When safety becomes sabotage

I’ve written a few different pieces about love, lust and romance in the humanitarian field and recently, I had an experience that made me think a lot about myself and how I think about these things. I met up with somebody for an, erm, ‘extended date’ – let’s call it that.

Now I’m one of those people for whom this kind of thing is – like Ron Burgundy – kinda a big deal. Partly because I have been single for around seven years, and have learnt to so masterfully avoid any situations where romance may potentially on the cards, any convent would skip me straight past novice stage; and partly because I. Do. Not. Do. Dates. Or at least do not do them well. Ask any of my exes, and I’m pretty sure only one of them will recall a date. That’s because I only ever went on one date. With one of them. The rest just seemed to merge from snogging in a nightclub to relationship by some kind of osmosis process that I don’t quite understand. So please imagine my terror at the prospect of facing a four day date.

In actuality, I had a lovely time; my date was wonderful, but me? I’m pretty sure I was terrible because I was so terrified about each second going well, I never relaxed, never let my guard down and never just let myself be me. Well, no, that’s a lie; when I was really pissed I was possibly too much of myself all at once which is probably just as terrifying.

On the last night, I did something that is a bit of a trademark for me. I drank too much and the pressure of hiding myself got too much, and my true feelings came forth in a burst of tears and crazy. I guess in a strange way it was a good thing to let all of those worries come out, but I wish it had been in a more controlled way, a bit like how characters in American sitcoms can so effortlessly verbalise their internal maelstroms in a neat two-minute scene before the credits. I’d like to think that it didn’t ruin the rest of our time together, but it wasn’t really something that I’d had on my ‘plan for a successful romantic weekend’.

Back at home I thought through the ‘date’ a bit more and started to come to the realisation that from minute one, I’d purposefully sabotaged the opportunity for myself – and continue to try to sabotage it – for a number of reasons. Firstly, I assumed that someone else couldn’t be interested in me for me, because I’m not good enough for that. Now, I’m not saying that because I want you to all like my Instagram account and send me life-affirming messages on twitter… that is just my default. I know it is, I’m working on it, I’ve got a therapist, let’s not do the ‘oh but you’re this and you’re that!’ dance. When it comes to relationships, low self-esteem is a pretty destructive mindset, and it led me to making some pretty insulting assumptions, like the only reason someone would want to see me after a year apart was for a quick lay. I’m forever grateful to my date for telling me that they were pretty insulted by that assumption which carelessly tumbled out during my emotional landslide. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are like that, but this person was very clearly not, and I chose to ignore all the signs that showed me that, because it was easier to paint them as the ‘bad hombre’. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with my own issues, and it could all be someone else’s fault that it didn’t work out, rather than my own for sabotaging something good. And let’s face it, blaming someone else makes it easier to sleep at night, right?

Secondly, I assumed that life is like fucking Disney. It’s not. People are complicated things (see above) and they take time to figure out. And maybe when you’ve figured them out, you realise that maybe they’re not one of the few stood at the top of the hill with you;

Friends

Not everyone gets to be at the top of the mountain. That’s just logistics. (Credit: Waitbutwhy.com)

maybe they’re floating in the middle, maybe they’re so far into the fucking foothills they might as well be at sea level, the point is you don’t know until you take the time to get to know them. With some people that might be 5 minutes, for others that might be 5 years, but chances are if there’s something that keeps you circling each other for that long, there might be something; maybe there is a part of you that they understand. For example, I spoke on the phone with one guy for 18 months before we finally met up and admitted we liked each other as more than friends and wanted to be more. I didn’t see that as strange – it felt like a natural progression – it just took both of us that long to open up properly. With my date, I’d assumed that I would meet this person and fireworks would go off, and we would be planning our next trip together by day two. In reality, there were lots of mini-Disney moments –sweet words, well-timed kisses – that I missed because I was looking for the musical scene with singing teapots. The point is, relationships are going to look different each time, so don’t expect what we are all sold by the television and films – sometimes that happens, but most of the time it’s a lot of awkward silences and red wine until you figure each other out.

