Shaped by War: A female SOE agent’s diary finds humanity in destruction

Anne Powys-Lybbe died peacefully in 2015. She was a loving mother, wife, daughter, novelist and throughout the Second World War, she was a deadly spy with Churchill’s secret army. 

Anne was 18-years-old when British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany. After joining the Army, Anne diarised her experiences and 82 years later her experience reads just as powerfully today, as it did then. 

“I don’t want to fight. I would prefer to fight with words, but if the people are not prepared to do that, and insist on imposing their system on me, I will have to fight them. Trying all the time to keep the clear distinction in my mind that I have nothing against the people, only what they represent. And if what they represent is to my mind evil, I will fight it until I die.

War is bloody in every sense of the word. They say it brings out the best or the worse in human beings – if it takes something as bloody as a war to bring out the best in humans, I pity the human race.”

After passing out as an officer, Anne was sent to London’s War Rooms to work in Public Relations. Her job involved recruiting civilian women to the war effort and vetting War Correspondents – Alan Moorehead being one of them. It was not long before her colleagues discovered that she could speak French and with that, started a very different life. 

 After the fall of France in 1940, a fighting force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was hastily drafted by Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton to wage a secret war against the enemy and “set Europe ablaze”. Its purpose was to conduct sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance in occupied territories while providing aid to local resistance movements in a fight against the Axis Powers. The SOE operated across Europe and into Southeast Asia and the force employed over 13,000 people, 3,200 of them being women. The character of an SOE agent was daring and the agents were trained to use deadly force, how to survive torture and how to parachute out of aircraft.

Without a second thought, Anne signed the Official Secrets Act and took the job almost immediately.

I put my real self aside and I became a French student called Jannine Duvivier.” 

Anne was drafted as a Courier and her mission was to teach the French Resistance ‘Maquis’ how to destroy enemy ammunition transport trains using homemade explosives.  

Anne parachuted into France eleven times, each during the dead of night. The Bible-black sky was lit up by the warm glow of fires that the Resistance had lit for her safe arrival. With the strength from a black coffee, a Gauloises cigarette, she hit the ground. It was only when she got to the safe house that the realisation of being in German-occupied France kicked in.

“I still think of the number of people I helped to kill. You had to close your mind at the time. We were at war and the Nazis were evil but not all Germans were of that ilk.”

During her double life in France, Anne witnessed some terrible things and on one occasion, she was caught by the formidable Gestapo when sabotaging a railway line. She was marched into a nearby forest, where she was forced to stand in line to be shot. Luckily for her, she was able to escape death while RAF bombs flattened the forest. While laying low, she discovered that a fellow fighter had captured an enemy officer. Being the highest-ranking officer, Anne shot him dead with her revolver. 

As a 24-year-old woman, Anne thought she had witnessed every possible horror during her years in the Army – but she was wrong. While in northern Germany with War Correspondent Richard Dimbleby, she received orders to go to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to gain information. The prison was yet to be liberated by the British forces, so the prisoners’ survival hung in the balance. 

“We saw thousands upon thousands of human beings, living skeletons, lying on the ground, unable to move, starved and beaten. 

Behind the wires of Belsen concentration camp credit: Holocaust Learning Centre

There were massive ditches, filled with rotting corpses, some not quite dead: I can still see it, and I can still smell it. They were fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, wives and daughters – all blessed with life until a higher power decided otherwise. Simply because they were Jews, Gypsies or disabled. When I hear people talking about dying with dignity, I think of them. They died with enormous dignity.”

As they watched from afar, Richard and Anne saw the SS guards circling the camp with whips – laughing as they slashed the naked backs of the prisoners. 

“I could see the Camp Commander and his lady, Irma Grese walking around in thigh high boots with her whip and I have hated boots ever since.”

By April 1945, Soviet forces had decimated Berlin’s defences and over the next week, Anne witnessed the Red Army invade the rest of the city. According to her diaries, Berlin was divided into two zones for the British and the Russians. Both civilians and soldiers were discouraged to enter the opposite zone – especially women. 

One day, my driver – a delicious Corporal from Glasgow and I drove by mistake into the Russian zone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman in civilian dress getting gang-raped by soldiers. It was horrific but it was not uncommon to see such perverse behaviour.”

ADN-ZB / Archive World War II 1939-45 After one of the Battle of Berlin in 1945, the residents laboriously search for a way through the destruction in Stallschreiberstrasse., 1945. Photo credit: Berlin Experiences

Just before the final declaration to signal the end of the war, Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun committed suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin. Soon after, the Nuremberg trials started and along with her colleagues, Anne visited the courtroom every day to watch the sentencing of war criminals. 

Former Nazi leader Hermann Göring standing in the prisoner’s box during the Nuremberg trials.
Credit: AP Images

“Göring was incredibly impressive. A huge man, dressed immaculately, very plain but always spotless. Always with his hair well brushed, and if I had been able to look, I’m sure his fingernails were well-scrubbed. Here was the man who ordered the deaths of countless ordinary citizens, bombing the hell out of them, for he was in charge of the Luftwaffe. As I listened, pictures flowed through my eyes and I remembered that we did the same when the RAF bombed Dresden and Cologne.

