A touching letter from my mother: It’s fading ink got me to where I am now

Lucy graduated from the University of Nairobi in Kenya with a degree in Communications and Political Science with a lot of inspiration from her mother Miriam.

By Lucy Murunga

One of the things I am eternally grateful for is having such a strong female figure in my life. This would be none other than my mother. There are a ton of things I admire about my mother. For one, she brought me into this world, then she took care of me and nurtured me all the while doing things that inspired determination in me.

However the one I can still recall vividly that I have kept it to this date, was this letter she wrote me in 2006 when I was in my second year at the University of Nairobi in Kenya’s premier city. A letter that reflects the selfless and determined sprit of a loving mother – a precious letter I possess until today.

My mother Miriam was born 54 years ago and was formerly a primary school teacher. Teachers weren’t that well-paid but somehow she and my father, a school head teacher, were able to make ends meet pooling their income together. She now works as a girls’ boarding school principal and lives with the rest of our family in western part of Kenya.

In part here goes my mother’s letter to me, “Receive much greetings from home. The rain is too much, the weather is cold and I think causing malaria for people…I received your note, thanks. The children received the books and were grateful. I am really encouraging them to read. Otherwise, receive Kenyan Shillings (Kshs) 4,500 (USD 45) for now. I will send some more money next week let’s say latest 15th May…

This letter made me emotional as we were just about to do exams and there was some remaining balance in my tuition fee that need to be settled. As I waited for mother to send the amount – I was forced to reach out to my father’s elder brother Uncle Ole for Kshs10,000 (USD100) and I was able to sit my exams that year. He might not remember anymore but I will never forget his kindness.

The inspiration glowed into Lucy’s life until she found the humanitarian work she really loves.

My mom’s letter and this particular experience taught me these key lessons:

  • The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory; I still have the letter with me, a constant reminder of how mother did the best she could to raise university fees
  • The joy of simple things; Nothing like my mother’s simple handwritten letter; the letter makes me have beautiful nostalgia
  • Sacrifice; I read that letter with tears filled in my eyes, I could taste the saltiness as the tears streamed into my mouth because I knew very well, there are lots of things and projects she had to put on hold, so that she could send me the money.
  • The virtue and joy of perseverance; My mother’s letter taught me that even a little of something can bring you reassurance that someone is always trying their best
  • Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is worth it; even from the faintest, there is a prize for the persistent.

The letter always gave me the strength I needed to work hard, if not for me then at least for my mother who saw a brighter future in me and invested all she had, not just money but also her consistent key advice of working hard and being determined. A very religious mother, she prayed things would work out someday, and yes, God answered her prayers!

To cut the long story short, when I completed university, just before my graduation, I was very privileged to get accepted to intern with one of the leading international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Kenya. My determination only got started and I worked extremely hard, never letting anyone or anything put me down.

I excelled in listening to other people’s stories, writing and sharing them with a much wider audience. Oh how I loved travelling the country, meeting new people, listening to their stories (some sad, others happy), and I could always relate with a character in my stories, because in one way or another I had been through what they were going through. 

Sharing people’s stories and advocating for better lives for children became Lucy’s lifelong goal.

I have worked there ever since 2008 and daily I continue to mature in my career, spiritual journey and even the social life.

My mother’s determination got me here. Her parting shot was always constant: “Hard work and determination will grant you success”. I strive to inspire determination in those God may put me into contact with in my life’s journey who might find themselves in similar circumstances because of what my mother instilled in me.

I recently was reading Oprah Winfrey’s book: ‘What I Know For Sure’ where she encourages readers to persist: “Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you too will keep encountering challenges. It is a blessing to be able to survive them, to be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other-to be in a position to make the climb up life’s mountain, knowing the summit still lies ahead. And every experience is a valuable teacher.” 

I salute you Mother for teaching me what it really means to be determined in life!

This quote reminds me of the circumstances in my family and how mother sacrificed a lot to ensure we had a decent life and a decent education, that’s for sure. However, we did not all achieve the kind of success she hoped and desired for us; my two brothers did not make it to university, they are grown ups now with no employment and college education. Mother is hopeful that one day, they will rise above their circumstances, because everyone can.

That competitive spirit! Lucy juggles her busy schedules from work and running marathons. This Kenyan lady knows how to live the life of a champion!

Lucy Murunga is a Nairobi-based Communications practitioner and currently pursuing her Masters Degree in International Relations from United States International University. She has written numerous blogs highlighting the plight of people in need of world’s care and attention. She loves reading, writing and blogging.

