My name is Helen Manson and I’m a New Zealand humanitarian photographer and storyteller living and working in Uganda. I’m also a Mum to three incredible kids aged 2,3, and 5. My work has taken me to 35 countries and over the last decade I’ve been everywhere from the labour room as mothers have said their first 'Hello' to the final moments of them saying their last goodbyes. I’ve listened to their stories of hope and joy as they proudly describe the children they're now able to pay school fees for. And I’ve wept as they’ve shared their harrowing stories of surviving war, slavery, abuse and the murder of loved ones.

If I had to sum up what I’ve learnt from the mothers I photograph in just one sentence it’d be this: There’s no us and them. There’s only us. I’ve found that behind the veils, behind the warzones, behind the refugee barricades are mums just like me with kids just like mine. And there’s really no difference in what we want for our children, only in what we can give them.

Before I started doing humanitarian photography/storytelling, my honest mental temptation was to imagine that mothers in developing countries who endured such things “in the news” were somehow fundamentally different to me. Maybe, somehow, they just don't feel things like I do. They're "used to it". They have “too many kids”. Maybe they expect less, care less, hope for less, want less or need less. But painfully, over time, I have seen that these women are exactly like me. And what they have endured is in no way easier for them because they are poor.

Our motherhood unites us. So let me take you to the front lines of some of our planet's most challenging places. There are some mothers there I'd love you to meet.

Annet

Annet never went to school and grew up taking care of her mother, who died when she was only 12-years-old. At 17, Annet eloped. When she became pregnant she had no money for a scan, and she ended up going into labour at home. She gave birth to Samuel in her house, alone. But after the baby came out, “my tummy looked like I hadn’t even given birth to a baby,” she said. Sure enough, after her brother-in-law took her to a hospital on his motorbike, a midwife informed her she was going to have twins and needed to go to another hospital. When she arrived at the new hospital, the doctor called her husband to let him know Annet was having not just twins, but triplets. She would had to have a C-section as it was a life and death situation. The triplets were safely delivered, but their father didn’t want anything to do with them. “In our culture, twins are a blessing, but triplets are a curse,” Annet said. “My husband turned his phone off. He refused to pay the hospital bill or have anything further to do with us, so the doctor ended up calling the press.” When Annet’s story went public, Tearfund’s partner, Compassion, came to help. They paid her hospital bill and constructed a home for her and her triplets, who are now sponsored. While Annet has her hands full caring for three babies, she knows she is not alone thanks to the love and support from Compassion, and her brother, sister-in-law and father. “These children are a blessing!” she said.

Annet,32 and her surprise triplets, Patience, Samuel and Grace sit outside their home in Uganda.Annet,32, and her surprise triplets, Patience, Samuel and Grace sit outside their home in Uganda.

Juliet

For the last 15 months I’ve been following the story of Juliet, from the final stages of her pregnancy to her daughter Christine’s first birthday. Having not had the opportunity to go to school, Juliet met her husband Edward at a young age. They fell pregnant soon after, with little to no money to their name. A member of a local church helped register them into the local sponsorship programme run by Tearfund’s partner, Compassion. Juliet gave birth, by herself, inside a local hospital after a nurse suddenly went off duty. It has been beautiful to watch Juliet’s love for her daughter grow. “I am so much in love with my daughter,” she told me. “Maybe it’s because she’s my firstborn? I love my husband too, but he annoys me whereas she cannot annoy me.” Baby Christine was recently given a sponsor, which means she’ll have a very different life from her mother's—starting with an education. Juliet made me laugh when she said, “I’ve heard that white women don’t feel pain when they give birth? That you have schedules for napping and you get mad if the baby doesn’t follow it!? I have heard you have an entire room where the babies sleep all by themselves and only baby things are in there.”

Juliet rests a moment while her husband, Edward, says his first hello to their first-born child, Christine in a public hospital in Uganda.Juliet rests a moment while her husband, Edward, says his first hello to their firstborn child, Christine, in a public hospital in Uganda.

Grace

“I used to be someone who depended solely on my husband. I had no way of making money and he would tell his friends he’d married a useless wife. Things were so moody and full of conflict that we nearly ended the marriage. One day I was invited to join a Self Help Group run by a local charity. We were taught about savings and loans. That night instead of eating my cassava portion for dinner – I sold it – and after a a little while I grew a small amount of savings. I had some fear but I decided to borrow 10k (approx. $4) from the group. With this money I bought some vegetables at the market to sell. I made a small profit and was able to make beans for my family for the first time. Then I borrowed 15k (approx. $6) and was able to buy fish to eat. The next time I made a profit I bought my husband a shirt and placed it on the bed. He came home and asked 'Whose clothes are these on the bed?' When I told him they were his he smiled and thanked me. Since that moment joy began returning to our family. We now save together. Recently we bought a solar lighting system so that we can have electricity. We also have iron sheeting on our roof and our children’s school fees are paid. We are hoping to build a permanent house soon. I feel good, confident and a productive part of my family.”

​Grace, 29 pictured here with her son, Desmond, 4 months. She stands proudly near her home in Uganda after joining a savings and loans group and finally being able to contribute to her family’s finances.Grace, 29 pictured here with her son, Desmond, 4 months. She stands proudly near her home in Uganda after joining a Self Help Group and finally being able to contribute to her family’s finances.