No one is innocent in war.”

 “I watched as he was sentenced to death. He never once flinched nor moved. He just clicked his heels and marched out of the dock. He had a strange dignity which seemed to raise the courtroom to some unknown height of humanity.”

After victory in Europe, Anne’s stoicism had been internationally recognised and when she left her role in PR and Journalism, various tributes were published about her, including a comment that she sunk through bureaucracy like a hot knife through butter. 

Anne’s SOE experience left her resilient for the rest of her life. It gave her the strength to push through her son’s difficult birth and a leg amputation. She never once cried out or registered any pain. According to her husband Martin, she never liked talking about herself nor her life experiences but it was clear that she had a rich inner life. He explained: “Her wit, her warmth, her style, were all unequalled in this irresistible come-hither-ness.” 

Anne Powys-Lybbe on a beach holiday, credit Martin Powys-Lybbe

Martin went on to show me what Anne had written in the years following Germany’s defeat and it was clear that Anne never wanted to fight. Instead and like so many others, she wanted to be free.

It’s a queer business of odd things being part of you. I love to go to strange places and make my own world with my own laws and conform to no one because I am nothing and yet, I remain wholly myself.” – Anne Powys-Lybbe


The threat of toxic tribalism on democratic decay, human rights and freedom.

Woman of colour standing on a block, holding a flag and a closed fist, at the Black Lives Matter Protest in Brighton
Credit: James Cooley

With the end of the Trump-era in sight, Brexit just around the corner, the Coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, the world is left to reflect on the behaviours that have led us to stoke the flames of destruction.  As we enter what is arguably the most consequential decade in modern history, we are at a notable crisis point for democracies and pluralist societies. 

Today, we live in a world which is oscillating between forces of globalisation and tribalism. On one hand, our global economy is becoming increasingly interconnected, and its advocates laud its accomplishments in technology innovation, market access and trade deals. On the other hand, tribalism is alive and kicking, as exclusionary attitudes of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and politics continue to form primal divides between groups of people; within countries as well as across them. Demonstrated in our current climate, our political discourse has become inebriated by toxic tribalism and group mob mentality. We have been seduced by the idea that one group is “wrong” and “evil”, while our group is “correct” and “good”. This “us vs them” behaviour, often instigated by public frustration at the status quo, is making rational policy-making and meritocracy in the West seem increasingly archaic. 

After a long history of intergroup conflict and competition, humans have evolved to be tribal creatures.  Tribalism is not inherently bad. However, it often leads to ideological thinking, which can distort the cognitive processing of information and thus, can become problematic in the pursuit of the truth. In every country, some groups harbour rational reasons to praise themselves and hate others, usually based on prejudicial lore, rooted in their origins. As demonstrated in timelines across history, if left untreated, tribal animosity becomes septic, leading to consequences of conflict, destruction, death and poverty. 

After antagonistic hatreds dominate our benevolent thoughts and actions, violence and conflicts are inevitable. Examples of these conflicts sit alongside our timelines, whether we know it or not. At the time of my birth in 1994, the ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered thousands of minority Tutsis in Rwanda. This mass genocide was a meticulously planned political project of ethnic extermination and an end-product of toxic tribalism. Since my birth, I have been exposed to twenty-six years’ worth of news stories. In that time, war and conflict have been the subjects of incessant reporting, seasoned with stories of political and social disputation. Earlier this year, the Black Lives Matter protests were hotly contested by “All Lives Matter” groups, clapping-back at those crying out for respect and freedom, to protect systemic racial inequality. 

Similar ethno-nationalist attitudes continue to surface as far-right extremists “defend” Europe from refugees. Originating in France, the European far-right youth movement, “Génération Identitaire”, continue to intercept migrant ships and NGO boats, like Doctors Without Borders who aid in the rescue of refugees. However virulent and intolerant this behaviour is, it confirms the endemic need for these humans to protect beliefs and tribal loyalties by ostracising anyone who thinks differently. 

For the rest of us, it is simply not enough to cross our fingers and hope that our global political landscape will miraculously improve and an agenda to counter divisive forces will appear. Global leaders need to challenge the status quo.  As recorded in Bromell D. (2019) Ethical Competencies for Public Leadership, “while diversity in proximity generates conflict where people want and value different things, the right kind of leadership and the right kind of politics can minimise domination, humiliation, cruelty and violence.” Bromell continues to explain that for a divided society such as ours, an agnostic approach to politics may be the key to moderating our anger and refrain from turning opponents into enemies. This approach will unlock the opportunity to create public value from our differences, instead of passively waiting for authoritarian populists to dictate more conflicts.

The proposed resolution for leadership going forward is to be civil. This implies the understanding that we are all different and have competing interests and values, whilst staying engaged to resolve conflict where possible, without necessarily reaching a consensus. By strengthening the centripetal forces against the “us vs them” behaviour, we will be able to rebuild our social capital. 

