Archives for posts with tag: conflict

A glance over at people around me in any given situation in Uganda prompts a flood of thoughts, memories and reflections. Having lived there before, and having returned there recently, each moment brings with it a connection with the past and the present.

At Entebbe airport, a line of young men in polo shirts and sunglasses were in the queue next to me, preparing to board an Eagle Air flight to Gulu in northern Uganda. What were they going there for? I wondered. When I first started travelling to wartorn Gulu in 2002, there was only a handful of NGOs, and therefore only a few white faces, to be seen there. Over the years, as the international community finally started paying some interest in a rebel war which for two decades had resulted in thousands of deaths and child abductions, UN and NGO offices in northern Uganda multiplied, along with plush hotels to house their staff. Now, with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army having left northern Uganda to cause further damage and deaths in neighbouring Congo and Central African Republic, Gulu has beeen restored to some level of normalcy; indications of it embarking on a new stage of development found in the construction of new roads and a large supermarket.

Outside Gulu

Outside Gulu (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)

And so I glanced curiously at these guys next to me and wondered what Gulu is like now to be attracting these smiling men, who looked as if they’re about to go on safari rather than on the aid missions that were so common there only a few years ago.So much has changed since those days when I worked in Uganda, both within and around me. New hotels, office blocks and shopping malls have sprung up all over Kampala. Places which ten years ago were disused carparks or empty plots where people threw their litter are now busy shopping centres or classy restaurants. But certain things remain the same. The slow, unhurried pace of the traffic; the roadside clothes markets with wire manequins whose hips have been purposefully widened and stretched out to reflect the African woman’s figure; the gruff vocal chords of the male singers on the radio, performing their version of reggae to pre-recorded and synthesised backing music; the calm, quiet, smiling demeanour that is customary to the country’s inhabitants.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria (Photo credit: wheresthebrain)

Sitting in an airport café overlooking Lake Victoria, waiting to board my plane to Kenya, I wondered whether I’d be back to Uganda again.  And I still wonder at how I got into this position in the first place; so unexpected and unplanned after a year of gently putting many of these memories of a previous life behind me in order to open myself up to new beginnings and new opportunities. This time last year, did I ever imagine I would find myself back here again?In a meeting the other day, a fellow NGO worker noted casually how coming back to Uganda – after working in other areas and jobs – can feel like going back in time. To a certain extent I agree, especially when it comes to having to put aside our Western-centric values and assumptions in order to accept the African realities of technology not always working properly, or things not always running on time.

And on a personal level too, it is easy to think that somehow my transition from NGO worker to….something else – has taken a backward step. But then transitions are not necessarily about where we physically situate ourselves, nor are they about pushing ourselves towards the new life we think is good for us. They’re about where we are internally at any given moment. The real transformation comes from not pushing, and not assuming anything; in letting the unpredictable, sometimes suprising, sometimes magical and uncontrollable circumstances that life throws at us not seem like a setback in our journey. I have to remind myself regularly that just because things haven’t quite worked out as I’d expected in the last few months – that rather than navigating my way towards academia and studying a Phd I appear to have made a diversion and travelled to a place I lived in ten years ago – things are exactly as they should be.

It feels right to be in this place right now, and that ultimately is what’s important.

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One week into my trip to Kenya, and I’ve barely had time to stop and take it all in. As we arrived earlier in Kisumu, a city that borders Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, I felt the exhaustion wash over me. I have seen so much, and heard so many sad stories in the last few days that it’s hard for me to process it all.

Last week I found myself in the Nairobi slums, which house over half the city’s population of three million. On Friday, a forced eviction had taken place in one of the smaller settlements. Shacks made of tin and cardboard had been destroyed, with their contents – the meagre belongings of the residents – strewn across the dampened ground. We made our way along a muddy path – balancing on stray planks of wood and bricks to avoid rotten sewage flowing through the settlement – to meet some of the residents. They were understandably distraught after being made homeless, and being forced to flee their houses as they were being demolished amidst the firing of teargas and live ammunition. The eviction had happened at four that morning and had been carried out by a group of unidentified men, while the police stood by and watched, their role merely to ‘keep the peace’ – an apparent euphemism for providing security to those demolishing the homes, not their inhabitants. Young mothers with hungry crying babies, elderly women with a look of despair and fear in their teary eyes, angry men, some of whom had hit the bottle early in the day and were wondering around looking for a fight – everyone was shell-shocked, and wondering what to do next.

