– as told to The Silver Women
Women who inspired you as a young girl?
Has to be my mother first – a truly wonderful woman – not just my opinion, she was admired and loved by so many people. She wanted to be a teacher but left school at 13 to become a nanny. At 19 years old she and her younger brother emigrated to Australia where she knew no one. Married my father in the depths of the Depression. In 1940 when I was born they were just getting on their feet, but then he was sent off to war in New Guinea. She couldn’t keep the house where they were living on the meager pay received by Australian soldiers and got the idea of renting an old terrace house and renting out the four extra bedrooms: a bed and breakfast boarding house. The people she took in were in need of her love and support as much as we needed an income – a single mother with young baby, a frail old woman, a refugee widow from Nazi Germany – and then there were cousins who came to live with us from time to time. My mother was a woman of faith – but her faith wasn’t for talking about – it was to be lived: ”love your neighbor,” and that was anyone she saw needed loving. My father came back from the war a broken man, and we were poor – but we never went hungry or lacked necessities. And every weekend we left behind the city slum that East Sydney was back then and visited the Art Gallery, the Museum, the Botanical Gardens – I could give a visitor a guided tour of these wonderful places that I came to know like the back of my hand. When there was a little cash to spare, we went to the Zoo and in summer we lived on the beach.
Women who inspire you now?
Now I am inspired – in awe of – the women I meet in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They suffer so much, just generally because of the past 20 years of conflict, the fact that Congo is a failed state which can’t protect its borders or lift the majority of the population out of poverty despite its natural wealth. But also just because they are women – nevertheless, they get up every morning, care for children, try to feed their families and submit to the men who rule their lives. Hundreds of thousands have endured rape torture – often more than once. Eve’s story: with two other girls aged around 16 they were gathering firewood in the forest fringes when attacked by a trio of armed men. They were given a choice to die or submit to rape. Eve told me she thought, “why should I die like so many other women? I agreed even though I knew I would be thought a slut by my village. When they had finished with us, one argued that they should kill us anyway. The others decided just to give us a warning: one girl had her breasts cut off, the second had her arms slashed with a machete – I thought they would cut off my head when they slashed from behind my ear down across my throat. I lived, and the chief got me to the hospital for treatment. I thought I had a lucky escape when the other girl died, but a few months later I realized I was pregnant and would never have a man accept me as a wife.” Eve kept the son born of the rape, thankful that he looked like her and not the rapist. She managed to get some training in literacy and returned to her village to teach other women to read – but that isn’t the end – last year she was raped again – and this year gave birth to twins. Her struggle puts 1st world problems in perspective.
Most valuable lesson taught by your Mother or any other women growing up?
My mother taught me to make the best of what we had and to be willing to share: when the widow’s daughter and 2 granddaughters miraculously escaped the Holocaust, she gave them some of my clothes and toys – I didn’t mind the clothes much but made a bit of a fuss about sharing my toys. I wouldn’t say that family inspired me as such – but their experience opened my eyes to the suffering around us and perhaps is part of the reason the plight of refugees/displaced people has concerned me all my life.
Do you think older women are valued or celebrated enough?
Women, in general, have made some progress since I was young – but I still think for the most part we are invisible, if we do achieve, the challenges we had to overcome to get there are often disregarded. I am speaking about the attitude of many men but dare I say, young women, are often just as bad! Don’t want to dwell on this.
Through my decades!
