Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Moving Mountains

Title: Moving Mountains
Author: Claire Bertschinger with Fanny Blake
Publisher: Bantam Books

A few years ago I worked at the New Zealand Red Cross (NZRC) as an administrator/PA. I am immensely proud of the work I did during my two years there and helping to make the world a better place in my own paper shuffling way. I worked closely with our our lovely older volunteers who would "grandmother" me. It was not uncommon for me to get waylaid for 20-30 minutes at a time chatting/gossiping/commiserating on their various ailments, aches and health complaints/the trouble with youth today/the cost of health care...

One of my favourite volunteers was a little Irish lady named Ita. Tiny she might be but what she lacked in height, Ita made up for with pure feisty spirit. She could outsell everyone on Red Rose Day, whip the other ladies into shape with her barbed tongue when she felt they were dithering too much and bake a mean sponge for morning tea.

One afternoon Ita called me at work for a chat about the book she had just read; "Moving Mountains" by Claire Bertschinger. Claire was a field nurse delegate working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ethiopia in the mid 1980's at the time of the severe famine that gripped the civil war ravaged country. Claire became "the face" of the ICRC's efforts to help the millions of starving displaced peoples when filmed by a BBC Crew documenting the situation in Ethiopia. So moved by Claire's description of the dire situation and the daily life and death decisions she made on who to feed and who to leave outside the feeding station she ran, millions of dollars of aid began flowing in to Ethiopia from the western world and Bob Geldolf created the Band Aid and Live Aid charity events.

Ita raved down the phone to me about the book for several minutes and the wonderful work Claire achieved not just in Ethiopia but also the Lebanon, Southern Sudan, West Africa and Afghanistan - some of the most dangerous and desperate places on earth.

Suddenly Ita turned very serious and warned me in her softly lilting Irish accent "But oh no Kelly, you must not read this book yourself. No no, you are far too young and innocent to hear such terrible things. No dear, you get your mammy to read it to you and she can pick the parts she thinks are okay for you to hear. Yes, you get your mammy to read it. Will you promise me that now?"

I was twenty three, bless her.

Three and a half years on, with Ita's warnings still ringing in my ears, I settled down over the long weekend to read Claire Bertschinger's touching story "Moving Mountains."

In some ways, Ita was right. At times it was a truly harrowing read and it was impossible not to be affected by the devastating situations men had inflicted upon their fellow men. The conditions the displaced peoples were forced to endure were beyond comprehension. The lengths parents would go to in order for their children to receive nourishment, including abandoning them in the centre of the road as marked Red Cross vehicles drove by in the hope they would be picked up, truly made my heart ache. How Claire and her fellow aid workers coped with this day in and day out is a source of immense inspiration. It comes as no surprise that many of the people she helped referred to her as an angel.

But it was not all doom and gloom either. In the midst of all this despair, Claire managed to tell her story in an enlightening and uplifting way including sharing with her readers her reconciliation with the demons of Ethiopia through counselling and therapy that plagued her for twenty years. The fact that Claire considers herself just your average British woman doing nothing special made me want to reach through the pages and hug her tightly.

Most of all, Claire's belief that everyone, no matter how little they have to give in either financial or time donations terms, can make a difference to alleviating the suffering of others really hit home to me (maybe because of my previous experience working with the NZRC) and has inspired me to get more involved in my new community here in Hamilton.

So despite dear Ita's warnings, not only did I survive reading "Moving Mountains" by Claire Bertschinger and live to read another book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Warm, wise, tender and moving, it is one woman's courageous efforts to help humanity and a testament to the amazing work field workers carry out every day in the world's most troubled regions - often as unsung heroes.


her said...

aw, what a sweet review! I esp. liked the part where she told you to get your mom to read it to you. :)

Karla said...

Kelly, I loved your review. Especially your personal story of Ita, in such a small amount of words you managed to bring her to life for me. Everyone knows a Ita and I could feel my own memories stirring. Congratulations.