Marwa

Marwa (name changed for security reasons), 27, has five children between the ages of 7 months and 11 years. They came to Lebanon as refugees because of the war in Syria four years ago. “I saw bombs, shelling, people dying and ruins all around us,” Marwa said. “Every day I heard stories of families losing their children and I was really scared of losing one of mine.” Marwa and her kids left everything they owned in Syria, coming to Lebanon with nothing but the love for each other and the drive to carry on. When they arrived, some members of a local church (supported by Tearfund) came to their aid, providing things like food vouchers, milk and diapers—which they provide Marwa with to this day. The trauma of what they left in Syria still affects the family. When the kids hear an airplane fly by or fireworks at night, they think there is bombing and shelling. But in spite of the emotional scars, Marwa is hopeful. “My hope for the future,” she said, “is for my children to get an education and to have no more sadness.”

Marwa and her son share a moment outside their rented home in Lebanon after fleeing violence in Syria. His face was burnt in a house fire.Marwa and her son share a moment outside their rented home in Lebanon after fleeing violence in Syria. His face was burnt in a house fire.

Mariam

Sometimes the most powerful thing a mother can do is wake up each morning and choose to keep breathing for her children’s sake. Mariam *(name changed for security reasons) personified that for me. Mariam and her eight daughters, ages 6 to 30, have been living in the Rohingya refugee camps for about a year, having fled genocide in Myanmar. Both my brother and husband were kicked to death, Mariam said “I don’t even know where their grave is. They burnt our house down and assaulted my sisters. I hid my daughters in the forest for eight days during this time. Then we took a boat for five days to arrive here in Bangladesh.” Though there are difficulties for Mariam and her daughters surviving in the refugee camp—no “head of family,” no way of making money, missing lost loved ones—Mariam is grateful to be away from Myanmar. “In Myanmar we couldn’t sleep at night,” she said. “We just kept thinking, ‘someone’s coming, someone’s coming, someone’s coming to kill us.’ At least we don’t feel that way here.”

Mariam and daughter Anwara, 6, shelter together from the rain outside their fragile shelter in the Rohingya Refugee Camps in Bangladesh.Mariam and daughter Anwara*, 6, shelter together from the rain outside their fragile shelter in the Rohingya Refugee Camps in Bangladesh.

Golle

Mother’s Day isn’t always a celebration. Sometimes it can be a painful reminder—for women who have lost their mothers, women who are not yet mothers, and mothers who have lost children. Mothers like Golle (name changed for security reasons). Golle found her four-year-old son hanged by her sister in law, for reasons she still does not know. As if that wasn’t enough, Golle and her remaining four children had to flee, a few months later, after ISIS invaded their village. “My husband was not at home at the time,” Golle said, “so my kids and I ran away to a place in the mountains where we lived for seven days with little food or water. ISIS surrounded us and planes were bombing all around us.” After a few days, Golle’s husband joined the family and they walked through Syria to a safer place in Iraq. “During this time I realized that psychologically I was not doing well. I had to take many pills for my treatment, as I kept falling over and fainting”* Golle’s husband divorced her because of this. And he took the children. Today Golle is living with her mother and father and says she is “going crazy” because she cannot see her children. She has even been suicidal. But she is getting help from Tearfund's local partner's trauma rehabilitation programme, which she says is teaching her about forgiveness and opening up her heart. “I still have things to be hopeful and thankful for,” she said.
*Many victims of severe trauma suffer from conversion disorder where they will faint at random times.

Golle is photographed inside her home within a refugee camp in Northern Iraq after escaping with her four children when Isis invaded her village.Golle is photographed inside her home within a refugee camp in Northern Iraq after escaping with her four children when Isis invaded her village.

Charlotte

I found baby Robert and his mother, Charlotte, inside a sweltering premature babies room in the middle of a refugee camp on the border of Congo and Burundi. Charlotte had fled war in Burundi in 2015 and come to Tanzania seeking safety. Robert is Charlotte’s fifth baby and was born prematurely. As I witnessed this woman holding this tiny new life, I admired her calm and remarkable resilience. Giving birth is an achievement, let alone doing it for the fifth time, in a refugee camp, to a premature baby. Medical Teams International is working in these refugee camps to provide medical services to vulnerable people like tiny Robert and his brave mama.

Premature baby, Robert, was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp on March 2, 2019. The smallest of babies born here weigh 900grams (1.9lbs). Here he takes a moment to rest in his mother’s arms in the hospital ward.Premature baby, Robert, was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp on March 2, 2019. The smallest of babies born here weigh 900grams (1.9lbs). Here he takes a moment to rest in his mother’s arms in the hospital ward.
 

Helen Manson is a multi-award-winning Kiwi humanitarian photographer and storyteller, currently living and working in Uganda. Helen’s work has taken her to over 35 countries documenting famine, refugee settlements, post war environments, child sponsorship, micro-enterprise, trauma counselling and disaster zones. This May, she will be taking people behind the lens and onto the front lines of some of our world’s most challenging places through a nationwide photography and speaking tour called ‘A Celebration of Humanity’.


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