Reflections is a new Bittersweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of Bittersweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode Two: Writer Jessica Mancari discusses her story “Lacing the Toughest Terrain with Life Saving”
In this second episode of Reflections, host Robert Winship speaks with Jessica Mancari, a speech writer and journalist from the Washington, DC area, who looks back on her story about One Heart Worldwide in Nepal. Jessica shares her thoughts and experiences from the trip, reflecting on the profound sense of connectedness that happens when we share moments with those whose lives are different from our own.
RW: Welcome to Bittersweet Reflections, a six-part audio series where Bittersweet contributors reflect on memorable stories. I'm Robert Winship. For this second episode of Reflections, we talked to Jessica Mancari, a speech writer and journalist who looks back on a story about One Heart Worldwide. Jessica Mancari is a strategic and creative communication leader in Washington, DC, specializing in executive communication and speech writing. And she’s a contributor to Bittersweet monthly. Jessica, thanks for talking with us today.
JM: Thanks for having me.
RW: So, I know you have a communication background and you're a writer, but I want to start by asking how do you, or how would you, describe your work with Bittersweet to others?
JM: So, I often tell people that I am a writer for Bittersweet, which tells the stories of good work in the world. I've always admired Bittersweet and its mission of telling stories of hope, and Bittersweet does so in a way with a true quality that is often missing, especially for these organizations who don't have the budget for it, and so I'm just really proud to be able to jump into that and be a part of that. I write professionally in my career and I work with CEOs and leaders and it's a very formal, and kind of buttoned up environment, and so working with Bittersweet gives me the ability to tap into this whole other part of who I am and I get to be a part of creative storytelling in a way that makes a difference in a world that really needs it.
I remember telling one CEO that I worked for years ago about Bittersweet, and this was before I was directly connected with Bittersweet. I had just kind of admired it from afar. And I was showing him some of the work that Bittersweet had done, and he said, “Well, have you reached out to the editor?,” and I said, “Well, no, I don't know her.” And he said, “Well, just ask her to coffee.” And it was kind of this light bulb moment of, which I had done that in my professional world, go grab coffee with people, but to just be able to go grab coffee with someone that you admire. And so I got connected to Bittersweet in that way. I reached out to Kate and said, “Hey, can we meet up?” And so she said yes, and I started doing a few stories here and there and grew to love it. I do about two stories a year now for a Bittersweet.
RW: Yeah, you've written quite a bit. So this series is titled Reflections and we're asking each guest to select a story that they were a part of. Jessica, you picked “Lacing the Toughest Terrain with Life Saving.” This piece, which features a short film, was published fairly recently in August of 2019, and it focuses on the organization One Heart Worldwide in Nepal. Can you begin by briefly describing that piece and maybe why you chose to write it?
JM: Sure. Yeah, it was not quite been a year since we actually traveled to that story in Nepal. So, One Heart Worldwide goes into the most remote villages and corners of the earth and helps bring medical care and training to women who are delivering babies in the corners of the world. I'm inspired by ordinary life and people who are doing brave things in the middle of their ordinary lives, and so when this story came up as a possibility, it immediately registered in my mind as, oh, this could be incredible to see what's going on in this ordinary life in this whole other part of the world, and something so simple, like bringing training, you know, midwife skills to those areas, and how much of a difference it can make for the people who live there, seemed just appealing to me. And, so I raised my hand for the trip and, thankfully, got to work on it.
RW: I want to dip into a couple of different parts of the story beginning with the title and your introduction. You focus a lot on the terrain of Nepal and when the listener reads this story, and I hope you will, the beginning is your first person account of traveling into this village. I want to know, why was it important for you to establish the terrain in Nepal and getting to this place?
JM: So, we knew that the terrain was going to be a big part of the story. We had been told it takes ten hours to get there. I actually think they told us eight hours. And we knew that it was going to be tough, but I don't think we realized just how intense it would be to get to where we needed to be, where One Heart Worldwide does their work. And for them as an organization, what we learned is that they actually have a hard time getting a lot of their donors out there. So, a lot of the high impact donors oftentimes will want to come see the work that's being done, the work that they're helping to support, and it's just so difficult to get people out there physically, just almost impossible. So a big value in this story to them was that we could actually bring the reader along in the story.