Defining women’s beauty in Bangladesh: How my short hair defied the norm

By Arpona Ghosh

2016. Arpona defied tradition and stood up to her choice.

Towards the end of my education in Dhaka University in Bangladesh and while preparing for my first job, I tried a new comfortable look. I cut my long, bouncy and silky hair short. It was sassy and manageable.

At that time, I was also seeking for a soul mate I can tie the forever knot with. In other countries, it was just a haircut. In Bangladesh, it is not.

That was 17 years ago and it was not welcome change for my parents. In fact, they got seriously worried I might not find the best groom in town because the men in my country would usually prefer their women with long hair and fair complexion. You can roll your eyes from where you are, but in my country, these are critical priorities for many prospective bridegrooms.

With the short hairstyle, I looked odd to many of my peers and people around me who did not lose time expressing their dislike to me frankly. I was determined to keep my short hair. I want to set my own description of beauty.

1992. Her moms and aunts found the time to nourish her hair to make it look nice to people.

In Bangladesh, just like many Asian countries I should say, long hair and fair complexion are two major indicators for beautiful women. In thousands of literary works poets, novelists and artists praise women by describing their long and black hair like clouds or fair complexion like milk white.

When it is time to choosing brides especially in arranged marriages (mostly decided by parents end elders), these two things automatically come in their checklist. The bridegroom’s status, whether he is a student, a professional or unemployed, often do not matter.

This practice is gradually changing in urban areas but still many people are not ready to accept or welcome women with short hair (if I may add, dark complexion).

Just like the millions of Bangladeshi girls, I grew up amidst these socio-cultural perceptions. In my childhood, I observed, my mother and aunts have very little time even to comb their knee-long hair properly since they were busy with their children, running around for household chores and their day jobs. Many of the women in my family are schoolteachers.

2002. Defying the norm. Cutting her hair short caused a lot of alarm and arguments in her family and even at work.

However, they would all take time to nourish my hair, keep it longer and silky. All it aims is to attract people’s attention. This alongside making sure I go to a good school for quality education.

Cutting my hair, therefore, is challenging an age-old tradition. I chose comfort than what is fashionably acceptable.

When I started working with this ‘unusual’ hairdo, many of my colleagues remarked negatively, some even regarded me indecently. To them, I was trying to be younger or I am hiding my real age. Yes, I get that with my hair short.

By just looking at me, some concluded I was a very rude, unfriendly and a cruel woman. In 2004, in one formal gender training session, one of my feminist friends wrote an appreciation note for me. She said, “She is a wonderful lady but she looks like a boy due to her short hair.”

Even today, when I am in public, I can sense there is still a raging debate around me speculating if I am a boy or a transgender. When I stand up to my decision or choice, I often heard, “Oh, she is behaving like this because she is a man.”

1996. In the country, a beautiful woman is defined as someone with long hair and fair-complexion.

Despite all the odds up against me, I kept my hairstyle because I believe it suits me well and shows my personality perfectly.

My story represents the challenge many women from different cultures are faced with – if we choose what we want that goes against common socio-cultural norms, we must be ready to stand up to it. In Bangladesh, pulling tussles of hair is a common form of violence against girls and women.

During the International Women’s Day celebration this year, one renowned local branded hair oil has advertised one woman who went to the parlor and had a short haircut to protect her from domestic violence.

However, cutting hair to prevent a form of violence might create hundreds of different forms of violence by the husbands, in-laws or other perpetrators. It is not a solution to the problem. This sort of advertisement also teaches women to adjust and to remain silent against violence committed often. This is also a provocation for continuing the culture of silence and accepting violence as normal.

Women need to be bold from our innermost hearts to respect ourselves and make a choice. We need to come together to stop violence against women. At the end of the day, it is our life and we must live it according to our own choice.

Arpona has stuck to her own decision; she is a mother of two boys and continues to advocate for the rights of women in Bangladesh.

Arpona Ghosh, a communications and media relations expert of Bangladesh works in a development organization. For more than 16 years, she promotes stories of successes and challenges in the communities focusing on women and children through NGOs and donor organizations. Apart from roof top gardening and reading, her great passion is to analyze electronic and print media advertisements and other media content. A mother of two growing sons, she also loves to listen and discuss issues on children.

From the Middle East to New Zealand: Traveling mom explores new horizon

By Manel Balbin-Marzan

Manel’s adventurous spirit took her to different countries and new cultures. Not all are beds of roses but she rose up stronger and tougher.

Going out of my comfort zone, leaving behind familiar faces and places has been my life after graduating from college. My first adventure was to build my nursing career in a very conservative country in the Middle East– Saudi Arabia.