Illustration of a crowd of people from all different backgrounds, holding signs saying “Refugees welcome” and “Real equality isn’t possible, if we don’t celebrate our differences.”
Credit: Matteo Paganelli

Bamboo: Not Quite The Environmental Turn-On We Were Expecting

Woman modelling amongst bamboo trees Credit: Unknown.

The Coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the holiday shopping season with fewer people hitting stores on Black Friday, electing instead to bag a bargain on the digital high-street. This morning, I treated myself to a new pair of trainers. After I had paid, an ad caught my eye for a ‘sustainable bamboo jersey t-shirt’. Now bamboo screams sustainable, right? And we all know, there is no word sexier than sustainable. 

Bamboo is known to be a very sustainable crop. It is the fastest-growing plant in the world – requiring no fertiliser or pesticides to thrive. The crop self-regenerates from its roots, meaning it does not need to be replanted and is a crucial player in balancing the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. When compared to cotton cultivation, which requires large amounts of water, pesticides and labour, the advantages are undeniable. 

However, there is one peachy BUT to this truth.

Although bamboo is naturally organic, it does not mean it is being grown and treated sustainably. 

The majority of bamboo is grown in China, meaning there is little public information available regarding how intensively the bamboo is grown. Without knowing this information, we do not know the extent of any deforestation and consequent habitat loss. In its cultivation phase, bamboo does not need pesticides to grow. However, there is no guarantee that they are not used to maximise outputs. 

Once the bamboo has been harvested, there are several ways to turn it into textiles. The first process involves combing out the bamboo fibres and spinning them into a thread. This results in a coarse textile more commonly known as bamboo linen. Creating this linen is an expensive and labour-intensive process. The end product is a hard-wearing fabric that is used most commonly in bedding and towels. 

The second and much more popular method is used to make the soft bamboo fabric you find in clothing. This textile is called bamboo rayon and is produced by conducting a highly intensive and toxic chemical process, using chemicals like sulphuric acid, risking human life. Rayon is essentially cellulose pulp, a raw material converted through a chemical process. The result is a fibre that falls somewhere between natural and synthetic. The source of cellulose can be cotton, wood or bamboo. Bamboo rayon is made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving the cellulose in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. The pulp is then pushed through a spinneret and spun into fibres that can be made into threads and fabrics. Sadly, about 50% of chemical waste from rayon production cannot be recycled, reused or biodegraded, therefore poisoning the environment. 

I hate to be the one to say it but, the majority of products labelled as bamboo or bamboo jersey are in fact rayon. Textiles that derive from bamboo are indeed far less costly to produce than cotton and the production is not as intensive as polyester manufacturing. However, after breaking down the processes involved, I fear that bamboo may not be the environmental turn on that we were expecting. 


The Ethical Auditing App Designed to Make Life Easier For Everyone.

Female garment worker sewing textiles in a garment factory. Credit: Unsplash

As the uncertainties of 2020 overwhelm our society, one certainty remains clear: modern slavery continues to devastate lives. This exploitation can take many forms – human trafficking, servitude and forced labour. Contrary to what many may believe, modern slavery is not just a developing-world problem. It is an issue largely driven and sustained by multinationals that are trying to maximize their profits to meet insatiable consumer appetites. 

Modern slavery is particularly prevalent within the clothing manufacturing and retail sectors. The Rana Plaza factory collapse devastated thousands of Bangladeshi lives back in 2013 and was a stark wake-up call for western retailers, consumers and international standardization organisations. However, since the collapse, there have been further reports of Uyghur workers forced into labour in Xinjiang concentration camps while 6,000 miles away in Leicester, workers are paid as little as £3.50 an hour, making clothes for fast-fashion brands.

The reality is that poor working practices have been allowed to exist for decades because these unethical conditions can be straightforward for an organisation to disguise.

As the media work hard to unearth brands and retailers at fault, the need for ethical sourcing has become a hot topic and an essential feature on many business agendas. However, the cost and complexities of ethical auditing can be a burden on some companies so they either don’t do it or they resort to generic factory audits that make it difficult to identify and resolve issues specific to their businesses. 

There is also the question of how far down a supply chain the auditing is conducted; if it stops at Tier 2, how would an organisation know what treatment was going on below that level? Often it’s a question of cost and complexity: managing, say, 50 vendors at Tiers 1 and 2 using email, spreadsheets and telephone calls may just about be manageable but increasing that to include another 500 Tier 3 vendors may just about break that particular system and render it unworkable.

When discussing ethical sourcing, there seem to be four categories of which retailers and brand owners fall into:

  1. Those who say they ethically source and do 
  2. Those who would like to ethically source but do not have a suitable programme
  3. Those who say they ethically source but do not
  4. Those who pay no attention to ethical sourcing at all

For all those that fall into category number 2, there is tangible hope. If a company wants to trade ethically and it has the will, culture and budget in place, then audit-management software, ClearChain is here to help. 

ClearChain logo

ClearChain allows organisations to create their audit templates and allows access to suppliers to update action plans. Because of the customising ability, it supports auditing objectives of any type: sustainability, Net Zero, packaging, training needs, health & safety and more.