Thirdly, I did the one thing I had vowed never to do, and that was to try to be someone else because I thought the ‘pretend-person’ was better than my actual self. I did this in my last relationship, I think in reaction to his over-confidence, my lowering self-esteem and his growing disinterest in me. Rather than admit something had changed and the relationship wasn’t fulfilling my needs anymore, I assumed I was what had changed – I’d become boring and dull – and so I tried to compensate. The problem was the more I compensated the more I totally forgot who I actually was and the less I became the person he was attracted to at the very beginning. I assumed if I pretended to be what he and others wanted me to be, everything would be ok, that I would be happy, and I managed to hide myself so well under layers of ‘everything to everyone’ generic blandness that I went missing for several years, and I needed a therapist to hand me a map back to my reality. Since this recent trip was the first time I’d felt like a dating situation was a ‘big deal’, I think I defaulted to what I did the last time I felt like something was a ‘big deal’. I assumed I should be some perfect incarnation of myself (whoever that is), that things should be perfect from moment one and it bought back my old coping mechanism of hiding myself. Recently, a friend of mine made me into a terribly geeky, but rather fitting, WASH metaphor; he said that I was like base rock over an aquifer… (I told you, bear with me). At first, I’m tough and impenetrable; you know there’s good stuff inside, but you don’t know how to get at it without applying some serious effort. But once you have and pushed through all the resisting bits, all the good stuff comes rushing out all at once like an artisanal well, and keeps coming. He also suggested that for this reason I was unsuitable for manual drilling… take that as you will, but it’s scarily accurate. A positive step for me though is that I admitted I was hiding parts of myself in order to be what I thought my date wanted, and that I know I was doing that now. Moving forward I should expose more of the parts of myself that I worry about others seeing, because that’s actually where all the good stuff is. It’s ok to be a human with faults and imperfections, because when you are wanted in spite of those – or because of those! – that’s when you know you have found someone special.

So what happens now? I don’t know, and that would usually terrify me… no wait, it still does terrify me, but I’m seeing that as a positive thing. I want to challenge myself to open up to someone, and for me – whatever happens with this person – I think I’ve found someone that I can try that with, and for that I will be forever grateful.

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Security is only skin deep?

As is my wont, I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that. A rather long and margarita filled holiday might have had something to do with it. But now that I’m back, I’m going to write something that might possibly be a bit controversial, and about a subject that provokes a lot of strong opinions.

I’m currently working in what humanitarians lovingly call an ‘insecure’ environment, which basically means, ‘place where people are trying to blow each other up and shoot each other on a day to day basis.’ Security incidents are rigorously monitored, which results in delightful half-hourly skype ‘pings’ as news of events unfold. Some field locations are ‘safer’ than others; I put safer in quotation marks since the location considered safest, and the location of the head office, is the one which receives the majority of security incidents, but hey, I’m not a security professional so maybe there’s some secret equation that I don’t know about. Some locations are more remote and closer to front lines between armed groups. I work in one such of these field offices, and there is one other such field office in the North.

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Maybe we should just stick more signs on people and things to make them safer? [credit: ACT Alliance]

This week two of our team have been asked to change their locations to the Northern field office. Sad to see them go, I asked if they had been told why they needed to move; was it lack of staff? Was it particular programming that required their specific skills? No, it was because they are both African. When I asked why that was the deciding factor, both told me, seemingly unfazed, that the Northern field office is not considered safe enough for European (white) international staff to stay overnight. I’m not sure whether this is the right way to say this, but I felt offended on their behalf. I asked them if it bothered them that the organisation felt it needed to protect white staff more? Neither seemed to see it that way, with one almost seeing it as a badge of honour to be asked to work in a more ‘dangerous’ field environment.

I tried to figure out why this decision had been made. Both my colleagues explained to me that white international staff in the Northern regions are more of a target because a) they stand out more in a country where the population is predominantly black and b) because they’re assumed to be Americans and no one is a particular fan of the tangoed-scrotum that is Donald Trump (to be fair, most places around the world were not big USA fans even before Mr Cheeto graced the Oval Office). For the first reason, of course, yes, you stand out more if you are markedly different from the crowd around you. In some countries you can blend in more by adapting your behaviour or by adopting certain pieces of local clothing – I for one enjoyed rocking an abaya and hijab in Yemen, no one could see I was wearing gym shorts and a sports bra underneath, or that I hadn’t washed my hair in 4 days – but changing your skin colour is not something you can readily do. Unless you’re Michael Jackson. However, apparently other non-white and non-black international staff are ok stay in this same location. Wait, a light skinned Pakistani member of staff is better able to blend in effortlessly? I’m not convinced. Coupled with the fact that local people here can recognise if you come from their town or not, and even if you are from their state or not with a cursory glance, or at least the second you open your mouth, your skin colour is not necessarily going to help you blend in. Like a Scouser wandering in Manchester, people will know you are not part of their crew pretty quickly. As for the second reason, we hit a stumbling block with one of my colleagues who is black and American. Apparently she is also not allowed to work in that location despite meeting the ‘blending-in-skin-colour wise’ requirement, because when she speaks it will make it obvious she is an outsider. If that’s the case, the same is also true for all international African staff  (update to NGO security personnel: last time I checked there was no singular, pan-continental language called ‘African’….)

