Animal Magic

Working in the humanitarian field offers lots of opportunities; to travel, to work with interesting people and to get up close and personal with other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. And by that I don’t only mean the filthy man-animals you may sometimes need to share your flat with (socks that don’t bend? No-one needs that in the communal area, thanks).

When working in the field, you can roughly divide your relationship with animals into three broad categories: those you loathe, those you love and dinner.

When at home in sunny old blighty, there is an unwritten rule between loathsome creatures and people; creatures stay in their space, we stay in ours and if the former violates these rules they get a rolled up newspaper. Creatures in the field have not been given a breakdown of these rules, which means they think it is completely acceptable to get up in your grill. For example, the cockroaches that think it’s ok to have a pool party in the glass of water you keep on the bedside table to sip on during the night. The rat that thought it was completely acceptable to make a nest and have rat babies in a colleague’s suitcase, a fact that she only discovered when trying to pack to leave. Or another rat – possibly related – that thought it was acceptable to share my bed in Daadab and nibble on my legs out of what was presumably boredom at 3am. Or the snake that rudely interrupted one aid worker’s private toilet time by dropping out of the tree above her head, landing at her feet and spending a good 30 seconds sizing her up before deciding it was intruding on a private moment. 30 seconds is a very long time if you are a snake, or a human being looked at by a pissed off snake.

On the flipside, there will be an inevitable moment in every aid worker’s rite of passage where they fall in love with an animal and decide to adopt it as a pet, despite the fact that the animal is feral, a walking disease infestation or a completely inappropriate ‘pet’(here I’m thinking dik-diks, falcons and pangolins). Let me explain the pangolin one; for those who don’t know, a pangolin is an extremely endangered aardvark type creature that lives in the jungles of West Africa. Whilst living in a camp in the middle of said jungles, a local hunter came to us and asked us if we would like to buy ‘this’. ‘This’ was a pangolin and its very small baby. We asked what he would do with the pangolin if we didn’t buy it. Well, eat it of course. Herein started the dilemma; did we say yes, buy the pangolin and contribute to the illegal pangolin trade, or say no and allow an endangered creature to be eaten? So of course we bought it, put it in a box, and ran around the camp collecting things that we thought it might eat (basically anything found in the ‘loathe’ section above). The thing at least had the good sense to escape that night rather than be ‘looked after’ by people clearly with limited skills in animal rescue.

Spider Friends

Hell to the no. Creep. 

However, most aid workers fall in love with the more ubiquitous cats or dogs. Aid workers will happily dedicate disproportional amounts of money and time to ensuring their feral friend is ok and starting on the course towards healthy domestication. One aid worker in Ethiopia was so concerned about his pet cat becoming pregnant that he convinced the camp medic to treat it with human contraceptives (it was apparently a successful strategy). In Liberia, two ‘guard’ dogs that came part and parcel with a guest house ended up being the most attended to patients of the staff nurse, rather than the staff themselves.

Then there is the last and saddest category; dinner. In many places, there are none of your new fangled fridges and freezers (or the electricity to run them) for storing your food at the perfect temperature before consumption, so you make do with the next best thing – fresh meat. So fresh, that sometimes it is tied up outside the kitchen when you go in for breakfast, thus also eliminating the need for printing a menu. Sometimes, dinner comes to you from unexpected sources. During a community meeting in Sierra Leone, my team and I were presented with a goat as a mark of gratitude for our work. Thinking this was purely symbolic, and we weren’t actually going to take the goat, I put this out of my mind, until – when bouncing over a particularly large pot hole – I heard a small bleating coming from the boot. To try to appease my vegetarian guilt, I even tried to feed the thing the last of my emergency shortbread stash. It was not in the least bit interested. I made sure I was out of the area when the ‘cooking’ process started.

Sometimes the worlds of humanitarians and animals collide in unexpected ways, and – just to pre-empt you – these usually don’t end well for the animal in the story. In Guinea, an Ebola treatment centre was thrown into temporary disarray when a passing motorbike startled a group of chickens, causing one to fly over the perimeter fence and into the red zone (the high infection risk section of the centre, to which entry and exit is highly controlled). The chicken roamed around whilst staff robed up into their plague-doctor-esque protective equipment to then spend the best part of an hour chasing it around the red zone in 40 degree heat whilst basically wrapped in cling-film. Once the chicken was safely isolated in a box, a debate ensued around the fate of the chicken; How likely was it that the chicken had become infected with Ebola? Could chickens transmit Ebola? Would the plucky fowl make it out of the red zone? Such practical and philosophical questions milled around until the director of the centre reminded staff that they had actual patients who needed their attention, and therefore, could someone please just kill the chicken, incinerate it and pay the owner for his loss. These are just some of the harsh realities of working in epidemics, my friends.

