“Change Your Way of Thinking to Change Your Way of Life”

Tultitlán Panorama

[Scroll to the bottom for a gallery of photos]

A couple of hours north of Mexico City, down a steep road and off a dirt track, there’s a big hill surrounded by a sprawling community. It’s not obvious until you get up close, but the hill, which rises high up into the sky, is made entirely from plastic bottles, bags, toys, old machines and other disposable, unwanted remnants of life. It used to be a 20 metre deep rubbish pit, but it filled up a long time ago and has grown so high that it should have been closed in 2007 (according to this website) but Mexico City’s waste still ends up here.

Children at Tultitlán Rubbish DumpAround 140 families live and work here, building temporary homes nearby and collecting recyclables to sell to the government traders who weigh and pack them up onsite.

The seemingly unlimited work available, coupled with the ability to choose your own hours means that the work is appealing, despite its low pay and hazardous conditions; Most people who live around the dump have migrated here from elsewhere specifically for it. But even for those who make a living by other means, or who have made more permanent homes nearby, it is not a wealthy place, and many choose to spend whatever little they earn on alcohol.

Children at Tultitlán Rubbish Dump

Children at Tultitlán Rubbish DumpChildren at Tultitlán Rubbish DumpGaudencio Cruz moved to Tultitlán several years ago to work on the rubbish dump but now works as the Tultitlán community centre coordinator. He says that there are all sorts of issues here, but one thing that’s really important is working with families to encourage them to want to give their children an education. Public schools are theoretically free but children still need to buy books, clothes and pay for transport, which all adds up and as many of the parents can’t read or write, they don’t see why their children would need to either.

Former Student Laura Teaches at the Tutoring Programme

For this reason, the community centre provides a free tutoring programme, with no need to buy books or anything else.

Alejandro They also work with the government so that all students can take tests and receive diplomas to prove that they’ve passed and to enable them to sign up to the public school when they’re ready.Gaudencio and his staff work with the community to identify kids who are not at school, invite them to come along, and most importantly, encourage them to keep coming back.

Tultitlán Tutoring ProgrammeThe community centre is managed by Amextra, an NGO that works throughout Mexico, using their motto ‘change your way of thinking to change your way of life’ as a driving force. They believe strongly in empowering communities to take charge of their own futures and encourage locals like Gaudencio to take on staff roles.

Children at the Under-Fives GroupBut they also emphasise the importance of understanding why people do things a certain way because only then can things change. This is communication for development working at its best – Amextra provides support and training but it’s the community that decides what they need.

Josefina in her café 'Chepiss'It’s not just about education though; Amextra’s staff encourage the community to make the most of what they have in many other ways too: They run various courses from nutritious cooking to how to set up and manage a business;

Sebastián at the Under-Fives GroupThe school has eco-toilets – not only have they been constructed from recycled materials but they will eventually provide a free source of compost; and the pre-school mothers and babies class encourages parents to save their scrap waste so that the children can use it for crafts projects.

Dr Carlos the Dentist
The onsite dentist Dr Carlos gives hygiene classes for washing hands and teeth to encourage people to build healthy (and preventative) habits; and the community centre garden serves as a source of fresh vegetables as well as a teaching aid to encourage people to grow their own healthy resources.
Luisa, another local staff member, discovered that she was diabetic four years ago and so taught herself how to drastically change her diet.
Maria Luisa

When her husband fell ill six months ago, she had to take on work to support her family and so started to turn her own knowledge towards the community. With Amextra’s help, she started running nutrition classes with the local women – showing them how they could substitute more nutritious ingredients in their cooking and improve their family’s health without spending a fortune. Her classes attract a steady stream of women, and together they figure out how to make their favourite recipes with protein rich soy and amaranth as main ingredients.

Alejandro's Family
But it doesn’t stop there; Luisa is always looking for new ways to encourage healthy habits for less and also shows people how they can grow their own food supplies even if they don’t have a lot of space. Just two weeks ago she set up a space-saving hydroponics system made from old plastic bottles, pipes and a basic wooden frame that she intends to use as a demonstration very soon.
Studying Hard at the Tutoring Programme


One of the most inspiring things about Amextra is how much they are able to do with so very little. It’s something that Communications Manager Stephanie says is really important about their methodology “you can really do the basics of any projects without a lot of money – let’s be creative, use the local resources…so there are times when there are not that many financial resources but projects still go on.”