20’s: From an early age I had always thought I would be a teacher – especially I wanted to go to Africa and teach the children there who had no schools or doctors. I did apply for a Teachers College Scholarship but when it came to the time I had become interested in occupational therapy – a career which was half teacher/half nurse – never occurred to me I might be a doctor! My father had objected at first – thought I would be better off preparing for motherhood doing domestic science and learning to type to keep myself before I got married. So I did a year of occupational therapy enjoyed the crafts, was interested in the psychology, anatomy and physiology, a little freaked out by my practical experience at a psychiatric hospital. And by the end of that year decided I really wanted to be a teacher – so took the scholarship and did a 2-year course then taught in a public school for three years. Loved it but then began to think about how I was going to get to Africa to teach those little children. I applied to the Anglican Church Missionary Society and was told I now had to do a year studying at Deaconess House. I stayed for 3 years, stimulated by the opportunity to study Greek, the historical context of the books that make up the Bible, working two days a week in a parish church, mostly with women and the sick and elderly but most of all loved the time and freedom to explore ideas about the source and meaning of life…and death. At the end of those three years, I saw an ad from the Australian Council of Churches in a Sydney paper for volunteers to go to work with children in refugee camps in South Vietnam – it was like a bolt from the blue – this is my next adventure. But I had never worked overseas and the organization suggested I needed experience away from home. This was the summer of 1967 and Tasmania was hit by devastating bushfires. I was asked to go to work with the survivors – lived in a caravan in a football field throughout the winter of 1967 helping people who had lost communities, homes, farms, income and loved ones.
Then on to South Vietnam – worked with children in refugee camps on sand dunes along the coast far from Saigon, survived the Tet offensive in an underground bunker courtesy of the US Army. Traveled the length and breadth of the country training teachers and child care workers in Christian schools and orphanages. My time in Tasmania had been good preparation for dealing with the suffering of the people of Vietnam who had experienced traumatic events but had no social services, no insurance to help them back on their feet but had to go on with life with no guarantee the conflict wouldn’t flare up around them in the place they sought safety. I stayed in Vietnam for 8 Years.
30’s: Evacuated 1975 when North Vietnamese took the South and spent the next 4 years in study at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu – BA Intercultural communication and Master of Social Work. With the Institute where I did my internship, I got a Federal Government Grant to set up a mental health program for refugees of Indochina. In my mid-30s(1979) accepted into a Ph.D. program at Berkeley, California, my research on Vietnamese refugees resettled in the Bay area – loved the campus life, running the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills and also student concessions for amazing performances in San Francisco’s Opera House and Davies Hall. I then went back to Honolulu to teach at the UH School of Social Work. Employed under a Pacific Basin Child Welfare grant so I made frequent trips to American Samoa, Guam, and all the Hawaiian Island to conduct workshops with local social workers and community leaders- such a hardship assignment!
“What am I most grateful for?
Being born in affluent, egalitarian and beautiful Australia.”
40’s / 50’s: By my late 40’s I returned to Australia. For the next 17 years, through my 50s and into my early 60s I taught at the University of New South Wales School of Social Work – found good use for my international experience: 1988 government grant to set up a Crosscultural Social Work Education Centre, 1994 set up a Postgraduate Program in International Social Development – 2001-2 set up Centre for Refugee Research. Wonderful experiences and contacts in attending International Social Work and Social Development conferences all over the world.
60’s / 70’s: Retired in my early 60’s due to ill health – In 2006 published Rain in My Heart about the children I had met in South Vietnam – 2004 received Medal in the Order of Australia for my work with refugees, immigrants, and international students. For about 5 years in my 60’s, I was involved with my darling mother as she became more and more physically frail but as bright and compassionate as ever. After Mother died, I heard about the war and women in Congo. My 70’s – I have made 10 visits to Congo to work with a group of Pygmies and have been into the forest to see gorillas in the wild. I am now 79.
Challenges over the years?
Probably physical: small stature as well as a woman – not very commanding – hard to exert power initially until they see determination!– although in Vietnam I was tall for the Vietnamese – small for the Americans, tall for the Pygmies in Congo but small for the other Africans.
Thoughts on aging,
The downside…physical problems – eyes, ears, organs, joints all wearing out. Bring on stem cell regeneration of everything!
The upside… the choice of what I do with my time.
Your advice to young women of today?
Look for the SILVER lining – keep hope alive for the future – however bad you feel about failing that exam, that guy who cheated on you, the fool you made of yourself on a social occasion, even that illness of someone you love or your own – find the upside – the people, the resource, whatever that you can be thankful for.
– Barbara Ferguson
Images courtesy of Barbara unless credited otherwise.
FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS!