Whether is a chicken, a goat, a dog or a pangolin, you’re going to end up experiencing some animal magic on your deployments. And if you don’t, content yourself that 1000s of microscopic animals will be more than happy to accommodate you, and work their magic internally for you instead.


How to Build a Humanitarian #5: Do you Speak Humanitarian?

NB: Novice humanitarians may wish to refer to Google for definitions of the acronyms mentioned in this blog post. Aidworkoddity will not be held responsible for any dodgy web histories occurring because of this post.

Most people trying to get into the humanitarian sector are convinced of the need for language skills; surely the ability to speak French, Spanish or Arabic increases your desirability to organisations who may want to send you to an emergency hotspot where your skills can allow you to better integrate with local communities. Well, sure, yes, that’s a handy thing to have, but more important is the ability to speak humanitarian.

The humanitarian world has its own special language, mostly consisting of an endless stream of TLAs. Aid workers are busy people; they are so busy saving lives, advocating for human rights and trying to find a reliable alcohol producer whose wares won’t send them blind that they don’t have time to type or talk fully. To help them communicate better in the midst of their busy-being-important-ness, they rely on abbreviations and acronyms.

For a start, most INGOs are so busy that they can’t even fully pronounce their own names; DRC, NRC, MSF, IMC… then there is the whole gamut of UN agencies, who are probably not as busy, but still like to abbreviate so that they can look busy; UNOCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNDP, UNFPA. Some of them like to confuse matters by not even putting the UN in front – WHO, ILO, FAO… And lord help you if you have to also work with the ‘black’ UN and have a UN Mission in town, then that’s another UN acronym to learn. And if you have donors (which you do… stop laughing at all the rest of us MSF) then, boy oh boy, are you in for an acronym wonderland; DFiD, OCHA, USAID, SIDA, SDC, JICA, KOICA and even D-FAT-D (yes, pronounce it Dee-fat-dee. Yes, it could be the name of an 80’s rapper).

Acronyms-Not-Everyone-peq106Then there are the actual sectors and specialisms within humanitarianism itself; are you going to CAR to do WASH or EFSL? Are you interested in MEAL or MPSS? Is your background in IYCF or MCH? And of course, each sector has its own dictionary worth of acronyms for the fledgling aid worker to learn. When Aidwork Oddity was a mere trainer of humanitarians, each training would start with pasting a flipchart on the wall called ‘acronym buster’; guaranteed it would be completely filled by the end of session two.

Humanitarians seem to want to make acronyms of everything, even when it’s not really necessary. One aidworkoddities contributor expressed her annoyance that others in her office were clearly too busy WFH that they couldn’t even type fully their current working location (the couch?) Sometimes, humanitarians are so busy they can’t even spare the additional nanosecond to say goodbye; it’s not cold to sign an email BR, you have to understand, it’s just that if this person actually takes the time to write ‘best regards’ fully, 5,000 Burundian children may actually die there and then, so try not to take offence.

Occasionally, the proliferation of acronyms can lead to some interesting outcomes. When reviewing a proposal once, I noted with interest that a member of the WASH team had suggested that: ‘all IDPs will be provided with appropriate IEDs as part of hygiene promotion.’ Well, it’s an interesting approach to hygiene promotion, I’ll give you that, but I think they might be a bit happier – and we would all feel a bit safer – if we gave them IECs instead. Then there was some confusion about the true nature of the Diplomatic Transfer Facility (DTF) in Yemen. It turns out it was a safe area for UN staff to live, rather than an homage – as supposed by one American colleague – to the Jersey Shore acronym of Down to Fuck. Although…?

The use of TLAs in aid work has become so prolific that there are even smart phone apps to help novice aid workers navigate coordination meetings. Within the UN alone, there is so much jargon, that there has been a UN Jargon buster created that searches through acronyms and phrases from multiple different UN agencies. For anyone without the app and a coordination meeting looming ahead, take advice from those in the sector pre-mobile internet; nod knowingly, wait 5-10 seconds then make a note of the acronym so you can Google it later. You need to wait so that it’s not completely obvious that you have no idea what LMMS stands for.

However, it’s not only the acronyms that will confuse the hell out of you; it’s the general language of the humanitarian world. If you’re unsure whether a proposal will be accepted, just bung in a few more humanitarian buzzwords – sustainability, resilience, innovation, accountability, transparency, stakeholders – and you’ll be guaranteed a yes from an acronymed donor. If you don’t know whether your new approach is going to work, maybe you need to have a workshop on your ToC. And if you get invited to a three way bilateral, just say no, there’s clearly something more sinister going on there.