ClearChain also allows you to map your entire supply chain, giving you a holistic view of your entire operation. With the benefit of the audit data that is collected, it enables you to answer the big questions facing your organisation.

To learn more about the ClearChain software and how it can help your organisation reach its ethical sourcing objectives, then please visit https://www.clearchain.app/


A Reminder That Disability is Not a Weakness

Woman in a wheelchair with walking aids, sitting in an archway in a park. Photo credit: Alex Paterson.

Write what you know”, has been uttered in encouragement ever since I started writing professionally. Ironically, the subject that I know all too well is the one which I find the most challenging to write about.  The difficulty lies within its inexpressibility and resistance to language. However, in an attempt to look forward to life after lock-down, questions about my eligibility to land an interesting job in full-time employment, under my somewhat abnormal circumstances, have become more prevalent. In light of my search for career clarity, I thought it was about time to talk with radical sincerity, about the attributes that I have learnt by overcoming adversities.  

I am one of the 28 million adults in the UK living with chronic pain – a silent epidemic during a global pandemic. Nationally recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, my chronic pain makes me a disabled job-seeker, a potential ticked box in a company’s diversity quota, and an individual who wants to work.

Realising that I had a disability was a hard pill to swallow, as I had absorbed the societal mindset that being disabled was a weakness. After all, the word “disability” carries the connotation of “inability”, whether or not such an assumption is true. Almost unconsciously, I have spent years thinking I am weak because of my health challenges. To counteract this, I struggled against the current, working hard to prove my intelligence, ambition and capability to those around me. 

I was 17 and studying for my A-Levels when I got told that I was suffering from two life-threatening conditions (Chiari malformation and Syringomyelia) that could leave me paralysed if I didn’t have surgery. I remember looking at my neurosurgeon in disbelief as he showed me an MRI of my brain – the cerebellar tonsils had herniated 11mm through my skull and into the spinal canal, which had blocked the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, causing fluid-filled cavities to flood my spinal cord. 

The operation was successful but the damage to my spinal cord was irreversible. I had developed numbness and tremors in my hands, widespread neuropathic pain, scoliosis, Hypermobility Syndrome, allodynia and nerve root damage in my rib cage, migraines and dissociative seizures. After recovering from the initial surgery, the challenge of managing the barrage of symptoms began. 

Hindbrain Hernia Decompression scar, stapled down a shaved head. Photo (and scar): Author’s own.

Armed with a gnarly post-operative scar, I went back to college and retook my exams. In the summer of 2013, I moved to Somerset, having secured a place at Bath Spa to study a BA in Creative Writing and Drama.  While studying, I heard that a close friend from home had passed away and the year that followed was my ‘rock bottom’, as I bore the brunt of the psychological effects of this newest trauma. My physical pain fought hard to compete as my mental health worsened and I ended up in a vicious cycle, which ultimately put an end to my studies. 

It was at this point when my parents reached into the detritus of my life and through words of support, they helped to recover a sliver of determination among the rubble. Their help enabled me to get a freelance job as a writer at a magazine and land a place on an NHS residential pain management course in London. 

I had started the course heavily medicated with antidepressants, opioids, NSAIDs and steroids all working hard and failing miserably at reducing my pain levels. In the space of four weeks, I left my flat in St Thomas’ Hospital, free of those painkillers and instead, equipped with a mindful approach to pain management. After what had been an intensive month of teachings from doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists and occupational therapists, I realised that it was my mindset that was holding me back from being independent and happy. 

Four years later, I hiked the West Highland Way trail in Scotland and later took a marketing job in an apparel company in Ghana. As I sat in a moment of serenity, with friends underneath the tallest waterfall in West Africa, I realised that what I had experienced wasn’t a weakness to my character, it was strength in its truest form – I had learnt how to be resilient in the face of adversity.

I am now 25 and nearing the end of what has been a difficult and far from linear recovery. I remain under the care of a local pain-management team who organise regular steroid-injections, nerve blocks, physiotherapy and mindfulness sessions to keep my body and mind as healthy and stable as they can be.  I continue to work as a freelance writer and I have an irreplaceable network of friends and family supporting me as I navigate becoming independent. 

It has become obvious to me that to survive in this world as an “able” person, you need tremendous strength and to survive as a disabled person, requires the same strengths and a lot more, including a Herculean dose of resilience. Our disabilities may make our bodies prone to weaknesses but as the insufferable saying goes, “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. 


The Kinks Were Right About Our Planet

The Kinks Apeman “Back to Back hits” Record, Credit: Lambert

Stories spiced with juicy and scabrous anecdotes are inherent to the debauched, carefree lifestyle of rock stars and I wonder if their charm would be the same otherwise. Throughout much of the 20th century, Rock ‘n’ Roll saw the rooster-haired vocalist Rod Stewart and his band The Faces, trash countless hotel rooms, Ozzy Osborne snorting ants and excited groupies embroiled in sexual acts with band members. But were they all bad boys?