How to choose! – favorite authors Alexander McCall Smith – wise and leaves the
reader with a lot to think about –love historical novelists like Philippa Gregory- like to escape with a Dick Francis mystery or a Lee Child thriller – always the violence raises for me a question about when is it ok to use violence – he uses it against pure evil…
Music – prefer a live performance of just about anything – but can’t live without classic FM playing Puccini, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Sibelius, Dvorak, Glass, etc– but also ABBA or film scores…
naturals – but did once love and used all the time Estee Lauder White Linen – then they changed it…
like music – prefer alive – like the gardenia or the fuchsia growing outside my front door.
But my middle name is Rose and of course, roses have everything – even the thorns to remind us that life has challenges!
City or place:
I think it is wherever I am, where I call home at the time
– loved Saigon even in the war – who wouldn’t love Honolulu – loved Berkeley – but perhaps to say Sydney – my area here by the Bay now – so close to the airport but not oppressively developed.
–has to be Vietnamese – fresh, tasty spices added after cooking rather than having to endure a burnt mouth because someone likes to add too much chili.
Skincare product you can’t live without:
Estee Lauder Night Repair – been using since it came out, which I think was when I was in Hawaii – although now I also use Clinique Dramatically Different moisturizer during the day.
Impressionists – first time I saw Starry Starry Night when Musee D’orsee came to Melbourne it took my breath away. If someone gave me a Picasso I wouldn’t put it on the wall – I’d sell to get a Monet…
Book: Rain in my heart Memories of children and war in South Vietnam,1967-1975
Available on Amazon
About Pygmy Child Care (PCC)
Note from Barbara Ferguson
January 24, 2018 @ 15:57
I have always committed myself to helping others in any way possible. After reading this interview the strength and dedication of Barbara leaves me questioning “Have I done enough?. Thank you Barbara.
January 25, 2018 @ 00:19
Dr Barbara Ferguson has been such an inspirational figure showing love, compassion and care to the needy, especially children.
Her model is recommendable and it is a legacy for other atakeholders who would like to follow her steps.
As an individual, she has carried the burden of children of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and her deeds are visible in the Mubambiro pygmy commhnity village. We wish her all the best together with everyone who support her to do this amazing work
January 25, 2018 @ 00:19
Thank you so much
January 25, 2018 @ 01:12
Great interview. I’ve met Barbara a few times, usually during fund raising events and donating my children’s books for her charity.
She’s a brave, remarkable woman.
January 25, 2018 @ 12:11
Thank you Barbara,Congratulations, you’re exceptional woman for your helps and grants for children
January 25, 2018 @ 14:40
Thanks, Samuel – you have been a wonderful guide to the culture – shared some wonderful adventures!
Se Gun Song
January 26, 2018 @ 02:11
Barbara Ferguson OAM has been my mentor for nearly 20 years since I was her student at UNSW. Such an inspirational and charismatic figure who is always eager to share her loving kindness with people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I remember how she looked after many international students who were new to the country and encouraged them during the course. I still receive her advice and support for my development work in Vietnam. I feel so fortunate to have her.
Catrine Von Dinklage
January 26, 2018 @ 03:24
What a remarkable lady you are dear Barbara, very moved by your life story. Truly living for others, what an inspiration for us all!
January 27, 2018 @ 19:54
I have known Barbara for about two decades. She recruited me to teach at her University of New South Wales (UNSW) pioneering international social work course.
Despite all the activities listed here, there is so much more that could have been said about her work, especially with refugees.
She is an inspiring and innovative teacher.
Barbara is one of Australia’s modern day saints.
January 28, 2018 @ 05:16
I had the privilege of meeting Barbara less than a year ago in April 2017. She is such an inspiration to me. Barbara has lived a life of true value and told me she always knew her calling was to help ‘the least of these’ (obscurest, the least known, the poorest, the most despised and afflicted). She has certainly done that and while none of it has been easy the rewards are great. I am so happy to know such an amazing woman of small stature but of big heart.
