Humanitarian Evacuations


I’ve realized that since I’ve started this site, I’ve done very little to actually describe the places where I live as a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. Unconsciously, there could be a number of reasons for that. It could be that life is just sometimes really hard, working and living in these places, and often times the life-work balance is non-existent. Tourism is absent here, which doesn’t always make for a good read. National parks once did attract a small following, but constant insecurity has destroyed that possibility. Since, all of the big game has either been killed or migrated on to neighboring countries. I often times find my life quite bland, a mix of introvert activities to pass the time, and extrovert activities with the same people I live and work with day in and day out.

In South Sudan, I live and work on the same compound. I very rarely leave it except for R&Rs every ten to twelve weeks, and weekly sector meetings at the UN compounds to discuss specific problems that are being faced for that week. There, we discuss food assistance, food security and livelihoods, insecure hot spots, famine levels, using a slew of technical humanitarian terminologies and impossible to remember acronyms. I am now proficient in speaking acronyms which no one outside of the humanitarian world would understand.


My life in this context looks rather unusual to the onlooker, and because it’s so starkly different I don’t go into detail about it. Not many others besides those who live in this same world get it. My team is on call to respond to man-made crises that pop up anywhere across the country at any minute. A work day can look like a nice eight hour stint or a double shift of sixteen hours, only finishing around 11pm when our team in the U.S. is done for their day, eight hours behind us. The compound curfew has recently been extended to 8pm. I can visit some close by areas, mainly hotels to eat at or swim at, but still at large we need to be inside the compound walls by 7pm each evening. When you finish work by 6pm, it doesn’t allow for much time away if any. The pace of life is schizophrenic, high and low: we work hard for a solid ten weeks, and then take ten days to do traveling or nothing, R&R, going full speed to no speed. Psychologically, our bodies cope limitedly with those two contrasts.

The definition of security in my everyday life in Juba is skewed from what security looks like in North America or Europe. I feel secure in my compound home because there are four to six compound guards each night on the lookout, and I know that I live in a district where gun shots can’t be heard when you try to go to sleep. Our staff from Juba who are just trying to make a living and raise their family in a safe environment, aren’t quite so lucky. Hearing gunshots is what their youngest children consider to be nighttime lullabies. Exercise, or any physical movement, isn’t always possible outside of the concrete walls called home. Walking directly outside of the compound isn’t safe. One of my closest friends was mugged several months back when going for a two minute walk to the neighboring hotel swimming pool. This place is not so hospitable to white foreigners who are a target for the 800% inflation rate that plagues urban communities, destroying the local currency. My organization will not allow women to walk alone after that incident. But by and large, yes, I feel secure in Juba.



The pace of Juba life is broken up every month or two by a visit to one of our several field sites, areas scattered across the country where we are doing the actual humanitarian work: providing food via mass distributions, teaching better household hygiene practices, drilling wells, teaching literacy, supplying children under five with much needed nutritional inputs to ward off the looming threat of malnutrition that almost 50% of the country will succumb to at some point in their lives. All in all, my life is not bad. It is exciting, albeit adrenaline induced most times, and when I look back on these two years I’ve had some amazing opportunities. But it is hard to see the suffering of innocent people, moms, kids and dads. Avoidable suffering that keeps getting worse.

One of the challenges of this place is the threat of real insecurity outside your doorstep, not just the occasion compound break-in by thieves. It is the type of insecurity when armed conflict arrives to your home, armies converging in one place with heavy artillery and little self-discipline in regards to refraining from use of the trigger. While not new to the South Sudanese, such conflict arrived last July in Juba. Wikipedia now has a page just for this time period, called the 2016 Juba clashes. I wasn’t in Juba at the time; I was flying internationally from the East Coast, US, and a much needed month of home leave. When I arrived in Nairobi I was told to “stay there, cancel your flight to Juba”. Which I did. And then one half of my expatriate colleagues evacuated to Nairobi with me two days later. One week after, the other half of managers and directors followed suit. Anxiety was high and so was frustration: what about our South Sudanese staff left behind in direct fire? Stories soon came out of compound guards being shot, grenades being fired and blasting walls, and of personal fears and stresses.