Alejandro's Family
Right now is unfortunately one of those times, but spending the day with such an inspiring group really makes me wonder how much they’ll be able to accomplish with more.


All photos © Bob Rose

Browse through the photos below to read more details

A Trained Midwife Makes All the Difference

Through my work for UNICEF in Indonesia, I met a lot of midwives, mothers and babies and I heard a lot of stories, some sad, some happy and some very inspiring.  As today is International Midwives Day, I thought I’d include some of those stories from a trip I made to East Sumba a few years ago.

Sumba is an island in Eastern Indonesia. It’s fairly hard to get to, very poor and very isolated. Many of the villages are cut off from quality roads, which means not only can they be hard to reach, but clinics and services are often difficult to travel to.

A Trained Midwife Makes All the Difference

Mothers and babies waiting at Pustu Patawang

Ibu Nonce is the main midwife at Pustu Patawang, a subsidiary health clinic to the local health centre in East Sumba. Her clinic looks after four rural hamlets that are spread over quite a wide area. The furthest hamlets are not connected to the clinic by good quality roads, so pregnant patients often prefer to walk several kilometres to reach the clinic. When women go into labour, Ibu Nonce also has to walk long distances to reach them, so knowing how to deal with problems swiftly is vital. Ibu Nonce received training last year and is extremely happy with what she learnt. “Before, I didn’t always know what to do, or how to recognise signs of danger in pregnancy.”

One of her patients, Ibu Karolina, who lives in one of the furthest hamlets, developed pre-eclampsia in 2003. Her house is four kilometres away from the clinic, and because the roads nearby are either bad quality or non-existent, when she went into labour, she gave birth at home.

Before the training, Ibu Nonce didn’t know how to recognise early signs of pre-eclampsia and so had no idea that Karolina was suffering from it, and wasn’t prepared. “Karolina’s house is not particularly close to the main road, so when it became clear that she would have to be taken to the health centre, four of her neighbours had to carry her 200m to a vehicle, on a piece of cloth.” From there, the minibus drove her nearly 20km to the health centre, and once there they were able to treat her.

Karolina was lucky to survive; pre-eclampsia is one of the main causes of maternal death in Indonesia. If left untreated it affects the brain, leading to headaches and blurred vision followed by convulsions and coma. So recognising it early and making adequate preparations is essential for saving lives.

Baby being weighed at Pustu Patawang clinic

Ibu Alfia came to see Ibu Nonce for a check up in the first two to three months of carrying her third child, but didn’t come back again until she was six months pregnant. She’d seen her midwife during her first pregnancy and had no problems, so after a good result from her first check up, she didn’t expect there to be any problems the second time round.

But when Ibu Nonce saw her, she realised straight away that she had become anaemic, the insides of her eyes were white and her skin was pale.  If left untreated, anaemia can cause poor foetal growth and low birth weight in babies, and lead to urgent life threatening blood transfusions in pregnant women.

Ibu Alfia’s pregnancy was already quite advanced so she was at a high risk of suffering severe complications. Because of Ibu Nonce’s training, she now knew how urgent it was that Ibu Alfia received proper treatment, and wasted no time in sending her to the nearest hospital. She needed to have two blood transfusions, and had to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks until she was better. Thankfully both Ibu Alfia and her baby came through the pregnancy with a clean bill of health but if Ibu Nonce hadn’t known how important it was to send her for emergency help, the situation may have been much worse.

Ibu Nonce is very happy that she can now see these vital signs early on and prevent more pregnancies developing serious complications. In Patawang, the hills and lack of quality roads mean that pregnant women face more risks than usual, so her new knowledge is essential for keeping them safe.

Ibu Alfia (left) and Ibu Karolina wait to see Ibu Nonce

Better skills are vital, but the community needs to understand too

Despite her increased skills and good facilities, Ibu Merpati Wali - another local midwife, is fighting against a culture of home deliveries, assisted by experienced but unskilled family members and neighbours. She is examining more and more pregnant women, but being new to the area, her clinic has only been running for one year so far. In that time she’s delivered just three babies there, with most parents still choosing to give birth at home, some still without her help.