I packed away everything including my sheltered life to learn what it is out there in the big world. I conquered the new city with unusual bravery, adjusting with the culture and religion that is totally different from my own.

I dealt with homesickness every single day, my eyes welling in tears until I sleep. Without even a month of hospital experience from the Philippines, I faced the competitive world of nursing abroad. I did not know how to operate the modern hospital beds and machines; did not know how to handle non-English speaking patients and worst, how to handle people with seniority complex.

I was a newbie finding out that the world out there is not at all that lovely. Some people can be cruel. Living through the newness, I managed to get by. I learned the country’s language, worked hard to be a better staff nurse, discovered new friends and lived life as happily as possible.

However, I cannot put aside my sense of adventure. I dreamt of going out of that country, work and explore another. With that in mind, I left my job and moved to Qatar working with Hamad Medical Corporation. I met Borgy, the love of my life, married him twice in a civil and church wedding, got pregnant with my son Red.

She found Borgy in Qatar and they got married twice in civil and church weddings.

Marriage and motherhood is not a walk in the park especially when you need to balance it with work on shifts and studies. At 30, I realized that my life was different: it was faster, harder yet fuller. I was living my dreams of having a family and my dream career was on track.

With my spirit firm, I knew that there are still dreams to pursue, places to see and people to meet. I looked back at the dreams I have listed when I was 23 and realized that my dreams are still alive.

Just when I thought I have settled in Qatar for good, my family and I decided to jump into a void. I took the risk to leave it all. With tears, we left our careers, our comfortable life and our friends who are already family.

Just when she though she has settled well in Qatar, Manel packed up for another adventure.

Almost a year later, I found myself in New Zealand, braving another chapter of my life pursuing further studies at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology taking Post Graduate in Management (Health).

My dream, in parallel with my husband is to move into a country where our child can grow up with quality education and healthcare. We wanted a simple, laidback life unstained by politics and discrimination.

I do not know yet what is in store. I do not know yet the human strategies to succeed through this new phase. I only know one thing—that I was a girl with big dreams, now a woman with great faith. I will never stop dreaming and believing.

My tips moving to a new workplace and environment:

Read a lot about the place. I always read about my country of destination. Adjustment is easier if you know what to expect. Travel guide books are worth the investment and I make sure I read the essentials about mode of transportation, fares and passes, rules of the road, emergency contact numbers, accommodations, communication, customs and duties, health insurance and safety.  I download maps and train/bus routes and timetable.

Be friendly. Expand your network. I believe in the saying that network is your “net worth.” I talk to anyone who gets in my 30 degrees angle. On my way to NZ, I talked to my seatmate on the plane and found out that he is going to the exact same town where I am going. He became my instant travel buddy for the entire 17 hours journey. He looked out for me and my luggage. I eventually met his wife who turns out to be my classmate and up to this day, they are my friends. You will never know if the people you talk to will be the friends who will become family.

Borgy, Manel and Red. Now she has her boys as travel buddies for life.

Stay positive. Along the way, you’ll meet people who has more experiences to share than you. Listen to them and pick out what best applies to you. At the same time, you will meet people whose life stories are depressing or sad. It will put you down or discourage you to continue your journey. Listen to them but never allow them to dishearten you. Always stay positive.

Pray. Going out of your comfort zone and your own country is not easy. Going to NZ a month before Borgy and Red, I immediately felt the loneliness especially when I am alone. Homesickness is real. But there is courage in crying.  Eventually, I realized I need to experience these moments because my little family needs a mother who is courageous. I will never know my strength and my character have I not experienced these things. And these are the times that you can experience how God works in your life and how His love never runs out.

I knew that there will still be a few more tears along the way. But with everything that I have now and with everything I was put through and managed to survive, I know that it is only by God’s grace. I am excited as I anticipate answers to all my prayers. My dreams and my heart are steady.

Traveling is meeting people, learning new things and skills. Traveling alone, Manel found refuge in people and prayers.

Manel is a Registered Nurse from the Philippines. She is a wife and a mommy. She is currently an international student in New Zealand taking up Post Graduate in Management (Health). Traveling, reading and learning a new language are her interests.

My father has cancer: How do I deal with a news like this?

By Maryann “Mai” Zamora

Mai recalls how her father felt guilty that she had to work in a fastfood shop to buy things she needed in school.

“Mai, your father has stage 3-colon cancer.”

I remembered how it went through my ears. Then I turned cold and endlessly sobbed in our couch. I was shattered.

It was my mother Mama Bebei who broke the news to me just after I got home from work in Cebu City.

