Guest Blog 1: Happy Thinking Day

The blog below is the first in what I hope will become a regular occurrence; a guest blog from a fellow aid worker. If you have a story you want to share, send it to aidworkoddity@gmail.com.

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Today is World Thinking Day. That might not mean much to you, unless you are one of over 10 million worldwide members of Girlguiding. You know the guides; girl guides, girl scouts, the Blue Knicker Brigade (no connection to the UN, also of blue knickered-brigade fame) and other less flattering names. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of them? Baking cakes? Sewing? Selling cookies? Other activities involving ovens and a lot of sugar? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is gratitude. Thank you Girlguiding, for being the organisation that gave me the skills I needed to work in humanitarianism.

Here, I am not referring to an ability to cook, clean or sew (although I did make a Victoria sponge on an open fire in Jijiga. Impressive, eh? It didn’t taste so great though) but instead to Girlguiding’s ability to challenge young women and support them to develop their confidence to become whatever they want.

Guiding gets a bad rap in the UK.  It’s seen as a bit geeky, or a bit like a younger version of the Women’s Institute (hence all the cake references, I guess…) but for me, it was a haven. To have somewhere to go where I could really be myself was like paradise to an 11-year old, slightly awkward girl. But more than that, the skills I learnt as a Guide and as a leader within the organisation have been invaluable in my current career. On my first ever Guide camp, it rained. I’m from Manchester, so when I say it rained, IT RAINED. The downpour was so heavy and consistent that we had to dig trenches around our tents to stop them from flooding. I remember my slightly panicked Guide leader saying, ‘It’s not always as bad as this! You will try camping again, won’t you?’ But I was already in my element. Little did I know at that point in time that over ten years later, I would be using the same trench building skills to ensure I had a dry bed for the night in Dadaab, or to help Syrian families in Jordan divert floodwater from their tented homes. When I became a leader and started taking my own girls to camp, my default role was First Aider, which included the glamorous task of emptying the chemical toilet. Perhaps it was the nostalgic smell of faeces in the morning that initially spurred my desire to work on water and sanitation projects…  It also meant that I became less squeamish and learnt to keep a cool head when girls vomited, accidentally mistook their hand for the wood they were chopping with the axe, or sustained puncture wounds from discarded nails by climbing on the woodpile. On second thoughts, I got a little squeamish on that last one. I learnt I enjoyed being outside, I could cope without a wash every day, I didn’t mind being cold and damp, or hot and bothered if it meant I could do something a bit out of the ordinary.

I also owe to Guiding a skill that I use every day in my role as a Community Mobiliser; facilitation. At 16, my Leader encouraged me to apply to be part of a group of young women that organised a national youth conference. Here, I learnt to facilitate sessions in which participants tackled issues both within and outside of Guiding, shaping the direction of the organisation. At 19, I did this at a World Youth Forum, with participants from all over the world, having my session simultaneously translated into French. Stick that in your mock UN. These incredible experiences made me confident that I didn’t need to know all the answers to be able to bring about a change, that the collective ideas of people could give solutions that I, or – fast-forwarding to my current role – my humanitarian organisation could never think of alone. My experience in Guiding formed my core approach to my work.

Later on, I was selected to work with a group of young women to deliver a short development project in Bangladesh, and then another a year later in Belarus. My experiences in both places remained so vividly in my mind – that poverty shouted at you from every corner in Bangladesh, and that Belarus was a starker side of Europe that I didn’t dream existed – that they made my everyday work in an office seem meaningless, a feeling that stayed with me for nearly ten years. When I decided to act on my feelings and move into the humanitarian sector, Guiding again came to my support and gave me my break. Through contacts, I was able to link up with a charity in Madagascar to develop a hygiene promotion training for – guess who – Guide and Scout leaders. In many countries, Guides are a driving force for development. Margaret Mead once said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ and I think about this every time I think of Guides around the world tackling problems like health, education, the environment and women’s rights and empowerment. Except there’s 10 million of them – 10 million! 64,000 in the UK alone – and if a small group of people can change the world, imagine what 10 million active, engaged and empowered women wearing blue knickers can achieve.

I bet by now you are thinking, ‘well, I went to Guides and the most we did was cook a marshmallow on a tea light.’ I hear that a lot – especially marshmallows and tea lights – but my experience in the organisation is not unique. There is a common thread that runs through mine and my guiding friend’s stories; the support of other women who see your potential and want you to grow, and give their time, their effort and their support for you to do just that.

