So, about this Plumpy Nut business…

…a few hours ago I was feeling a bit cocky. I wasn’t THAT hungry, Plumpy Nut tastes a bit grim (actually, it tastes bloody disgusting by the third sachet!) but it’s edible, I was making patterns with Plumpy Nut and tweeting pix.

Now I am really hungry. My head aches. I stood up too quickly and got dizzy. I keep getting these weird white flashing lights in front of my eyes. I can’t concentrate (as the numerous half written emails in my draft box are testament to!). I wasn’t listening properly during a phone call earlier. I could feel myself getting unnecessarily cross during another call.

Obviously I am very aware of what my body is saying to me today but I am still quite fascinated by how quickly the signs of hunger manifest themselves both physically and mentally. But none of that really matters. I work at home so in about five minutes I’ll be on my sofa, I’ll watch some nonsense on TV tonight and tomorrow morning there’ll be porridge and coffee and I’ll make sense of my muddled emails.

What matters (and what I can’t get my head around) is what it must feel like to always be hungry. To always be lacking in concentration and a little bit grumpy. I also keep thinking about Alice who I met in Kenya last November.

Alice travelled for a whole week in temperatures of up to 40 degrees to get her son Joseph to a feeding centre. He was so severely malnourished that he couldn’t sit up or speak. I asked her a stupid question about what she was thinking during the journey. “I only hoped I would get there in time”, she said. Of course that is what she was thinking. She wasn’t thinking about red wine and burgers.

She did get there in time and what was waiting for her and Joseph was the Merlin team and Plumpy Nut. Now read that sentence again and say PLUMPY NUT in a superhero voice. That’s better.

Because in places like Turkana in Kenya Plumpy Nut is not a one day Challenge, it’s a lifesaver. It’s an eight week therapeutic feeding programme that can bring a severely malnourished child back to life. And it costs just £50 for the whole eight weeks. And because Merlin is particularly brilliant and cares about the sustainability bit, while children are being treated their mothers get training on things like health, nutrition and cooking with limited resources.

So that’s what me eating Plumpy Nut for one day is about. Isn’t that the coolest and simplest fundraising idea?

Now will someone somewhere PLEASE cough up £10 and get me up to £500!

You can also sign up at


Introducing The Story Network, a team for charity story gatherers

There is an increasing understanding of the value of powerful stories to a charity’s communications, fundraising and campaigning activities. More and more charities are investing in this area, by commissioning freelance support and by employing individuals to lead story gathering activities.

Those working in charities as case study officers/story managers/in-house journalists (delete as appropriate!) can find themselves in a tricky position. The job is an exciting one. You are frequently in contact with beneficiaries, volunteers and operational staff, you get first-hand experience of the impact of the charity in the way most of your colleagues only dream of and you are directly responsible for producing material that inspires and influences donors, campaigners, the media and policy-makers.

But it can also be a challenge. It can feel like you spend more of your time responding to other people’s priorities and panics than researching new stories, different teams have different ideas about how beneficiaries should be portrayed and even if the organisation employs you it might not have budget for professional writers, photographers and filmmakers so it feels like your area of work is not reaching its full potential.

Sound familiar?

Of course, everyone has frustrations in their work but those in story gathering roles can feel more isolated because often they work alone and do not have colleagues who are having the exact same experience or who can help shoulder the challenges. Roles are usually housed in communications or fundraising teams, but with internal clients across the organisation it is easy to feel you belong everywhere and nowhere.

This is where The Story Network comes in. It will be a place where those with responsibility for story gathering in their charity can find a team away from home! It will provide an environment where individuals with similar experiences and roles can participate in open and honest discussions about challenges, best practice and learning. At each meeting we will agree a topic or issue to focus on at the next meeting and one member will lead the discussion. We will also share articles of interest and examples of storytelling from inside or outside the charity sector that have inspired, excited or even angered us. Nothing is set in stone – the group and the way it operates will evolve in a way that’s helpful to all.

We propose to meet quarterly, on a Wednesday, in the late afternoon. Keeping it within office hours will enable those with evening commitments and caring responsibilities to attend but it also means there is the opportunity to tack on a social aspect if people fancy it. Membership is free!

The first meeting will take place on Wednesday 23rd January at 16.00. We will confirm the first venue closer to the time, based on where is most convenient to all involved, but at the moment we’re thinking about a free space that has good coffee and cake such as the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall.

If you are interested in joining us then email me on

Our debts are paid.

Our flight to Nairobi is delayed so as I sit in a three-sided hut that is Lodwar Airport, I thought I’d squeeze out one last blog.

So, some of you might have seen me tweet that last Saturday we arrived in Lodwar to a party in full swing. The beer was flowing, the tunes were loud, the football louder. We were told that the first person to bed has to buy the goat for the next party.

