Lifestyle

Stories of friendship and hardship

When Whidbey Island resident Renee Bourque visited parts of Kenya and Ethiopia to study living conditions there, she found a drought-ridden land — its inhabitants struggling for survival.

She also found hard workers, joyful spirits and generous hearts.

Bourque found evidence, as well, of a string of do-gooders whose lack of commitment failed to make any real, solid or positive change.

But Bourque was part of a group called Global Poverty Action, an international nonprofit that garners both governmental and community input to give Africans ownership of community-improvement projects.

Bourque went to this region to conduct a first-ever feasibility study for water, health, education and economic development projects. And while she was in Africa, she photographed the local tribeswomen she met during her travels.

Now, Bourque is bringing her experience to the South Whidbey community.

Her photographic gallery exhibit “Dust and Courage: Portrait Stories of Somali Tribeswomen,” will be on display in the Front Room at the Bayview Cash Store March 17 through March 30.

On the evening of March 25, Bourque will be accompanied by refugee tribeswomen who now live in the Seattle area.

Together they will share their stories.

“It can seem so far away. But here, the people leap out of the portraits,” Bourque said. “They can tell you amazing stories about things they’ve experienced.”

“It brings tears to my eyes and gives me goosebumps to hear how they have survived, and how they have made it here,” she said.

The tribeswomen haven’t forgotten about their far-away home.

“They come here with nothing, but there is a full expectation that they are going to do everything they can,” Bourque said.

She recounts the conditions that the African residents faced every day.

“They live in circumstances that totally exhaust me just to go visit,” Bourque said. “They have tremendous hardships, but they are pretty joyful people.”

Bourque wants to spread a message of hope to the South Whidbey community.

“Often when people talk about Africa, it is stories of despair,” she said. “When people think it is only despair, they switch off because they feel helpless.”

“I’m going to talk about practical things people in the West can do to help people in these conditions,” she said.

Bourque, a development consultant to non-profit organizations, said it is important to know about the lives and culture of the tribes to really understand what they need.

“There is an appropriate way to do it. You have to have a sensibility for being culturally appropriate,” Bourque said.

From her experiences, Bourque learned that the northeast Kenyans and southeast Ethiopians aren’t strangers to hard work.

Women are responsible for concerns of the home, as well as gathering firewood and getting water.

Fulfilling the basic need for water can be a treacherous task. The worst drought in the area’s history is happening right now.

“Typically, people walk for days to get water,” Bourque said.

If women have babies, they take them along the journey, along with one or two camels.

“While they are out they could be eaten by wild animals. They could be attacked or raped, or they could die if they don’t get to the water in time,” Bourque said.

Soon after embarking on the feasibility study, it became glaringly clear that the water situation would need to be addressed first and foremost.

Bourque said African residents are giving everything they have to survive. She said people are more than willing to work to improve their situation, they just need the resources to do it.

In the past, Bourque said some of the organizations that have tried to help haven’t taken the steps necessary to make real change.

“Very often, these big NGOS (nongovernmental organizations) act like a machine,” Bourque said. “They are not very effective.”

The Global Poverty Action Network involves the government, and the local community in their work.

“It was designed to be grassroots, to design projects that they want done,” Bourque said.

For every project completed, there is a committee of local tribespeople, made up of at least 50 percent women, who oversee and run the project.

“When we walk away, they will have skills and technology to make the project sustainable,” Bourque said.

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