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Mathare, one of the many slums in Nairobi

This long day in the slums was followed by another, in a different slum, where we talked to a 15 year old boy who had been shot by the police during protests against the new Government. We spoke in hushed voices in the boy’s small, cramped home where he resided with his anxious mother. The settlement was full of lively activity – market stalls selling kitchen utensils, CDs, phones, fruit and veg and meat; cars driving along the bumpy dirt track; goats being herded amidst the throng of people coming and going; reggae music blaring from sound systems. But underlying all of this was the fear of violence and bloodshed, the slum having been the victim of serious ethnic tensions in recent years. ‘Tribalism’ – a horrible but much used word in Kenya – permeates through every aspect of social and political life, and has been the cause of much civil unrest, particularly in the slums in Nairobi, and in Kisumu, where I am now.

What a world away this is from the quiet period of self-reflection I imposed on myself in the last year. I’ve been thrown in at the deep end, certainly, but I’ve also jumped from one extreme to another. Suddenly I’m bombarded with unfamiliar and distressing images and stories which are the everyday realities for many people. No sooner have we left one horrific incident behind, we are faced with another, whilst also trying to find some moral purpose for being there in the first place; to somehow justify our presence as human rights defenders, even though there is nothing tangible we can offer to ease the grief that is felt by the victims we meet.

These are the typical struggles of an NGO worker. They push themselves beyond their limits in the hope of finding some way of addressing the cruel injustices they’re witness to. They push and they push, storing up all those upsetting and distressing images, often avoiding emotional reaction on any level, lest it betray a weakness or vulnerability that threatens their capacity to do their job.

There is no doubt that one needs an inner strength to do this kind of work. But one thing I have learned in the last year is that strength is not gained by withholding or suppressing emotions. Each day we absorb so much negative energy as we go about our work; whether it be from the hostile State official, the angry victim who has long ago lost hope in the empty promises made by Westerners with good intentions, or from our colleagues as they juggle the plethora of emotions, expectations and pressures related to their job. It is essential to find a way of releasing this negative energy – of processing what we are confronted with, and letting it go – in order to maintain the clarity and confidence which assures us that no matter what the challenges, we are doing the best we can. I realise that it is more important for me now than ever to have time – which may only be 5 or 10 minutes in a day – to stop and be solely with myself. To touch base, and calmly observe the rush of emotions which are inevitable when faced with endless hardships and injustices. By observing, I go some way in processing and releasing what I have absorbed in the last few days. And in doing so, I can restore that vital inner strength that prepares me for the next challenge.

Dear Gaza

It is with great sorrow that I hear the latest news about another massacre, another bombing, another retaliation. I feel sorrow for the rising death toll, the pictures of weeping mothers and wives, the murder of children too young to even understand the struggles of their parents, families and neighbours. And I also feel sorrow becuase I know that each death, whether it’s in Gaza or in Israel, will only fuel further hatred, and further violence. I watch as the vicious pattern unfolds once again – attack and counter-attack, claims and counter-claims, threats and counter-threats. A new generation growing up with nothing but anger in their hearts.

In fact anger is everywhere; from the Government ministers to the international solidarity activists holding demonstrations outside Israeli embassies throughout the world, from one Facebook wall post to another, anger is pervasive. It is behind every political statement on Palestine, and every military action on either side.

I know this anger, and I’m by no means immune to it. It is anger that has spurred me on in Palestine, that strengthened my resolve to work there after witnessing the Wall, the settlements, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I am only now just processing that anger, releasing it in waves of sorrow and distress after holding it in the pit of my stomach for so many years as a Palestine activist. I am familiar with the anger I hear in the voices of commentators, and even my own father – so incensed is he by what is happening in Gaza right now.

