Why is it such a crime to be an emotional humanitarian?

I’m an emotional person. My star-sign is Cancer, who are apparently notoriously emotional; all crabby and feisty claws on the outside with a soft underbelly, vulnerable to harsh words and fishmonger’s knives. For as long as I remember I’ve been that way; it’s a part of myself that I have found hard to accept as anything but weak for a very long time.

Humanitarians don’t cry. Humanitarians see other people suffering all day long and remain impassive. Humanitarians listen to strangers, their co-workers, their lovers and their friends describe the turmoil and the torment they have suffered at the hands of others, and the hands of Mother Nature, and in people’s stories and remain impassive. They have a job to do, and that job is professional. There’s no room for crying. To cry is to be emotional, and to be emotional is to be unprofessional, and to be unprofessional is to fail.

One evening, a colleague of mine and I stood on a balcony in Madagascar admiring the beautiful views across the rooftops of Antananarivo. After a few moments I noticed tears falling down his face. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he was thinking that it wasn’t fair for a country with such beauty and with such inspiring, intelligent people as our Malagasy colleagues to know such poverty; For its people to be denied opportunities that they so richly deserved simply because of the failings of their systems, their climate and their leaders. He was crying because the world was unfair on a colossal level and Madagascar screamed the fact into his face for the first time in his life.

A friend once told me how she had undertaken anthropology work in Vietnam. She recalled days sat with women describing their lives during the war and their lives now, and she wept as they told her their stories. She told me that some of the stories they told her made her feel so desperate to take their pain away, so saddened about the cruelties men can inflict on each other, there was no other way to process the information except through her tears.

I cried when a mother in Syria carrying her child came over to me to ask if I could provide baby milk. I told her that I couldn’t but asked how old her child was so that I could refer her to a service that could support her. She told me her child was three, but her 3-year old was smaller than my one year old nephew. Her baby was skinny, disinterested in interaction and terribly pale. With my colleagues we walked them to an infant and young child feeding clinic – the only one we knew of – which was closed for the day. As the mother walked away from me, I felt as though I had been punched and I cried, because I couldn’t be professional and do my job to help.

I cried after undertaking an assessment in Liberia of the worst slum I have ever seen in my life. I was asked to provide emergency sanitation for families quarantined as possible Ebola contacts. I worked with colleagues through the night to devise a response plan and pass it through the various echelons of decision making. I cried when I was told no, we could not respond, because of larger organisational considerations that I was not – and would not be – party to.

Emotional

If you want to be a humanitarian, best get yourself a stunt double for the emotional parts (credit: memegenerator)

I cried when after months of work supporting Jordanian colleagues to design and create a children’s club, I was invited to a caravan one afternoon to find 30 small boys, dressed in uniform t-shirts and hats enjoying a game about water conservation. I was overwhelmed with joy, both for the children who loved their t-shirts but were too busy enjoying the activities to talk to me much, and for my colleagues who saw their hard work translate into something powerful and real.

These people – including myself – were not unprofessional, nor were they weak. They were being human. Because I cry, I’m labelled as being ‘too emotional’. I’ve been given this feedback multiple times by the same person; my manager. It seems that if I connect emotionally with the work I’m doing – out of sorrow, out of frustration, out of empathy, or out of sheer joy – I’m not performing well in my job.

I accept that I am an emotional person, and I also know that I’m fucking strong. I will fight my corner like a one-eared tom cat, and the corner of people I love – hell, the corner of people I’ve only met once on an assessment – until I’m so frustrated by apathy, bureaucracy and ineptitude the only outlet my feelings can manage is through hot and angry tears running down my face. If you’ve bought me to tears you can bet that you have exhausted the very last of my strength and resilience. Congratulations.

Too often I hear from colleagues that displaying their emotions is considered negative, and too often I hear that emotions rise up when individuals are so frustrated with their situation, there is no other outlet. A friend told me recently at an event that she didn’t want to do any presentations, because if she did she, ‘may start crying out of sheer frustration and anger.’ How is this perceived a healthier situation than a few tears?

There has been significant attention paid over the past couple of years to the state of humanitarian workers’ mental health, and the amount of support they receive for processing distressing sights, sounds and stories every day. Not surprisingly, most studies have found that they do not receive adequate support, but in a context where to connect and display emotions is deemed to be weak, or even unprofessional, it is unsurprising that many humanitarians keep their emotions locked down, only to have them explode at a later and – most likely – highly inappropriate point in time.