The culture in Sumba is very hierarchical, with older family members, and men having much more input than younger women, even when it comes to giving birth. One of the difficulties faced by midwives like Merpati Wali, is getting the community to understand, as well as changing the opinions of their pregnant patients.

One of Ibu Merpati Wali’s regular patients was pregnant with her fourth child and in a high risk category because of her age (36). Her previous three children had been born with no problems, and the fourth pregnancy was also very healthy. But a week before she gave birth, she told Ibu Merpati Wali that she wouldn’t be calling for her when she went into labour. Her first two pregnancies had been assisted by a midwife, and had gone by without a problem, so despite having no training, her husband had delivered the third child. Again this was fine and so he believed that he should deliver their fourth child. This was against the mothers’ wishes, but she was a little scared of her husband as he was very strict and could even be violent at times. He worked long hours selling produce at the market and usually didn’t get home until late, so had never been to any of the consultations with the midwife. She tried to meet with him to explain the dangers that his wife would face if he insisted but there just wasn’t the opportunity due to his working hours.

One day in April 2008, Merpati Wali got a phonecall from the husband asking her to come quickly, but by the time she arrived, the baby wasn’t breathing. “He was so sure that he could deliver the child himself but had no idea what to do when things started to go wrong” she says sadly. This child’s death should have been easily preventable. He had become stuck in the birth canal and according to the autopsy, probably died of asphyxiation due to his shoulders being stuck. “He was a big baby and the father didn’t have enough experience to be able to deal with the situation.” Sadly if Ibu Merpati Wali had been called in time, she could have prevented his death. “When I arrived at the house, the father was beside himself. He knew it was his fault but by then it was too late.”

Since then the mother has been to visit Ibu Merpati Wali four times to apologize for not calling her sooner. “She’s suffering from stress and trauma and so is the father but he’s too ashamed to come.”

Merpati Wali wants to be able to prevent this from happening again by spreading information throughout the village. Although she is trusted and known by the women, when their families don’t understand the situation, there’s little she can do. But she is hopeful for the future, “If we can socialize enough, then we can save more lives.”

A trained midwife makes a huge difference

Ibu Alfi sits in her front room with two of her children: Natalia (5) and Tania (2)

Even in the more established areas, such as Pustu Patawang, it takes time to get families to understand. Ibu Alfi lives in a small village near to this health clinic and often went to see her midwife for check-ups. She had already given birth to two children with the help of a traditional birth attendant, known as a dukun, but with her third pregnancy, she really wanted to use the local midwife. “There were no problems when I gave birth to my first two children, but this time, something just seemed wrong.” She knew that her local midwife was trained and could give proper medicine, but the dukun would only really be able to give her pregnancy massage. Her parents didn’t agree with her though, they’d always used the dukun before and never had any problems, and besides, her other two children were healthy. They didn’t see the need for a midwife when the dukun was obviously capable of delivering children.

Alfi and her family live a long way from town so to earn money, her husband often has to stay away for a night or two at a time. He was away the night that she went into labour, but as her parents were with her they called for the dukun. Because Alfi insisted, they tried to ring the midwife too, but she couldn’t be reached on her phone. If her husband had been there, he would have gone round to the midwife’s house himself, but it wasn’t a priority for her parents. Alfi had to deliver her baby with help from just the dukun, but all the time she hoped someone would arrive by motorbike so that they could be sent to fetch the midwife.

Several hours later, the baby was born healthy, but immediately after giving birth, Alfi started to haemorrhage. “Blood was gushing out of me, but the dukun said she couldn’t help, she didn’t know what to do. And then I passed out, with the blood still flowing.”

By this point, with the dukun as well as Alfi’s parents starting to panic, the midwife had been located and was on her way. She arrived not long after Alfi passed out and because of her training, she knew exactly what to do. She immediately gave her an injection, and within half an hour, Alfi had regained consciousness and had stopped bleeding. The midwife made sure that she was looked after continually for the next few hours until arrangements could be made for her to travel to the nearest hospital for a full check-up.

