Archives for posts with tag: injustice

I have a week left in Kenya. So many thoughts and emotions have passed through me in the time I’ve been in East Africa. There are times when the expectations and requirements of this job have seemed totally overwhelming; where I’ve had no time to stop and digest what I have seen or heard, and I’ve had to push on with writing, researching, asking further questions, whilst often lacking the confidence that what I’m doing will actually make a difference.

Humanitarian work, human rights work, development work. All them giveth, and they taketh away. An average day can feel exhilerating, hopeful, frustrating, desperate. It takes a certain amount of strength to face some of the stark and difficult realities of poverty and injustice; to challenge the authorities even when you know that they may well ignore you and continue to sit back as another crime or violation is committed under their watch; to walk away after interviewing a victim of human rights abuse without being able to offer any immediate assistance. We have to remain confident that doing something – raising awareness at international level, lobbying politicians and demanding accountability from State authorities – is better than doing nothing at all.

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

On a bad day I feel guilty and hopeless about all that I have seen and can do little about. I feel angry with the State official who lies to my face, denying that a forced eviction has taken place and that hundreds have been made homeless; or worse stll, refuses to even discuss such matters. I feel ashamed that a victim of human rights violations will be hoping for so much more from me than what I can provide. When I’ve had quiet meditative moments, I’ve contemplated forgiveness; forgiving myself for any action which I feel was not really in my character, or may have offended or disappointed others. I can only hope that in consciously keeping my heart open that I can connect with people beyond the expectations of what I can and cannot give. The same applies to dealing with the authorities. I have worked to release the anger I’ve often felt towards them, and try and understand them and the situation on a deeper level; to have compassion even for those I disagree with, and to continue to connect with the pure light that shines in each and every one of us but is so often darkened by psychological and environmental factors.

And on a good day I feel nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for finding myself back in East Africa, a place that gives me inspiration and fulfillment. Gratitude for having a space to myself to explore ideas and emotions away from the familiarity and distractions of home. Gratitude for the nice weather (most of the time) – the huge African skies and the gentle heat on my pale skin. Gratitude to the people I meet, for welcoming me and increasing my respect for different cultures and customs. Gratitude for every new lesson I learn from my work and from the conversations I have with friends and colleagues. Gratitude that no matter what challenges I experience, there is always a quiet place to retreat inside myself, to reflect and regain some peace.

The view of the valley from where I'm staying in Nairobi

The view of the valley from where I’m staying in Nairobi

I’m looking forward to going home. But I am also looking forward to reflecting on all that I have seen and done here, and finding the inspiration to use these experiences in constructive ways that not only seek to help victims of human rights abuses, but also the aid workers themselves. Self-care is essential in this line of work, and I see this journey I’ve made as an opportunity to recognise and put into practice the tools that are necessary to hold these powerful concepts of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude in our hearts no matter what the circumstances.

Uganda – the home of waragi, of reckless boda boda drivers, of rolexes and of matoke (definitions to follow). And my home for a number of years.

It was only as I sat in the back of  a cab on the way to my hotel from the airport that I had a chance to reflect on the personal enormity of me returning here; the last week having been another whirlwind of actions and reactions on ongoing forced evictions in Kenya.

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 ...

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 Road, between Jinja and Malaba Русский: Бода-бода. Уганда, на трассе А109, между Джинджей и Малабой. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we drove along the Entebbe-Kampala Road, all the familiar landmarks of yesteryear were there. The chapati traders preparing the juicy and satisfying rolexes (fried eggs rolled up in chapati), lit only by a candle on the otherwise pitch black roadside; boda boda drivers (motorcyle taxis), carrying up to four passengers, squeezing their way through traffic; the clocktower which now, unlike when I lived here, actually has a working clock, and which is the epicentre of Kampala’s worsening traffic jams.

And with these sights returned my memories of a place I called home ten years ago. Memories of sitting on those perilous boda bodas, ignoring their danger and instead appreciating their efficiency in the Kampala traffic. Of drunken parties with too much waragi, the local gin distilled from bananas, one of Uganda’s most important cash crops. Of day long NGO workshops with long speeches by proud officials and with bored participants, waiting eagerly for their free buffet lunch of assorted meat stews, beans, rice and matoke – mashed green bananas, the national dish. Of listening to live reggae music in the warm outdoors. Of falling in love.

My years in Uganda in many ways shaped my life. There were many experiences that would challenge me – from meeting former child soldiers, both male and female, who had been forcefully recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army to looking after the psychologically damaged man I had fallen in love with, in a country where mental health problems are associated with juju – witchcraft – and adequate health services are scarce.