Oh dear. We were sick. The team here were still dancing at 3am; we were in bed at 9pm!

So this afternoon at the end of our presentation we paid our debts! The cheer was loud. Please note, the featured goat is alive and well in Kisii, this image is purely for illustration. But there is an envelope of money that will feed the next party and we have told them we expect photos!

Thanks to the Merlin teams in Kisii and Turkana for your warm welcomes, packed itineraries, for looking after us when we were sick and most of all for all the inspiring work you’re doing here. It has been a privilege working alongside you for the last two weeks.

Party hard!

The Knowledge

The Knowledge? Pah! I tell you, these London cabbies have got nothing on the Merlin drivers.

Turkana is 77,000 square kilometres and there is one tarmac road. One. The 30 health facilities and 71 outreach sites are reached via mud, sand or gravel tracks. This week, contemplating barely visible tire tracks ahead of us I asked how the drivers ever find these communities with no maps or roads.

James: “That is a Merlin road.”

Me: “Pardon?”

James: “That is a Merlin road. Our vehicles make these tracks. We are the only people that ever drive into these areas. We have made these roads.”

That amazed me.


The Safe Motherhood programme manager told me that Merlin “reaches the unreachable”. To do it each Merlin driver travels up to 1200km a week, transporting midwives and health educators to communities and taking women whose lives are in danger to hospital. If a woman is struggling in labour in the dead of the night they don’t wait for sunrise. They just drive.

I don’t know about you but I think they are as important as the midwives and health educators.

Shit happens…

…or, the story of how we became patients at the hospital we were visiting


You plan for things to go wrong on these trips. Well, you don’t exactly plan for it, but there will always be a curveball so when it comes you deal with it in whatever way you need to and then get on with the job.

In the past we’ve arrived in communities to find almost the entire village is at a funeral and turned up for appointments with council chiefs to find they’re on “urgent business” 200km away (despite us confirming an hour earlier!). Rain comes, vehicles breakdown, flights are delayed. And then shit happens.

Anyone who has worked or backpacked in these types of environments will have succumbed to this most common of traveller’s ailment. It started with me. Anna came next. It ended with Ben. We applied the usual Imodium/rehydration salt tactics, carried on as planned and assumed it would pass.

But it turned out that this was an attack with bells on, especially for Ben. So yesterday the Merlin team marched him off to the hospital lab for tests. It was all very convenient really – we were due to be at the hospital anyway!

Ben went one way and Anna and I headed to the maternity clinic. As we went she gave me a sideways look and said “I really hope he’s taking one for the team”. I suspected it wouldn’t be that straightforward. Fast forward four hours, clinic is over, the Merlin midwife is off duty and we are sat under a tree waiting for a doctor’s referral so we can pick up our little pots!

We sat under that tree for two hours. I gained a new perspective on healthcare in developing countries, albeit on a teeny tiny level. Eventually we got our pots, got our results and got our antibiotics. So what’s the problem? Let’s just say food contamination. I did google the medical term; suffice to say some things are best left ungoogled!

Somehow the experience of being story gatherers and patients in the same hospital blended seamlessly. There was some confusion as to why Ben didn’t come running as soon as word came that his test results were back, but how could he? At the time he was photographing the magic moment when a pregnant woman received her HIV negative result. She’d agreed to him photographing her antenatal visit from start to finish, he wasn’t going to leave then.

And as I sat waiting for my prescription I was told that the doctor was seeing to a woman who was having difficulties in her labour. That woman had been rushed to hospital from an outlying community in a Merlin vehicle. If it had not been for Merlin she would have continued struggling in labour, at home and with no means of reaching the safe hands of that doctor.

It was getting on for 7pm by then and I should have been back at the guesthouse. If I hadn’t been sat waiting for that doctor I wouldn’t have heard that story. Every cloud…

Myths of motherhood

Two days ago we were in verdant Kisii, where the bright green tea plantations provide a vivid splash of colour even when the clouds are angry and black (which they frequently are!). It is the wettest and most densely populated area of Kenya.

We are now in Turkana. This is the driest and most sparsely populated area of Kenya. The heat today is a punishing 35 degrees, and this is winter. Last year this region witnessed the worst food crisis in east Africa in more than 60 years.

We’re here to find out more about Merlin’s work in maternal and child health. This morning we visited the maternity ward at Lodwar District Hospital. We weren’t due to be there until 11 but at 10.30 Adan from the local Merlin office came rushing into the compound. He’d received a call from the Merlin midwife; three women who had delivered last night were waiting for us but they wanted to leave – you pay per night for your bed here. Twenty minutes later we were there.