On World Thinking Day, members of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts take time to think of each other and reflect upon what being a Guide means to them. This Thinking Day, I reflect back on my career in humanitarianism and I see just how much I have to thank Girlguiding for. So thank you to my sisters in Guiding that pushed me, challenged me and believed I could do it; that never told me, ‘you can’t’ or ‘don’t try.’ I owe you my career. I am thinking of you all today – happy Thinking Day.

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Ah, L’Amour

Since it is that day again where people subscribe to the belief that their self-worth can only be measured in cards or chocolates, I suppose it’s as good a time as ever to talk about love in the field. This is a subject that I currently feel under-qualified to discuss, having never found love in the field to date (note the ‘currently’; that’s right, I’m still holding out hope). And here, I’m talking about a proper, grown-up relationship; you know, the kind that Carrie and her mob are always chasing after in shoes that would be completely inappropriate in a flooded refugee camp, rather than a quickie in the back of a Land Cruiser. More on those kind of ‘relationships’ later.

I possibly did not have the best of starts to love and humanitarianism. In fact, my new career was the possibly the final nail in my last proper relationship’s coffin. I was excited to have just landed my first role that required significant international travel; my boyfriend’s reaction was slightly less enthusiastic. In trying to turn his dream-squelching into something more positive, I suggested that he could come to visit me in far-flung and exotic destinations where we would have amazing adventures. ‘Yeah, but I don’t really want to go anywhere that’s… you know… too poor,’ was his reaction. I’m still not quite sure why I was so surprised when we called time two weeks later.

Since then, I have been resolutely single (‘victim of circumstance’ resolutely rather than ‘personal choice’ resolutely). That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any romantic interests or dalliances along the way, but they end up being too complicated by the nature of the job to stand any real chance. For example, I enjoyed some great evening-time flirting with a handsome and charming guy in Ethiopia, but the fact that we sat opposite each other in the office all day would have made taking anything further a bit awkward; imagine how a simple request to borrow his piezometer could have been embarrassingly misconstrued. Then there was the sweet, quiet guy in Myanmar where there was an underlying current of mutual attraction, but since I was his manager, that was never going to be in any way appropriate.

Then there are the further complications of living arrangements. Quite often, I have been sharing a room/tent/hut with one or more other people. I’m not sure how kids in shared rooms in university ever manage to have a sex life, but I can’t say I particularly want to let a room-mate in on the details that side of my life, especially not when they already have enough embarrassing information on just how much I grunt, drool and fart during my sleep (it’s all the hummus, I swear it).

Then there is the debate as to whether it’s better to have a relationship with someone within the sector, or someone outside of it. Getting into a relationship with someone who also works within the aid sector has it’s plus points in that they understand its unique frustrations, they accept that you can’t make any definite plans since your organisation reserves the right to send you packing somewhere new at any moment, and that you probably won’t have managed to maintain your depilation schedule whilst working in rural DRC. The problem is that they understand all of that too well, and sweet nothings become hour long rants about the inherent problems in the system. You will become like astrologers, charting your R&R schedules and plotting the times when they will mystically align so that you actually get to see each other face to face. Even then, the transport and accommodation arrangements for your ‘dates’ end up costing a small fortune. On the other hand, dating someone outside the sector means that they can stop you becoming a broken-aid-worker-record and encourage you to talk about something other than work, but they also might not understand why – from time to time – you break down in tears when you can’t find the sugar, or fly into a stomping rage when BBC news reporters present over-simplified representations of your last work station.

It can work though; I have several ‘aid-worker couple friends’ who are managing to make it work. One couple take it in turns to decide their next move; the one whose turn it is gets first dibs on applying to the place or role that they really want and the other tries to follow along, taking the turn to decide next. Another couple agreed that she would take international deployments and he would take a UK based role to look after the kids. I admire these couples who manage to make it work, but there are lots of aid-workers that don’t manage it.

L'amour

Tinder is unlikely to find you the love of your life, even if you do post pictures of you being an amazing humanitarian (credit: Humanitarians of Tinder)

Recently, I was having a few whiskeys with a colleague – for purely heat-generating purposes; there was freezing fog on the river next to our hotel which had the unique design feature of glassless windows – and talk turned to relationships. He was travelling back and forth to the capital city every weekend to ensure he could keep things going with his girlfriend, and asked me whether I had a partner. When I replied that I was single, his response was, ‘Wow; I don’t think I would ever want to be international staff. All of you guys are either divorced or alone.’ Ouch. We worked out that of the seven international staff he had worked with to date, all had been single.

