If you asked me to name my favourite thing about working in the humanitarian sector, I would be hard pushed to find just one thing. But if you asked me what ranks up there in the top five, I’m going to have to say the cars. No, I didn’t make a typo like the now infamous ‘bear hands’, it genuinely is cars.
I’ve always been a fan of cars; in fact, I come from good, car-obsessed stock, with a father who consults What Car for spiritual guidance more often than a religious text, and an uncle who renovates classic cars. Not every girl is so lucky to receive a Volkswagen Beetle calendar for their 14th birthday, a gift that I genuinely treasured. I would spend evenings reading through my dad’s old car magazines, and I still cannot resist the pull of a Top Gear re-run. When I was 17, I started dating a guy who had a very old Land Rover, and one day he let me drive it. I remember the pedals being huge, (‘so that you can feel them through your wellington boots,’ he assured me), the steering being stiff and the gear box a crazy revelation of sticks and levers that seemed totally unnecessary in any other car. I think that was the day that I fell in love… not with him, but with 4X4s.
And then came humanitarianism. Sure, when I was working on short term projects, arriving at the airport and climbing into the back of a UN branded Toyota Landcruiser seemed a little bit over the top for a trundle to a hotel in downtown Nairobi, but I was in heaven. I am convinced that a Toyota Land Cruiser is my spirit animal. Ready for anything, slightly uncomfortable, but capable of some very interesting things when handled properly, it’s like we were two items made to the same design specification.
When you work in the field, cars become a big part of your life, and as such, many aid workers will also share similar tales of their love for a particular brand of all-terrain vehicle. In Lisa Smirl’s book, ‘Spaces of Aid’, the SUV is one of the key spaces in which an aid worker operates, becoming not just a means to an end of delivering humanitarian assistance, but an ‘active, constitutive part of aid relations.’ And it’s true: In Jordan, my three hour daily commute meant my car became my office (complete with coffee in Bodum travel press – you know you have one); in Sierra Leone, my bumpy cross district trips with my team became our opportunity to bond and become close friends; and in Madagascar, our cross country travels became our karaoke and disco sessions.
Another thing I love is driving. As with many things I love doing, I’m not particularly good at it – possibly a touch too girl racer – but I give it an enthusiastic go. One of the most disappointing things about working in the sector is that you don’t often get to drive. This is mainly because NGOs do not trust you with their most expensive assets, which is pure torture for a girl like me, looking at a yard full of beautiful, shiny, kindred spirit Toyotas and being unable to jump into one and drive it sideways along the steepest embankment I can find. Perhaps ‘The Management’ has a point though; on one rare mission where I was able to drive, I forgot that the rest of the world drives differently to us Brits and nearly pulled out headlong into oncoming traffic. I told you that driving was possibly not my specialist skill. Once – just once – I got to drive a beauty of a Toyota 4×4 across Djibouti. It was my first time driving overseas, first time driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, first time driving off-road and my first time with a Land Cruiser. Yeah that’s right, I said with, it’s a beautiful moment in my head, I’m romanticising it! My colleague – at first incredulous that I even wanted to drive, then claiming that as a man, the car was an extension of his body and therefore it was his right to drive it – eventually caved in and coached me through the experience. I remember him saying, ‘so, you know now, like you feel that the end of the car is sliding?’ I nodded. ‘Mmm, that’s when you’re going too fast,’ he noted. I did later get bonus points for driving behind a rogue goat, rather than in front of it.
The problem with being the passenger is placing your life into someone else’s hands. This can be problematic in a range of circumstances, for example, when you are picked up from the airport and your driver sends text messages on his mobile phone for the entire duration of a one hour motorway journey. Or when your driver is taking you to a remote community at approximately 2,800m altitude up a one track, crash barrier-less, sandy road which doesn’t appear to be quite wide enough for your vehicle. Or when the road ahead appears to be a cliff face, but your driver shoves the car into low range and essentially makes it rock climb to the top. Actually, those last two experiences were awesome, however, the fact remains that road accidents are the biggest killers of humanitarian workers on a year to year basis. In many places, vehicle standards and even basic safety practices are woefully lacking, and many is the time that you will find yourself in a car without seatbelts. As much as bumping around in a 4X4 is fun, humanitarian work is risky enough as it is not to take basic safety precautions when travelling in cars. The one space you don’t want that magnificent metal box becoming is an interim coffin.
Sadly, in my latest deployment, the ubiquitous Uber seems to have replaced the company fleet. I suppose that this is a good thing – cheaper, more economical, provides an income to a wider pool of individuals – but I still pine for my spiritual, combustion-engined counterpart. I had been saving up for a house deposit, but after this post, come and meet me in the ‘classic 4X4s’ section of What Car Magazine.