I chatted to Margaret, whose daughter Zamu Zamu was just 16 hours old. She told me how with her first baby she had not been to the clinic until she was seven months pregnant. Instead she’d sought advice from other women. Advice included ‘do not be idle, keep working hard’.

We’re not talking about the kind of work most people reading this blog regard as hard.

A few minutes later I met Lokwawi. She was at the hospital with her baby, born at home prematurely and admitted to hospital weighing just 900 grams (around 2lb). James, another member of the Merlin team, explained that two of the most common causes of premature birth here are overworking and exposure to sunlight.

I thought about the advice that Margaret had received.

Meanwhile Lokwawi will have to return to her community for a complex ritual to rid her of the evil that premature birth has brought into her family.

A vital part of Merlin’s work here is community education to debunk myths. Sometimes on these trips you have to hunt out the compelling stories that bring an NGO’s work to life; sometimes they slap you in the face.

It’s all in the name!

Most of us probably know someone who had a ‘happy accident’ – the extra child that wasn’t quite expected! Some come within the same rough timespan as their older siblings so it’s never really that obvious; for others there’s a significant enough gap for them to spend much of their life making jokes about being the ‘whoops’.

But imagine bearing your parents’ surprise in your name?!

This week I dropped in on the District Medical Officer for Kisii district. The boss. These courtesy calls are part and parcel of our trips. You have to make your presence known, explain your purpose and be given the official go ahead to interview and photograph. Sometimes these meetings are long and boring; sometimes the ‘big cheese’ dismisses you quickly, not much interested in your business; sometimes you are treated with slight suspicion.

What would this meeting have in store? “Hello, I am Dr Nyongesa, nyongesa is Swahili for addition. I was my parents’ unexpected one. You are most welcome!”. Thereafter followed that deep musical laugh that I so associate with my trips to Africa.

That meeting set a tone for our time at Kisii Hospital. Everyone was warm, welcoming and keen to talk to us about how Merlin has been supporting them. There was also this thing about names. I interviewed Mary who manages the oncology ward and her colleague, Mary, who managed the HIV clinic. They told me about their friends on the TB ward – Mary, Mary and Mary.


I already blogged about the amusing conversation with John, when I asked about his health worker Alice and he started talking about his wife Alice. That was Tuesday. On Thursday, health worker Alice took us to meet another one of her clients. She was called Alice.

The mother I met on Tuesday morning was called Elizabeth. And the lady at the top of the very steep hill that we huffed and puffed up and skidded down? Elizabeth. Josephine who was so interested in learning about our equipment is not the same Josephine who cooked us the most amazing chapattis.

Alongside us while we met all these new names and faces was Merlin’s Dickens. Except I have been calling him Dixon all week.

Day 3: Josephine

A gaggle of children surrounding a couple of big white mzungus who are pointing cameras and microphones at the neighbours is pretty par for the course on trips like this. You get used to it, you understand it but it doesn’t stop it being really annoying sometimes! It’s not their interest; it’s the noise and heads peeping into shots.

Today, as I took a picture of Ben and Anna working, I became aware of eyes on me and looked to my left. Stood there, aside from the rest of the group, was a young girl in a green t shirt with inquisitive eyes. She looked at the screen and said “it’s beautiful”. Following the normal routine of things, I asked her if she wanted to have her picture taken. She quickly shook her head.

Five minutes later I felt a tap. “Please can I take a picture of you?” Afterwards she said “it’s hard”. “No”, I said, “you’ve done well”. A conversation followed about how much an iPhone cost and whether she might have her own one day. Then she asked me to explain what Ben’s light reflector did. I explained that it puts sunlight where there is none and demonstrated. The eyes widened considerably. Then, as I continued talking she noticed that Ben was filming, taking my earlier lead she put her finger to her lips and told me ‘shh’.

She asked if she could carry Ben’s tripod and light reflector to the car and we grabbed a quick snap of ourselves. As I got in the car she ran round and told me sternly, “you have not hugged me”. We hugged, said goodbye and had a quick conversation about her school. We told her that we hoped she got a job in TV one day. She laughed at us. But I think there could be something in it.

Diary from a story gathering trip to Kenya, part one

I am in Kenya with Ben Langdon for Merlin, the UK’s leading international health charity. Over the next two weeks we’ll be gathering stories for use in future fundraising and media campaigns. We’re travelling with Anna from the Merlin media team who is also blogging from this trip at

Our work starts in Kisii, a busy, bustling, densely populated region in the West of Kenya.

