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.
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.