tom and hugging your grandparents. I finally understand the importance of putting yourself first sometimes. I learnt that being an optimist is a choice and for the first time I feel that my life is entirely my own and I can do anything I want.
I am still learning, growing and healing. I am aware that depression will be a constant battle throughout my life, of this I am sure. I still have days/weeks when I want to lay under my bed all day and not speak to anyone because facing the world just seems too daunting a task. I am still an absolute stress head and an over achiever who has not yet learned how to say no. However, because of my depression I am now aware of myself. I know that I am someone how needs to be surrounded by like-minded, inspirational, motivational, positive, loving people. I am someone who needs to feel love. I need to love what I do personally and professionally. I am definitely not someone who takes well to negativity and unkindness. I am still learning how to walk away from things. I am someone who loves everything so passionately and feels so deeply, and that will always be a great thing. I truly believe that without having experienced my painful and life changing depression I would not be who I am today. I would not feel the same, think the same or even act the same if it were not for this illness. Now when I feel the familiar feelings of sadness, stress and anxiety- I just say, “Hi there depression, thank you for reminding me I need to slow down, I love you.”
Thank you as always for reading and respecting that this is my own personal story. I write open and honestly about my thoughts, feelings and experiences in hope that someone else needs something like this, as I once did. Please feel free to contact me if want to talk about anything you may be experience (keeping in mind I am only a very good listener and in no way an expert or professional).
Love, Shani x x x
Here are a few of my own personal tips and tricks during recovery:
– Exercise: running and yoga were personal favourites.
– Seek help: see your local GP, keep in mind medicare subsidises your first 6 sessions with a professional councillor.
For anyone who has constant feelings of anxiety, worry, stress and low self esteem please reach out to someone and seek help. Don’t suffer alone and in silence.
Beyond Blue hotline is open 24/7, call1300 22 4636
See http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/ for more information
Talk to friends and family
See your local GP