Although the genre was responsible for the rise in recreational drug use, anti-social behaviour and the practice of unsafe sex, it also caused raucous but necessary drifts from societal expectations, by tackling social causes using the common, hippy themes of love and peace: During the 1950s, Rock ‘n’ Roll proved its global importance during the Civil Rights Movement by heralding the way to desegregation in America and notably, John Lennon was vocal in his anti-war sentiment, “Imagine” which has stood the test of time as an abstract evocation of peace.

One of the most influential rock bands of the era, The Kinks were no strangers to challenging issues of importance. In 1970, the band released their eighth studio album, Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, from which the featured song “Apeman” reached No. 5 on the UK singles chart. The song lays bare Ray Davies’ wishes to leave his fast-paced urbanized lifestyle because the “air pollution is fogging up my eyes”, in order to revert back to a simpler, pre-evolutionary state. He discusses his desire to escape the “over-population and inflation and starvation and the crazy politicians”. Although goofy in delivery, the hippy sentiment leaves a sting to be remembered when he sings, “I don’t want to live in this world no more, I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an Apeman”.

The hit was released during a wave of environmentalism in the United States and Great Britain, and it soon became an anthem for sustainable activism. It is fitting that in the same year, Earth Day was founded. “Apeman” is now approaching its 50th anniversary and its meaning is still incredibly relevant today; reminding the world that we need to continue acting on sustainable change, in order to have a better future.

Few things can capture a movement quite like music and for over half a century, Rock ‘n’ Roll has led a rich seam of eco-conscious artists who have brought awareness to climate change, sustainability, political and social issues. The genre has not only produced some of the greatest artists of all time, but it has proven that honest lyricism and unparalleled instrumentation is all we need to spark the sort of change that will last for generations.

All in all, The Kinks were right about our planet: the air pollution is fogging up our eyes and it’s about time we did something about it.

Lifting the weight off the Kayayei community, one straw bag at a time.

From sleeping rough, vulnerable to rape and prostitution, Teni Agana, Founder of the Loozeele Initiative, managed to change her life around and is now working hard to employ vulnerable girls in Ghana.

Teni, Agana, wearing a green and red Kente dress, standing in front of female, Ghanaian porters, using their heads to carry goods in steel bowls, to and from Makola Market in Accra. Photo Credit: Teni Agana

Could you tell me a bit about yourself – your ambition to start the company and your journey to get where you are today?

We cannot choose who we are born to or where we come from, but we have the power to dream of who we want to become.

My name is Teni Agana, a proud native of Sherigu, in the Upper East Region of Ghana. I was born to parents with no form of education. My late dad was a truck pusher and my mom worked in a local eatery, commonly known as a “chop bar”. When I turned 10 years old, my life changed. One afternoon, I found a picture of a woman smiling in a graduation gown on the floor. I realized I wanted to be like that woman. So, I held on to it as a reminder that someday I would wear a graduation gown.

After completing Junior High School, I took a gap year to raise money for my higher education and other family needs. I spent a whole year in a local market in Bantama, a suburb in the Ashanti region, working as a Kayayei.

Following my BECE results, I enrolled in Bolgatanga Girls’ Senior High School to study Business and excelled with competitive grades. I used my savings to cover all expenses in my first year and the subsequent years, I went back to Bantama to work during vacations to raise funds for my fees. 

For those who are not sure who the Kayayei are: Kayayei translates as “Women head porters”. Kaya is an occupation in Ghana that involves carrying items in the market from one place to another for a fee. Kayayei is not a crime nor is it an immoral act, but the social, economic and health issues associated with the work makes it dangerous. The Kayayei phenomenon sees increases school drop-outs and high levels of illiteracy in the North, increased unemployment in urban cities, pressure on social amenities in the south and an increase in social ills such as robbery, prostitution, rape, teenage pregnancy.

My journey of becoming an Ashesi graduate has not been an easy one. To raise money, I would carry peoples’ items all day and make a total of about 15 cedis (£2.10) a day. As the sun set, we would have to think about where we could sleep for the night. To avoid being sacked by shop owners if we camped outside their shops, we often slept in the open, using our basins as pillows and to avoid being raped at night, we’d tie our feet together. Sometimes, we’d take turns to sleep and one of us would keep watch to prevent us from being attacked.

Regardless of the ever-so-present dangers, I still had the burning desire to wear my graduation gown. My mother has always supported me and together we worked hard to raise the money needed so I could go to university. It was a week before we were due to travel back to the North of Ghana, when my mum was knocked down by a car.

With my mum in the hospital, I had to use the money both of us had worked hard to raise, to pay for the hospital bills. Handing over our money was the most difficult moment of my life as I knew that we were back to square one.

I was on my way to buy my mum food when I came across a woman who was crying out that her child needed blood urgently. No one had the blood type required and the hospital blood bank had run dry. I offered to help and luckily, my blood type was a match. The girl’s mum later thanked me for my generosity and after we exchanged stories, she recommended CAMFED – an NGO dedicated to empowering females through education. 

My mum later recovered and with the help of the organisation, I applied to universities in Ghana and was offered a place at Ashesi University in Accra, to study Business Administration, with the help of a four-year MasterCard scholarship. Being a student was a dream come true – a new environment to explore with new people. However, it was not easy at all. I was always lagging during coding classes because I had never used a computer before but with the help of friends and lecturers, I persevered and my grades soon improved. Throughout university, I knew that I wasn’t only buying myself freedom; but I was supporting my family too.

