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…

beauty

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.

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.