The second debunking of white staff being more at risk came when I did a bit of research to find that there have been no attacks specifically targeted at white international staff in this area. Nor have there been specific targeted attacks on NGOs for that matter. What there has been is plenty of opportunities for ‘wrong place wrong time.’ I’m almost certain that those types of incidents are not correlated to skin colour, except perhaps when you pack a place with staff of a particular skin colour and then the shit hits the fan…. When I raised this I was told, ‘ah, but there are more radicals there, people who would just stab you for no reason.’ Ok, well that makes me feel much happier that my friends are going to work there….?! The strange thing is that white international staff travel to this location on a regular basis – they just don’t stay overnight – so if random stabbings really were a big concern, maybe we shouldn’t send anyone at all?

I’m sad to say that this deployment has not been the only place I have been to where security rules vary by the colour of your skin or the nature of your passport. I’m not saying that the NGO world should disregard specific threats against individuals or against particular nationalities; all I hope for is a little more equality in the value we place on any of our colleagues’ lives. I don’t like being wrapped in cotton wool because I am white, because I am a woman or for any of the other bullshit reasons that get floated around, not because I long for danger or want to expose myself to risk, but because my non-white colleagues, my male colleagues, my non-international colleagues are being told that these risks are acceptable for them based on stereotypes and I don’t believe that’s fair. You could argue that humanitarian work would be paralysed if these types of decisions were not made, but is it not better to be honest about the risks to all staff and allow individual choice on what risks are and are not acceptable?  Either that or we could just send in Kendal Jenner with a Pepsi first and then we would all be safe.

Babies

On a long drive recently, I was informed by a (ahem, male) colleague of mine that I was simply wasting time by not having children, and more depressingly, that my life up until the point of having children will just be ‘messing around’. According to this font of all reproductive wisdom, I would never understand life truly until I pushed a watermelon sized object out of my vagina. Hmm. Why do conversations like that always take place in cars, when you can’t escape? That’s why 90% of parents decide to do the contraceptive talk when in the car – ‘oh god, she put the child locks on! Make it stop! Did my mother just say ‘spermicidal lube’, holy mother of god, make it end!’

Of course there are a million things wrong with my colleague’s assertion, yet the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the humanitarian projects I have worked on have been a bit like bringing a child into this world. Parents bear with me on this one, but here are the seven ways that I think managing a project in a humanitarian mission is like becoming a parent:

  1. You don’t realise what you’ve taken on until it arrives:

Much like new parents beaming at their little bundle of joy in the hospital and carefully strapping said bundle into its car seat bound for family life, so too does the new humanitarian worker beam at their new contract and carefully strap themselves into their airplane seat not really sure of what is about to come next. After three weeks of crying, puking, pooing and sleepless nights the reality of signing that new contract in Tchad finally dawns on you. This is not how it looks in magazines when Angelina Jolie does it (yes, that statement works for both parenting and humanitarian-ing).

  1. It keeps you awake at night:

I’ve done this before when babysitting my nephews; you put them to bed after bouncing them around for hours in front of mad creatures re-creating your last acid trip on children’s television and you feel relieved when you are finally able to close the nursery door and rest. But from time to time, you want to just pop in and take a peek at them, sleeping soundly. Then there are those other nights where there is no rest, and your baby just cries and cries and no amount of bouncing or tripping will help them settle.  So too the humanitarian project; you manically run around to finish everything you need to do before curfew/before the generator packs up or just so that you can have an evening to rest, but you can’t help taking a little peek at your laptop to see whether your work plan is still on track. Sometimes, like the slumbering babe, everything is well and you can just stand and admire your creation, but more often than not, you spot something that needs some more work, like a baby that senses the smugness of their parents and decides now is the time to get their first tooth.

babies

Babies. Projects. Same same. 

