A year that changed my life - Oxfam’s Ian Bray on 1975.

In the first of a series of features on a year that changed my life, Oxfam’s Ian Bray looks back to 1975 and a trip which opened his eyes to global poverty. Sheena Hastings reports.

Oxfam aidworker from Yorkshire in South Sudan Ian Bray speaking to young children about football and what they were doing at school in the UN camp in Juba, the capital of South Sudan; the camp was set up for people who have fled violence in December last year. Some 18,000 people are living together in this camp with temperatures into the high 30s and frequent downpours of rain.

HE was 21 and had only ever been out of the country once, on a boozy lads’ holiday to Benidorm. Leafing through newspapers at his parents’ home in Armthorpe, near Doncaster, he was struck by a series of articles describing an overland trip to Australia.

Ian Bray had done an apprenticeship in toolmaking like his father before him. He liked the camaraderie of the tool shop, and he loved playing rugby league followed by a few pints. But part of him always wondered what else was out there…

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“A few of the lads said they’d take time off and travel with me to Australia,” says Ian, who’s now 61. “But in the following few months, while I was getting more determined and excited and saving money, one by one they dropped out. So, in September 1975, I started hitchhiking to Oz alone.”

Ian’s route took him from Europe across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. After reaching Australia he worked as a fitter in an iron ore mine, saved and went on to travel through South America.

He had many adventures - some of them hair-raising - and returned to Yorkshire a changed man. “We were not a well-off family and lived in a council house, but everyone round about was like us.

“But, starting in Eastern Europe, the poverty just got worse and worse. In Turkey I saw the first beggars I’d ever seen in the street, and in other places I saw lepers and barefoot children everywhere. And yet I experienced so much kindness.

“For instance, one day I got on a train for a one and a half day journey through India, and it was jam-packed. I must have looked so exhausted that a little man got up and insisted I took his seat. When I came home I felt I had a duty to repay such gestures.” The year 1975 changed everything for Ian, and as soon as he got back he applied to work with the aid charity VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), offering his toolmaking skills.

He was posted to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and got off to a slow start after coming down with dengue fever. It was a time of great turbulence, with many Malays running amok in anti-Chinese rioting.

With some electricity and no running water in his poor neighbourhood, but “…the kindest, gentlest people, who adopted me immediately”, Ian was embarking on a series of volunteering placements that would, over many years take him from South East Asia to Africa.

He worked with other organisations including International Voluntary Service, installing technical equipment in schools in Mozambique in the chaotic, war-torn years just after it became independent from Portugal.

Few Mozambicans were educated, the shops had little food on their shelves and the country was in a state of conflict sponsored by neighbouring apartheid South Africa. Nevertheless Ian signed up again, for a project fixing broken down water pumps across a rural area in the south.

Ensuring an efficient supply of clean water is something we take for granted, but systems in such places often failed , increasing the risk of death from dehydration and disease.

Despite the war, non-government organisations (NGOs) like IVS and VSO was allowed to continue, but life could be difficult. “On more than one occasion I was fixing a pump and bullets whizzed past my head. We had to wear bullet-proof vests.“

Despite the problems Ian signed up again to work in Mozambique, this time with Oxfam, and in an area cut off from the rest of the country by the war. His adventures there, as the only car owner, included a knock in the night to ask if he would drive to a maternity unit four hours away in Zimbabwe with a woman who was having extreme difficulty in giving birth.

“I insisted that a nurse came with us,” says Ian. “We’d bumping along for quite a long time when the nurse asked me to stop. The baby had arrived and we turned back, with mother and baby fine.”

Along the way he learned new languages, made many friends within communities and came to understand a lot about himself. But still Ian says nothing was as life-changing as that first foray across the world from Doncaster.

“Volunteering cemented for me a better understanding of the world and I enjoyed it immensely - despite some sticky moments - but those first travels were the big eye-opener to poverty and other kinds of inequality.”

Ian’s life has included other Damascene moments, and his later decision to leave volunteering in the field to focus instead on communication the message about such work to the world was influenced by some of the news coverage of the Miners’ Strike back in the early 1980s.

“I’d never forgotten watching TV coverage of the strike while I was home on leave, and the reporting of it showed the miners as ranting animals while the police were civilised defenders of order. This greatly influenced the public’s attitude to the strike.

“At that point I realised the power of the media and decided that was where my career should be. If you want to change things you should be in communications.”

Ian did a degree in photography, film and and television, then postgraduate studies in international journalism before returning to work for Oxfam as a press office. He is now the charity’s senior humanitarian press officer, based in Oxford.

“I hoped I would be able to contribute more to people who were vulnerable and can and should offer them. We all share the same planet and it has great riches that should be fairly shared out.”

Being a press officer means sometimes travelling to the centre of a humanitarian crisis and gathering first-hand information about how people there are being affected. He went to Rwanda in the midst of the genocides there, also witnessing the roads lined with bodies of people who died from cholera.

He has also reported back on Kosovo’s civil war, floods in India, the aftermath of Sumatra’s earthquake, and more recently Ian has visited South Sudan and then Liberia, where almost half of the cases of Ebola in the West African epidemic have been contracted.

“This last year seems to have been a particularly bad one, with the crises in Syria, South Sudan and now the Ebola,” he says. “There has been greater pressure than ever on the international community to help.

“Even though Oxfam raises £300m a year (there was a dip in 2013, but donations were up again this year), money is tight and that means cuts within the organisation. But at the same time the world is changing, and ways of working have shifted away from sending our people in to work in these countries.

“Instead we now work with local leaders and community organisations. For instance, in Liberia we are paying $80 a month each to community health volunteers to spread information on avoidance of infection, including hand washing, and also what to do if someone you know does get the virus.

“They made organs posters and radio programmes and give face-to-face advice, and it seems to be working. We’re moving towards helping communities to find their own solutions.”

Listening to stories told by families affected by Ebola can be harrowing, but their bravery in sharing their loss helps Oxfam to get a true picture of what’s really happening on the ground, as well as gauging attitudes and feelings about the kind of help that’s being given, says Ian.

“I met one woman in Liberia who had been living in a house where there were 28 of the family together. She herself had contracted Ebola but she survived; however both her parents, two sisters and a brother died. It was not surprising that she was numb and withdrawn.

“We can’t forget that behind all the terrible statistics are individual family stories full of trauma, people suffering real psychological battering. Ebola will end at some point - but for that family it will never end.”

For information about Oxfam’s work including the Ebola Crisis Appeal and South Sudan Crisis Appeal as well as details of how to get involved in the organisation go to http: www.oxfam.org.uk