Exactly a year ago, my dream of wearing a gown came true and I did not only graduate; I graduated with the presidential award under my belt.

Teni Agana,’s official graduation photo,. She is wearing a black graduation hat, cape and red patterned Kente cloth as a scarf accessory. Photo credit: Teni Agana

After graduating, I started an initiative to help girls like myself have a better future and to stay in education. I train and support young girls from the North of Ghana and those who are working as a Kayayei, with entrepreneurship skills to enable them to create a source of income for themselves. I vividly remember how we used to sleep on the streets of Ghana with our legs tied together to protect ourselves. Some of my friends were raped and some disappeared.

I want to make a difference because of the above problem. My team is committed to helping vulnerable girls to become the great women they dream to be. At Loozeele Initiative, we are following our dream to contribute to the sustainable development of Northern Ghana, promoting education and reducing poverty. Our products range from traditional smocks to bags and purses, that have been handmade by our girls.

Instead of sacrificing education to transport heavy items, sleeping on dusty side roads and being raped at night, at Loozeele Initiative, we encourage our girls to go to school and work after their education has finished for the day. We sell their products and 5% of the revenue is contributed towards our annual educational program, while 20% of profit is saved for their school needs.

What do you want to have achieved in ten years time?

In the next 10 years, I hope that we manage to support more girls and we are in a better financial situation to diversify and create different products, from agricultural to lifestyle products. Instead of dreaming about a university graduation gown, I now dream that I will be able to continue to help this cause.

You have made an impressive life for yourself despite challenging circumstances. How important is it to you that Ghanaian women are protected and given the same opportunities to succeed as men?

I’ve always found the idea of leadership paradoxical and gendered. Men sit under huge trees to make decisions concerning the society without the involvement of women. The otherwise rich culture emphasizes patriarchal leadership and sidelines the matriarch power, which cherishes the contributions of men more than that of women. Although women contribute as much time and effort to society, they are not given as much credence and opportunities. To be, at least, considered at the decision-making table as a woman, requires working twice as hard in all spheres while battling with the cultural barriers that stall progress. We are all unique and different, no one on this planet can ever be like us, so we should all be given equal opportunities, regardless of gender.

And lastly, do you have any advice for young women wanting to make a tangible difference in the world?

I would advise them to take a bold step and start it. It often won’t be an easy journey, but the difference you will make in life will be worth it.

The Coronavirus Epidemic and the Refugee Crisis Have More In Common Than You Think

To those who have 40 packets of pasta in their cupboards, to those who are stockpiling toilet roll, to those who are stealing hand sanitizer from hospitals, to those who are brawling in supermarkets over food and to those who are planning to flee from their homes to get to a safe, Covid-19-free zone: never look down upon those who are fleeing from conflict or persecution.

According to Pharmaceutical Technology, the total number of Covid-19 cases has increased to more than 110,000 in 108 countries worldwide, while recoveries currently stand at a 61,000. This invisible and serious threat has caused a climbing death toll of 3,800. As is the nature of an epidemic, these figures will likely increase until vaccinations are developed. It has been an untameable challenge for many who are trying to find their bearings amidst the chaos effectuated by national lock-downs, scare-mongering and widespread panic. Because the virus isn’t discriminatory, globalized terror is rife and tensions are rising as our collective freedom has been falsified by an epidemic that shows no signs of slowing down.

As cordons sanitaires are tightening in affected countries, those stuck in quarantine are being confronted with hard decisions about jobs, schooling and travelling. Several Hong Kong residents have chosen to flee their homes to safer areas, leaving family displaced. This exodus is what those fleeing from Syria, Libya, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Afghanistan have to face every day.

Help Refugees reported that a staggering 70.8 million individuals have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. This record is on parity to the entire population of the UK being forced to flee their homes.

It is difficult to fathom what it must be like to be a displaced individual in a foreign country, separated from friends and family, sailing across oceans in cramped coffins, unprotected from injury and death. Battling every day to stay alive, these poor people have limited to no access to clean water, health facilities, sanitation and protection. Merely existing in uncharted and overcrowded spaces, it is a materialization of an ongoing state of emergency.

In Greece, camps are bursting at the seams. “Hunting parties” are being set up on Facebook by Greek locals, using deplorable acts of violence to wipe out those trying to seek respite on the shores of Evros. Journalists, doctors and NGO workers are among those being attacked by civilians, who are opposing aid given to the refugees. Thankfully for some of the victims of this dystopian horror, pictures shared through social media has put public and political pressure on EU governments to show their humanitarian sides. Germany, alongside Portugal, France, Luxembourg and Finland have pledged to help the Greek government mediate the distribution of refugees and migrant children with a coalition of volunteers.

Unlike immigration laws, attitudes towards refugees are not bound by any parameters. It is a tangible possibility that any one of us could be forced into a similar situation – to flee our homes and to seek safety somewhere else. When we discuss “refugees” or “asylum seakers” we speak as though they are entirely foreign concepts. There is an intercultural failure when understanding that these “refugees” are just people desperately escaping life-threatening circumstances in the hope for a safer life.