We need to stop the culture of associating emotion with weakness. Of course we must maintain professionalism, but we should remind ourselves that we too are human beings, and human beings are emotional buggers who need to feel listened to, appreciated and sometimes need to have a little cry. We are experts at writing guidelines to ensure we respect the emotions of the people affected by conflicts and disasters we work with, but we seem to fail at translating those to each other. If I ever found myself requiring humanitarian assistance, I would want to speak with someone who tried to connect to how I was feeling, rather than a cold, emotionless, humanitaro-bot.

The clue is in the title. Humanitarian. Our emotions are the things that connect us to the people around us. If we don’t have that, what do we have?

Categories of Aid Worker

This last week, I attended a training (and I also went a-dashing; my manager must have read my last blog and taken the non-too-subtle hint implied in the title). I was overjoyed to spend my week with fifteen other humanitarians, all of whom were mad as a box of frogs.

You know that saying, the one that bosses boom out with a slap on the back trying to be funny, or slightly nervous HR ladies murmur on your first day in a new office, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ That is the motto of the humanitarian world. Something is a little bit funny in the minds of humanitarian workers; their internal wires were fused too far away from the brakes and far too close to the big red button with the sign saying ‘do NOT push’. As a result on any deployment you are likely to encounter some very, delightfully odd people.

Categories

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps! Credit: Tumblr

Some examples? OK, well there was the engineer in Dadaab who spent all of his wages on importing the biggest widescreen TV I have ever seen so that he could watch British Premier League matches. Not so odd? He did this at the expense of having any other furniture, so all games were watched sat on a bare concrete floor. Then there was the engineer who would help me with late night write-ups of discussion groups by using a different voice or accent for each respondent. How we had Scottish, Welsh and Russians in a Somali refugee camp I have no idea. Or the engineer in Djibouti who commandeered my driving licence to hire a Land Cruiser to drive through a salt lake, despite the picture showing a brown-haired female, rather than a blonde, bearded man. Wait… I’m seeing a pattern developing here…

There is a long-established and well recognised categorisation of aid workers that labels individuals as missionaries, mercenaries or misfits. Or perhaps it’s more of an evolution than a categorisation… but I know a few people that skipped the first two stages if that’s the case. If you’re a missionary, you’re likely to be a new starter, full of over-zealous gleam and hope that you can change the world without that nasty business of getting eaten by the locals (that’s ACTUAL missionaries, like years ago. It rarely happens now). You will preach the good word of Sphere to the non-believers (like militaries and governments) recruiting enthusiastic devotees to worship at the shrine of the Cluster (coordination meetings in an upmarket hotel). But, after a period of dedication, your faith may start to waiver. Your prayers for assessment data, flexible funding and prompt decision making go unanswered and you cry alone in the darkness (because the solar lights are being held in the port until the overlords will them out). It is at this point, you may begin to transform into a mercenary. Mercenaries are the aid workers going through the motions. They’re highly skilled with great experience, but with perhaps a tad too much of both which leaves them feeling jaded. These are your cynical bastards; they’re unlikely to find one element of a programme they can’t complain about. However, for the true mercenary, money and status are their primary motivators, and countless crushed wings of little missionary butterflies twitch under their boots whilst they stomp their way to fulfill selfish ambitions, losing sight of the bigger picture. Woah, ok, got caught up a bit there. However, not all aid workers end up that way (hurrah); some become misfits. Misfits have got the experience, got the devotion, but might be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. These are the best kinds of humanitarians; they care, but they don’t take their own life too seriously. They immerse themselves into the job and the context, often with the result of extremely poor fashion judgements. Sometimes, misfits are called ‘lifers’, because they’re in the sector – or more accurately in the field – for life. The hallowed desk job holds no allure for the misfit.

On the training I attended, surrounded by wonderful oddballs, we mused on the ‘types’ of humanitarian workers. We were in the pub after a day of being shot at, driving into minefields, tackling sucking chest wounds, and – in general – having a bloody awesome day, discussing how much fun it had all been (I hasten to add that this was all simulated. There was no military attack in rural Shropshire last week. The pub wasn’t simulated though; that shit was real). It struck us then that most normal people would not consider simulated shootings, minefields and sucking chest wounds as a fun Thursday. We wondered what drove us to seek out those experiences. One of the group explained that once he had been posted to Tanzania, and spent his entire deployment on edge because it was ‘too nice.’ One of the collective surmised, ‘I think that’s just aid workers, you’re either unstable or you become that way.’

