Uphill mud

Work on the international development scene moves slowly. Painfully. Dreadfully. Slower-than-mud-uphill-in-a-downpour SLOWLY. For the most part, I can testify from experience that a lot of this isn’t a whole lot different than working in nonprofit in the U.S. — There is never enough money, never enough time, and everyone could use about twice the number of staff to accomplish everything that needs to get done. It’s easy to let all of these crushing, unrelenting challenges throw you into a bit of daily spin cycle, one that oscillates between wanting to routinely punch walls and/or people in the face or the moments of near hysterical euphoria when something actually gets done. Those moments, where you really get to see a tangible end result for someone are like contemporary, enigmatic miracles. I would put it akin perhaps to witnessing the birth of your first child — an overwhelming expansion of awe, love, and gratitude made more intense by the very fact that you know moments like this in life are unique. They are special. And they are limited. They don’t happen everyday.

And that is the problem: They don’t happen everyday. In fact, sometimes they don’t happen at all.

Life for refugees in a refugee camp is a combination of bustling activity and the sheer freezing of time. People come, people go. Life happens, life stops. Wake, eat, sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Apart from the infinite seepage of days one into another, the other constant presence in camp is the sense that nothing ever actually gets accomplished. From refugees, to the implementing organizations, and back again, there is this tiring feeling that the search for help is just a fuzzy run through one big labyrinth that loops over and over again with no beginning and no end. Earlier I said that international development runs at a snails pace — here, from where I am standing at the moment, it doesn’t actually move at all. Here, it feels more like running through quicksand. Maybe even running backwards through quicksand, or doing the moonwalk through mud. Here, I sometimes get the feeling that if you were to just stop on that patch of unstable earth, it might actually swallow you whole, suck you under, and spit you out somewhere in China during the Middle Ages. How’s that for a commentary on the modern bureaucracy of international aid.

There is no possible way for any of us to truly envision what kind of nightmares force people to flee their homes and become refugees — husbands running with wives, with babies on their backs hand-in-hand in the middle of the night from a life that at one time was fruitful, peaceful and above all, happy. Think about this — I mean really, REALLY think about it. What kind of horror would it take for you to make the decision, sometimes in only a matter of minutes, to leave everything you owned, even people you loved, behind without any hope of return? And then, once you’ve lived through the seemingly unthinkable, and often, the unlivable, you find yourself marooned in a foreign land without papers, without money, without explanation, dazed and scared, unsure what the future will bring but knowing that the past is full of demons and monsters so evil you are scared to close your eyes at night for fear of what the dark may bring. So here you are, in this place you are now to call “home” — maybe you’ve been here for years at this point. And all around you, there are these groups that advertise how they are supposed to be helping you but when you reach out for assistance they tell you “no.” Not enough resources. Not enough people. Too busy. Too burned out. You said the wrong thing, now you don’t get help. You made too many waves, now you don’t get help. Come back later. Or don’t come back at all. Ask another agency. Ask another case worker. Go ask Alice. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

As aid workers, as agencies, we are all guilty. We are all accountable. No one gets to skirt responsibility or close their eyes to the blatant reality that a lot of the time, the only thing those of us in the field are doing really well is failing to do anything at all. We act as if we are all righteous and wise, sometimes behind the backs of others, sometimes to one another’s faces, when in reality, our systems are broken. The wheels churn, spit out screws, and make ear-cringing screeches and pops as metal grinds against metal. For all the good intentions the world has had for helping people forced to flee their home countries, there are some 10,000 refugees idling at a camp in the highlands of Malawi just waiting. In camps all over Africa, there are hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS, of displaced people simply WAITING. For what? For someone, anyone, to give them answers to prayers and simple questions alike. In any case, nothing is clear, not even to those of us who are supposed to provide a response. We tell people to walk towards these doors for assistance and when they get there they find that they’ve been padlocked. Or torn down. Or maybe those doors never actually existed at all. Pepani. Sorry. Better luck during your next 7 years in this camp, or at the next one you flee to when the civil war starts again. And again. And again.

Welcome to Frustration Nation. All of that said, when you as the humanitarian worker are not having one of those weeks where everything you hear makes you want to cry, when the operational meetings you have make you so viscerally angry you have to sit on your hands for fear that you may jump across the table and throw rabbit punches at the person sitting smugly in front of you, or when you just feel like you are a wee burned out in general, there are those moments where all of the bullshit and the murkiness suddenly vanish and the horizon looks calm and level, just as it should. You help someone heal. A child gives you a hug. You watch as someone climbs into the truck that is about to take them to the plane that is going to deliver them to their new life. These enmeshed dreams of hope you start having for your clients really do happen, even if they don’t happen often enough.

In spite of all of the uncertainty and despair, there is a vivacious, booming pulse of survival running through the camp even if it’s not always evident, and even when the systems ostensibly set up to help seem to do nothing but drag everyone down. No one seems to give up and even though the drive to move onto better circumstances often turns ugly and desperate because of the perpetual despair and all of those dead-end doors, there is something sad and wondrousabout watching it all unfold. It’s like embers of a fire as close to burning out as they are to starting a whole new flame — the human spirit never dies without fighting the good fight, even if it means running blindly through the night and through a maze with no outlets. You just can’t kill hope.

But “hope” is a charged word, one that we associate with all things positive and shinny. It is warm rather than cold. It is sunny, rather than dark. Here, however, hope sometimes looks more like a solar eclipse than the bright beating sun. Sometimes it feels like it too.