Know Your Friend: Rosemary Epps

by | 2 Mar, 2021

Rosemary in an unusually nice Kabul garden

Born as the Japanese surrendered 75 years ago, I was an unwitting beneficiary of the promise of peace. Eight months later, my father returned from repatriating sick prisoners of war. He settled into general practice in Sydney with a friend from PNG days, and the practice soon became a mecca for the needy in a pre-Medicare world, meaning long work days, nights and week-ends. Dad’s partner’s wife was Margaret Holmes, a committed peace campaigner who formed the NSW branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1960. Always needing extras, WILPF protests provided an enlightening education. As a young adult, a university work camp in the Gulf of Papua challenged my privileged view of the world and was life-changing – especially after our plane home failed to arrive. This meant a very long coastal walk, relying upon the hospitality of local people and aid workers, visiting bush hospitals and joining a CSIRO team surveying wild hinterland and head-hunting country. My final stay was with long time missionary nurse, Sr Paul Fairhall who was running a vocational training centre in a volatile Port Moresby slum. I remember being in awe as she disappeared into a dark night with her hurricane lamp to mediate an inter-tribal skirmish. Nursing training followed, then off back-packing around SE Asia. In 1970 travel in Indo-China was hazardous. Sharing Cambodian roads with North Vietnamese convoys and US helicopter gunships was not a comfortable experience. Nor was Vietnam.  Nothing made sense: the armed invaders; the western conscripts who didn’t want to be there; the corruption; the lack of moral leadership; Vietnamese families supporting members fighting on both sides; senseless destruction and the utter futility of war. I left overwhelmed with compassion and sadness. This dark shadow took time to process on what had become a spiritual journey. Fortunately teaching English in Japan brought many revelations which included opening a whole new wabi sabi way of looking at the world. With its Buddhist roots, wabi sabi alludes to a Japanese aesthetic sense which helps us to see beauty in imperfection, appreciate simplicity and accept the transient nature of all things. Back home for Midwifery Training, working as a ship’s nurse then off to ANU to finish a science degree in Human Sciences and Psychology, plus some Asian studies. Besotted with Zen, I “sat” with a small interfaith meditation group in the Ursuline Catholic college where I was now the resident nurse. The Student Health Centre also kept me busy. Aid work beckoned me to Torit in Southern Sudan with Save the Children Fund. In the wake of a 17-year civil war, we tried to provide maternal and child health services for about 80,000 returned refugees, in a vast area with almost no infrastructure and an under five child mortality rate over 50%. We worked with Sudanese counterparts to run the children’s ward, clinics, vaccination safaris and to address public health. It was a challenging and exhausting 2½ years. I met my husband Richard, who was working with the Ministry of Agriculture in Juba. Other rural development projects followed – first in a poverty-stricken area of NW Pakistan; a cross-border project (based in Peshawar) to support agriculture and boost food supplies in Afghanistan during the Russian War; working with Kenya’s Community Wildlife Service training tribal wildlife poachers to become park rangers; and a similar project in Botswana. With an American husband and step-children now in high school, in 1987 we moved to Maryland for 3 years. Encouraged by a Quaker friend, Advices No.1 posted next to the door, and a sense of ‘coming home’, I began worshipping with the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting. A time of rich spiritual nurture followed as I packed in spiritual formation courses; Pat Loring’s workshops; Lee Stern’s Alternatives to Violence (AVP) training; teaching First Day school; cooking for Quaker kids at summer camp; Friendly Eights dinners (ie. with 4 families); and attending Friends General Conferences. It was hard to leave this loving community to return to strife-ridden Peshawar. Gulf War One was about to erupt slowing progress, death threats were circulating and it was a great relief to move to Islamabad. Whilst Richard’s project continued to support the Afghan Agricultural Department in exile, I was working at an international school as school nurse and counsellor. Fortunately, the discovery of five other Friends across northern Pakistan meant occasional week-ends together and a wonderful boost to collective morale. Another inspiring interlude was leave taken in the British Lake District where we explored 1652 country and the history of early Friends. In Kenya, we became sojourners at the small unprogrammed Nairobi Meeting which shared a building with the large, programmed Meeting and ensured joyous hymn singing wafted through our silence. In 1996 we moved to Hobart, hoping to provide some stability for our two youngest daughters. I transferred membership to Hobart Meeting and studied Social Work while we were occasionally able to visit Richard on assignments. By 2010, I had joined Richard in Kabul and was working with Judge Najla Ayubi, to raise awareness of women’s rights – a task for which she daily ran the risk of being shot. Despite women having

First AVP facilitators’ training course, Afghanistan 2010

legal and Islamic rights, these were routinely ignored, with women generally regarded as the property of fathers and husbands, or under the control of male relatives. Many women languished in prison having run afoul of the men in their life. Attitudinal changes take time – particularly for a barely literate population that have spent a lifetime living in fear, been traumatised by war, and lost any sense of trust. Not only were education campaigns needed, the more difficult challenge was to change deeply held beliefs and attitudes. This meant engaging the gatekeepers: Afghan men, no easy task! Remembering Lee Stern’s faith in Alternatives to Violence (AVP) training, and with support from Katherine and Malcolm Smith, we decided to trial workshops to see how they would be received. Our female colleagues loved them but overwhelmingly concluded that “this was what the men needed to do!” So our next workshops brought unrelated men and women together to listen deeply to one another. As they shared deep fears and harrowing life experiences, slowly perceptions of one another changed. No longer could they perceive of the other as a stereotypical male or stereotypical female, but rather as another human being, simply coping as best they could. These were the first of a series of workshops with Julei Korner from Sydney AVP bringing her expertise for later training. And what amazing workshops they were – with participants declaring time and again: “we need these workshops to spread all over Afghanistan…”  I hope that one day they can! The gift writing this article has given me is to be humbled by how many OTHER people have shaped my life and made me who I am.
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