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m returning to Uganda a very different person from those days. Older and wiser, sure. And more self-aware – I think. As the days have gotbusier and longer, my time for self-reflection and checking in has diminished. I find myself rushing from one thing to another, panicking, getting irritable….and I know it’s because there has not been time and space to take a deep breath – literally – and listen to my heart. My head has been ruling the show with plans, preparations and mental documentation of sad, sometimes horrific stories. I am confronted with them every day – whether it’s directly from victims or second-hand; like my taxi driver in Nairobi yesterday who told me he’d seen three young men dying that morning, who had just been burned to death by the local community – mob justice for attempted robbery on a house. There is little time to dwell, to get upset or to show pity. If there was, I wouldn’t get much actual work done. And so I rely on those moments when I can write. Or 15 minutes in the morning to meditate. These are the brief moments I have to open my heart, to process and to release what I’ve been holding.

Being in Uganda will bring extra challenges for me. There is a major human rights crisis to work on – the Government’s raid on a leading independent newspaper. One of many signs that the President – now in power for 27 years – plans to step up already draconian measures aimed at suppressing dissent in his country. Our response as a human rights NGO will be proactive and uncompromising in its condemnation. The work will be exhilerating, but I look forward to when my feet touch the ground again and I can fully enjoy being back here. Uganda has always been close to my heart, and my memories of this country are so much more than the personal and external tragedies that lie within my experience of living here. Uganda, it’s good to be back.

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.

This week my thoughts have returned to the symptoms of burnout suffered by so many NGO workers.

We had a training in the week on how to interview victims of human rights violations. It at times felt surreal to be role-playing in imagined scenarios where we have to gather information from victims of torture or other forms of abuse, or their families. I could certainly see the value in it, but I also felt strangely detached, wondering how we can possibly understand the realities of people who have undergone treatment which is essentially alien to us in our comfortable democratic societies. We can show compassion, but we are not counsellors; we are not equipped to really support or offer help or advice to victims of human rights violations. Yet this is precisely what people often want or expect when they agree to share their trauma with a Western NGO worker. In hearing such distressing stories, it is no surprise that NGO workers suffer from feelings of guilt, helplessness and worse; they can end up feeling totally detached from what they’re hearing, unable to show that essential compassion, and they can suffer from exhaustion, insomnia, burnout.

These are conditions I’m all too familiar with. Only this week, my insomnia – which I thought I’d rid myself of months ago, returned. Although I felt I was working to my maximum potential each day – thanks mainly to daily morning meditations and Qi training – at night, all the latent thoughts and worries, some of them really quite trivial, came to the surface. This is not to say that I’m returning to the dark and frightening place I was in last year. But I am lapsing into familiar patterns which have affected me over the years of doing NGO work – of not sleeping well, of making up for it with several cups of coffee each day.

counting sheep

The other night, as I lay awake at two in the morning, I wrote the following piece. It should resonate with anyone who has suffered from insomnia.

Insomnia. That’s a condition I thought I’d done away with this past year. But apparently not. This is how it’s been. I turn my light out at 11, as I can no longer concentrate on even reading the Guardian tabloid. I feel tired after cycling to and from work, probably 16 miles or more. I lie there, with earplugs to block out the sound of the ticking grandfather clock in the hallway, a family heirloom which has woken me on many occasions with its persistent strike. I proceed to do as I do every night – a yoga nidra in which I gently tell each part of my body, from my toes to my head, to relax.

But what is this? That intrusive voice telling me that I can’t sleep now, that my thoughts can and will take over, that I’m likely to be bothered for quite a while longer. What is this voice? Sometimes it feels like the voice of the devil; not part of me and with so much power to ruin my entire night in one foul swoop. Once the voice has made its presence known, it’s very hard to shake it off.

On this occasion, the yoga nidra does indeed help me to relax, and I feel myself slowly drifting off. But the voice wants a fight. Just as my dreams begin, I get shaken awake. I don’t know how, or when – maybe 45 minutes after turning my lights off. And then the real battle begins. I lie there, fighting the urge to take a herbal sleeping tablet, convinced I can do without them this time (having decided that my secret supply of stronger stuff was never again to be replenished once exhausted). Then, inevitably, I end up taking one. I lie there, waiting for it to take effect, whilst I choose this moment to focus on any niggling thoughts I may have – any insecurities or uncertainties. I toss and turn. I go to the bathroom. And I realise I have this awful feeling in my stomach – like a piece of lead has lodged itself there. I start thinking of all the possible causes – did I eat too quickly at dinner? Did I eat too much chocolate afterwards? Or is it something more subtle than that? Is this where my emotional turmoil has found a resting place – is it a build up of all the tensions and anxieties I’ve quietly endured over the last few days, whether they be at home or at work.