  1. When you’re new you consult all the books:

We all have those sprogged up friends who have shelves of baby books; the What to Expect when you are Expecting, good parenting guides, or Gillian McKeath’s macrobiotic baby guide or other such nonsense. Most new parents go crazy, checking up every small hiccup or baby snuffle in a book hoping that the answer lies within. Likewise, spot the new humanitarian worker, pouring over their copies of Engineering in Emergencies, All in Diary or Sphere Handbook to find the answer for every blip in the project cycle.  When you’ve had two or three babies – or projects –  you rely less on the books and realise more it’s about common sense, like don’t drop the baby on its head, or don’t distribute mattresses that are bigger than your emergency shelters. For the more experienced, the books are more for when things are going really wrong, like, ‘help! My refugee camp is built on impenetrable rock’, or, ‘help! My child seems to have homicidal tendencies’.

  1. You show it off to everyone, but bitch about it when you’re on your own

No matter what their child does – pooing on a priceless rug, biting the postman, or looking up a stranger’s skirt – most parents will still claim that their child is perfection embodied. Except maybe when alone together and their little miracle is safely tucked in bed, they might acknowledge that today little Toby was a right dickhead. So too does the humanitarian wax lyrical about their project to donors and country management in reporting, claiming it is the most successful and effective project that has ever been thought of, ever. Except outside of those reports, they might acknowledge that really the whole thing is a bit shit, and they’re not really sure it will contribute anything to society after all.

  1. You argue with your partner about the best way to raise it

Two people bringing up a child are bound to have some clashes over the right way to raise it. One of you may want to follow new school ideas, such as never saying the word no or raising your voice; the other might find it hard to use ‘indoor voices’ when little Toby decides to throw your iPhone down the toilet. Likewise with a jointly managed humanitarian project, the two managing it will likely clash on certain points; for example, one of you may want the camp planning to be an organic process, with a jumble of facilities all over the site, whereas the other might find driving their desludging truck through where someone ‘organically decided’ to place their tent a bit of a bind.

  1. Nothing hurts as much as when you leave it/it leaves you

Most parents find the experience of having a newborn baby being utterly reliant on them a true test, but one that they find exhilarating. The same goes for a humanitarian worker with a new project; there is a certain joy in a project being completely reliant on your management and leadership. However for both parents and humanitarians, there comes a point when the child or the project has grown up, and you start to wish it could just do more by itself already. Eventually that point comes where your baby doesn’t really need you anymore. Parents talk about empty nest syndrome; humanitarians talk about burn out, handovers and decompression time.

  1. After all the pain and suffering you went through with the first one, you soon decide you want another.

 

Oddity Log: Somewhere in February

So it’s February, nearly the end of February in fact, but it feels like New Year’s Day was just a moment ago. Things are moving fast in the field. No longer am I sweating in the head office of my current response, instead now I am sweating in the middle of nowhere and living in a house made of plastic sheeting. Moving into said plastic house was a moment of great joy after spending a few weeks in a tent, sharing one half of it with another colleague. Don’t get me wrong, there are no ill feelings, but my new plastic cube is mine and mine alone. That means I can snore, fart, and scratch where ever I want during the evenings without fear of mentally scarring a team mate. As we moved into our new tarpaulin des-res, my colleague commented that now we were pretty much copying the IDPs in the camp where we work, who are also sleeping under tarpaulin, except we have electricity and access to WiFi, so I guess that makes us IDP+.

I have two weeks left before I go on a break and I’m definitely starting to feel the impact of running at full pelt for the last eight weeks. I sometimes think my productivity on each deployment is bell-curved in shape. When I’m on holiday, my brain is like a little old lady that you see pottering around town, stuck in third gear with a trail of frustrated motorists behind her. It’s in no hurry you see. But coming back into a deployment, I need to shift into top gear again, convincing that granny to put on a Stig-style helmet and jumpsuit, and thrash the living day lights out of a Kia Sportage (which, come to think of it, is probably also a fitting metaphor for my own rather average and non-descript physique).  As a result, the curve starts low, compounded perhaps by the fact that on average I spent my first two weeks just cleaning up the shit of whoever covered for me or my teams well intentioned but inappropriate budget choices. That and I usually can’t remember how to actually do my job…

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The scientifically verified Bell Curve of Humanitarian Effectiveness. 