In this case, it could be their donors who they could actually see firsthand, maybe for the first time, what it felt like to be on this journey, to where the work is being done. I think, as we literally got into the Jeep, and started winding through these roads and just the thousand foot drop-offs—I have these memories of fish tailing in the mud and we realized, wow, this is what people who live here every day, this is what they deal with. And so we knew that after being on the ground, but even when I sat down with a pen later and started to think through like, how are we going to weave all of these pieces—all of the scraps and the notes and the audio files…?
I remember turning in the first draft to Kate, she was the editor on this story, and she basically sent it back and was like, "This isn’t cutting it." So, I took it and I was like, okay, well, we really need to draw out this, the terrain, as a major character and it was then that I realized in order to fully make it alive we'd have to insert ourselves into the story and tell it in a way, that from the team's perspective, really, what it felt like to be in the Jeep and what it felt like to stand on the mountaintop once we finally had made our way up there. And hopefully, I hope that that resonates with people and that they get to feel a little bit of what we felt when we were on that journey and what the people who live in that region feel all the time when they have to make it from point A to point B, just to get medical care.
RW: Do you feel like it's a valuable, or maybe even an attractive writing style to give more of a first person account of what you're seeing and experiencing?
JM: I do. I think I tend to lean in that direction, especially when you're trying to bring the reader along on a journey, and this piece in particular, because it was such a journey literally, you know, point A to point B, we're telling you how we get there. And I felt that the personal reflection there would really help others to experience that, too.
RW: I guess there's sort of two halves of the writing process that I want to address. One is how did this narrative change for you from when it was assigned, or when you were doing the initial research to the final draft, but it also brings up questions of, okay, I know maybe the story I'm trying to tell, but also how do I convey that particular story? And you answered that a little bit with, we needed a first person narrative to introduce this and show the difficulty of accessibility, but I'm curious how the story changed for you in terms of narrative.
JM: So, I think as a team we always sit down and do some pre-interviews before we get on the ground and try to uncover, okay, what pieces of this story do we want to tell? And I remember us talking with the director of One Heart Worldwide, and she warned us, I think it's going to be a tough journey to get out there, but we're excited for you to see it because we think that it'll be a big part of this. And I think we appreciated her fair warnings. I don't think we really understood how intense it was going to be. And really, truly, I think it helped me as a writer to be able to make that exact journey from the very small village of Okhre that we ended up in, to the nearest city, which I think it was only a few miles, but the way that you had to get there, lacing back and forth up and down these mountains, was really, really difficult—physically difficult, like it hurts to sit in the car as you're being jostled around. And we were in a Jeep that was very nice by all standards. And so we had all the comforts that we could possibly have to make this journey, and yet the people who lived in Okhre who needed to get to medical care, before One Heart Worldwide had come in and established their clinic, would get on a public bus that would run a couple times during the day. So, for us to sit and make that drive, and then to imagine myself as I'm a woman who is maybe an early labor and I have to make this trip in a bus, and what that meant for her… I think sitting in that journey helps as a writer for you to fully empathize with what others may be going through. We always try to pull those pieces into the story, and I definitely think that that was the case in this story, that the terrain became a central character because it was just so much a part of life there, and so much a part of the challenge of living life there.
RW: Yeah. That's interesting. You know, I've written a few of these stories, too, and sometimes you just kind of come into a place, you interview people at the organization or volunteers, or maybe people who are benefiting or getting something from that work, but it can be pretty tidy in a lot of ways, especially maybe if you're traveling around the US, but you have a situation where you're put in some small way in the shoes of the people whose stories you're trying to tell, but it's extremely valuable.
JM: Yeah, absolutely.
RW: You've talked about one of the major themes, which is accessibility for One Heart, certainly in terms of women having access to reliable, safe medical care, for prenatal care and for delivery. But there's also the sustainability in terms of…you write that “medical advancements are there, but infrastructure is not.” I'm wondering if you'll talk about the difficulty of that kind of sustainability with One Heart, and with this birthing center.
