Tips for surviving the ‘extended break’

Next week, I’ll be heading back onto the good ship humanitarian, but for the last two months I have been on an extended break. I think the ‘extended break’ is a bit of a perk of the humanitarian lifestyle. Either by choice or design, you end up with a gap between contracts so you have a couple of months to please yourself, or in my case, you have spent so long working without a holiday that you have accrued a massive amount of leave that you need to take or risk losing it. I chose to spend my two months back at home ‘reconnecting’ rather than travelling or generally having fun. Whilst I’m sure that I didn’t achieve the ‘reconnecting’ objective, I feel like I have learnt some valuable lessons for surviving the extended break, which – in the words of Dave Gorman – I would like to share with you now…

  • Connect with people you haven’t seen for a while: Whilst this might seem like an obvious one, it is especially effective for one’s ego when you meet up with people that you worked with in the past in a terrible field location. When you have access to regular hot, running water, have been sufficiently de-wormed, and when you can actually eat a vegetable again, people will think you have undergone some magnificent transformation into a decent looking human being, whereas in reality you just swapped your logo t-shirts for a top that reveals you are, in fact, female. Throw in access to make up and Instagram filters, and these people will basically think you’ve become a supermodel.
Survival 2

Just some of the items you might need to survive the extended break… number of therapist not seen in shot (credit: The Division Field Guide)

  • Minimise your time ‘working from home’: When you have to be at home for an extended period of time after you’ve become used to living away, relationships with those nearest and dearest to you can become… strained, to put it politely. This has been impressed on me in magnificent fashion since I had to move back home with my parents for two months. It’s fair to say that people from my parent’s generation really do not grasp the concept of ‘working from home’. They think that if you are sat at the house’s only table, looking at a laptop, it somehow means, ‘come and talk to me, let’s discuss the minutiae of the traffic on the local roads, the price of milk and the daily habits of our cats’. This was made even more awkward by the fact that the only table in the house is in the kitchen. Do you know that parents need to drink tea on a half hourly basis? And that whilst the kettle is brewing they need to converse otherwise they will spontaneously combust? I do. I know these things now.

It’s always a good idea to have a safe space to run to when needed on the extended break (credit: Roots School)

  • If in doubt, remember the ‘Fridge Chat’: Along with the festive season come the questions about when you are going to give up your crazy humanitarian life and settle down into something, well, more normal. Or as I like to call it, ‘when are you going to do something that we understand (i.e. buying a house, getting married and popping out a few sprogs) instead of what you currently do, which I don’t understand and therefore don’t know how to talk to you about it.’ I thought that my closest family had made their peace with my lifestyle choices, but the extended break has a way of revealing truths, such as the suggestion from my mum that I move back home for a year to ‘settle down’, and do some office temping jobs if I needed some money. Wow. The ‘Fridge Chat’ is my reminder to myself that people generally stay within their own comfort zones. You might be telling what you think is a cool story of malaria or chronic giardia, but the person listening glazes over and when you’re finished, they say, ‘Hey, I got a new fridge!’ Oh. Well, that’s cool. The point is that most people will not understand what life is like for you as a humanitarian worker, the same way you will not 100% understand what life is like for them when you are not there and how your coming and going also impacts on them. Like Morrissey says, ‘How can anybody possibly think they know how I feel? The only one around here who is me, is me.’ To survive the extended break, you need to cultivate patience and accept that not everyone is going to want to listen to, or understand, tales of your life. Which kind of sucks, but it will mean less arguments if the next time someone tells you about their new fridge, you can tell them it’s a really nice fridge.


  • Do not open the door in your brain marked ‘deepest family-based insecurities’: Take it from someone who did, just DON’T DO IT. I know its tempting and you think it might be a doorway to healing old hurts, but trust me, it’s best just leaving it well alone. And if you really must, make sure you have enough money to cover the therapist you will absolutely need to help you shut it again before your next deployment.

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.


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.

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.


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.