I’m not sure what type of aid worker I am. My faith has certainly wavered too far for me to be a missionary, but I like to think that my main motivator is still the humanitarian imperative of wanting to save people’s lives and ease their suffering. I guess that leaves me with misfit. I’m happy with that.

I’m Bored.

Close on the heels of those misty-eyed looks from strangers when admitting what you do for a job, is the assumption – by those same strangers – that your life consists of endless helicopter rides, trekking across mountains, surviving on WFP rice rations or passionately shouting down a telephone, ‘Damn it man, we need those latrine slabs and we need them now!’ whilst ISIS storm your compound.

The truth is; aid work is not always exciting.

Whenever I stop to re-assess my job (which recently has been more than a healthy amount), I am reminded of those memes that people make that go along the lines of, ‘what my friends/parents/society/tax-man (that last one for aid workers is probably lounging under a palm tree waving two fingers in the air) think I do’, with a final ‘what it’s really like’. What would you think is the final picture for humanitarians? Digging with bear hands into an earthquake collapsed building? Trekking across a mountain covered in bags of plumpy nut? Pointing with an air of authority whilst holding a clip board and wearing a multi-pocketed, multi-logo embossed gilet? No. Nothing quite so exciting. For humanitarianism, the ‘what it’s really like’ usually consists of a person holding their head in despair whilst surrounded by piles of paperwork and an open laptop displaying the swirly circle of doom on Google chrome.

Bored

That’s not what its really like… that man needs more empty coffee cups and less hair. 

Don’t get me wrong, humanitarianism is exciting for the most part. Its high-stress, high-octane, problem-solving awesomeness.  There are the opportunities to work with incredible people, and to travel to places you would never ordinarily see, not even if you booked your last holiday with Exodus. But that’s not all day, every day.

A lot of time will be spent in meetings. So many meetings. I once spent so much of my week in meetings, my team thought I had been kidnapped. A bit more time is spent shackled to a laptop staring bleary eyed at spreadsheets wondering why finance has coded all the payments for water trucking under ‘kitchen ware’. A bit more time will be spent signing things. If you work in any role where you have budgetary authority, you’re likely to dedicate at least 10% of your entire working time being chased around the office by team mates equipped with blue pens, but woefully inadequate knowledge of budget codes.

But no part of aid work, and I mean literally, no part, beats the boredom of “working from home.” I am currently “working from home”. It is force of habit for me to write this in quotation marks, since everyone knows “working from home” entails lying in your pyjamas on the couch watching Homes under the Hammer whilst occasionally checking your work emails on your phone (praise the lord for mobile technology; it saves having to be anything other than horizontal whilst “working from home”). As a rapid response person, my job is supposedly sees me dashing around between countries, but sometimes there is nowhere to dash to, so instead you sit on the sidelines like the slightly strange kid that always got picked last for the rounders team (ah, memories).

There is still work to be done; however, that work is often so mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly boring it can induce a level of existential angst hitherto unconsidered by the average humanitarian worker, particularly those who thrive on the go-go-go of an emergency environment. It is during these periods that I have a tendency to become very emotional, especially when my opportunities to go back to the field get cancelled. Sometimes my parents hope they can cure my boredom with small consolation prizes, leading to interesting new realms of sibling rivalry:

Me: ‘Do you like my new pyjamas?’ My sister: ‘I want new pyjamas!’ My Mum: ‘Well, when your deployment to Yemen gets cancelled, you can have new pyjamas too’

I canvassed opinion on Aidwork Oddity’s new Facebook page (that’s right, we’re on Facebook! Self-plug!) and apparently, if I can get through working at home without eating too many biscuits, I’m already crushing it. Within the last two weeks, I don’t think there has been a biscuit on the Tesco aisle that I haven’t sampled. Don’t worry, I did take them to the till and pay for them first.