JM: I'll say that this is one of the ways that One Heart Worldwide truly impressed me. And I think a lot of organizations talk about a holistic approach to solving a problem. I really went in with the mission of I want to really see how this organization… are they truly looking at this holistically? Because it was one of the things that they had talked about a lot. It's on their website as a big part of what they do. And what I really wanted to uncover is how do they see this? And I grew more and more impressed with the organization and how they were looking at sustainability and how, with the appreciation that you can't just come in and build a birthing center and then just step away. The organization is run by people who were born and raised in Nepal. They live on this land, they're part of these villages and they understand the unique challenges that come, not only with the terrain, but they understand the inner workings of their governments and they understand the cultural value. All of that allowed them to build a program that they knew over time would continue to exist and evolve and to serve the community in a way that was really meaningful. Even to the point where they were really integrated even with the government, realizing that they needed some kind of government buy-in. And I think they did that in a very impressive way. We saw that firsthand. We actually got to meet with a mayor and hear how he partnered with One Heart Worldwide and how he really saw that organization as a part of the solution.
I remember we chased down an elected official who was visiting one of the hospitals that we were touring and meeting people at. And I remember talking to our translator saying, “Hey, can we go get an interview with this elected official?” And he was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, we don't have an appointment.” And I was like, “Well, I want to go ask.” And I just started walking over there. I think he was chasing me like, “No, no, no, we can't do that. We can't do that.” And, so I walked up and found the elected official’s press person, who I assumed was the press person—I guessed right—and turn to Krishna who is translating breaths. And I'm like, “Ask him if we can do an interview.” And Krishna, he did it. And the official said, “Yes, of course I'll talk.” And it was fascinating to hear that he was aware of One Heart Worldwide. He was aware of the value of non-profit organizations.
And just to see that One Heart had really laid the groundwork for that, and that they were thinking long term, that in order for these programs to exist over time, you have to make those investments. You have to make the investments with the community leaders. They were doing a lot of educating, too. They would create small groups in the villages where a lot of the elders in the community, women who might've been a part of the birthing process—just culturally the older moms, the grand moms, and they would bring them into these groups and educate them and really lift them up as elders in the community and establish them as leaders as a part of the process of bringing in a health center to the community. So that those women didn't feel like they were shut out. They felt like they were lifted up and really praised for their expertise and their leadership in the community, which I was also very impressed by.
RW: And a deep investment in the community is not an easy task and requires, you know, you have to get buy-in from people that are a part of that community, from elected officials, law enforcement, and you have to stay and earn that.
JM: Yeah. And I think, you know, One Heart Worldwide has the vision of… eventually they want to be able to step away and leave the program to the locals. And they know in order to do that, they have to be working with them hand and foot the entire time, because they'll be the first ones to say we need to go where the need is greatest. So, we'll come in to these communities and then really make it a part of the community and get community buy-in. When we were in Okhre, the community was just so proud of the fact that they had together raised money to help build the facility that they established there to serve the women of their community. So, it's not One Heart Worldwide who's coming in and building this new facility for them. They are a part of it. They are invested in it and they feel pride whenever they walk by it.
RW: A lot of these Bittersweet stories present a unique challenge in that you're attempting to capture the work of an organization, which can be very multifaceted. They're often many subjects, people who are interesting, or they're informative, or they have a really powerful story. How do you balance the task of capturing that with the desire for strong through lines or a desire to engage readers and really capture the small human element as much as the big global organizational element?
JM: It's a really big challenge, especially when you're moving from city to city and, especially for an organization like One Heart Worldwide, where you have them working at the government level and at the community level. And so I think for this particular story though, because they had that framework and because we realized they really are investing in each of these pieces of that program, I wanted to find a leading voice who could represent each of those components. Could we get an interview with an elected official? That was something that was in the back of my mind. I really want to figure out if we can pull them into the story somehow and get their perspective. Could we talk to leaders in the community who are maybe not working directly with One Heart Worldwide, but they are people who are very well respected in their community and pull out that voice? And let's hear from them. I think it changes from story to story for me. But for this one, it was how do we capture a piece of that and make sure that we're telling the full story about their holistic approach to providing medical care to these women?
RW: So, by identifying key figures, you can fill that out and you were able to nab an elected official along the way and improvise, although I guess you're already prepared for that.
JM: Yeah. I mean, improvising is always key. You never know. And I think a lot of it is listening and trying to get as many conversations going as possible. Then you quickly discover, okay, this person has an interesting piece of this story and they have more that I want to learn. And, so in those short conversations that helped me cast a wide net, then I'll identify here's someone that I want to sit down with a bit more and pull them aside and let's have a more in depth conversation, just as we're trying to learn more as we're doing the story.