February 17, 2018 @ 07:46
Dear Barbara, you’re an angel and an umbrella for many many lives in the DR Congo
Marilyn Melhuish OAM
July 27, 2018 @ 02:33
I have known Barbara for some 20 years through our Church. I have always thought of her as one of God’s angels here on earth. Her work, especially with the Pygmies in the Congo is inspiring, and she has achieved things which I know even she sometimes wonders at. To know her is a privilege and through her involvement she has allowed us to feel that we too are at least doing something to help those who are so very less fortunate than we are here in this wonderful free country of ours. I am so very blessed to call Barbara a friend and am in awe of her continued involvement even when her health is less than robust. Thank you Barbara for allowing me to be just a small part of your endeavours.
Margaret E. Hayes
July 27, 2018 @ 04:32
My husband and I were absolutely engrossed reading your life story of dedication, selfless sacrifice to others less fortunate in this world to the point of your present ill health. You are a remarkable person, clever, and an inspiring teacher , committed with deep faith where empathy oozes from you . Ever optimistic , we describe you as a WONDER WOMAN. Your life story is riveting, a sure best seller due to how we read of your dedication helping others , self giving and it is awe inspiring. A mammoth task of fund raising you undertake with zeal , which we know benefits at present the young Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo . We support you in this fine outreach. God bless you .
July 27, 2018 @ 08:02
It’s been good to revisit your life again after reading your account earlier this year. So much packed in, so wide an area in which to display your compassion, commitment and skill to those traumatised by conditions which are so outside anything I’ve ever experienced.
To create a community in the conditions prevalent in the Congo over last twenty, or is it more than thirty years, is indeed miraculous. The pygmies, exiled from their traditional home in the forest, unwanted by the majority population, living in appalling conditions, were given hope, as well as care by a person who had the skill, tenacity and willingness to create a community with it’s own patch of land, followed by housing, opportunities for education and working towards self sufficiency.
So thank you Barbara, for being so willing to serve. Bravo!
July 27, 2018 @ 18:44
I agree with Keith Suter that Barbara is an Australian modern day saint. I have known her for over fifty years and have seen her work through four professional lives and excel at all of them. In her social work days, in her university teaching days when she initiated three excellent courses, in her Vietnam war experiences about which she wrote in “Rain in My Heart”, in her Congolese ventures which led to her working with DRC’s Pygmy
people, with whom she continues to work, she demonstrates remarkable strength and resilience as she raises money for the ongoing support of a whole pygmy community. I think she deserves more than her OAM which was awarded for her work amongst refugees, as she has achieved so much more since then.
July 28, 2018 @ 05:31
Throughout my life I have been fortunate for the special people who joined my path and became my good friends. Barbara is one of these special people. One word that I could use to describe Barbara is “gutsy”. After reading her first book “Rain in my Heart” though, I needed to search for a word stronger than “gutsy” to describe Barbara. “Braveheart” comes to mind but doesn’t sound stronger than “gutsy”! Her contributions to the Australian and the Vietnamese and Congo communities are beyond extraordinary. Barbara is a humble, remarkable woman and it is a privilege to call her my friend. I look forward to reading her second book.
July 29, 2018 @ 20:52
It has been my privilege to have known Barbara now over many years. Her ability to endure difficult and dangerous missions in her dedication to help disadvantaged people, in often overlooked places and conditions has inspired many.
Thank you Barbara .
July 28, 2018 @ 19:38
Barbara is a truely amazing woman. She is determined, brave, selfless, resourceful and dedicated.
The help, opportunity and hope she is giving the Mubambiro Pygmy Community in the DRC is remarkable and the obstacles she has overcome to achieve this is a sign of how courageous and resilient she is.
Barbara emails updates with information and photos of the Mubambiro Community and the DRC. These range from stories of great success and joy to sadness and tragedy. These are stories of people I would never normally hear about.
The difference she has been able to make in their lives is inspirational. She shows what one person can achieve with an idea and a desire to help.
I feel incredibly fortunate to call Barbara my friend.
Tanya Jochelson - Igra
July 28, 2018 @ 19:44
I was fortunate to study social work at the University of New South Wales in the late 1980s and have Barbara as my lecturer and supervisor. She was the most inspiring and knowledgeable educator in the course and I have never forgotten her and the impact she has had on pursuing my social work career over the years. As a result we have maintained a friendship over the past 30 years and I have continued to follow Barbara’s amazing endeavours and tireless brave projects which few others would even attempt to tackle.