This pattern of living in evacuation continued for two more months, our group of about 40 expatriate persons moved between various guesthouses and hotels in Nairobi and eventually to Kampala in neighboring Uganda. Some staff tried to re-enter Juba for a few days before being flown out again in haste, others were flown to other parts of Kenya, still others moved to the field sites more permanently. I moved to Kampala at the end of July, and was there for the most part of the next six months. Work continued at the typical crash and burn pace, only this time with the added stress of trying to manage it away from normal circumstances: we couldn’t interact with our South Sudanese colleagues outside of email or Skype, and we couldn’t see the people being served through our programming. Four months into evacuation mode, I took my R&R to the Seychelles, an unexpected locale that I never thought of visiting. The ticket was cheap, and I needed to leave the crises of Africa. But more on that to come. When I came back ten days later, almost all of my colleagues were able to return to a more stable Juba, except for four. We were girls and we weren’t seen as having vital enough roles to be considered for reentrance into the place we used to call home. I enjoyed Kampala a lot; Uganda is a beautiful, welcoming country that I want to highlight in the weeks ahead. But it still wasn’t home, and then being the only ones to be left behind, we began to feel a bit worthless and that the organization had forgotten us. The time in Kampala, working and leading a more semi-normal life, dragged on. We lived on a week by week basis, being ready to ‘go’ whenever the word came from our supervisor. I visited one of our field sites in South Sudan once in November, but was not allowed to stay in Juba. I did though get sick in Juba while transitioning from a field site to Kampala, so I had to stay two weeks in my old room. It was some flu or food poisoning or both, combined with vertigo like I’ve never experienced. I packed up my room in anticipation of not returning and flew back to Kampala when I was strong enough to stand and walk without getting too dizzy. Once in Kampala, I was happy to be back. There was good healthcare, good food, secure streets to walk on.

As December came upon us, we didn’t know quite where we stood. We still couldn’t lay down our roots in Kampala because we were always on call, nor could we claim Juba as our home as we hadn’t been there in five months and the prognosis for return wasn’t very high. Christmas came with a glittery plastic tree that we purchased and set up to raise the spirits; Ugandan staff from the same organization were there for us in such a loving manner, but the anxiety of living in two different places began to wear down our senses. My second R&R came, and I flew back to the East Coast for one week to be home. While there, the girls in Kampala finally got the call to move to a new house very abruptly, and a day or two later, we finally the call that we could return to Juba on the 10th of January came. Besides the anxiety that comes when someone else moves house for you, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to South Sudan. At that point I felt so ostracized from the Juba context, and honestly I was scared to go back. Typhoid and weekend bouts of food poisoning were not uncommon for me, and with an already pre-existent tendency for high leveled anxiety, I wasn’t convinced that Juba was my home anymore. But neither was Kampala.


We went back to Juba with ten heavy bags as closer friends; almost like sisters. After all, we had simultaneously experienced the ongoing mental tension of a heavy workload coupled with not having a stable home for six months. In light of everything, the experience gave us a small reality of what it felt like to be a refugee, only that we had proper beds and meals without the stress of knowing if our loved ones were alive or not. Real refugees have no bed, no food and no confidence that it will be okay tomorrow. Having lived in a homeless state once, I could probably do it again, but wouldn’t want to do it again. Humans need roots and community. Being rootless for six months was more emotional and mental than I ever would have imagined.



Moroccan Mint Tea Illustrated


One of my favorite portfolio pieces from a little while back, an advert for Moroccan Mint Tea. I was happy with how it turned out.



Life in South Sudan post July 2016 has made life outside of work a bit of a balance, and sometimes being on the computer editing photos and illustrations is the last thing I feel like doing. My Photoshop is back up and running six months later however, so I no longer have the excuse of not editing!


Wishing everyone in the colder north a warm and cozy week ahead with your favorite cuppa to get you through!