I toss and turn some more, then decide it’s no use; more medication of some sort is needed. I turn the light on again angrily, grab some medicine for indigestion, and take another sleeping tablet. But now I’ve gone way beyond the semi-relaxed state I was in earlier. Now I have acknowledged that I can’t sleep it has been translated into ‘won’t sleep’ somewhere in my psyche.

So now it’s time to start panicking about tomorrow – about the early start I have, about whether I’ll make it through the day, about whether I’ll end up an emotional wreck by the end of it, feeling like a desperate failure because my tiredness has rendered me unprepared for whatever challenges I may face.

Such worries are, as always, exaggerated. Because I know this situation, and how I respond to it: with lots of coffee. Which of course starts me on the cycle all over again a few hours later, when the caffeine hasn’t yet worn off and I want to go to sleep. But at least it gets me through the day.

There are not always quick fix answers to this condition, but I do feel I’m in a much stronger place to manage it than I have ever been before. By the end of the week I was actually very accepting of the fact I was not getting the full 8 hours I have come to expect each night. One of the best ways of beating insomnia is to accept, rather than resist it. So when I woke in the night, or at dawn hours before my alarm, I began to use the extra time I had awake to meditate, and of course to write. And because of that, it really didn’t feel so bad. By the time I got up to go to work, I had processed much of my anxiety and tensions, and let go of them. I was then ready for a productive day (with the aid of some strong coffee).

insomnia 2

There is a debate which has been circulating on Facebook which I got sucked into last week. It concerns the Dalai Lama and whether his search for inner peace should be interpreted as an indifference to injustice, especially if it messes with a personal sense of calm.

Dalai Lama1

 

This sort of debate I realise is a challenge for me right now. On the one hand I’ve been respecting and practising much of the Buddhist principles of meditation, non-attachment and letting go. On the other, I am now working for one of the most outspoken and respected human rights organisations whose responsibility it is to speak out – with force and anger if necessary – on grave injustice. As already noted in my previous blog post, I am entering a new chapter in my personal transition which requires integrating all I have learned on a spiritual level in a meaningful way, as I go about working on difficult or upsetting issues which are likely to provoke negative emotions and energies.

It got me thinking again about anger and how we use it. There is no doubt that political change often occurs after anger has resulted in positive or constructive action. But is this the emotion that should really be guiding us? Or has it become our default reaction to life’s challenges because of the political system we live in, which we know tends to favour the privileged and neglect the needs of the impoverished or voiceless? Even if we look at the United Nations system – supposedly a bastion of peacemaking – we see that much of our international relations is governed by the interests of the five permanent members of the Security Council, some of the most powerful nations in the world.

It is hard to imagine our world not being governed according to the political interests of the most powerful countries. But that is what the Dalai Lama, Buddhists, shamans, yogis and millions across the globe – from the temples of Asia to the forests of the Amazon – are indeed trying to do. They believe that the day will come – maybe not in our lifetime, and maybe not in the next – when this type of political system will evaporate and be redundant, because our lives will be governed by a far greater force than money or power.

They are preaching a completely new system of thought and action, which starts at the individual level through meditative practice, but which is truly expansive and universal in scope. It is only once we look deep within ourselves and realise our connection with every living soul on this planet – beyond boundaries, or front lines, or negotiating tables – that we might be able to realise a shift in our entire ideology and philosophy. When we connect with the purity of love and compassion which exists beyond the habits, attitudes and energies we pick up from our social environment, our anger falls away. Indeed, conflicts so often rage on because the warring parties are unable to let go of the anger and negative emotions which burn inside them.

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OK, so I know sitting and meditating, and connecting with our pure and positive energies isn’t going to bring peace overnight. It won’t succeed in stopping the exchange of fire between two warring parties and it won’t succeed in getting a resolution tabled at the U.N. But dare we let ourselves believe that it is one small step in generating a whole new conception of life and how we relate to each other? The Mayans would argue that we have indeed reached a new and profound phase in human existence – we entered this phase on the 21st December last year, when we moved to a higher state of consciousness. We have entered an age of greater awareness, and a re-connection with wisdom which has been lost through the previous age of rapid technological progress and a neglect of Mother Earth. There may be many more wars, more bloodshed, and more environmental disasters before we truly realise this new phase in human existence – this is all part of the Shift of Ages. But the indications are already there of many millions of people challenging the current world system; not only by taking to the streets as we’ve seen with the Occupy movements and the Arab uprisings, but also choosing to engage in spiritual practice. Whether we choose to get on board and be part of this shift depends on whether we are ready to let go of old structures, ideas and thoughts which we have been bound by for hundreds of years. If we want to see real, transformative and positive change on our planet, then we must start from within.