This latest development project in the Congo has come with great challenges for her (travelling in physically hostile, dangerous and parasite ridden areas at times where Barbara herself was not always well and which have impacted on her health). Despite this, she has never given up on the Pygmy people and trying to help them in any way she can to assist them to develop a more self-sustaining community in an environment where they are considered outcasts and hence the most vulnerable group in the Congo. This has always been Barbara’s great strength, educating people from the ground up to develop their capacity for sustainability, using all her fabulous skills and years of knowledge and experience of what models work in health and social development projects. This, together with injecting her own personality and endless empathy is what makes her so special.
Barbara has truly committed her life to helping others in various capacities from her teaching to hands on project work. She is one of the rarest types of people and I feel honoured to know her and be able to hear about her projects first hand. I admire her immensely and continue to follow and support her work with the Pygmy Group in the Congo with interest.
Dorsh Marie De Voe
July 28, 2018 @ 23:34
I just discovered “The Silver Women” website and have read many of the interviews herein. Of particular interest to me is the story of Barbara Ferguson. I’ve known Barbara since our graduate school days at UC Berkeley. This engaging interview depicts the pinch-real Barbara I know, a woman who always finds a place to start, rolls up her sleeves and pitches in, humbly and selflessly and tirelessly, time and again, at once pragmatic and idealistic, doing what she can to make a difference for others. For most of her life, it was work with refugees, and now, in her senior years, Barbara brings that same passion to work with DRC Pygmies, another disenfranchised community that is unknown and overlooked here in the USA. I hope that those who read about Barbara’s DRC project will feel inspired to help too. And I hope that younger women reading about Barbara’s life’s work will feel similarly empowered to start somewhere, one step at a time, and make a difference for those less fortunate, forgotten, marginalized.
July 29, 2018 @ 03:32
I have known Barbara for over fifty years. She is a remarkable woman with the same determination and energy that took her to Vietnam in the sixties, and is now engaging her in new challenges with the Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even though most would be thinking of retirement, not so Barbara. With true grit, she is providing a feeding and training program for pre-schoolers in health care and hygiene. Her life-long experiences of working amongst the poor and disadvantaged in different cultures, gives her the understanding to make wise decisions with the best outcomes.
Thank you Barbara for your love, commitment and friendship.
July 29, 2018 @ 08:53
Barbara loved reading your book “Rain in my Heart”, you are an outstanding ,remarkable woman. Looking forward to reading your next book.
July 29, 2018 @ 23:10
So looking forward to reading this new book, featuring a remarkable change agent. Barbara has been a great role model for others working in community development in the DRC.
July 30, 2018 @ 20:12
I am a Vietnamese refugee in Australia. Since I met Barbara, I am admiring and loving her as my second mum because her love and caring for people around her. During 7 years in Viet Nam, Barbara did many things for the orphans, (the stories can find in her book – ‘Rain in my heart’). Barbara dedicates her life to the poor. After Viet Nam, Barbara spent all her energy and love to the Pygmies people. Her stories always make me cry…
Barbara is my hero, my love.
July 31, 2018 @ 06:52
An inspirational, generous woman. The story of Barbara’s life makes me question why I cannot be as dedicated and determined. Barbara’s book “Rain in My Heart” provides such great insight into the lives of complete strangers, their struggles and endurance….how different lives can be.
Barbara’s commitment to the Mubambiro Pygmy Community in the DRC is another selfless act of compassion, perseverence and love.
Looking forward to reading more about Barbara’s time in the Democratic Republic of Congo; about the lives of the Pygmy people and what they endure each day. A book like this would surely help raise awareness of their plight whilst illustrating the incredible skills, knowledge and motivation of this wonderful Australian woman.
July 31, 2018 @ 23:26
Barbara’s passion, skill, creativity and absolute dedication to the value of the individual was a shining light for me when I studied Social Work at UNSW, encouraging me in my own (now 16 year) career supporting refugees and other people threatened by conflict. Barbara’s ability to articulate the root of a problem, design a simple and effective response, and gather phenomenal people with her whilst she compassionately cuts through the crap of red tape and disinterest is inspirational! Barbara oozes a genuine love of the people around her, to whom she affords endless dignity and respect. And what a gracious, tenacious adventurer! All with a great and grounded sense of humour. Can’t wait to read Barbara’s next book, I’m sure it will be fuel for my ongoing fire…
August 2, 2018 @ 00:45
I was one of Barbara’s MISD students at UNSW.