Maybe it’s that we’re all too in love with the job to take time to find that special person; maybe it’s that the life of travel and uncertainty makes having a relationship impossible; or maybe it’s because when we are looking for love we think pictures like those on Humanitarians of Tinder are going to boost our appeal (note: they really, really don’t). Whatever it is, happy Valentine’s day to all the single aid workers out there.

How to Build a Humanitarian #3: We are Ready for Take Off!

Packed bags? Check. Tickets and visa? Check. An air of smugness that you are on your way to change the world whilst everyone else around you is on the way to irrevocably damage their skin in Marbella? Super check.  You are finally on your way; so begins a life of dashing from one emergency to the next, travelling the world and channelling that effortless, celebrity ’12 hours plane fresh’ chic whilst doing so.

There is the preconception that jobs involving a lot of air travel are glamorous. They are, most definitely, not.

Unless you can swing yourself a UN job with an accompanying blue passport, the average humanitarian worker will accumulate an equal amount of stress in travelling to their new work destination as they do living in said location for an extended period. That’s because you’re not going where the world wants to go – unless you’re currently working on the refugee crisis in Greece, in which case, all other aid workers are jealous of you – you’re going to the field. There are no sun loungers in the field, and your cramped, smelly 12 hour flight will be the first step in making you realise that.

Firstly, you realise that there are airlines out there that you had never even heard of before. I recently had the joy of travelling with Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco, that well known luxury airline carrier… Prior to taking my flight, my humanitarian buddies prepped me by regaling their stories of their special experiences with the airline; being given used blankets full of someone else’s biscuit crumbs being just one of them. The flight itself was absolutely fine, but the meal had to be the worst airline meal I have ever encountered, even worse than when terrible turbulence meant my croissant ended up in my neighbour’s hair on an Air Brussels flight. When my ‘vegetarian option’ arrived – a vegetarian aid worker? I know, I’m a walking cliché – it consisted of three slices of carrot, three green beans, three slices of courgette and a bread roll. Sure, it can be tricky to get flavours right in pre-packaged food, but really, that is just pure laziness.

To make my experience all the more special, I came back from a toilet visit to find a knarled, dry, old lady’s foot perched on my arm rest. She seemingly thought it was ok to put her trotter through the gap in the seats to rub her fungus filled digits where my elbow should be perched. Barely disguising my horror, I asked her – politely – if she could move her foot. She did. By around 5 cm. There were two ways this was going to go: either I had to suck it up and share my seat with the foot, or I had to throw myself out of the plane. Instead, I opted to be honest, asking her if she could remove her foot completely as it made me feel uncomfortable. To my surprise, she smiled and took her foot away. So there are nice people in the world; or maybe people are only nice after they’ve marked your territory with their crusty feet. Possibly the same applies to armpits, drooling heads and excessive body mass, because all of these things have invaded my personal space on a plane at some point during my travels.

For all that grumbling, sometimes the impossible happens. You reach the gate and the attendant tells you that your seat has been changed and your new boarding pass has a single digit number. Ultimate score – the absolutely free upgrade. This has only ever happened to me once, and I’m not even sure how it happened; maybe the airline took pity on my 24-hours-travelled-so-far state, but whatever the reason, it. Was. Awesome. Yet, even there, I encountered a dilemma. This being the first time I had ever travelled business class, I wanted to rinse that experience for everything it was worth. Fully reclining chair? Yes please. Champagne with my meal. Damn right. Bradley Cooper as my in-flight entertainment? Don’t even ask; just bring him with the champagne. However, an overwhelming part of me felt like I had to behave as if I was born for business class: ‘Oh this is de rigeur dah-ling! One would never dream of flying any other way! Come on Bradley, be game!’ Needless to say I wasn’t fooling anyone; by the time I requested my 5th glass of champagne, everyone on the right side of the curtain had my card marked as a first timer.

The flight is just the start. When flying to Sierra Leone, my organisation sent me a 4 page (4 PAGE!) document on how to navigate Lungi airport without ending up in prison, in hospital or dumped somewhere in the sea. When arriving at Tacloban in the Philippines, the baggage carousel was typhoon-damaged and the replacement was a general scrum when the bags were unloaded. Airports in the field tend not to come with electricity, organisation or manners, another stark reminder that this is not Club Tropicana, and the drinks are most definitely not free (in fact, they’re probably banned).

But, budding aid worker, you made it; you have arrived and now the real work begins.