Tea Time: Inspired by Illustrated Tea Packaging


As I sip down a glass of cool tamarind iced tea accessorized with slices of mango, orange and starfruit, I feel instantly relaxed, recharged and mostly at ease. There’s just something about tea, about its history and its beauty before being cultivated that enchants me. Even more so than coffee, tea evokes a need for storytelling. Of ancient days in China when tea was the taste of royalty, to its more common existence in the British Isles where 4pm is always teatime.

Tea when repeated in a foreign tongue, is even sweet: chai, thé, tsai. Even in the unromantic German tongue, tea is called der Tee. Unlike its cousin coffee, the caffeine in tea doesn’t make you want to jump in the air; it’s softer and sweeter. While tea leaves actually do contain more caffeine than roasted coffee beans, tea leaves tend to be drunk with a higher water consistency than coffee.

One of my favorite qualities about tea is its aromatherapeutic traits. Think orange blossom, lemon balm and ginger, and Chinese jasmine green tea, and inhale. Not too long ago in a Ugandan supermarket, I smelled a heavenly lemongrass black tea two aisles away and instantly bought for its pungent odor alone. I left it in my bedroom, untouched for three weeks, enjoying the scent that wafted to all four corners and back. I slept well.


Besides its history, taste and romantic character, one of my favorite things about tea is buying it: In tins and boxes where artists were paid to let their imaginations run wild. Tea in advertising when left to creatives is one of my favorite joys of food store shopping. Back in the day, it started with collecting Celestial Seasonings. I remember buying Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice mix back in the mid-90s, like the packaging above, so excited to open the box and sip into a world of Rajasthani princes only to find that the taste was just not my style. But who cared, I had the illustration of the Rajasthani tiger albeit an additional 19 teabags left un-drunk. Thank goodness there were more reasonable adults willing to finish it off.


In 2007, Lori Anzalone was commissioned to re-illustrate the Bengal Spice tiger, largely keeping the same theme as before.51dgcebkeyl Apparently when the company tried 2015 to go away from the original illustrations that were their hallmark since the 1970s, customers were confused with the new 21st century packaging design, seen above. I actually think that the new artists did a great job of moving the company stylistically into the new century, however due to an overwhelming negative response the illustrations won out and Celestial Seasonings has returned to its staple beloved packaging. Which tiger suits your fancy, the old or the new?


This brand is newer to me, but I stumbled upon it in a rather remote Canadian sweets shop this past summer: Clipper. Clipper tea is an English brand that instantly won my heart when I saw Lorna Scobie’s whimsical black and white teacups. Among other things, Lorna has just come out with a new adult coloring book.





Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who does judge a book by its cover. If it doesn’t entice me graphically, I won’t pick it up. Lorna’s Snore and Peace won me over for her great use of nighttime colors and handcrafted typography.


static1-squarespace-com2Another box that has made its way into my shopping basket these days is from another English brand, Heath & Heather. I instantly fell in love with Dawn Cooper and her illustrations from seeing these boxes alone. Her portfolio opens up a whole other magical world: hats off to her for these delicious floral masterpieces created under her agency’s name.


In a way, they remind me of the detailed yet muted botany watercolors found in Miss Beatrix Potter’s work in the early 20th century.



I’ve purchased their Echinacea flavor, whose rosy pink florals are very welcome in the afternoon after an adrenaline pumped morning in the office. Even the inside of the box is hot rose. Compare Dawn’s new 2016 design to Heath and Heather’s much blander former design. You can see why I’m mesmerized with her artwork.


Lastly, another favorite English tea box design of mine is by brand William Whistle who specializes in both artisan teas and coffees. There is just something about great Victorian styled typography, detailed ink illustrations with a splash of modern color overlay that makes me want to taste this brand over any other tea box on the shelf. While I haven’t yet found where to buy these teas and coffees other than in specialty shops in the UK, the brand design as certainly been noticed around the web.



I love how the brand has created a fictional character who travels the world to bring us, the clients, new exotic flavors in a very 19th century colonial way.


And for all of you coffee bean fanatics, aren’t the spots on this giraffe just to die for?

