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A life forged in Africa

Anne O'Mahony, Concern's regional director, leads Caitríona Mc Bride through a career that spanned continents. This article was featured in an Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

Anne O'Mahony, Concern's regional director, leads Caitríona Mc Bride through a career that spanned continents. This article was featured in an Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

When Anne O’Mahony speaks about Africa, it sounds like her second home. Arriving in Ethiopia after a year on the Thai-Cambodian border with Concern, she quickly realised it was where she belonged.

“I had enjoyed Thailand and my work there but I remember the teeming metropolis of Bangkok where they had a better road system than Ireland. In 1983 I was transferred to Ethiopia by Concern and I remember arriving there and immediately sensing that it was where I should be.”

O’Mahony’s first memory of wanting to “help people in poverty” was when missionaries came to her school when she was a young girl. That ambition stayed with her growing up in Bandon, Co Cork, and was the reason she chose to study and qualify as a nurse. After working in hospitals in Ireland and America she got her first position with Concern in 1982.

But it was the following year in Ethiopia that Africa became central to her life. She worked with people that were displaced by the famine there, setting up feeding centres to help tackle malnutrition. She remained in Ethiopia until 1987 when she went to Somalia. At the time Somalia was not in crisis and she worked on a programme with the Somali ministry of health to try and increase the uptake of the six childhood illness vaccines.

In 1989 she took up her first position as country director in a move which brought her to Sudan. “I was hugely nervous and my arrival was delayed because of a coup. Ten days after my arrival both assistant country directors were expelled from the country for arbitrary reasons and I was left with this huge programme. It was a very sharp learning curve. I learned more in those first few weeks than I ever had in my life.” Sudan was one of only six countries in the world to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and was blacklisted by the international community. Most NGOs left Sudan but O’Mahony felt that if all their people evacuated there would be nobody to deal with the looming famine. She evacuated most of the team apart from herself and two others.

“We were also the first agency to start bringing people back. If all of us had evacuated the decision to come back would have taken much longer. After Sudan I felt I needed a relevant qualification under my belt so I went to Swansea to study a masters in development economics and planning.”

It was during her summer holidays in 1992 that O’Mahony returned to Somalia, and this time it was a country in crisis.

“It was absolute horror seeing the walking dead around you. We were working in Mogadishu and it was a time of great insecurity with only 10 organisations working there. People were getting shot every day.” The Concern team moved out of Mogadishu to try and help those who couldn’t get to them and eventually they got to Baidoa.

O’Mahony says colleagues told them they were “mad” and she becomes visibly upset when she speaks about a vivid memory from her time there.

“It was the horror of horrors. I remember at about 5.30am one night it started to rain and I looked outside the window. People who had nothing were starving and sleeping along the streets. After it rained those who were able-bodied got up and left the dead lying there hoping somebody else would take the bodies. I will never forget it.”

Her team set up a feeding centre and got RTÉ to come out and soon agencies streamed in. O’Mahony went back to finish her studies and in 1993 went to Cambodia as country director. She calls it an “enriching” experience but in her heart she missed Africa and in 1996 she went directly to Sierra Leone and then onto Rwanda the following year.

“I had seen the reports of the genocide on TV and was expecting a country in turmoil, but when I arrived in Kigali everything was so normal, there was traffic on the roads, children in school and I found it very strange.”

After Rwanda she went on to Kenya in 1999 where she was also responsible for South Sudan and Somalia. She came back to Dublin in 2002 as Concern Worldwide’s regional director, but also to reconnect with Ireland. “I felt like I had been wanderingfor 20 years so it was time to come home and build a network of friends. Now I’ve done that I’m looking forward to going back out into the field.

“I really see more optimism than pessimism in trying to end poverty. The strength to survive is so strong in human nature and I have seen it in people who have been in the darkest of places.”