She is a remarkable woman who has devoted herself to improving the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet. I wish everyone could read Barbara’s book about her work with the Pygmy community in the DRC and know something of her spirit of determination, compassion and courage. She is a true inspiration for us all.
August 2, 2018 @ 06:36
Barbara is truly an amazing lady with so much love and compassion. She is an inspiration to everyone she meets. I enjoyed reading “Rain” and look forward to the next book on the Congo which would certainly go a long way towards raising awareness of the plight of the Pygmy’s. Thank you Barbara for all that you have done and do.
August 2, 2018 @ 06:55
Barbara – Marion and I are glad that maybe, at last, you will get the recognition you deserve but have never sought for yourself. Did not realise that you have the OAM! But that hardly begins to tell the tale of what you have done for others and above all for what you have done for Jesus. Vietnam would have been enough for most people but to add the DRC in retirement is awesome and you ended up teaching Martha at UNSW. We are glad to have reconnected with you after having first met in the 1960s in Newtown. Tomorrow, I (Stephen) will be talking to a man who became a Christian in Kiama many years ago and who now goes to Rwanda in retirement and tries to make a difference – you will know what drives him. I will be telling him about you. Please keep us up to speed about your future plans – Stephen and Marion.
August 2, 2018 @ 11:22
I am in awe of the amount of trips Barbara has taken to the Congo. It is not the easiest at her age but Barbara is not slowing down, she doesn’t stop and puts all her energy into helping those less fortunate. I support Barbara’s project and appreciate the updates from the Congo. One person really can make a difference. Barbara is an inspiration to many and has a heart of gold – she is one to be treasured!
August 3, 2018 @ 07:21
Barbara’s love for humanity shines in this record of her everlasting compassion for children and adults. Her indomitable spirit opens doors and changes negative situations into positive ones.
August 5, 2018 @ 02:24
What a wonderful person. Such an inspirational story of a life lived for others, especially the most disadvantaged. I’ve heard Barbara speak and read of her work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support a village of Pygmies and their children. What she has achieved in the Congo is remarkable.
August 6, 2018 @ 19:48
What an incredible life Barbara! Wonderful to see the roots of your work, what motivates you and the love you have for the vulnerable. I would love to hear more stories from you!
August 7, 2018 @ 03:44
What a delight it has been to reconnect with you Barbara, after our first meeting in the 1960’s. Your life story is amazing and I was delighted to recently read your book “Rain in my Heart”. What an inspiration this book is as it describes your work in Vietnam during the war. The suffering experienced by so many people was almost overwhelming but your care and compassion for the children was especially remarkable. Now I am receiving your letters about the work in the Congo that you are involved in and I can hardly wait for a book to be published detailing your experiences. I thank God for this special work that contributes so much for the benefit of others.
August 8, 2018 @ 17:58
I have been friends with Barbara for over 40 years. She has devoted her life to helping others. What an inspiration she is to as all .
August 11, 2018 @ 04:06
Barbara had a million reasons to live around and enjoy the beautiful beaches around Sydney. Yet she swapped this for life with the most disadvantaged of Vietnam and lately, the Pygmies in the DRC. I am in awe of her selfless love, compassion and humility. I cannot wait to read this new book! My family and I feel privileged to have Barbara as a friend. God bless you Barb!
October 4, 2018 @ 20:43
I’ve known Barbara for some twenty years. I am in awe of her generous and loving heart, that not only gives her the courage and tenacity to help hurt and struggling people in such a difficult and dangerous place as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but to inspire others to feel the hurt and seek to help in the healing.
January 14, 2019 @ 20:08
I was so pleased to find this article about Barb, on a friend’s Facebook page. I have known her to be a remarkable woman, but did not realise to what extend. What an amazing GREAT lady !