Colorado artist and resident Bill Rohs is many things: Humanitarian Aid Practitioner, Operations and Logistics Specialist, Co-Founder of the international non-profit organization emBOLDen Alliances. But Bill has another side, one that taps into his years of experience in these roles and yet diverges dramatically from them.
Bill has an incredible ability to highlight the importance of listening through art. His portraits beautifully capture people living in tough circumstances around the globe – from Pakistan to Haiti to Nigeria and beyond – who have inspired him throughout his career in international development and humanitarian crises. In trying to unwind at the end of each long day, Bill started to draw a portrait of an individual who had taught him something that day. Dozens and dozens of portraits and sketchbooks later, he has created an incredible homage to these mentors from his life—a mother who lost 5 pregnancies and then suffered from obstetric fistula during her 8th pregnancy, a man working as a driver who lost 3 generations of family members in the Southeast Asian Tsunami, or a college student trying to learn more and do more for his own community.
Each portrait Bill completes tells a full story – of dignity, bravery, leadership, pride, of people with amazing talent, skill, and perspective. Each serves as an important reminder that these individuals – often obscured by the label of “the people living in poverty around the globe”– are uniquely individual, have an important voice that needs to be heard, have much to say, and have much to contribute to their own families, their neighbors, and to the greater global community. These individual voices shed invaluable light on the very problems that we all would like to help to solve. But, we must stop, pause to take in each person’s story and individuality—in short, we must first, last, and always, listen. Artists such as Bill often say that each line on a person’s face tells a story, and so, that story must be seen, heard, and recognized. For each of these individuals represent each of us, a truly shared humanity.
Here we share just one example of Bill’s work and the story of the incredible woman who inspired it.
A young girl living on the edge of the Sahara Desert lives in a land that rarely sees rainfall and where temperatures can range from 86°F to 122°F regularly. Her family lives off what little land they own and has to survive on less than $2 per day. Should her family be able to send and support her, the girl may be able to attend school intermittently for a few years. Here, the legal age of marriage is 15 years old, and if she does not attend primary school, the chances of her being married before she is 18 years of age are close to 70%.
She marries at this young age, before the growth of her bones and her nutrition are able to sufficiently and safely carry a child. Yet she becomes pregnant. Living far from a health facility and unable to access health care quickly enough or to afford appropriate care, she can lose 1, 2, 3, or more of her pregnancies. During one of her pregnancies, the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and is unable to be born. She cannot access help in time and is left with a dying fetus as well as pressure from that fetus resting on her vagina, bladder, and rectum. This sustained pressure can cause destruction of the tissues and create an abnormal passage, or an obstetric fistula between these organs, causing her to leak urine or feces continuously.
Smelling of urine that is constantly leaking onto her clothes and the ground around her, the girl is left outside her home to live with the animals. At times, the destruction of her tissues leaves her with nerve damage to her lower limbs. Being left immobile and afraid to go out, her limbs can contract and atrophy. She feels alone and isolated, scared for herself and her surviving children.
emBOLDen Alliances had the fortune to meet one such girl – Halimatou. Halimatou had had eight pregnancies, of which she had lost four. During her ninth pregnancy, the baby was stuck in the birth canal. This baby also died, and she developed a severe fistula causing her to continually leak urine. Halimatou had sought help at local health facilities where they were unable to repair her condition surgically. She had come to this new fistula center in search of hope – one last attempt to regain a “normal” life.
What she found was a comprehensive fistula center run entirely by West African staff, where women just like her were able to gather together, share their stories, and find a home amongst each other. They cared for each other’s children when a mother went in for surgery. The older women, like Halimatou, comforted the younger women, and the younger women, in turn, helped the older. While at the center, they were taught how to read and write; some learned how to knit and sew. Most of all, they could envision a better life and learned to dream again.
On examination, Halimatou’s damage was unfortunately beyond repair, yet the Hospital Director immediately saw how helpful and kind she was to the other patients. Finding herself in a new role as a staff member, she was welcomed and treated with respect. With pride, she worked tirelessly to help others. This woman, who was considered “incurable” after 7 surgeries and who would leak urine for all her days to come, found her new home and regained her dignity. Halimatou had found her hope, and was helping those around her find it too.
Niger has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world and women often lack access to timely and adequate maternal care. The low education completion rates for girls, high rates of child pregnancy and lack of access to health care equate to high rates of obstetric fistula, a preventable condition.
The West African staff of this obstetric fistula care facility was doing a terrific job with their clinical and basic literacy programs, but saw the need to improve their hospital operations, logistics, programming, and inventory. They wanted to do more with their resources, be sustainable in order to help others, and scale up their work to increase their reach and impact.
emBOLDen Alliances partnered with the staff on their administrative needs, such as human resources, tracking of expenses, and a three-year budget to match a programmatic scale-up. We worked with them to inventory all medical supplies and put into place a system – customized to their needs and facility – to track supplies across all areas of the center and therefore avoid stock-outs. Together, we analyzed and integrated data and reporting from all programs, starting with clinical and basic literacy, and included outreach, prevention, and social reintegration/livelihoods.
In short, our partnership helped this West African Team do what they were already doing better and in a way that fostered sustainability, so they could reach more women like Halimatou. They could now also measure and demonstrate that their programs were impacting knowledge and awareness among communities, helping to convince village elders to keep girls in school, and promoting job possibilities for the patients to support themselves and their families. The patients at the fistula center then had a better chance to keep their own girls in school and break the cycles of poverty, lack of education, early marriage, and obstetric fistula.
Halimatou’s strength in the face of these injustices is a humbling lesson. The power of individuals and local communities to change their own lives can be limitless. Labels of “shunned” or “pariah” can be changed to “contributor,” “role model,” or “leader.”
The work with this fistula center serves as one profound example of why, as a global nonprofit organization, emBOLDen Alliances works with communities most in need of assistance. Rather than arriving with pre-formed strategies created in a distant land, we arrive prepared with questions, listening, and experience, and plans to partner, create tailored tools together, and then step back.
This is why Bill co-founded emBOLDen Alliances, a global nonprofit organization that works with communities most in need of assistance. Rather than arriving with pre-formed strategies created in a distant land, emBOLDen Alliances arrives prepared with questions, listening, experience, and plans to partner, create tailored tools together, and then step back.
More of Bill’s work can be found at www.artbillrohs.com. Proceeds from the sale of Bill’s emBOLDen Alliances portfolio support critical health and humanitarian work around the world (www.emboldenalliances.org).
Freelance Non-Profit Grant & Communications Consultant, International Development