By large, tea brands are one of the more creative industries when it comes to package design. There are several Pinterest portfolios devoted to showcasing those out-of-the-box designers, check out mine here, as well as branding sites that highlight a number of good tea company product designs. My favorite part of these new modern designs is that they harp on older times and styles, yet still can appeal to the modern era. And they bring back whimsical illustration to a technology dominated world, reminding me that for all of the good that our laptops, smart phones and whatever cherished device we carry with us do for us, that human spark of imagination is still very much alive.

Compassion Fatigue at Home and Abroad


Today I wanted to approach a less whimsical subject, one that is perhaps a little less full of light and color but one that is very much a part of all of our journeys. I had written up a post for this blog over New Year’s, but never posted it. And then one for springtime too, but still couldn’t find it in myself to post. I write now from an artisanal ice-cream shop, sitting on an old time stool and a repurposed wooden bar with scratches, spills, and ingrained sprinkles. That blueberry lemon kiddie cup (since when did kiddie size mean two scoops) hit the spot. I am on home leave for five weeks, away from South Sudan and in green Pennsylvania and can finally process. Ice cream here is good.

For the past year, living in South Sudan has not been physically difficult. Sure, walking around on the Juba streets is not the same as walking in Europe or the U.S.; biking is neither an option in Juba, but life is a far cry from difficult. But what makes it difficult is time: time spent writing from my desk hidden away in a concrete block building with barbed wire fence outside the window about 4.3 million people expected to reach near famine levels, or whatever number in vogue from the latest nation-wide report, became mundane. 4.3 million people became numbers, not faces. Statistics of pregnant women who die while giving birth became just that. Mundane behind block walls.


Seeing those faces in person should have been the solution. Kind eyed ladies with their children lagging behind them at the distribution points. But then, visiting the projects in the field, rural areas targeted for assistance, didn’t always make it any better the mundane, lifeless feeling. I saw the faces, and took their photos, usually smiling and happy despite having only reemerging from six-months of living in the swamps, skin covered in scabies in an attempt to hide from the very government that is supposed to be protecting them. Even those faces, I didn’t want to really see. Because it gets you tired, trying to love everyone when the situation seems to be only getting worse.

The second night when I came home in green tinged Pennsylvania, images haunted my sleeping mind. Of me, having to escape with some of my co-workers from armed men. Running through precarious passageways, rebels being killed at an arms’ length away. Nightmares evolved, me, the protagonist of my mind, knowing that I would escape but they, the people left behind, couldn’t. The people could never escape the war. When I work up, that image really frightened me. Compassion fatigue has bothered me much more than I had even thought.



Unfortunately, I don’t write this to share a solution if you like me are feeling tired or feeling overwhelmed by a needy world, no matter how small that world may be. I can’t give a list of ways that one can commence to address personal compassion fatigue, or for that matter even trauma at its various degrees. But I have come to realize that my compassion fatigue did not start in South Sudan, it started at home in the U.S. I would define compassion fatigue as a soul tiredness, a tiredness from having to love and trying to love those whom we don’t know or even those we do know. Especially when the situation seems impossible. A tiredness that makes us stare blankly and makes us not really care or want to be affected by having to care.

I found that compassion fatigue in my life has been as a result of continual subliminal messaging of a hurting world: seeing news clips in urban Philadelphia of a homicide in a community bogged down by addictions, hearing of a car crash five-minutes from my house in which a young sixteen-year old girl dies, reading of another airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan, riots in China, shootings in Colorado, Paris, Orlando. And social media, for all its good intentions, is only making the constant feed of bad even worse. The consistency of having to ingest violence and hate in our world, a constant flow from the media, from a friend, from personal experience. It can be too overpowering to our senses that we fail to feel any longer.


These past seven months of silence have been that in South Sudan. While I have had amazing experiences and adventures that have taken me to Amsterdam, New York, Jaipur and all the way back, I haven’t been able to write. Because sometimes it’s hard to see joy, to feel joy, amidst this over-stimulation and the resulting deadening of my ability to care and to love.