But this time round, dear Gaza, dear Palestine, I am not one of those angry voices. I will not be attending any demonstrations, and I will not be writing press releases or political statements. And I will not be engaging in any of the aggressive political point-scoring, some of it between friends on separate sides of the fence (both politically and physically). I don’t say this with pride, and I do say it with more than a little guilt. My decision doesn’t come from a place of pure wisdom or higher authority, but from a place of accepting one thing: I don’t see the purpose of my anger anymore, and if anything I’m fearful of it – of what this negative emotion does to me, and to anyone engaged in the Palestinian situation. Does Gaza need my inner conflicts, confusion and frustration leaking out into any action I take for the so-called good of Palestine? Because anger often comes from this deeper, more obscure place of inner turmoil. It is not always constructive, or effective – I question now whether my anger over Palestine has really achieved anything over the years except perhaps alienating a few people and breeding further hatred. And what can hatred ever achieve? With anger, and hatred, we lose all sense of balance or compassion. It is easy for our emotions to take over when visiting Palestine, but how often do we stop to question their source and their purpose? It is only once I find the  meaning behind my own emotions and actions that I can understand the emotions and actions of others.

And so, dear Gaza, this time I stand back. I read what I can, and I’m screaming inside. But I will not be expressing my grief on the podium, or in the newsletter or conference room.  Please don’t mistake my non-action for apathy. My non-action comes from a place of understanding that clinging on to anger will serve no purpose except greater suffering. There are many positive actions that can be fuelled by people’s anger over injustice. All respect, and my most sincere wishes, go to those who transform their anger into something beautiful and empowering for the human race. I would one day love to join those who are mindful of every action and reaction, and who have a clear vision of what peace can and should look like, regardless of race, ethnicity or political positioning. But for now, my silence is the strongest thing I can offer as a  sign of love and compassion in this mixed up world.

For more reflections on Palestine activism, anger and mindfulness please read this blog piece from Mindfulness for NGOs: blog « Mindfulness for NGOs.

When people ask me what job I do, I always struggle to find the appropriate response. It tends to differ according to who is asking me, and will range from ‘development/aid/humanitarian/human rights worker’ to ‘advocacy/policy/programmes officer’. This linguistic difficulty is not only due to needing to second guess whether the person I’m talking to will actually understand what any of these terms mean; it’s also because I myself am not sure what I am. Maybe the blanket term is ‘activist’ – although this actually doesn’t describe a job, but more a way of life. And not every development worker is an activist; you don’t often see a United Nations official on a podium at a public rally, or camping outside banks or embassies to raise awareness of a political injustice (although I’m sure there are some that do).

I’m dwelling on this because this trouble in semantics is actually part of a wider symptom of burnout in the sector I work in (what sector do I work in? Is it aid/development/humanitarian/charity/non-governmental? Oh never mind…). Struggling to talk about what we do reflects a deeper emotional difficulty in expressing all the hopes, fears, anger and uncertainties that go in to our work. It manifests itself in the tension one feels in the chest, or the lump in one’s throat, when embarking on a discussion about what ‘advocacy’ or ‘capacity building’ is, or what it’s like to live in a ‘war zone’.

I’m not trying to belittle people’s genuine interest in this kind of work – and people are indeed interested and want to understand it more. What I struggle with is actually trying to describe, in as concise and eloquent a way as possible, the feelings, emotions and experiences of working in Palestine, or Uganda, or any other country which is not in the slightest way similar to home. And without using all this jargon listed above, which no one understands unless they’re doing the same kind of job.

It’s not easy to answer the question often posed when returning from one of these countries – what’s it like there? Well, it’s like a number of things, but which parts does the person asking actually want to hear? About the house I lived in or the restaurants and markets I’d regularly go to? About the neighbourliness of everyone I met, and the high number of cups of tea and plates of unfamiliar food that have been put in front of me, on occasions several times in one day? About the elderly man in a refugee camp I met, who was dying from AIDS having had no access to proper treatment? About the friend of mine who was arrested and tortured?

More specifically, how do I describe what my work is like (click to see an amusing summary)? Should I be honest and say I spend most of my time in front of a computer in an office, feeling frustrated as I try to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops and hopeless because most of the time I feel it doesn’t make any difference to anything anyway? Or do I focus more on those occasional times when I do go to a refugee camp, or a village, or a prison, or someone’s home, and actually have a proper conversation with a ‘victim’, as they’re so often inappropriately termed for their mere existence in that particular country.