After a week or two, productivity starts picking up; you’re back in the swing of things and starting again to move things forward. The bell curve is starting to reach its peak, and when it does, oh boy, you can tell that I am cranking out project activities with the same frequency as Kim Kardashian posting naked selfies (does she still do that? Please replace with another, more appropriate simile if she’s started to wear more clothes).  At this point in the deployment I am feeling like a fucking rockstar, nothing can bring me down. Except severe exhaustion from being such a fucking rockstar. It’s at that point that the curve starts to fall back down again; as a holiday appears – at first like a mirage – on the work planner horizon, my internal Stig starts taking off his helmet and jumpsuit and reaching for the twinset and slippers instead. It’s also the point at which I will start calling all my team mates the wrong names, mix up dates, say things like, ‘who is travelling in the carrots today?’ when I mean cars, it just happens I was thinking about my lunch whilst trying to form sentences.

I’m at that point now, but my break is so tantalisingly close. I just have to convince my inner Stig to keep his helmet on for just a few more weeks. Until then, apologies in advance if your name for the next fortnight is Teapot.

Guest Blog: Beauty in the Bush

We are very excited to announce our second ever guest blog on Aidwork Oddity! If you have thoughts, musings, stories or rants you would like to share, just drop us a line at aidworkoddity@gmail.com, follow us on facebook: Aidwork Oddities, or get us via the twittersphere: @aidworkoddity

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We’ve all had those moments of despair when trying to reach beauty nirvana. That terrible haircut, bleach job or wax/burn-your-skin-off moment when attempting to become the paragons we see in Vogue. For aid workers living in the field, the compulsion to feel more aesthetically pleasing, even for just 20 minutes, is a strong one. Somehow, despite the hundreds of bad experiences, horror stories from our fellow humanitarians and nightmares of our own of trying to beautify ourselves, we continue to trail the wax-strip, popped zit, gloopy mascara filled road, hopeful that this time will be different and a veritable Cara Delevigne will come strolling out of the tent each morning.

Once, in Nepal, I attempted to get what I thought was a basic leg wax.  I dared to ask if they did bikini line waxing and received a cold, ‘no’, a clear look of disgust and a disapproving look up and down. After being shown to the delightful ‘treatment room’ (a bed in the basement of a hotel) I settled back, but was soon confused by the feeling that the woman was working both legs at the same time. Propping up, I saw two women down there. One for each leg? No. Rather, I had one waxing the leg and the other following the wax with threading, her teeth working the thin string to get those strays from my kneecaps. The worst thing was I wasn’t even that shocked by it, considering the other beauty nightmares I’ve had on my travels…

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Me 90% of the time on deployment

I clearly hadn’t learned from that time in India when they promised me that they do ‘white girl hair’ and I sat in a salon in tears pulling out over-bleached chunks of fluff as they fell from my scalp. Nor the time a year later when I taught a young Indian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English what a Brazilian was in the back of a pedicure shop in Kampala. That delightful experience ended in a delicate scissor operation to try to cut out globs of wax that had clumped together and hardened in an area you really don’t want to be using blades. Even these two experiences didn’t stop me from inviting a friend for a pedicure in Ouagadogou, where her little toenail was completely clipped off, and the foot soak baths smelt clearly of rot.  A few years later, having forgotten the Indian hair salon and desperately wanting to feel fresh for an attempt at a romantic R&R, I yet again left a hair salon in tears sporting tiger stripes of bright blonde in my hair. My attempt at romance ended with him escorting me to various hairdressers whilst I tried to blend the yellow patches. Not the start that either of us had in mind.

I had hoped that my previous experiences would stand me in good stead for my current predicament of travelling with my partner. When you’re single in the field, it’s easier to let body hairs run riot – the likelihood is anyone who sees them is only going to see them once (ok, a couple of times… ok, four times a week until one of you leaves the deployment), and is quite likely also so sex-starved that they also won’t care. But when you have a longer term partner, especially in the first few months, you start to care whether your legs are silky smooth. When we arrived to our new homestead, I opened my bag in the 46 degree heat only to find all my wax strips had melted together. With no razor in sight and seven long weeks of cohabitation on the cards, I pulled out my tweezers and got at my armpits holding a flashlight between my teeth. Desperate times.