I suppose I should look on the positive side: I’ve been able to catch up on A LOT of day time telly when waiting for work inspiration to strike, including Jeremy Kyle. Watching that programme exposes viewers to a lot of conflict and distressing sights, like ill fitting tracksuits, so I guess I found it vaguely comforting. My manager tells me I should enjoy the time working on the go-slow to relax and prepare for my next deployment; it bodes well for our working relationship that she clearly hasn’t yet figured out that I’m a highly-strung workaholic occupying a normal person body suit.

Until there is more news about where I’m going next, I’m stuck in a working from home boredom hell. I’ve got to pray that a space opens up for dashing somewhere pretty soon. If I have to do a second round of the biscuit aisle, I’m not sure I’ll fit in the airplane seat.

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Syria: Five Years On

Apologies, dear readers, that I am behind on my posts. This is because – as you well know if you read my last post – I am on holiday, and so have less aid-work worries than I usually do. Except yesterday, I took a boat trip. On this boat trip, we got into some choppy waters. The boat climbed up and crashed down like a poorly designed roller-coaster at a street funfair, and we cheered and whooped and clapped that it was so much fun to be crashing over the waves.

But it got me thinking about the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean at the moment in search of safety or a better life, or both. Even though it was fun, the wave surfing was a little scary, uncomfortable and nauseating. I thought of having to spend not 10 minutes, but perhaps 10 hours in a boat less sturdy than mine and across waves much rougher than mine. The thought terrified me.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian crisis. I worked in Syria for the all too brief period of 9 months a few years back. When I first started, I was given a full security briefing. Our security advisor was warning us of Al Nusra front as being the main threat against foreign workers and generally causing mayhem, then, as if overnight, security warnings took a darker turn. Al Nusra were not the only bad guys any more, it was a group called ISIL. Where I was working, the area outside the camp was a battleground between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army. During my time there, one of our members of staff went missing for three days; when he returned to work, he explained that ISIL had come to his town, rounded up all the men and taken them for questioning about their faith at gun point. Another time, my team and I narrowly made it across the border into Turkey as a fire fight broke out around us for control of the border crossing. The camp where thousands of innocent, terrified Syrians sought shelter was targeted by suicide bombers twice; the week after I left my deployment, one was successful. A supposed safe haven full of innocent men, women and children escaping fear, violence and uncertainty. The bomber killed 40 of them.

One day, my team and I were assessing some water tanks installed for new arrivals. As we were doing so, the noise of a plane hummed in the distance. I have never seen a change in atmosphere happen so quickly; women screamed for their children to come back into the tents; men shouted the imminent arrival of the aircraft to each other, desperate to shelter and protect their families. I’m not sure I had truly understood the horror that people had lived through until that point.

Once on our drive out of the camp, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘It’s ok for you, you get to leave.’ It was possibly the first time I allowed him to see my distress. I was so focused on presenting detachment and professionalism, that my feelings spilled over from this small remark. I was invested, boots to head, with him, with them, with this camp and the dysfunctional little town it had become. But what made me fall apart was that he was right; if things became too much for me, I could request to leave. And in the end, that’s what I did; not because of the war, not because of ISIL, and not because emotionally I was spent, even though I was; because I no longer trusted my organisation to lead a well organised response.

I understand the concerns of Europeans being reticent (putting it nicely) to allow the wave of predominantly Syrian refugees into their countries. We went through something similar when the size of our humble little camp tripled within two weeks due to heavy bombardment in Aleppo. Yes it was chaos, but it was worth it to offer the smallest amount of hope to people so desperate to feel safe.

Last year I hoped we would not see another, and it saddens me to think that it is only since the crisis is knocking on Europe’s doorstep that it can no longer be ignored. Whilst it makes me sad to think it has come to this to force the world’s hand into some kind of concrete action, I hope it finally does. Imagine for a second that it was you and your family; imagine the noise of the planes; the shaking of your house when a bomb lands nearby; leaving your home, belongings, your history in order to keep your children safe; imagine that the only route you see open to you is a rough journey across a choppy sea with no assurance at the end. If you could imagine that, you would remember the Syrian anniversary and call for greater support of Syrian refugees. Let’s hope that there is not a 6th anniversary.

On International Women’s Day… Where my boys at?