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.

I’ve made an odd and unsettling discovery these last few weeks. It’s that I can’t watch or ready anything that reminds me of Palestine, and my time there.

It has been a year, almost to the day, that I left that place. I walked away from my beautiful flat overlooking a valley in Ramallah, with tears in my eyes. I knew my time there was up – on many levels, it was simply not sustainable, or fulfilling, for me to be there. And it appears that I am still getting to grips with that fact to this day, one year on.

The view from my apartment in Ramallah

They say that grief comes in five stages – first, denial; then anger; followed by bargaining; followed by depression. Then, finally, acceptance. Well, as some of you may have noticed, I’ve certainly been dragged – kicking and screaming – over the steps of anger and depression these last few months. Bargaining is a more obscure concept, but I can see that’s what I’ve been doing as I’ve slowly pulled myself away from further job applications for human rights or humanitarian positions.

And before these stages, I guess I was in denial; this is the emotional tool we use when living in an environment of intractable conflict, grinding poverty or blatant injustice. We withhold, and deny, the tears when we see another victim of human rights violations, or another humiliation or indignity meted out against an innocent civilian – who may well be a close friend or colleague – because to cry would reveal a disrespectful weakness in front of those who remain stoic and steadfast in the face of adversity. To cry would also suggest we cannot cope with living and working in such an environment, which would then beg the question, why are we there in the first place.

Perhaps the tears I’ve shed the last few months have made up for the restraint, and resilience, exercised through all those years of fighting an idealistic battle for justice and en end to poverty and inequality without daring to admit either distress or defeat. Or maybe the tears were for bigger and deeper sorrows and regrets – I’m still not sure.

What I do see now is that I am far more vulnerable, and far less resilient. I made this discovery last week whilst filling in a survey put together by a group of academics from the U.S., on the subject of stress, burnout, trauma and resilience in human rights workers. The survey provoked in me a mixture of feelings, which raced through me like a torrent – sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety. Some of its questions included:

Have you personally witnessed serious violations of the right to shelter, food, water, and other basic rights?

Have you worked with someone who has suffered serious reprisals or threats of reprisals for their work?

Have you personally witnessed disaster or conflict affected communities?

I found myself answering yes to so many of these questions, in reference to so many incidents and situations I’d come across in my working life. This is not a normal way to exist! I was thinking to myself.

Then things got worse – I was then asked about coping mechanisms, and how I respond to difficult situations. And with each answer I realised that my way of dealing with so many difficult situations has been to normalise it – because any other reaction, such as crying, or getting too angry, would appear disrespectful among friends or colleagues in such environments, who live these experiences every day or week or month throughout their life.

If I wasn’t normalising it, I was certainly having an internal battle against my emotions – not letting myself grieve and instead distracting myself with more work or drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It is only now, after having some distance from these events and situations, and whilst I’m spending so much time confronting my emotions, that I realise how much I internalised – whether it was the trauma of witnessing human rights abuses, or of friends being arrested or injured, or simply feeling under-appreciated and worthless at work. This might explain why when I go through a survey like this now, I feel my heart rate increasing, and start to panic. Feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt stayed with me for the rest of the day.

The next day, I had the same reaction when watching a trailer for a new documentary film released this week, Five Broken Cameras, about the nonviolent resistance in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank. As its soundtrack of solemn, urgent Arab oud music played to footage of the village under fire by Israeli soldiers, I started to panic. I had to switch it off before the five minute trailer finished. Great, I thought to myself, in a state of disbelief – I can’t even watch a video clip. In it were the faces of people I may not have known directly, but I saw them every day in the campaigns we ran, in the press releases we wrote demanding their release from prison or for the Separation Wall to be dismantled. What then followed was a sad emptiness and feeling of guilt. This is the same guilt one gets when being faced with untold human suffering, when one chooses to turn the page instead of reading on. I seem to have leapt from one extreme to another; from reading every news item on Palestine and the Middle East, and every article on detention, or torture, or any other realities that have informed, and inspired, my activism – to not being able to look at or engage with anything.

Yet this is what we have to do once we allow in the grieving process; once we recognise that we are not the superheroes or pillars of strength and determination we thought we were. We have to do whatever it takes to recover, and to heal. But NGO workers and activists, and anyone who is working on human rights issues, can spend years denying themselves this recognition that maybe they cannot cope with all that they have seen; that maybe they need to look after and love themselves as much as they try to do the same to others. We instead hold the anger and grief of what we see and experience inside us, and live to fight another day. And yet I’m learning now that the biggest and most challenging confrontation we have is ultimately with ourselves.

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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