INTERVIEW | Anne Lim
21 March 2016
A programme to relieve life-threatening childhood malnutrition in Timor Leste is becoming an “amazing mustard seed” phenomenon, says British Life Peer Baroness Caroline Cox.
Speaking to Eternity after visiting the capital Dili last week, the Christian humanitarian said the programme was bringing about “phenomenal transformational change” in areas where malnutrition is growing because of ignorance and cultural superstitions about foods.
Working with local partners, the programme began with a residential centre built on land purchased by her London-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), building up children with severe malnutrition.
“They would come there with a relative, and the child would get lovely nourishment and be a robust, happy little kid and the family member would learn how to grow and appreciate nutritious foods, organic fertilisers, organic pesticides and how to prepare, enjoy and eat them,” said the quick-talking baroness.
“Then the family member and healthy child would go back to the village and teach the local people themselves and they would demonstrate in their own family garden and that was a good way of using local people to teach local people.”
Now HART’s local partner, HIAM Health, is expanding the programme significantly by training agricultural extension workers who are employed by the government to take scientific nutritional approaches to their communities, with ongoing monitoring and advice to ensure the programme is sustainable.
“So it’s a wonderful amplification because there are people working in the communities being supported by the government, but HIAM health is working in the much, much-needed nutrition role.”
“It does get to the roots of the problem of malnutrition and producing healthy kids.”
At 78, the dynamic baroness shows no signs of slowing down in her work for and with persecuted and forgotten people in hidden corners of the world. A nurse and social scientist by training and a “baroness by astonishment”, she was appointed to the House of Lords for her work in education in 1982 by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. After serving as Deputy Speaker from 1985 to 2005, she now sits in the Lords as a crossbencher, where she regularly raises her voice on behalf of people in countries such as Sudan, India, Nigeria, Uganda, and Burma.
Since setting up HART in 2003 to provide aid and advocacy for people suffering persecution and oppression, she has obtained first-hand evidence of horrific human rights violations and desperate humanitarian needs in many conflict zones, including the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Chin peoples in the jungles of Burma (Myanmar), and communities suffering from conflict in Indonesia.
“We cross borders illegally and shamelessly in keeping with the biblical mandate to heal the sick, feed the hungry and speak for the oppressed,” she said.
“And it’s a privilege to be able to do that for people who are not being served by major organisations or the media, to be their voice. We’re tiny. There’s only 4½ of us in HART UK and we work in several countries but we have a motto. ‘I cannot do everything but I must not do nothing.’ So if we do something together we can have the privilege of making at least a little bit of difference and giving hope and let them know they’re not forgotten.”
On the home front, her private member’s bill aiming to prevent discrimination against Muslim women in Islamic tribunals has passed the House of Commons unamended.
“HART’s principle is we work for victims of oppression and persecution who are largely off the radar screen of major aid organisations and of the media. We work with and for local people; there’s no middle person,” she said.
“And it’s very important to go out in person and to meet the local people, first of all to find leaders who are respected by the community … and then to give them the dignity of choice, to ask them what are your priorities for what you see as the greatest needs for the community.”
In the past year, Baroness Cox has visited projects in Burma, Uganda and South Sudan, where HART UK is working with partners in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.
In Burma, she travelled for four days from Rangoon, with the last 20 hours through jungle, to visit a project on the India/Burma border that is training the first healthcare workers for their communities.
“They cleared the jungle, they built the centre and over 500 students came from 317 villages; they had to have textbooks carried through the jungles, over the mountains, across the rivers,” she said.
“We went out there to celebrate the opening of the centre and then a year later as the students completed their training, we went to celebrate their qualifications.
“They’ve now trained over 800 community health workers and are saving eight out of 10 people who would otherwise have died in over 400 villages. And the students are now coming from beyond Chin state, from Rackham state, and they include Buddhists and Muslims as well as Christians.
“I spoke to some of these from other faiths and said ‘What do you feel like being here? And they said ‘We just love it, there’s so much love here.’
“So that’s a mustard seed phenomenon.”
Having grown up in a Christian home, Baroness Cox has had a deep faith in the Lord Jesus since her confirmation at age 11. But she admits her faith has been challenged many times by the suffering she has witnessed.
It was in Sudan while walking through a field of corpses that she had a helpful insight.
“We forget that not so long after Mary gave birth to Jesus a lot of other mothers were weeping because Herod had killed their kids. And if you don’t put that factor into the equation of Christmas, then perhaps it’s not surprising we don’t have a theology that can deal with the modern-day Herods,” she says.
“Then my thought went to the end of Jesus’ life when Mary, his mother, all she could do was stand at the foot of the cross and that sword pierced her own heart as she saw her son dying in anguish and agony.
And I thought, ‘Well, maybe somewhere or other the answer to this suffering is here in the cross and maybe every Christian’s calling ought to be to attend whatever Calvaries our Lord may call us to attend.”
She says the pain she has witnessed in the world is what gives her the passion and energy to continue as she approaches her 79th birthday in July.
While she is often afraid and often dismayed, she remembers her confirmation text from Joshua 1:9: “I have commanded you be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou discouraged for I the Lord will be with you wherever you go.”
“I tend to pray desperately hard in these kind of situations. I just say Lord over to you; help me to be obedient to your guidance, grace and calling.
“There’s a cliché that is quite profound that God doesn’t need our ability; he wants our availability.
“If we make ourselves available to God then he’ll give us the ability to do what he wants us to be available for.
“I’m blessed with ten grandchildren and I don’t want them to have to fight the battles I lacked the courage to fight.”