It felt like spinning in a dark tunnel. Why him? I cannot fathom why it needed to be him. For a few months after my father Lando’s diagnosis, I hated the things that I used to love and the things that kept me sane.

I hated watching the sunset, the feeling of being surprised, all the traveling and the idea of uncertainty. I hated sunset because I was afraid that he will die when the sun rises; I hated surprises because I do not want to be caught off guard that he will go the next day; I hated traveling and uncertainty because I was afraid to lose him while I am away for work.

I thought I would feel guilty not seeing and taking care of him on his last days. I grieved in advance and lived in fear. I cannot lose the person who has been the reason why I do well in everything I do. There was a time that I gave in to these fears. I felt it was hopeless to fight the battle.

But my father’s words through the years gave me the courage to fight and survive. I cannot lose the battle without giving it a good fight. I can clearly recall when I told him I might not be able to go to college because he lost his job. He simply told me, “You will go to school.” No ifs and buts. I did.

That was five years ago this month – March 2012. I was then 25. Yes, my father went and rose through the 5-year relative survival rate for colon cancer patients. He survived! My family dealt with the pain gracefully. We survived the drama that cancer can inflict in a family. My father said earlier this week, “Mai, let us celebrate this victory when you get home”.

You must be wondering how we – as a family – survived?

Behind Mai’s smile is a superwoman’s spirit of flying through the storm to save her family from harm and pain.

You will never know how tough you are until the situation hits you. Having a loved one diagnosed with a serious illness does not compare to someone knocking and asking if he can come in. It is a long-winding road until you get to the point when the only choice is to face the situation. Your strength is weighed on the scale.

Two days after the diagnosis and before his operation, my father wanted to see. He requested from the doctor and nurse to wait for me before he gets inside the operating room. I ran fast to see him. I knew he wanted to have the assurance that I got his back; our family’s back. I acted tough to show him all is ok with us. I told him, “You need this, Pa. Or else you will suffer more and it would be more difficult for you and for us.”

That was my most heartbreaking sent off so far. I sobbed with his red rubber slippers in my hand. We all waited outside until the major operation was finished. The procedure remove portions of his large intestine and small intestine.

Be open to take it as an opportunity to know God on a personal level. It was on this moment when in everything I do and decide, I talked to God to make sure we are doing them right. I was very young back then. I am unsure. I needed God’s wisdom as guidance. I thought I cannot afford to fail because my father’s life is at stake.  It was the first time that I offered to pray for someone. As he was about to be wheeled inside the operating room, I approached the doctor and asked if we could pray for my father.

I held his hands and prayed. I cried, making the doctor’s hands wet with my tears. The doctor tapped my shoulder and said, “Pray and trust God. Everything will be all right, Mai. I will do my best.”

Her father surviving through cancer was a team effort. It was a bayanihan spirit at work from Mai’s family, relatives, friends and neighbors.

Saving for retirement early on. The experience taught me the value of saving and investing. When it happened, I have no savings. By the time we needed to pay the hospital bills, I have to find means and exhausted all the resources I have. I kept it a secret from my family that I was running out of money.

I remembered writing an email requesting our office if I can borrow from my salary. I cried shamelessly at the internet shop while doing it. It was humbling. The financial and emotional challenge did not stop there. Two weeks after my father’s operation, he complained of pain and asked if he can be brought back to the hospital. The insurance has been exhausted and will not cover his further treatment. It was difficult to say no but I have no means to pay the bills.

In the end, it is all about family. Do not be afraid to ask for help, I did. Having someone with cancer is not just a family thing. It needs the support of the entire community and the people around you.  I am blessed with the best support system possible. My aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors who never left us during those moments.

Whenever I am down to my last resource, my Aunt Chona, the sister of my father, would call me and just listen how my days went. My uncles and aunties were also around anytime we need them. My younger sister Sha, a Biology student, patiently explained to me the treatment processes.

Five years after the surgery, surviving cancer is her father’s best gift to the family.

The bayanihan spirit is very much alive in Filipino communities. Bayanihan is the Filipino trait of coming together to help a cause. While my parents were in the hospital, my neighbors would clean our house, bring food for my brother and for my parents at the hospital. They reminded people in our village not to talk to my father about having cancer. It was only after three months when my father learned he has colon cancer.

When I got back to work, I would ask my friends for help – such as my friend Crislyn Felisilda-Dacut paying the hospital bills for me. I do not want to burden my family to know how much it had cost us. I wanted to condition their mind that I am in charge and they need not worry.