When you look at the Covid-19 crisis and the on-going refugee crisis, there are indisputable similarities between them. The most important is the need for protection. The only difference is the type of threat that they are fleeing from. If we wade through the noise, there is a transformative chance for us to empathize through this shared human experience and connect with those in need.

With this in mind, can we learn from the horrors of the Covid-19 outbreak, in order to commit to global acts of sympathy towards other displaced people, instead of evading this responsibility?

An Asian women holding up a rainbow coloured flag saying, “Refugees Welcome”. Photo Credit: Ra Dragon

The Ken Doll of Gardening

For many, the pub is a home away from home, a building that is also kind of a friend: someone warm and sociable, someone to confide in, someone to hold your hair back, someone with a charming but dodgy sense of style. With an assemblage of mismatched art hangings, antlers and in my case; coy photos of the ‘Ken doll of gardening’ himself: Alan Titchmarsh. It’s difficult not to be enticed by Alan’s enveloping charm as you see him posing in a tree.

Alan Titchmarsh started his gardening career at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, before transitioning into journalism and since, has made domestic gardening accessible and approachable for all.

Gardening is not a preserve of anyone. Lords, dukes and duchesses can talk about it on a level playing field with ordinary folk.” 

– Alan Titchmarsh

Estimated by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and research compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, conclude that a staggering one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted, with 4.1 million tonnes of food waste sent to landfill. While local authorities do collect household food and garden waste for large-scale composting operations, home composting is a hotter commodity, reducing civic costs for waste collection, decreasing transportation impacts and saving tasty amounts of money for those green fingered, guardians of the grub.

Despite the great “green” push that’s swept through gardening, mountains of garden rubbish are still ending up in landfill sites.

The silly thing is, the same people who take car-loads of garden waste to the tip or pay the council to collect them from their garden gate, are then buying bags of compost for the garden.

– Alan Titchmarsh

Composting is a natural process that decomposes food and garden waste into a rich fertiliser and soil conditioner, improving the structure of the soil and enriching the earth with diverse nutrients and microorganisms that will improve plant growth. Chemical fertilisers on the other hand can be pricey, they are non-renewable and long-term use acidifies the pH of the soil, causing detriment to the ecosystem.

Scoring the perfect carbon : nitrogen ratio is the secret to a thriving, hygienic compost – or so the experts at the local gardening society say. A healthy compost should have a higher amount of carbon to nitrogen, using one-third green and two-thirds brown materials. Carbon-rich matter (the brown stuff) like: branches, dried leaves, peels, wood, sawdust, vacuum dust, corks, shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters and grounds, egg shells and straw gives the compost its light and fluffy body. To balance the ratio out, Nitrogen or protein-rich matter (the green stuff) like: manure, food scraps, pet hair, lawn clippings and green leaves, provides the raw materials used to make enzymes. protein-rich matter (manures, food scraps, green lawn clippings, kitchen waste, and green leaves) provides raw materials for producing enzymes. By investing in a robust bin and getting to grips with what you can and can’t compost, you will be well on your way to recycling your own organic waste.

In the age of uneconomical food production, consumption and waste management, composting offers an accessible solution for recouping benefit from this wasteful culture. Anyone can compost and it requires minimal effort once you’re in the know.

Next time I visit the ladies room in my local pub, I will look deeply into Alan’s eyes as I wash my hands, knowing that instead of throwing away my food waste, I composted it.

Patagonia’s Commitment to Challenging the Confines of Traditional Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility is fast becoming a staple in business transparency efforts and many organisations are devising and executing multifaceted CSR strategies, that run the spectrum from philanthropy to environmental sustainability to the pursuit of shared value. For many companies, this broad approach to CSR strategies is often hampered by a lack of coordination and logic when connecting the various programs. To maximize their positive impact on the social and environmental systems in which they operate, companies must develop coherent CSR strategies that all employees can both engage with and take responsibility of.

American born alpine and outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, takes a wildly innovative approach to challenging and venturing beyond the confines of traditional CSR; by the discouragement of compulsive consumerism, encouragement of conscious consumerism, call to actions and giving grants to green individuals and organizations: Patagonia. The clothing company started in the midst of the climate crisis with the mission to “use the resources we have – our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations – to do something about it”. The company donates their time, services and at least 1% of sales to support grassroots organisations all over the world so they can remain vigilant and protect our irreplaceable Planet Earth.

In addition to financially supporting environmental campaigns, Patagonia’s corporate response to climate change dared to go one step further into beyond compliant territory, when they launched a digital platform called Patagonia Action Works, that connects its community to environmental action groups happening locally to them. The launch follows the huge success of the platform in North America, after it saw half a million people take action to support environmental issues of urgency and enabled users to volunteer time and skills, join events, sign petitions and donate to local and global conservation causes. This accessible platform not only unlocks the potential to support purpose-driven organisations, it mobilizes collective action.

