Christian Aid Ireland CEO and Northern Ireland woman Rosamond Bennett on drive to make South Sudan self-sufficient
The charity's CEO tells Mark Bain how her Christian faith led her to joining the organisation and driving forward efforts to help people in South Sudan to become more self-sufficient
In her seven years as CEO of Christian Aid in Ireland, Rosamond Bennett has seen the worst, and the best, of humanity.
Recently returned from South Sudan, where she saw first-hand the life-changing work of the organisation, she said the visit has renewed her strength to see through a three-year plan to help those desperately in need in the world's youngest country.
Formed in 2011, South Sudan has been embroiled in a bitter civil war since 2013.
"Yes, it's a difficult job because of what I see," said Rosamond (51). "And we're trying to raise money for other countries when people see problems here at home.
"I don't think I'd be able to do this job without being a Christian. You have to have that faith to carry on after seeing the things that I've seen around the world. Genocide in Rwanda, people starving in Sudan.
"I'm in awe of how people find the strength to keep on surviving."
But green shoots of hope are starting to emerge. Now, according to Rosamond, is the time to nurture that hope and make sure the people don't slip back to the drastic situation they found themselves in two years ago when Christian Aid first launched a project to tackle malnutrition in the country.
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Having been in South Sudan at the start of the campaign, and while she admits there's still vital work to be done, she said she has witnessed the people of the country pulling themselves up off the floor and onto their knees thanks to their willingness to help themselves.
In many respects, the positive effect of the work of Christian Aid Ireland can be told in the tale of two women.
"Launching the Christmas Appeal in December 2017, I wanted to go and see for myself what life was like," said Rosamond. "It was dire. The people were foraging for leaves to supplement what meagre diet they had.
"It was back in October 2018, just a couple of days after a peace agreement had been signed in the country. The mood was more upbeat but while that fostered an optimism, the reality was that people still had to survive day to day. Every single person was suffering. Last year I met Abuk. She had eight children and one on the way. She struggled to feed herself and her family. To survive, she still had no choice but to eat the leaves around her home.
"She was very weak, very subdued and I really don't know where her energy to stand was coming from. Everything she had, she was giving to her children.
"Then there was Asunta. She was older, but very vocal about her desperate need for help. She basically told me if the plan did not work she would probably not be around to welcome me back a year later. That was hard to hear and reinforced the vital need to get the campaign running and make sure it was a success."
Fast forward a year and Rosamond is back in South Sudan. Some of the people she met 12 months before are no longer around, displaced as a result of the ongoing political turmoil in the country.
"I heard Asunta before I saw her," said Rosamond. "She had heard I was back and made a point of coming to find me. I wasn't hard to spot. She told me a year ago I was the first white person she'd ever met. This year she told me I was the second white person she'd ever met. But what was different, apart from the smile on her face, was what she had with her. She'd brought a basket of tomatoes to show me how well she was doing. Today she's growing bananas, tomatoes, corn, sorghum, enough to feed her family and sell on to get money to get more seeds to grow even more.
"A lot of what we are doing centres on education," Rosamond explained. "The people of South Sudan have no access to the internet.
"They have never had the knowledge of how to grow crops efficiently, how to eat a balanced diet, or when to offer solid food to babies. What the first year of our campaign has done is provide good quality seeds for the people to grow themselves.
"They want to learn so we've provided them with basic tools, basic training on what to grow, when and how.
"So far it's working. We've given almost 7,000 people a hand-up to start providing for themselves.
"They now have the confidence that they can survive as families in the long-term. Today it's not just about how they will survive tomorrow, it's about how they can grow as a community in the years ahead.
"Across South Sudan, we want the number of people we've helped to rise to nearly 60,000 at the end of our three-year campaign. Abuk, too, is able to grow her own food. She is providing for her family. Now she is talking about getting her children an education. That's a big step forward and how well she is doing filters down through the whole community." Running through everything Rosamond does is faith, a faith she has carried in her life since she was 10 years old.
"It was really when my father died, when I was 10, that I fully became aware of God's presence in my life," she said.