Day one

There is excitement, anticipation and slight trepidation on the first day of the trip. As you drive to the programme office you rarely take in the sights and sounds of the busy streets, streets that are not so much coming to life as seeming to be half way through their day – even at 8am! Observing the world go by comes later, right now you’re preoccupied. This is where all the planning will come to life, or not. On day one you’re still getting over the travel and acclimatising so you have to be easy on yourself, but you also need a quick win to help you find your groove and start the process of peeling away the layers of strategy, targets, interventions and jargon to reveal the lives that have been changed and saved. You don’t necessarily need whistles and bells but you definitely want to start feeling the tingle.

So off we went to meet Elizabeth and Charles. An HIV+ couple who with Merlin’s support have three HIV- children. I’m not going to tell the whole stories here – there are bits and pieces on Twitter from @merlinnews, @benlangdonphoto and me but the detail is Merlin’s to share, not mine. But I will tell you that the family were quite whistles and bells! As Elizabeth cocked her head at the camera and gave a confident gesture that apparently means ‘swagging’ (no idea, sorry!) and her kids gave me thumping high fives as we left I thought, “We’re off”.

Next stop John and his wife Alice, both HIV+. His community health worker is also called Alice. I asked him how Alice helped him. I meant his health worker. He told me how she made sure he wore condoms when they were in bed so they didn’t become reinfected. He was talking about his wife. While John and I talked at crossed purposes his mother in law’s cow was doing her best to spray Ben with a deposit which had she been human we’d have slid an Imodium across the table.

But actually John’s story was remarkable and he was remarkable; when he told us that Merlin was so close to him they were like a Dad to him the tingle went all the way to toes.

It was a good day one.

Day two

Our 7.30 breakfast coincided with a moment in history this morning; as we wandered into the dining room the announcement went out that Obama had been re-elected. Understandably the staff were more interested in the TV than in making our coffee (although to be fair they didn’t really show it!). I like to think that the incessant car horns than accompanied our breakfast were sounding out for Obama – after all, his African roots are a mere 2 hours from where we are working – but maybe it was just the regular rush hour traffic!

First stop today was Iyambe District Hospital, just on the outskirts of Kisii town. It is a small facility with just 12 beds and a bustling out patient service. Dickens from Merlin told me how Merlin helped renovate the hospital and laboratory, provides ongoing and training for staff and supplies HIV drugs and other commodities. There used to 300 patients receiving treatment for HIV and TB, now there is 1000.

Day two is when your knowledge begins to layer and it’s a great feeling. You start to understand the bigger picture. On day one Elizabeth and John spoke of the value of support groups and the counselling they received from community health workers (or Community Link Persons as they’re called here). Today I listened as those health workers – all of whom are HIV+ – told me how they inspire people others to live healthily and give them hope. I also met Maureen, a 25 year old nurse clinician, who is one of those inspiring health workers who you want to put in a clever machine, multiple profusely and distribute to health systems across Africa!

This afternoon’s interview? Well that needs to be written up pretty quickly from memory because I’m not going to be relying on my recording. Did I mess up, press the wrong button, forget to turn the mic on? Thankfully, no. The problem is that the torrential rain on the tin makes the recording almost inaudible. A pod cast in the making it isn’t! The subject of the interview was also at the top of a very steep climb up a muddy track, through the maize plantations. Coming down was not elegant!

We spent the evening with colleagues from the local Merlin team. We ate what seemed like a whole goat and had fascinating conversations about everything from  polygamy in Kenya and the cost of family gatherings when you have 60 brothers and sisters to the fact that last time Obama won the election the Kenyan government gave everyone two days off. I really hope that doesn’t happen again. Or at least not in the next two weeks, it will create havoc with the itinerary!

Happy World Storytelling Day!

Today is World Storytelling Day! I bet you didn’t know that did you?

For many years communities in Mexico and South America have been using the National Day of the Storyteller on the 20th March to celebrate the role stories play in learning and in keeping history and culture alive through the generations.

Since the early 90s communities of storytellers from around the world have also been using the spring (or autumn if you’re in the southern hemisphere!) equinox to learn from each other and create international contacts. I am not sure how many people get involved but I will be keeping an eye on #WSD12 today!

Each year has a different theme, and this year’s theme is trees so I thought I would get in the spirit of things and share some pictures and stories from mine and Ben Langdon’s recent trip to Ghana.

Trees are an importing meeting place and hub of activity in many communities. Here these boys have a bird’s eye view of a school drama which is about at the issue of teenage pregnancy.

It was 40 degrees on the day this photograph was taken. When the sun is punishing and classrooms become stifling hot you can’t underestimate the importance of having a tree to study under. Many schools are now planting trees as a way of making their environments more conducive to learning.

These aren’t really trees, but they came from a tree! In Ghana, classroom resources are in short supply so VSO is helping teachers to think creatively about how they can bring lessons to life for children. These twigs are being used as a teaching aid in a maths lesson.