I am grateful: I have a God, a friend and father all the same, who knows how to love and care far more than I will ever comprehend in this lifetime. And he lifts that burden from me, to care and to love for all of those hurts. And while my job in South Sudan is to know where those hurts are around the world, the wars, deaths, abductions, social injustices that happen in my very back yard, I know that for each word I read, I can commit that situation up to God and move on. Because while I can pray for healing in far off catastrophes, I can’t be emotionally involved in every situation.


So for now, I want to keep being informed, but I want to disconnect from immigration crises in Australia because I can’t do anything about that while floating in between East Africa and the U.S., but God can. Instead, I can chose to take on the hurt of those in my immediate world, my family, friends, colleagues and even new people that are placed in my life as the journey continues. And by only concentrating on those small hurts, my burden lightens and I can keep choosing joy and sharing joy. We all hurt too much and can’t let those hurts be the end all. Because it will all end one day. For now, we just have to keep moving onward.

For now, I want to walk outside along the canal in a slightly less golden sun than that in Africa, I want to pet my furry little friends, sit in coffee shops, visit farmers markets and marvel at growth and substance in food. I want to breathe in joy so that I can breathe it back out when I return to Juba in just three-short weeks. My laptop’s lid will be closed much more frequently and I will paint, camp, read, watch the stars, catch up on this lonely little blog and be inspired by others around me who have faced trials and tribulations so positively.


For all who are out there, thanks for reading along, thanks for your patience and friendly hellos. Please know that your hurts mean something to someone far greater than any person in this world. I look forward to catching-up and sharing some of my latest adventures in subsequent posts!


Paris, je t’aime

IMG_9469awebIn light of the recent events, I find it appropriate to post this now. One of my favorite cities, France was my home for five years and holds a very special place in my heart.


IMG_9485awebAround the globe and in places of conflict, these atrocities are not new: Syria, Iraq, North Korea, even here in South Sudan. Yet each life, no matter what color of skin, language spoken or even nationality, each life is invaluable.

IMG_9484awebWhile the city of light is temporarily darkened, we are praying for these people, that they find an even more real and everlasting light in the midst of this violence and hate.

IMG_9481awebI painted this months ago, in a moment of nostalgia. Paris, vous êtes tous dans nos cœurs.


Birds of Africa: Pink Flamingo, f comme flamant rose

IMG_7673webAfrica undeniably has a wanderers allure attached to it. Think the ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Conrad or any other 19th early 20th writer who romanticized the continent’s wild and indigenous qualities: “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions” (Karen Blixen).

Flamant rose. Famille des Phoenicoptéridés. Ordre : Phoenicoptériformes

Flamant rose. Famille des Phoenicoptéridés. Ordre : Phoenicoptériformes

Unfortunately these romantic notions more or less lumped the continent together; people outside of here have a tendency to ask, “So how is Africa?” instead of making it even a regionally specific place.

IMG_7674awebAlas, I can’t help but dream it up a bit myself, when I think of its fabulous colors and great adventures that await. Sometimes I am blue living here, but in the scope of things, this is a pretty fabulous opportunity. I only wish I could take more photos to share with others what I see, but for now it will have to remain in an illustrated form.


Harping back on my European animal collection, here is F, the majestic pink flamingo. While I was actually drawing the pink flamingo who lives in the Camargue region of France, Eastern Africa and the flamingo just seem to go hand and hand. Juba does not allow me to see a great amount of nature, but once in a while I catch a flicker of a yellow breasted beauty flying around, oblivious to the chaos lurking under wing.


120 Days in South Sudan

IMG_7111Today is a rarer day in Juba; today it rained. Although it is rainy season and the temperatures have consistently stayed in the mid-80s F, today it was different. Much welcomed and appreciated, the surrounding dried-out vegetation is having a happier day as am I. Wearing a long sleeved shirt, no matter how thin the weave, seems a little bit more appropriate for the month of October.


11889982_10152991121927791_8154667427361956776_oToday also marks slightly over 120 days since I’ve come to live in Juba. I write very little about this place because in all reality, it seems as if very little changes from day-to-day. I go into a ten-hour work day, some days demanding more time than others, and walk to my little home on the far end corner of our compound. From door-to-door the distance is one-minute, work and home in the same place.