RW: I'm going to ask you to paint maybe a little bit broadly here, but how would you characterize all of the people of the village of Okhre, but especially the women in that village?
JM: One of the most fascinating things about working on this story is that when we finally made it to Okhre, we got to live with a family who had grown up in this village. We got to really just experience life and what it meant to live there. I remember sitting in the kitchen with Sangita and Sujata and just listening to them talk and watching them cook. And the kitchen was warm. It smelled like hickory and charcoal, and they had organized their cabinets with these little brass cups and bowls. And I remember just sitting and asking them, "What is it? What does it like to live here?" And they all just spoke so highly of their community and the way that people were invested in each other, and there's truly a community spirit and the sense of when there was a need, they would all come together and help. Even to the point where the men were very filled with pride to be able to carry the women from their homes to the birthing center when they were about to have a baby. That was very much a part of the tradition. Like we are all in this together. The elders in the community are a part of this, too, and you saw that in their home and the way that they supported each other. We saw it when we were walking around and Sangita—it was her home that we were staying in—and she was very well respected in the community. She was a nurse and I remember she opened one door outside of her home, and inside she had just shelves and shelves of medication and first aid kits that she kept in supply. And it wasn't for her and her family, it was for the community. And there were a number of times when we were staying there and we'd be sitting out on her property and people from the village would come over and see her, and she would greet them and take them over to the cabinet and get them what they needed. And there are a number of times where she in the middle of—I think at one point we're in the middle of a meal—and someone came and she excused herself and said, “I'm sorry, I need to go. I need to go help.” And there was a real sense of community that I noticed, particularly among the women, but in a lot of the people that we met.
RW: I'm glad you brought up Sangita because I'll just read a little bit of what you wrote about her. So, she's a nurse and a skilled birthing attendant, and she was trained at the facility there, correct?
JM: That's right.
RW: So, you write, “She’s also the unofficial, unabashed village advocate. She sees Okhre’s needs and she fights for them. That cell tower up on the top of the hill? Sangita asked for it. Electricity cut off unexpectedly? Sangita makes calls until it’s turned back on. Medicines running low at the birthing center? Sangita is on the phone with local government officials demanding supplies. They arrive the next day.” She's a leader and she's a doer. She makes it happen. That's an incredible person to be a part of that village and that organization.
JM: Yeah. She was quite a force. And I remember we were there at one point and the electricity cut off and she was on it, on her phone, “I'm gonna figure out...” And I think partly it's because we were there and she was a little embarrassed. She was like, “I want you to be able to have some light in the home.” But you could tell when people took her call. They knew who she was. And I think, you know, we have people like that here. And, I guess I have always understood the value of them, but to see her in her community, really standing up for them and being a voice for the things that they needed and how much influence a person can have into a community. One Heart Worldwide really recognize that. They recognize that she was really well respected in the community. And that was a part of their sustainability—identifying who those influencers are at the community level and bringing them in and bringing them along in the journey, because they know with them and with their help, they'll continue to see success.
RW: One of the things I talked about with another contributor is this idea of empowerment. And I want to focus on that for just a second. You explore how One Heart is empowered through local government and almost empowered by local government to be able to do work in that village. And it seems like they are empowering women through training. Certainly people like Sangita. I'm curious, what does the word empower mean to you?
JM: Empowerment means giving people the skills and the tools and the confidence that they need an order to do for themselves and others. And I think that's what's so inspiring about this story is that the whole program was based on how do you raise people up to not only continue to support a program, but how do you raise families up, and women up, to be a part of the birthing process in a way that maybe looked different than what they were used to, but gave them health and it gave them resources to make their life safer. And so I think it was really just beautiful to see empowerment and action, and to see it in a way that was being done that was very simple, but very, very life changing.
RW: In writing these stories, you talk a little bit about this at the beginning, in terms of being able to produce something, or write something, or show something that helps better describe to people who might never have heard of the organization, or donors, what it's like to be in this village or what it's like to be in the mountains of Nepal. How do you, as a writer, empower through storytelling?