"Daddy was ill with heart trouble and he asked me to bring him his tablets, which I did. I then went to bed, but I woke up a short time later. A voice in my head told me to go back to see him and to say 'Goodbye' because I'd never see him again."
Her father, Tommy Hawthorne, died during the night.
"When I woke up the next morning I already knew. I was sure that the voice in my head had been God, because He also said, 'Don't worry, I will be here for you. I will always be your Father'."
The death of her mother, Nan, just six weeks after being taken ill with cancer also had a profound effect. "That made me ask myself, 'What have you done with your life?' So, I decided to change my job and do something more useful for society. I took redundancy from my bank job and looked for something with a charity where I could express my Christian values.
"On the same day that I was offered the job with Christian Aid, I was also offered a job in the corporate sector at twice the salary. I looked on that as a test from God and I knew instantly what I wanted to do. I chose Christian Aid and that has totally changed my life."
Rosamond is married to Karl and the Islandmagee couple have three children: Louis (19), Judy (18) and 14-year-old Reuben.
"Being Christian, Christmas is a very special time for us, but I do look at the world and see so much waste. As a result of seeing the project in South Sudan first-hand and seeing how little they have, I have stopped buying a lot of things.
"We changed the way we did things. We have all we need. Now we put family names in a hat at Christmas and pull them out. Everyone gets one present. There might be things you like, but there's an awful lot of pressure at this time of the year, a feeling you really have to go and buy things for other people. I've been to South Sudan and come back with a real feeling of being privileged."
Rosamond is now encouraging people to think hard before they splash out on costly presents ahead of Christmas.
"Our charity gift campaign runs all year, but it's especially important at Christmas.
"We find it very difficult to raise funds. Mention 'Christian' and a lot of people step back. We struggle to get corporate sponsors because of the faith.
"Without public support we couldn't do this. Our fundraising goes directly to the people, working in the hardest-to-reach areas by links with the local partners Hope Agency For Relief And Development (HARD). We don't build schools or water pumps. We believe the people there can build them for themselves if they're given the means to do it. We have trained women to become water pump mechanics to make sure the pumps continue to work. Everything must be sustainable.
"I would love more people to see what life is like there. You see a lot of challenge events - climbing mountains to raise money. The biggest challenge is to go and see how people are living and not change your life as a result.
"Through our gift campaign, £22 can buy a goat for a family in South Sudan, and people in Northern Ireland have no idea just how much of a life-saver that can be," said Rosamond.
"Last year in South Sudan there wasn't a live animal to be seen.
"Now, having an animal is viewed as a status symbol, like owning a car. This year when I went back I was presented with a goat as a gift.
"It's not the done thing to refuse, but I re-gifted it to our Mother To Mother Group, where mothers are being educated in diet and health to keep their families alive.
"That they're actually looking forward to graduating is amazing.
"But there's also a real tradition of faith. These people have never been inside a church building. They meet to pray and wherever they meet, that's their church. It's about people and that continually inspires me.
"I've never worked in a country where the people are so determined to contribute to their own future, but you can't achieve anything if you're starving."
One of the biggest impacts the Christian Aid campaign has made is that this year there have been no reported cases of malnutrition.
"That's been a big achievement," said Rosamond. "South Sudan is the world's youngest country, constantly in conflict. It's still very, very fragile and only one bad harvest away from starvation again.
"But the people are now thinking about the future, about sending children to school. Mothers are learning what they should and shouldn't feed their babies for the first time.
"Now they know that when a child gets sick, they take it to a healthcare facility. Learning the difference between crying through hunger and crying through sickness is important.
"I was amazed at what a difference a year makes.
"Anyone who donated, they need to know we're seeing this through, that we're making a difference.
"The community I visited is doing well now, but there has been more conflict and recent flooding. The problems are ongoing, people are still being displaced. There are people, huge numbers of people who I met a year ago and this year that I'll never see again.
"And all the time I'm reminded that there's so much more to life than buying things you don't need."
Christian Aid's project was made possible through match funding by the UK Government. A selection of gifts is available by visiting charity-gifts.christianaid.org.uk