11705308_10155729169825184_4130865334814466319_nMy after hour activities sometimes consist of visiting other acquaintances in NGOs and UN organizations across this city via a driver; most of the time it is going back to my room for a bit to rest and then meeting up with fellow friends and employees in the common room sitting area. Other nights it involves just reading blogs and webzines online, catching up with personal life in the U.S. and in Europe, and Skyping with friends who live in different places. Sometimes it is swimming at a nearby hotel.

IMG_7115What makes South Sudan hard, Juba more specifically, isn’t the lack of access to everyday amenities. There is food made for me each day and night, Nutella and Pringles can be bought just down the road. Rooms are swept and cleaned daily, washing machines available, water, albeit cold if you don’t take a shower when the sun is up, and internet and electricity most of the time.

IMG_7114What makes Juba hard is the lack of a normal life, the little mundane things that take up time in life, but make it sweet all the same: stirring garlic in a hot oiled pan after work, taking brisk autumn walks along a wooded path, putting out a bowl of kitty chow each morning, meeting up with friends for coffee without giving a thought to security or finding a driver. Life’s little quirks and mundane twists and turns that come with living in a secure environment are what I miss. That and taking photos to document my experiences, which were very possible in Niger but not here.

10953195_10155722411835184_2999206376653120923_nSo 120 days is an achievement of sorts, in a place where internationals mark their time spent here in months. What I have to share of my life here does not seem very significant to date, but maybe it doesn’t have to be significant to matter.


How to Make Chapati and Other Things in South Sudan


I took this strong woman’s photo a little over a week ago. As I peeked into the kitchen, dim and furnished in periwinkle and burgundy plastic chairs and tables, my grumbling tummy took a back seat as I saw the light fall upon her and her work. A faded dark light rested so comfortably on her ebony tinted skin. Somewhere north near the Sudanese border, I found myself transfixed with this scene.

IMG_7209I don’t even know her name, could only communicate a few words of my classical Arabic into her Khartoum Arabic, but she willingly let me capture her and her morning efforts of chapati making. You may be wondering what is chapati, or for that matter, what South Sudan has to do with anything? But this is the world I now find myself in, almost as if by accident, but still completely guided. Things move fast in the NGO world, even faster in South Sudan where 4.6 million people are facing emergency levels of food insecurity.

IMG_7214aOne of the hardest things I find to grasp here is the magnitude of continual misunderstanding between people: the acts of selfishness that have ruined generations and continue to do so. This article by the Human Rights Watch (“They Burned It All”) hit a bit closer to home, as several of our own staff, now my friends, had to leave behind the places they loved when the government moved in and deliberately attacked its own people.

IMG_7219My life in South Sudan is not like it was at home, but it’s not hard either. I have running water, air conditioning and a comfortable enough bed. The most difficult part is that I can’t walk wherever I want and practice my photography like I could in Niger; my camera will be confiscated in Juba.

IMG_7222aSo when I find peaceful moments like this one away from government central locations, with this woman and her simple beauty of rolling out dough to make into breakfast chapati, a fried, round flatbread, I need to capture them. Peace is a temporary notion in this place and the innocent are the one’s suffering the most.

IMG_7203But this moment, this still quiet light, reminds me of a peace that we are blessed to have if only choose to accept it. Here is my formal introduction, my welcome to you as I share what I can of my life in South Sudan over this next year. Wishing everybody at home and afar a blessed, peaceful Sunday!

Giraffe Dreaming in Niger in the Guardian

IMG_7075awebThis month has been consumed by numbers and words, but mostly numbers and refining budgets, which is not always the most comforting and carefree of ways to spend a day to a natural born creative. Since arriving here, into a new job title and a new country, more to come on that, the majority of my world has been enclosed in a less than well-lit office and concrete walls that surround my daily existence. Finding and growing friendships has been a nice reprieve.

IMG_7079aAlas, dreaming is a necessity and key part of staying sane! Here is a sketch and gouache illustration that I sent off to the Guardian’s call for aid worker art, a little over a month ago, and it was selected to be posted in their blog here!

Sans titre-1Sans titre-2

Wishing everyone a sunny and joy-filled weekend!