This week, many of my female friends have been marking International Women’s Day by sharing updates, badges and whatever else you do on social media these days to show your support for a cause. Covering your profile picture with the Suffragette flag or a giant vagina or something along those lines. One friend posted a thought that I have heard so many times, in so many countries; why is there an International Women’s Day? Why only one day to celebrate women and their achievements? Why is it a celebration when there is still not equality between women and men?

If you are a woman you are likely to receive a wage that is up to 30% lower than your male counterpart doing the same job. You are less likely to be represented in employment unions making it harder for you to ensure your rights in the workplace. You are likely to work more, for less pay, with less education and less political participation. The country in which you live may even have legal restrictions on the work that you can do. You are less likely to own your own land, even though you may take an equal (or higher share) in farming it. In natural disasters, you are more likely to die. You are almost certain to encounter some form of sexual violence (including verbal harassment) in public within your lifetime. Whilst there has been significant progress, you are still less likely to go to school, particularly secondary or tertiary education. All of this because you are a woman. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women despite all of these imbalances and encourages us all to keep pushing for gender parity.

If you are a human being, and you think women should be treated equally to men, then congratulations, you are a feminist. The mention of the F-word makes some people come across a little strange; it makes them think that if you are one, you have to burn your bra or taste your own menstrual blood à la Greer. Apparently because I don’t want to do the last one, I have a long way to go before declaring myself a feminist, however, I trust my body to let me know the stuff it wants to keep on the inside, and the stuff it thinks I’m best off letting go. Is it a ritual rite of passage for men to scoff their own spunk to be manly? Not as far as I know, but then, I may move in some pretty sheltered circles. And as for burning bras, I’m guessing that for any woman in my situation with more than a C cup, bras are less symbols of oppression and more a safeguard against black eyes on unpaved roads. Some people think of feminism and think of a load of unwashed women, munching on tofu burgers and plaiting their unshaven armpit hair. When I think of feminism, I think of dedicated human beings that believe your genitalia shouldn’t dictate your treatment in this world.

Note that I say human beings; parity, equality, whatever you want to call it, can’t just come from women alone. If we could do it all ourselves, I reckon we probably would have managed it by now. No, we need men. That might upset some feminists to say that we need men, but we do; for there to be equality between the sexes, there needs to be at least two of them. That’s just common sense. Here, I defer to the wisdom of Caitlin Moran. In Moran’s best-selling book, ‘How to be a Woman’, she gives a great explanation of why a feminist should not be either ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’; ‘The idea that we are all at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along… I’m just thumbs up for the six billion.’ It’s not men that feminists need to be fighting as Moran says, it’s The Man. The Man is the one responsible for perpetrating the never ending stream of images, words and influence that tells us women should be one way, and men should be another. Men suffer just as much from The Man as women do.

On my last deployment, I saw a film made by the Vogue Empower campaign called ‘Start with the Boys’. In it, boys are told over and over again, ‘stop crying, are you a girl?’

We forget sometimes that boys are also put under pressure to behave a certain way, and therefore treat women a certain way. If we want gender parity, we need to work together to allow humans to be who they are, rather than shoe-horning them into the neatly defined expectations we have of them based on their genitalia.  The strongest men see women as their equals and the strongest women don’t need to put men down to be empowered. So on International Women’s Day this year, big up to all the guys out there – women, men, and those who identify with neither – who are championing gender parity by being human and doing it well.

The Buffer Break

I’m writing this blog post a little late. And if truth be known, a little pissed. Because I am on HOLIDAY. Not just any holiday, oh no, I am on my first Buffer Break.

There comes a point in every deployment where you just want out. Maybe it’s when you’ve become tired of being the only person in your ‘hotel’ to clean the restaurant tables. Maybe it’s when you want a proper bed. Maybe it’s that if you hear/see one of more of those delightful cultural quirks such as lung-hacking pre- and post-dinner, or a long fifth fingernail for…. excavations, you may commandeer a gun from a local peacekeeper and go Columbine. Or maybe it’s just that you’re really, really tired. Humanitarian work seems to exhaust people like nothing else. It’s not just physical exhaustion bought about from long and active working days, poor diets and lack of sleep enduced by nonstop worries of earthquakes, or bombs, or mice that like to eat your clothes while you sleep or all-the-things-your-agency-could-be-doing-to-save-lives-but-are-not-in-the-donor-contract-and-the-CD-doesn’t-like-it, it’s also mental exhaustion. A friend and I recently discussed the longest we had worked on ‘maxed out mode’; it was an average of 17 hours per day, 7 days a week for 10 weeks straight. Her run was broken by being called to another emergency, mine by malaria. I imagine that the EU would have a field day slapping regulations on those kind of working hours.