“I’ll never use a dukun again” says Alfi, “and now my parents absolutely agree.”

Tania, Natalia and their friends are happy they have a new sister to play with

The Deadly Right to Self-Expression

“I think you’d look bloody lovely in a miniskirt” says a man off camera, with a dirty chuckle. The usually feisty young woman it’s directed to, Sabbiyah, smiles to keep the peace but I’m repulsed even before another man’s hand gropes her knee, turning her expression very hostile. The scene annoys me because I can relate to it – I can see how the men might consider themselves fairly innocent as they haven’t really done very much other than be mildly provocative. But being objectified and sexualized in this way is unpleasant and uncomfortable and I’m sure there’s not a woman alive who’s not experienced similar at some point or other.

What’s particularly offensive in this instance however is that the men’s provocative comments are directed at an Islamic woman, who’s just told them that she wears what she does to protect her modesty. The scene is from episode 2 of UK’s Make Bradford British and you can watch it here: (this links to the whole episode but it will start at the scene I’ve just described)

There are so many issues that this could springboard onto, but what’s interested me the most is the importance that so many people put on what you wear. I thought that I came from a culture where dressing differently / bizarrely / however you like was at least tolerated…  I remember my head of year standing at one side of the long busy corridor looking me up and down in some form of intimidation technique as I walked past her defiantly. My nearly waist length hair had been plaited into nearly 150 braids, each with little beads on the end, and she didn’t approve.

She tried all manner of things to get me to look ‘normal’, including complaining that I was a walking health and safety hazard as I could have someone’s eye out if I turned round too quickly. “What, even if I tie it back in a bun?!” I sarcastically protested. But this was twenty years ago, and even then, I had enough supporters of my right to self-expression – particularly my form tutor who I suspect wouldn’t have let me back down even if I’d chosen to – that she didn’t get her way.

Part of being a teenager is about exploring identity through the clothes you wear, trying out new looks as you work out who you are. Most of my friends wore the Doc-Martin-boots-and-long-black-hair uniform of individuality. What we didn’t realise though was that even if I wore red laces and she wore green, we still looked rather much the same to everyone else. But whatever names we were called, we knew we were harmless and so did most other people.

So it’s particularly saddening to read a couple of stories lately that demonstrate the dire importance of looking like everyone else. Firstly back in December, 65 Indonesian youngsters were rounded up following a rock concert, and made to conform  - their piercings were taken off them, their mohicans and dreadlocks shaved off, and their ‘disgusting’ clothes replaced. Then, with their heads shaved, they were paraded around like criminals and forced to undergo 10 days of detention while they were morally re-coded. 
Such treatment is obviously rather horrible, degrading and humiliating but the officials protested “We’re not torturing anyone. We’re not violating human rights.” That’s arguable given that some of the young people were apparently held in cages, but at least they were returned to their parents after a week and a half.

What’s far more disturbing is what’s been happening to young Iraqis recently. Nobody’s entirely certain who’s behind it, although the country’s Interior Ministry has been denouncing emo sub-culture as satanic, but in the last month or so around 100 young Iraqis have been stoned to death because of the way they dress. This article describes the situation, but warning: it includes some graphic descriptions and a photo that I intentionally scrolled right past, so I’m not sure how bad they are.

Perhaps in the UK, nothing’s changed, perhaps there will always be people who are against those who dare to dress differently. But I’m very thankful that despite the odd jibe or comment, I never felt threatened, just confident knowing that the way I dressed was what made me, me. As Sabbiyah explains “It’s part of my identity, why can’t I dress like this?” In her case, issues of racism, culture and immigration all play a part in the comments she received but the issue of identity is universal.

KONY 2012 – An Exercise in Thinking Critically

The global phenomenon that is KONY2012 has now been so significantly disseminated, dissected and criticized that perhaps it’s time I mentioned it here, especially now that it’s pretty much subsided.

In the unlikely event that you’re not sure what I’m referring to, the 29 minute video crusade introduces us to Joseph Kony, the world’s number one most wanted: a Ugandan warlord who has abducted over 30,000 children, forcing them to commit or be subject to all sorts of hideousness in the name of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). It also introduces us to Invisible Children, the charity behind it.