Learn from the process, no matter how painful. It initially felt it was unfair for my father and all of us to suffer. In those darkest moments, my workmates would send me messages or put a note on my table, reminding me of Bible verse in Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know I have plans for you; plans to prosper and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and future.” True enough, after five years, He kept His promise.

I learned the hard way that major breakthroughs come from major heartaches. Looking back, I now understand why it needed to be him. Why my father? Why him? I realized God hits us in our weakest points to become the person He wanted us to be.

I am not used to showing my emotions. I was stonehearted and always wanted to be a superwoman. With what happened, I am kinder and learned to empathize. The journey gave me a big heart for others because I know how it feels to be broken and left empty-handed.

Mai continues to give back joining outreach initiatives of small organizations in Mindanao.

Mai is currently an aid worker sharing powerful stories from the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Philippines for eight years now. She has been deployed in major emergencies in the country and finds time to travel and learn from different cultures.

Dhaka: Just keep walking

“If you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t matter that it’s challenging. You can keep going for a long time as long as you’re motivated – just make sure you make the right starting point.” – Chris Guillebeau, The Happiness of Pursuit

The people of Bangladesh are among the friendliest I have met. Just don't do a thumbs-up sign. It means good-for-nothing in this part of the world.

The people of Bangladesh are among the friendliest I have met. Just don’t do a thumbs-up sign. It means good-for-nothing in this part of the world.

Traveling to Dhaka felt like a break. Ten months after non-stop typhoon Haiyan (the world’s strongest storm, so far) work, energy is fast ebbing. I am not about to stop – but I know I need a slowdown.

My flight from Cebu City to Singapore got delayed for over an hour. But I was confident that since I am flying Silk Air and via Singapore Airlines to Dhaka, everything will be fine. The plus of same airline connection!

Off the thought of missing my flight! Then, I realized I forgot to change money (my Philippine Peso tucked comfortably in my purse!). My mind fast-forwarded to having time to change to US dollars on my way to the boarding gate. I did.

My luggage got priority-tagged so it got out ahead when I landed in Dhaka. But then, the hotel car was also picking up two Japanese passengers, one got his bags out last. The driver was profuse in his apologies as I smiled my waiting-time away.

Three past trips and one two years back, Dhaka has progressed considerably (at least judging by the no-jam ride to our hotel in Banani. The Japan prime minister was visiting. The streets were cleaner and the debris from road and skyway constructions gone.

Many things unfolded back in the Philippines while I was in Dhaka. From them I found my strength and resolve. I guess you get them as you mature and mellow in age. If they happened 20 years ago, I could have broken down or even panicked. Not quite but likely.

I just accepted them as things to go-by and move on. One reminder from a billboard: Keep walking.

  • Love life and its eccentricities with a positive attitude. Enjoy the challenge.
  • In the end, it is your call for a situation to make you or break you. Really up to you.
  • Dodge tricky tests like a rickshaw in Dhaka. Move and speed-up and never stop.
  • Smile your trials away. I assure you, smiling will take you a long way away from it.
  • If it happens, it happens. You probably cannot stop it. Accept and move on.

The week ended well despite the fireworks of changes and events while I was in Dhaka. Could I have stopped them? Maybe not. As I said – I will just keep walking.

The lovely friends we found in Bangladesh.

The lovely friends we found in Bangladesh.

-o0o-

2013: A game-changer … at least for me

At M&M World in Piccadilly Circus on my first London trip!

At M&M World in Piccadilly Circus on my first London trip!

It took me almost five months to put this together. Too much have happened in between. I went to London on October 2013 and dived into one of my biggest disaster work by November.

My 2013 finished like no other. On hindsight, it was like first I got the cake – then the candles blew-up in my face. No time to bask on my first London trip!

I am not complaining, just stating some facts of life. I am in full empathy of the Haiyan survivors who didn’t even have the slightest choice on what hit them.

The year also reminds me of 2004. I got a midnight call to coordinate for an emerging disaster that eventually the world knew was the massive Asia tsunami that surged through 11 countries. That one got me to Thailand for two years.

This one got me back to the Philippines to serve my people. A privilege. The rest was an open book that I need to fill-in until December 2014.

One of my most unforgettable interviews with TIME Magazine (my longest so far due to bad connection) got me into this memorable article: ‘They’re walking because there’s nothing else’ and my blog Desolation and bleakness has engulfed Tacloban with The Guardian.

Haiyan aftermath: My first glimpse of Tacloban on November 2013. I went through an Indescribable sadness.

Haiyan aftermath: My first glimpse of Tacloban on November 2013. I went through an Indescribable sadness.

-o0o-