So forget about buying endless Rosetta Stone CDs and attending your fancy language classes to get ahead in the humanitarian world. Just show that you know your CAPs from your ACAPs, your CERFs from your NERFs, your AWD from your VBDs and your CHAPs from your EMMAs and you’ll fit in just fine.

I’m Late…

Relax! I mean to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day! On 28th May, the humanitarian and development worlds celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day with different events across the globe. No, you’re not mistaken, I do mean menstrual hygiene as in menstruation. As in periods. Yes, really.

Now I can imagine if you’re a non-aid-workery type who has possibly stumbled across this page in a grievous Google misspelling, you might be thinking, ‘what?!’ or ‘pull the other one,’ or even, ‘ohmygodgross’, but let’s think about this for a second: There are approximately 6 billion people living on Earth, of which roughly 3.52 billion are women (with imbalances like that, its no wonder I can’t find a boyfriend… anyhow, back to the matter at hand); Of that 3.52 billion, around 2 billion are of menstrual age. That’s one third of the world’s entire population that is experiencing a period every month. At any one time, approximately 334 million women are on their period. 334 MILLION. And yet, extremely few people seem to want to talk about it.


Ding! Incoming message from your digital vagina.

334 million eh? That’s approximately 6.68 billion disposable sanitary towels going into landfill every month – a number so long I had to turn my iPhone on its side to read it fully – assuming that all women are using disposable sanitary towels. Which of course they are not. Some women are using re-usable pads which they then need to wash after each use. Some women are using tampons. Some women are using silicone cups which collect the blood and then need to be removed, emptied and washed before reinsertion. Some women are even using versions of these cups that sync with your smart phone and give you a blow by blow of how the whole show is going down there. Digital vaginas – it’s the future, I’ve seen it. But of course, some women are using bits of old, previously used cloth that leaves them vulnerable to infections in the most sensitive part of their body. Some women are using leaves and mud. And still, extremely few people want to talk about it.

Women are disproportionally affected by disasters; often moving with their families to places that are safer, but less equipped to help them manage their periods. Imagine needing to leave your home in a rush, you don’t even think about your period, you just think about getting your children to safety. You find an empty warehouse where other families have also gathered, it’s safe and its shelter but there are no showers or toilets. A few days later, you start your period. You can’t reach the shops to buy anything, and you are cramped in with other families. There’s nowhere to wash yourself properly; you try to take a bottle of water with you outside at night to rinse yourself, but you feel like people might see you. You try using some clothes that you bought with you to absorb the blood, but you have nowhere to wash them and they are bulky to wear and don’t really stop your menstrual blood leaking onto your other clothes. You feel embarrassed that people might be able to see the blood stains on your clothes. Sounds horrible, right? But that’s what thousands of women affected by emergencies and disasters around the world face when people don’t talk about menstruation.

Recently, I went on a deployment and my luggage was lost en route. I was told it wouldn’t arrive for another two days. In the meantime, it was a public holiday in the country and absolutely no shops were open for three days. About two hours after finding out this, I started my period and had nothing – no tampons, no towels, no space-age-digital-fanny-reader – with me at all. For three days I stuffed my knickers with toilet paper which disintegrated when I bled on it, and ended up piling into little bits between my legs. I was working in IDP camps during the day where there were only chemical toilets which were dirty all around the seat and had no water inside, meaning I couldn’t rinse myself to get clean. I felt horrible, and I felt that everyone knew that I was on my period. For just a few days, I felt like I understood a bit more how a woman fleeing a disaster might feel.

The difficulty is, in many contexts where humanitarians are working – well, let’s be realistic, in nearly all cultures all around the world – talking about menstruation is taboo, disgusting, embarrassing or shameful. Even in my house, where my father is the only man amongst three women (and 6 women including the cats…) we all still feel the need to shelter him from the fact that we have active uteruses, despite him having a vague understanding that two of his own children emerged  from one. The good news is, if you’re an aid worker type, more people in the sector are talking about periods. Dare I say, it’s almost becoming fashionable; if you’re not up on your MHM (menstrual hygiene management) you might even get laughed out of the room if you profess to be a sanitation specialist. All aid workers need to start having the conversation together so that we can start prioritising women’s menstrual needs in emergencies. If we want to ensure people faced with disaster can live their lives with dignity that means making sure women have the materials, services and facilities they need to manage their periods with dignity. A belated Menstrual Hygiene day to you all, and I hope that you’ll continue the conversation.