I keep telling myself I’m getting better at keeping to a beauty routine; half my luggage weight is skin creams and conditioner to try to reduce the sun’s traumatising impact on my ageing skin and greying, brittle hair. However, I still spend more time checking that the chocolate I buy is sealed inside the paper so if/when it melts in transit it can be refrozen and rescued, than I do making sure I have essentials like nail clippers, or oil to remove wax when I accidentally stick the strip facing the wrong way up on my inner thigh. Maybe this is because I opt for those locations far away from any swimming pools, romantic encounters or skin-baring (although, wearing a hijab in Yemen was a good opportunity to sneak extra oil in my unwashed hair without notice, hoping to provide some respite to my South-Sudan split ends). Or maybe I like to keep things a little risky with local, ‘natural’ approaches to beauty, such as that time in Mauritania someone convinced me that a paste made from flour and water was the best solution to stop in-growing hairs….

Lying back in that basement ‘beauty parlour’ watching two women both wax and thread my leg hairs, I realise that, much like any NGO applying for UNICEF funding, I have placed disastrous past experiences outside of the realm of decision-making consciousness, and choose instead to steadfastly repeat the same activity over and over hoping for a different outcome. That, my friends, is surely the definition of insanity.

Humanitarian Resolutions

I took a break from my current deployment over Christmas and New Year. As I enjoyed celebrating the arrival of 2017 in that most traditional of ways – falling asleep in front of Jules Holland’s Hootenany – I decided that this year was going to be the one in which I finally became a professional, consummate humanitarian, rather than the rambling ball of confusion I have been to date. Having reached the last day of the first month of the year (which in itself is depressing considering my sum total lack of work/weight loss/fitness improvements/fabulous hair/meditation/non stop sexathons with Ryan Gosling achievements to date) I thought I would review those resolutions I have already managed to break so thoroughly, Humpty Dumpty would look like a child’s jigsaw in comparison:

1. Staying calm when dealing with Logistics

Ah logistics. I know you are busy, my friends. I know you have four programme teams demanding on your time. I know you have less staff than you would like at the moment. But that still doesn’t explain why my procurement request for mobile phones – which I see everyday being sold in the local market- has been sent to Holland for review by an underpaid intern who will need to ask seven managers that prioritise their lunch breaks before it can be approved. I’m also at a loss why I seem to be covered in dust and blanket fluff within 5 minutes of starting work each day having lugged bales of stock into pick up trucks, whilst you nod at me from behind a clipboard wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt.

2. Staying calm in coordination meetings

I was doing relatively well with this one, until MSF starting shouting about a lack of action by partners on a particular issue at a coordination meeting early in the month. In my current deployment, I love MSF and I hadn’t shouted at anyone in at least three hours so it just felt right to join in. It was even more rewarding that our collective shouting was targeted at UNICEF, who are nearly always fair game for a bit of shouting at. So I broke that resolution, but I blame MSF for it. And then OCHA called me as I was travelling home to recommend completing the 5Ws (yes that’s right, there’s bloody 5 of them now) as the solution to the said issue. I mean, when someone is offering it to you on a plate, it would be just rude not to take the shouty opportunity.

I had also wanted to remain a neutral, calm, figure of serenity and wisdom at such meetings, however during the first five minutes I rolled my eyes so violently during an update from WHO that I lost a contact lens.

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Just the thought of resolutions brings on my rage… (credit: Calvin and Hobbes)

3. Staying calm… just generally

I would estimate around 80% of my waking hours this year have been spent in some form of rage.

4. Getting a solid 8 hours

Of sleep would be great. Of sex would be better. Of absolutely nobody talking to me would be heaven.

5. Not using alcohol/ smoking/ recreational drugs/ other forms of mild substance abuse as a coping mechanism

During January, me and my housemate have consumed 6 crates of beer, two bottles of whiskey, 4 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of vodka. So much for dry January. I have drank so many coke zeros that the town I am working in actually had a shortage that the vendor said was caused by my twice a day habit. During a training this month, I sniffed a permanent marker when I thought no one was looking.

6. Cook more healthy food and don’t rely on the cook’s limited menu

I’m writing this whilst digging into my 24th plate of Indomie instant noodles from the hotel kitchen. I cooked once in January; it was a chilli made with re-hydrated soya pieces. It was as delicious as it sounds.

So it looks like I’ve not been too successful in becoming a paragon of zen humanitarian effectiveness so far this year, but hey, at least I didn’t start my year by cutting funding to support women’s reproductive rights, banning ‘bad dudes’ from entering the US, or building oil pipelines and walls… so I’m one up. I did attempt a terrible fake tan though so perhaps it is a draw.

Sexism on Steroids

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Do you need me to explain the picture further? Wait, let me find a man to help me… (credit: Dilbert)

Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’

Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.

Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.

You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.

Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.

There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.

The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.

It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.

In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.