JM: I think in a lot of ways it's listening and pulling out the truths that are there. And I'll give you an example, because I remember this—Krishna, who was our fixer, our translator, he kept making fun of us because we kept referring to the mountains as mountains. And he would say "These aren't mountains, these are foothills." And we were like, "No, these are mountains by our standards." But I guess that is an example of: So, what's the truth in that? The truth in that is that it's all about comparison and perspective, right? This is no mountain to him. It's a foothill to him. He was a trekker. And he had been in the mountains before. He knew what that was like, but to my untrained eye, that hill looks massive, and it's swallowing these little huts and these homes in its greatness. But what is massive? And you don't know massive, what massive feels like, until you understand that comparison. And when you go to the mountain and when you truly see it, then it creates a new frame. And what was once a mountain will then feel like a foothill to you.
And so, that's where I think as a writer I'm observing and I'm listening to that. I remember him saying that so many times, and the truth in that is in the comparison, the truth of that is in the framing. And that's what I'm trying to do as I'm working on these stories, is looking across all of my notes and the conversations that I have and what have I observed, and what truth can I pull out of this to share with others?
RW: One thing I'm trying to do is relate the stories of Bittersweet contributors and what they've learned to the current climate. We're at a time now where a lot of the world is dealing with a lack of certain medical supplies and perhaps, even definitely, overworked medical staff, but there's also this big chance to reflect and feel a sense of solidarity. I'm wondering if there's a way you see a lesson or two that you've taken from the experience of writing this that you feel can be applied to where we as human beings are at today? I know that’s a big question.
JM: It is a big question, but I've found myself reflecting back on our trip to Nepal so much lately. That trip to Nepal was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, I'll be honest. We had some really scary moments traveling through the mountains, sometimes in the dark. There were some truly, truly terrifying moments. And so I found myself thinking back on that, that discomfort, that kind of fear of the unknown—what's it going to look like on the other side? And what I keep coming back to is that we are far more capable than we can imagine. And I left that trip, those terrifying moments, not… If you would've told me on the front end that I was going to have to do that, I would’ve been like, “There's no way. There's no way I will do that.” But we are capable. We are capable to do more than we can imagine, and sometimes stretching ourselves, whether it's a situation that we choose to put ourselves in, or whether it's a situation we just happened to find ourselves in, shows us what we are truly capable of. And I think that for the time that we find ourselves in, as human beings and collectively as society, that this is a story that hopefully will resonate in that way. It's a story for anyone who feels like maybe they're at the edge, or the edge of that mountain, or they're turning the mountain, and they don't know what's on the other side. And I remember putting this line into the story: “If you can't beat the terrain, you work with it.” And I find myself coming back to that right now. I can't change this. I can't beat it. But if I allow myself to work with it, then maybe I'll discover that I'm far more capable than I can imagine.
I think that one of my favorite things in the world is sitting with people who I don't know and learning about them. And Sangita’s mom lived with her, and she was really the caretaker of the home. You could tell she was the matriarch. She made sure things kept running, and she didn't speak English at all. I remember sitting with her in her garden and I asked through a translator, “What do you love about Nepal?” And she paused for a second. And she said, back to me, “I love the rhododendron when it blooms.” And that will stick with me because here she is in this stunning country with views that are just jaw-dropping, and her home sits on top of a mountain and you can look out and see mountain ranges. And, of all the things she picked, the simple, “I love the rhododendron when it blooms.” That has always been so inspiring to me since that moment, that in all the things—the simple.
At one point she took seeds and she put them into my hands. And, she tried to say it in English and she eventually did say, sounded out, “marigold.” And she was explaining that she wanted me to take the seeds for my garden. And I thought it was just such a beautiful gesture that we, across the world from each other, could be connected by something so simple… by something like a flower. And that's just another piece of the story that's very personal to me. And it's not anything really that was written into the story, but that in these moments, as we're traveling with Bittersweet and learning of the work of these organizations, that there truly are beautiful moments where we feel, at least for me, I feel a lot more connected to humanity. And I just feel very, very privileged that I get to sit with people who are different than me and then at the end of the day I always discover we're a lot more alike than we really think we are.
RW: For the listener, you can find this story at bittersweetmonthly.com/stories. And you can read more from Jessica Mancari, including links to all her published work with Bittersweet at jessicamancari.com.
Read The Story
Read Jessica Mancari's full story about One Heart Worldwide for Bittersweet Monthly, Issue 057 Lacing the Toughest Terrain with Life Saving, here.Read
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