In 2011, Patagonia shocked competitors and consumers alike when their Black Friday advertisement was released in The Times newspaper.

It was this radical advert that introduced Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative – a zero waste culture that encourages consumers to buy less and wear more. “Recycling is what we do when we’re out of options to avoid, repair, or reuse the product first. That’s why I am so impressed with Patagonia for starting its Common Threads Initiative with the real solution: Reduce. Don’t buy what we don’t need. Repair: Fix stuff that still has life in it. Reuse: Share. Then, only when you’ve exhausted those options, recycle.” –Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff.

Off the back of the Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia has recently launched an extension and their own online thrift store, Worn Wear. The Worn Wear mission is similar, reminding people that garments have a much longer lifespan than we think.

“Worn Wear is a set of tools to help our customers partner with Patagonia to take mutual responsibility to extend the life of the products Patagonia makes and customers purchase. The program provides significant resources for responsible care, repair, reuse and resale, and recycling at the end of a garment’s life.”

Patagonia’s Worn Wear website

Not only can a customer purchase pre-loved gear and clothing, they can trade in old Patagonia clothing in exchange for credit to use in their retail stores or online, to keep the garments as far away from landfills as possible.

As we get well into 2020, Patagonia is reforming the “make do and mend” culture, investing in sustainable programs and building a community of like-minded people, through access to education across a multitude of platforms – proving that a beyond compliant CSR strategy is commercially viable, attainable and endlessly rewarding.

2020: The Year of the Hand Sanitizer

In a recent guided meditation named “The Virus”, artists from Dear Climate explored the anthropomorphic characteristics of a virus, (“visible to you in your imagination as a green haze, shifting shapes like fog on a mountain top”), its goals and means to reach them. In a chilling whisper, “do not fear The Virus. Look at it, see it and use your human reason to acknowledge how smart The Virus is. The Virus has only one aim: to replicate, to multiply. To accomplish this, it needs hosts, foreign organisms prone to infection, willing collaborators in a biological exchange. Remember The Virus does not want to kill you; you are its hosts; it needs you alive to live.” This meditation spread fear through my body, quicker than any disease could multiply, as the knowledge that cases of the Wuhan Corona-virus (COVID-19) are now present in my hometown, as the death toll increases.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), climate change, infectious diseases and pandemic threats are some of the urgent challenges that will imperil global health – but addressing them is “within reach” if action is taken now. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights many issues that need addressing; first and foremost, we need to find a cure. Secondly, we need to learn our lesson.

The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) Corona-virus outbreak in 2002-2003 was the first global pandemic of the 21st century. There were 8,422 reported cases and 11% of those infected died. The cases were linked back to wildlife markets (also known as wet markets) and restaurants in Guangdong, China and as a result, authorities responded by imposing a temporary ban on the hunting, sale, transportation and export of all wild animals in southern China.

While China is being merited for its improved transparency about the current outbreak – in comparison to the communicative disaster during the SARS outbreak; it is sad to think that it has taken hundreds more deaths worldwide for the Chinese government to make the wildlife market ban permanent.

The Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which has been identified as the source of the infection, had a wild animal section, where live and slaughtered animals were on sale. The inventory included live wolf pups, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, hedgehogs, snakes, turtles and crocodiles. It also offered an array of animal parts, such as tails, bellies, tongues and intestines. With a mixture of urine, feces and other bodily fluids from the wild species mixed with blood from butchered animals, it is unsurprising that wet markets are the ideal breeding ground for viruses and bacteria to thrive.

Man cuts up fish at wet market in Wuhan city. Photo: Simon Song

The demand for wild meat has become a widespread issue and as a result, tropical forests are seeing devastating losses in their endemic wildlife populations, including many endangered species. Wild animal markets are not only exploitative and unethical, they threaten the security of biodiversity and wildlife to the brink of extinction. This illegal and unregulated trade is valuable to the Chinese economy, with animals being sold at high prices for human consumption and to the country’s medical industry.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is growing rapidly and has become a globally recognized treatment pathway among other pharmaceutical-based solutions – acupuncture and Tai Chi, being the most popular treatments, have not only been accepted but they are practiced globally in hospitals, GP surgeries and clinics.

Although many traditional Chinese medicinal bodies have eliminated the use of wild animal parts, tigers, pangolins, bears, rhinos and other species are still being poached to be used in archaic treatments for ailments such as erectile dysfunction, rheumatism, headaches and common colds. Wild animal usage in TCM is booming and the remedies purchased from parts such as rhino horns have become a status symbol among the rich. I guess grinding down your own fingernails to produce Keratin, the active ingredient in Rhino horns, doesn’t exude the same luxury of purchasing an endangered species to cure your hangover.

To conclude, one of the key concepts of health preservation in Chinese medicine is to “prevent disease before its occurrence”, which is steeped in unfortunate irony as the wild-animal-borne virus continues to wreak havoc and devastate globally without a cure. We have to hope that the Wuhan outbreak is a wake-up call for the Asian wildlife trade, animal and human welfare and the unacceptable use of wild-animal medicine.

But for now, I’m off to wash my hands.