What follows is the reality as I see it of doing this kind of work – whatever we might choose to term it. For purposes of clarity, I will use the term ‘international NGO worker’ – someone who works for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which can, for instance, be a charity or a campaign group working on or in specific countries suffering from poverty or conflict. This is from my own experience, but not every worker is the same, as our environment, our colleagues, our office, the communities we are trying to help, all vary greatly; along with our emotional reactions and approaches to what we’re doing.

I have spent the last ten years doing a number of activities in different countries, most of which have been going through long periods of war. This has included funding projects in communities that have borne the brunt of years of conflict and need support in rebuilding their economies and their livelihoods. This could be a female-headed family, whose men have been killed in war or have abandoned them, and who want to grow some vegetables or rice to sell at the local market to have a sustainable income. At the same time, I have also been raising awareness at international level of the injustices of these conflicts. This entails lobbying British Government and M.P.s – taking them to conflict areas, writing to them, issuing public statements which pressure them to take action; doing much the same with UN officials, to push them to intervene by sending in monitors, or by passing a resolution at the Security Council (the UN body responsible for maintaining international peace and security). It also entails developing campaigns and awareness raising initiatives which will engage the general public in my country – students, workers, Church groups, ANYONE – to take action against the injustice of that conflict. This means supporting them to write to their MP or to a Cabinet Minister to express their concern regarding the British Government’s complicity in that injustice (which there usually is in some way); or getting them out on the street at a public demonstration.

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Pho...

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Photo from http://chris.croome.net/photos/2003/0317/009_Anti-War_Die_In_Lg.jpg.8.html , licensed under the GNU FDL. Photographer: Chris Croome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We go into this kind of work with the best of intentions, thinking that at least one small action – any of the above, or something else – is better than nothing and will maybe help one person facing injustice, and could even help an entire community. And with some actions, it’s easier to see those positive results immediately. The female-headed household gets its small loan, or sack of vegetable seeds, to grow crops to sell at market. The family can now pay for the children’s school fees. Continuous pressure on the British Government results in the Foreign Secretary making a public statement which condemns the violence in that country.

But the bigger picture gets far more complicated. Because ultimately the female-headed household is still at risk of being thrown back into poverty by its Government’s intransigence, corruption or involvement in another war. And a statement by the British Government means very little unless it’s followed up by concrete action and policies aimed at stopping the injustice. And real action is dependent on a number of factors, but ultimately is decided according to the interests of the Government of the time and not public opinion, as we’ve seen so clearly with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So in fact having a sense of achievement when working for an international NGO is very hard, because we’re up against powerful decision-makers that appear almost impossible to influence. Sure, there are occasional breakthroughs, and maybe over time we do witness a crucial change in policy or approach at Governmental or UN level. But rarely do we feel confident enough to say that we contributed to that. Instead, we spend day after day, in front of that computer, writing that press release or call for action or letter to the Prime Minister, with moments of determination matched by moments of questioning whether there is really any point or purpose. Occasionally, we get out ‘into the field’ – in other words, into reality, where we meet the local population and hear directly from them what it is that’s needed to stop the injustice. Unfortunately, these demands often fail to be met by the NGO in question, for a number of reasons related to capacity, resources, interests, policies, funding. Meanwhile, the violence/poverty/human rights abuses of the country in question rage on, with no sign of meaningful intervention by that country’s Government – who surely should shoulder the most responsibility, over and above our own.

This may all sound very depressing. But then it is coming from a girl in transition, who is trying to make sense of her past and her present in order to make a positive and meaningful step into the future. And I know I’m not alone in this – the feeling of hopelessness, of failure – when trying to address the ongoing injustices attributed to ours and other people’s governments. It is part of the job of an activist or international NGO worker to understand the brutal realities of one’s efforts. It’s good to be idealistic to some degree, but it is equally important to know one’s limits, and not to set one’s expectations too high with any action. It won’t lead to any change overnight. But it might just go some small way in adjusting people’s perceptions or assumptions about a situation in another country that they’ve never been to and barely read about. And this may just go some small way in developing a new world view, a greater connection with other cultures and populations, and ultimately a greater resolve to live together on this planet with more equality and more compassion in our hearts. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, over above any lofty aims to end a conflict, or change Government policy, or stop its corruption or use of torture, in any given country. As the Dalai Lama and his celebrity supporters put it, we all need to stand up, and be the change.

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