Bonza Melany Markham

20 / 04 / 2015

Bonza Sheila is a Q&A interview section showcasing an inspiring woman. This month, pharmacy we’re featuring the illustrious Ms Melany Markham, Trust alumna of late last century, and more recently, foreign aid communications guru, global justice crusader, and international NGO worker currently based in South Sudan.

Trish Pinto (TP): Melany, it’s obvious that you’ve got a searing passion for social justice. One doesn’t go to South Sudan for decadent lifestyle we presume. To what do you attribute this passion? Was there a single event that stands out, or did you get it from your parents, or a powerful doco on the television? Can you recall?

Melany Markham (MM): I am a third generation aid worker, so I suppose you could say that it comes from my parents. My maternal grandfather worked for the Red Cross setting up blood banks around the world and my mother has worked in Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Tokelau managing health programs.

I also had some formative experiences growing up. When I was 16, I went to live in Germany as an exchange student. It was 1990, the year Germany reunified. I visited East Berlin and other parts of East Germany. Witnessing this and getting to know the Germans at this time nurtured a belief in me that change is possible.

TP: You earned your stripes in local feminism way back when, and clearly care about all sorts of social justice causes, but have ended up in international development. What inspired this decision?

MM: When I lived in Melbourne, I always thought that there were other people doing the same thing that I do, but better than I was doing it. I wanted to be somewhere where I could make a genuine contribution. Originally, I chose Yemen, but my work has taken me to Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique since then.

I consider myself to be particularly fortunate to work with people affected by conflict. I lived and worked in the Dadaab refugee camp (the largest camp in the world before the Syria crisis) for almost six months. It is home to over 400,000 refugees. To put those numbers into perspective, from 2012 and 2013 just over 26,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia.

Kenya, where Dadaab is located, is home to over 600,000 refugees and Lebanon and Pakistan over a million each. In South Sudan, at least 2 million people have been displaced by war and 4.3 million people need humanitarian aid.*

Although I sometimes question the contribution that I am able to make, I am certainly in places were the need is significant need.

(* Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

TP: It must have been a massive decision to leave the luxuries of the West behind and work ‘in country’. What made you decide to do so, and were you scared half to death at the prospect? Have you worked in other places as well as South Sudan? How did you feel as you touched down on the runway?

MM: I think the camping holidays that my parents took my brothers and sisters on when we were children prepared me well for South Sudan. No sealed roads, no safe water, eating beans and rice day after day and a stunning natural environment are some of the things that remind me of my childhood.

I can’t pretend that living in South Sudan isn’t gruelling. It has so many extremes – violence, poverty, heat, remoteness. The situation of children is, at times, horrifying. But the most frustrating things are the same in Australia – difficult colleagues, traffic, the heat and banking. They are just twice as difficult and four times as frustrating.

I have lived in Africa for three and a half years now, so when I touch down at Juba airport, it feels like I am coming home. That feeling lasts until I get to the immigration queue and am thrown into a surly throng of tall African men. Yet surly crowds are everywhere and I only need a short break in London and a ride on the Tube to remind me of this.

TP: Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing in South Sudan, and what the situation is like there at the moment?

MM: I compile communications content for World Vision. I photograph, film and write stories and reports about our work here, which is quite extensive. Although I am based in the capital, I travel at least once a month to remote areas.

Everything in South Sudan is different. There is no power or water supply, so power is provided by private generators and each compound has its own boreholes. We have a curfew of 10pm, although this varies depending on the number of incidents that have occurred at any given time. Car-jackings have been very common lately.

At the moment, the country is facing economic collapse. This will put a lot of pressure on food prices, so we are all waiting to see what happens. Most of the warfare occurs in the North, and we are far away from that in Juba. But poverty is on our doorstep with slums throughout the city. One is constantly reminded of why one is here and how much work there is to be done.

TP: There must be some incredibly confronting and heartbreaking elements to working in a country like South Sudan? How do you cope?

MM: A few weeks ago I met a ten-year old girl who had been working since she was three years old. The next day I met a 14 year-old boy who told me he would join the army if he ran out of food. Their stories are not unusual here, but this kind of work isn’t sustainable unless you can take care of your emotions and manage your stress levels.

I find that, even on a bad day, my nieces (aged eight and five) can make me laugh and they are only a Skype away. I also try to exercise as much as I can and to drink as little as possible. And sometimes, I good cry can be very therapeutic!

Many thanks to Melany for sharing her experiences and insights into a world that few of us here in the affluent West ever get to see. Her bravery and commitment and passion for global justice make her, in our book, one bonza Sheila indeed. The people of South Sudan are among the poorest of the poor. Today, many live out their entire lives in refugee camps in conditions that beggar belief. Melany works for World Vision, one of many great aid organisations doing great work in Africa. The VAD Foundation is another, working exclusively in South Sudan, getting kids to school, and with a special push on around girls’ education. Valentino Achak Deng (VAD) was a lost boy of South Sudan. Dave Eggers unforgettable novel ‘What is the What’ is based on his story, and the VAD Foundation is the result. Highly recommended reading!  

World Vision in Africa http://www.wvi.org/africa

VAD Foundation link http://www.vadfoundation.org/

What is the What http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_the_What

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