Most aid workers know when it’s time to go; we all have our tell tale signs. Your patience reaches zero and you begin snapping with co-workers. Or you lose the ability to concentrate and lack motivation for your work despite there still being mountains to move. Or, like me, your level of casual swearing could qualify you for the navy, or at least Captain Jack’s skipper for sure. You can see it; your once bouncy colleague – known to brighten even the darkest of email induced bad moods – slumped over their coffee cup, calling everyone a twat.

So then go home! Take a break! See your family and friends! I hear you cry. Except herein lies the secondary dilemma; that adjusting back to ‘normal life’ can be just as tiring and painful. You are exhausted and possibly traumatised from what you have experienced, but your family and friends just see their old son/daughter/mate back again and assume you are still that bright-eyed, shiny, idealistic young thing they hugged at the airport, rather than a sleep deprived, worn out, probably hung over miscreant questioning the utility of your entire existence as an aid worker (or you know, on different points on that long sliding scale).  Many of your nearest and dearest won’t understand what life has been like for you and equally, you will not understand how your emotional crash landing back into their lives will affect them. When one aid worker posted on the Facebook group ’Fifty Shades of Aid’ that they found it hard to adjust to being back at home despite good relationships with their family, 33 others quickly identified with them and left 15 comments offering different advice. I can relate to this person’s dilemma. My inability to integrate seamlessly back into family life has resulted in me either hiding in my bedroom or shouting at my mother like a stroppy teenager on a crowded street in Llandudno; neither are options I want to see becoming the norm.

Tesco

The buffer break may result in you missing a browse around your local supermarche – Credit: Telegraph

And so I am taking my first buffer break. The buffer break as a concept is well acknowledged in the humanitarian field, but I like to think I have given it a trendy ‘instagram’ label now (I can imagine the selfies now, ‘me on the beach #bufferbreak #nofilter’ #fuckoff). It is when, instead of going straight home at the end of a deployment, you go somewhere else for a little while to ease gently back into life away from the very worst things that human beings can do to each other, and back into one of family lunches, cappuccinos and haircuts. A few friends of mine have dreamt of setting up a ‘half-way house’ for humanitarians to enjoy exactly this kind of decompression stop on their murky rise up to surface normality. One friend had an amazing idea to set up a resort in Spain, with a range of activities to satiate all manners of coping mechanisms: waterfall diving for those with spare adrenaline to burn? You got it. Massage and pedicure for those knotted from computer based hunching? No problem. Drowning your sorrows in excellently made cocktails for… erm, everyone? On tap! The idea being you can do whatever it takes to shake off those last vestiges of the deployment, helping you feel ready to leave work behind and head home ready for reintegration.

I spent my buffer break doing a mix of all three of the options above. I went trekking and spent some time getting uncomfortably close to a manner of animals that would happily eat me. I also had a massage which ironed out the tangle of knots that were keeping my shoulders hunched up like Quasimodo. I drank too much wine. Alone. And then wrote a blog post (winning). I met people who didn’t care at all what I had spent my last 6 months doing, and were more interested in finding out what my recommendations were for activities for the next day. It was refreshing. It also gave me time to finish off all the obligatory reporting, emails, last minute extra pieces of work that I usually end up having to do at home and keep me with one eye on work, rather than two eyes on my wonderful family and soaking up all my limited and precious time with them.

Tomorrow is the last day of my buffer break; it might be the wine talking, but taking this break in between my two worlds has made me feel more relaxed. Mostly, it has made me feel ready and excited to get back to my family, and back to ‘normal life’. Some people may be wondering how they would know when they were ready to leave the fast-pace of deployment behind and head home. Mine came like a eureka moment when catching up with a friend. I asked her what she was doing, and she said that she was in Tesco buying a sandwich. The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t, ‘oh how dull!’, or ‘hmm, I do really need to get going and finish that report…’ or even, ‘what kind of sandwich?’ It was ‘Tesco! Man, I can’t wait to mooch around Tesco!’ And lo and behold, I am ready to head home.

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.