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Reading and writing about your experiences in humanitarian aid is a wonderful way of processing and understanding them. If you’d like to share your story with other Chasing Misery readers please feel free to post it to our ‘Share an Experience’ page. The following short reflection was sent to us by one of our readers and we wanted to share it with you:
Reading the first Chasing Misery book inspired me to also put pen to paper. I have never been one to share my stories from overseas – not wanting to bore my friends and family, and also more importantly I struggle with how to explain things in a way that people can understand. I remember once trying to tell a story from South Sudan, and a friend explaining loudly “Where’s that?”, “South Sudan is in eastern Africa, bordering Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, CAR and Sudan”, “eeeee Africa!!” (said with a Geordie accent). I knew at that point it would be difficult to carry on and explain the work that my NGO was doing to support people affected from decades of war. Although I have always been a very outgoing person – I have found that over the years I am reluctant to share my experiences and instead I will pass it all off as normal and mundane – and focussing on aspects of the work / life such as food or the social life. Things people can understand or relate to.
Today I am back home in Edinburgh and I have been packing away beautiful pieces of material which were generously given to me in Pakistan from communities and my colleagues. In the cold Edinburgh rain I bought for the first time vacuum storage bags. I took great satisfaction from the experience of packing the items into a plastic bag, sucking the air out with a vacuum cleaner, and the resulting smaller package for easy storage – although more likely never to taken out again. Through this, I also realised that this is what I am also doing with my experiences. Sucking the air and substance out of the experiences and sharing only smaller “easy” sections with people.
My mum often asks me before I travel overseas how I cope. How do I cope with seeing such suffering? How do I cope with hearing the many stories and news of such terrible things? How do I cope with hearing that a woman has no breast milk to feed her baby? How do I cope? I shrug … “It’s ok mum, it’s normal, I’ll cope”. Hoping that I will cope. When I go overseas I share the beautiful photos with wonderful beautiful smiles and people adapting and coping with their new circumstance (whether faced with drought, floods, violence). Children excitedly greet me with their skinny legs and bare chests exposing malnourished ribs. Beautiful smiles and laughter fill the air. And I cope.
Even with fellow aid workers no one shares their actual experiences – however there is a commonality between experiences. I try my best to avoid the bravado situations, “oh well … in Darfur I experienced something even worse ..”. Instead most of us stick to the “easy” subjects such as headaches with proposal writing, the never ending coordination meeting, the good looking pilot, etc. However there is an unspoken understanding of the challenges we have all faced. Frustrations with a difficult colleague who you are expected to live and work with 24/7, sleeping in an small tent in 40 degree heat, extreme fatigue after many late nights working on a proposal, and multiple days of only eating beans and rice. We learn incredible levels of patience and tolerance. We try to remain calm in the face of any challenges. And we are very hard on ourselves when we do not succeed.
Why do we do this work? What do we sacrifice for working overseas in aid work? For me it is all the things that provide a common shared experience with friends and family at home – friends birthdays, birth of friend’s babies, new cinema releases, flowers coming into bloom in the Spring, trying the food in a new restaurant, nights out. This cannot be found or re-enacted over a coffee every 6 months with friends. I am forever thankful for an article developed by The Headington Institute which clearly listed out the multiple motivations for working in aid work – helping people, excitement and adventure, meeting new people. Phew! I was seriously relieved that it wasn’t only the purely altruistic motivations for people to join this line of work. The excitement of joining a new office and meeting all the people that you would be closely working with, the excitement of flying in a helicopter or aeroplane over a desolate and yet beautiful landscape, the excitement of driving on a road in which you’re convinced you’re the only foreigner to have ever travelled that exact section of road, and even the excitement of going to one of the aid worker parties that Friday night (!) make up some of the motivations for this work.
So thank you Chasing Misery for sharing your experiences – the book made me cry multiple times – however I think I need to find a way of opening up and sharing more with others. On that note I look forward to contributing to Chasing Misery #2.