More than 70 million people watched the video within one week, the facebook page has over 3 million ‘likes’ and Angelina Jolie has called Kony an ‘extraordinarily horrible human being’ (though to be fair, she did mention she hated him back in 2010). But there has also been an outpouring of criticism about the way that Invisible Children have gone about raising awareness for this cause, not to mention their rather dubious management of, well pretty much everything they do.

So What are the Facts and Why All the Criticism?

I don’t think anyone’s likely to deny that Kony is a bad man, or claim that Invisible Children are rubbish at making films. But should we really be ready to wholeheartedly sign up to everything that moves us, or is their incredible talent for strategic marketing something to consider more critically? Firstly, if you’ve watched the video and are about to sign the online petition, order the Action Kit or lobby the celebrities and politicians straight away – take a look at this animated guide to critical thinking – it’s part of a series aimed at a younger audience but nevertheless because it’s well done, I think an older audience can appreciate it too (especially some of the others in the series, which are even more worthy of a chuckle)…

So with that in mind, here’s a critical look at some of the information that’s lacking from the video: Joseph Kony is Not in Uganda (and other complicated things). Also here’s a handy infographic by Charlie Morton that demonstrates some of the figures that Invisible Children are dealing with, and here’s a useful map from Reliefweb that shows where the LRA’s attacks actually occurred during 2011.

There have been some thoroughly brilliant analyses made already so rather than do another myself, I’m going to point you towards some great posts, articles and links to give you a nice rounded background to what’s going on…

“There is no “I” in meme, but there are (at least) two “me”s” Jack Bratich

There are countless atrocities, terrible situations and diabolical characters in the world, so how has this particular one gained so much attention? My Little Kony pulls apart the way in which social media and individual youths teamed together to make this so very viral.

On Wednesday night, the scathingly humorous Charlie Brooker broadcast an excellent piece on UK Channel 4′s 10 O’Clock Live that sums up a lot of the criticism rather well:

Kony may well have become famous in millions more homes since last week but in Uganda, many of the communities that Invisible Children claim to be campaigning on behalf of, haven’t actually seen the video, and may now not get a chance. On Tuesday, in one Northern Ugandan community, a large screen was set up in preparation for a showing. Estimates of between 5,000 and 35,000 people, including  past victims, travelled from far and wide to see the documentary, anticipating that it would represent their experience. But as this video shows, it  apparently didn’t go down too well:

AYINETthe well meaning organizers of the screening, wanted to make the video available (along with critical discussion following it) because most of the survivors of the atrocities don’t have access to internet, tv or electricity. If they have even heard of the film in the first place, it’s likely that their information is second hand. But as a result of the ensuing outrage, anger and offence it caused because it didn’t seem to reflect the reality, AYINET has decided to suspend all further screenings.

Posing with Rifles Doesn’t Tend to Help

Almost immediately after the video went viral, an old photo surfaced of Jason Russell and friends posing with rifles, and here the photographer herself explains Why Invisible Children Can’t Explain Away this Photo. As a result, the NGO were forced to release another video to explain themselves.

 “The Ultimate Accessory” Support Turns Fashionable

Part of the slick campaign to Stop Kony are the ‘ultimate accessory’ bracelets with a unique code on one side, but even this has caused controversy as it turns out that they have apparently stolen the concept from a craftswoman in San Diego.

The much sought after Stop Kony accessories are now completely sold out and  back ordered beyond capacity. But you could always turn to some ethically appalling bandwagon jumpers for one of these unofficial options or pursue alternative forms of dubious self-expression in anticipation of a Kony themed Christmas

Love it or Hate it, What Can We Learn From It?

But regardless of the positive or negative aspects, there is a certainty that this video got the world talking – and there are lessons to be learnt from it for those whose job it is to get messages out and gain support. This great article splits it into several main things to be aware of: Emotion Sells, Urgency Equals Action, People Want to Act and Debate is Necessary

And if All That’s Not Enough, Here’s Some More Things to Look At…

The Politics of Sending a Brutal Villain Viral by Nikki Woolf

Westerners Will Never Be the Saviours of Africa by Ben Affleck

Questioned by Piers Morgan, Jason Russell responds to financial criticism 

Beyond Kony: 5 Essential Reads About Child Soldiers in Africa, which includes:

a book by Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier, who spoke at the plenary session of the UN Youth 21 Forum in Nairobi, Kenya yesterday

and the book: A Long Way Gone by another former child soldier Ismael Beah, who was interviewed by CNN last week on his views of the video.