How to Build a Humanitarian #2: A Tidy Little Package

So you finally made it in and you’re heading off on that all important first field deployment. The first challenge encountered by any novice humanitarian is that of packing the necessary ingredients for survival into a suitcase that may need to conform to an extremely low weight allowance; the allowance on some UNHAS flights is 16 kilos. That is approximately the weight of my hiking boots and half a bottle of shampoo. For some flights they even weigh you whilst you hold your suitcase, but at least you can always blame that extra Christmas weight on the ‘resource manuals’ you’re lugging half way across the world.

The challenge comes from striking the balance between wanting to look tough and taking the bare necessities for clothing and bathing only, and that – wherever you are moving to – may become your home for anything between three months to three years. I have made both mistakes of packing too lightly and packing as if I was emigrating. For my first deployment, I packed as if I would need to transport all my belongings on my back at a moment’s notice (it was a war zone after all), only to arrive to a relatively comfortable apartment where my flatmate had stationed at least two pair of high heels on the shoe rack. Not to be fazed, on my next deployment, I packed some more frivolous items – a ‘going out’ top, a pair of heeled sandals, mascara (I take that last one back; it is not frivolous. It is the only item that prevents near constant accusations of ‘oh, you look ill/so tired’) – only to have them lie unloved and unused for my two month deployment because… well, I didn’t get too many opportunities to hit the clubs in Sudan.

Then comes the decision: one case or two (or even, yes I have seen it, three or four). Again, I have tried solo-casing and multiple-casing, and there again I can’t seem to get it right. If I bring multiple cases, usually the reaction from co-workers is, ‘Oh my god, how long are you planning to stay for?!’ If I bring one case, the reaction is, ‘is that it?!’ One sure fire way to win is to seek out another traveller who has more luggage than you and stand next to them, that way you’ll always look to be travelling light(er).

The Guardian ran a series last year entitled, ‘Humanitarian workers; show us what you’re packing’ which asked aid workers to share the contents of a typical set of luggage. A friend of mine at the time suggested that I write in, but at that point, I hadn’t yet honed my packing prowess. In fact, I still haven’t, but here are some useful hints for packing that I can pass along:

  1. Electricals: I tend to find that roughly 30-40% of my bag is taken up by electricals; work laptop, personal laptop (my work laptop isn’t allowed fun life-essential software like iTunes), hard drive(s), mini speaker, kindle, iPhone, epilator (for those areas where a decent waxing service is nowhere to be found). This might seem a little strange since most places may not have a decent supply of electricity, but as our lives become more and more digitalised, so does my suitcase. At some point someone will invent a device that can do all of these things together (an epilating iPhone? I could be the next Steve Jobs…) so that I can reclaim more space for…
  2. Food: I don’t care how much you enjoy the local cuisine, there will come a point on your deployment where you will just need something in your mouth that reminds you of home. Hopefully that will be an item of food and not anything more sinister. Another 10-20% of my case is taken up with my emergency snack supply, a selection of food items from home that require minimal cooking but provide maximum comfort. Usually crisps. I love crisps. There is a word of warning with this however; with limited snacks comes great responsibility to ration these for the times when you genuinely need them. Otherwise you will gorge yourself on the first night and remain in a taste bud wasteland for the remainder of your deployment.
  3. Clothes: These now make up a surprisingly small percentage of my case, maybe about the same as food, however, they are the item that have taken me the longest to perfect. The trick is to pack clothes that work for the context, the climate and the work, AND that say serious aid worker by day, party by night. As you can imagine, very few women’s clothes outlets cater to a market so niche. The one item of clothing you absolutely need is a scarf. It’s a towel, a blanket, it covers your head, it acts as a sarong, and, most helpfully, it can act as a scarf.
  4. Toiletries: being a woman with female relatives, I have a box at home that is full of a random accumulation of travel size toiletries. No one is actually sure where they came from, but one thing is for certain, however many I use, the content of that box never actually seems to decrease. This is a handy thing, since it means I can bring just enough to tide me over until I can purchase full size equivalents in the country I am travelling to. Sometimes this plan goes terribly wrong and I end up washing my hair with Dettol soap for eight weeks.
  5. Photos: No matter where I am going I bring pictures of my family and friends. I know that I could look at these on Facebook, but it’s not the same. Sometimes, these photos never even make it out of my bag (usually this is in deployments where there are no walls to stick them up on), but it is comforting to have them there.

So pack well, aid-work padawan. And don’t forget that scarf.