Thursday, February 22, 2024

Helen Manson: Heart & Hope

After travelling to over 45 countries, humanitarian photographer, storyteller and communications lead at Tearfund, Helen Manson has returned from Uganda to home in Pakuranga due to ‘compassion fatigue’. FARIDA MASTER meets the trailblazer who has devoted her life to service of hidden humanity crushed by poverty and ravaged by war.

Helen Manson with children Hope, Maz, Eva and husband Tim.

As Helen Manson purposefully strides into Filly Café at Sylvia Park, she radiates happiness and pure warmth. Heading back to Auckland has given the family some respite. Google the term ‘Compassion Fatigue’, and the explanation that pops up is ‘the cost of caring for others or for their emotional pain, resulting from the desire to help relieve the suffering of others. It is also known as vicarious or secondary trauma, referencing the way that other people’s trauma can become their own’.

The courageous lady who has been through famine-hit areas, witnessed catastrophic violence dodging bullets, and seen extreme poverty in her work with over 40 NGOs, says, “we returned to New Zealand so that we could do our work ‘more sustainably’.”

“We had our adrenal glands working at full capacity,” she smiles. “We also wanted to give our children some roots. Though I’m sure we will be returning to Uganda someday.”
The mother of three, Hope 9, Eva 7 and Maz 6 says that the other reason they returned home was because their youngest son Maz needed an open-heart surgery.

Helen and Tim are proud parents of two adopted Ugandan children and one biological child.

For someone who did PR for glamorous events like NZ Fashion Week, Rhythm and Vines music festival and the Dubai Fashion Week, the trajectory of Helen’s life changed dramatically when she went on her first date with Tim.

One of the first things he asked her was, would she be happy to travel to East Africa to work with refugees.

“My husband is a son of missionary parents and though Tim had left Uganda at the age of 15, he had made a promise to himself to return one day and contribute his mite to the people of the land.

“We also discussed the topic of adoption,” she smiles as she goes on to narrate that in the first three weeks in Uganda, they made up their mind to adopt Hope.

Helen who spent part of her growing years in California before she returned to Howick, says their move to Uganda was the best thing that happened to them.

“The dusty roads, chaotic traffic, we loved every bit of it from day one. It instantly felt like home. I was captivated and soaked it all in like a sponge.”

From Fashion Week to a Famine-hit communities, there were two instances that changed the course of their lives, she says. “One was a sponsored child and the other was meeting Ivan, a former child soldier at a bus stop in Downtown Kampala.

“I had an apple in my hand, and he had never seen one. I offered him the apple and he took a bite straight from the stalk. I showed him how it’s to be eaten and we got talking. He told me that when he was nine years old and walking to school with his best friend, they were approached by a soldier from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). His friend immediately ran and was shot down in front of his eyes. Ivan was terrified, and soon after was conscripted in the army. They taught him how to use guns and loot villages. He was so scared, he used to close his eyes and fire the bullets in the air so that he could miss killing people. I watched his journey, as he later became a builder and then a single father with three kids.”

After a five-month stint in Uganda to test the waters, Helen got a job as a humanitarian photographer and storyteller with Tearfund. Over the years, she worked with Compassion International, a child sponsorship programme of Tearfund as well as various charities and organisations such as the UN, World Vision and Red Cross. Her work took her to dangerous war zones and some of the most challenging places on the planet including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh — where she faced rebel armies, wore chemical warfare gas masks, and even signed, a rape disclosure form.

“Initially I used to think that people who endured such things as extreme poverty were somehow different to me. Maybe they don’t feel things like I do, maybe these mums get used to it, maybe they expect less. But painfully, over time, I have come to see that they are exactly like me. They want the same things for their children.

“It’s just an accident of latitude as Bono said: ‘We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies. But will we be that generation?’”

Bringing their stories to the rest of the world is an incredible privilege, she says. It has something to do with her faith and the intense desire to give back and make a difference.

While Helen’s husband Tim, who started his journey in Uganda doing trauma counselling is now the International Programme director of Tearfund; Helen, will be covering the North Island on a speaking and photography tour, ‘Celebration of Humanity’. The award-winning humanitarian photographer will be showcasing her all-time favourite images over the last 15 years that tell a moving story of resilience and love, heartbreak and kinship – stories she can never forget.

“I am so grateful that I get to shine a light on some of the darkest places in our world and to share the work of remarkable NGOs that work tirelessly,” she says. “My desire is to give them a voice.”


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