It was inevitable of course that a deluge of parodies would appear at some point and here, the blog Africa Is a Country looks at a few of them.

If you have another 25 minutes to spare, here’s a look at the future of charity activism, questioning whether charities should freely use the power of social media to shape public opinion around the world.

And finally, this video is very worth watching, not a mention of Kony, nor a white face shown, but it’s an uplifting effort to do something positive based on the same issues:

The ethics of charity storytelling

As a writer in the world of development, I often write stories for NGOs or other non-profit entities to publicise the work they do. I interview women, children, government representatives, aid workers, often in different languages, then compile my research and interviews and start to create a story. I take painstaking care in accurately translating and quoting where necessary what has been said, and backing up facts and figures as much as I can. Above all though, I ensure that whatever story I decide to tell, it has as much authenticity as possible – that it is essentially led by the people I interview, just with a bit of crafting from me.

Human interest stories are extremely valuable for non-profit organisations that not only seek money to help them do their work, but are also responsible to those who donate. When you read about how some big charity spent thousands of pounds on restoring a village pump, it may give you a feeling of satisfaction.

But if you were to read a personal story about one child; what their life was like before; how they used to have to walk several km every morning to collect water for the family, and how it took so long that they always missed school; how the lack of clean water impacted on the health of the village, and how this child’s little baby brother died because of preventable diarrhoea…and then you read about how the pump changed this one child’s life, well, that brings it far closer to home and you get much more of an idea of why the non-profit’s work is valuable.

Storytellers in the development world know how important that focus on the individual is; when a donor is personally moved by a story, they are more likely to continue supporting the work. With this in mind I found the following article rather interesting (it’s an interesting article anyway by the way, but I’m just picking up on one aspect)

Take a look at the first page on this post: The Harrowing Lives of Child Miners in the Early 1900s.

Now take a look at the second page.

The article has not been written for a non-profit, but nevertheless it is interesting as it uses a human angle to pull you in and make you sympathise more with the children in the photos. But it’s not true! I appreciate that the author acknowledges that the scenario is imagined, but it still makes me feel a little cheated, even though I realise: of course it’s imagined, how could the author have had access to that story first hand?!

I don’t have so much of an issue with this particular story as it is not being used to solicit financial support, and besides, as I mentioned, the author acknowledges that it is made up. But it still made me think about how this same kind of storytelling may exist in the development world, and why I would be against it.

When you don’t have access to a first hand story, but you do know of typical scenarios, I think it’s entirely possible to use them. But what isn’t really fair in my opinion is to create a story based on those scenarios and pass that specific story off as true. Besides, if the reader discovers that it’s fake, then it starts to raise questions about the authenticity of the rest of the organisation.

So looking at this particular story, there were two main things that I would suggest changing. Firstly the author quotes the children. If a story is made up, how can there be quotes?! Unless the reader knows (or is told) they are reading a work of fiction, quoted text tells them that what they are reading is true. This is especially the case when the text accompanies visual ‘truth’  in the sense of old photographs (the ‘truth’ of photography is an entirely separate issue).

Secondly, the author has given the children in the story an emotional (blinking back tears), even existential (what will become of his family?) response. Although it’s possible to have heard of such situations, it’s far less likely that she had heard or read about the boys’ attitudes and perceptions of their situation. Such methods evoke empathy in the reader, but whereas in a work of fiction this would be perfectly acceptable, in a work passed off as truth, this manipulation verges for me on the side of unethical. 

For the reader, the logic of realising that of course this specific story couldn’t be true, is secondary to understanding the perimeters that indicate its validity. It is always important for a development writer to tell compelling stories, and to write well it’s important to use creativity. But in the world of development, where transparency is paramount and when storytelling is intended for financial support, it’s even more important to balance creative style with truth.