As the year draws to a close, I long to complete this little series, “The other side of aid work” , and move on to making new positive memories and sharing other stories of the past.
The chapter that completes these reflections will no doubt be the longest one. It is the story which I have most shied away from telling, perhaps the one that has brought me the most anguish, most pain, the highest number of unanswered questions. I feel the need to tell it now in all its detail. You do not need to read it if you do not wish to. But it is important for it to be written and put out there–an intrinsic part of my story, of my journey, of who I am now and will be in the future.
This chapter is a pre-amble to it and sums up another reality of aid work.
Contrary to what some people think, aid workers are not always nice to each other. Even in organisations where people pursue common values, common goals, even share the same faith, there is conflict, tension and ugliness. Those who have studied management will know the theory that teams go through phases before they start working together effectively: forming, storming, norming and performing. It is hard to come into a new team as the team always re-forms and re-storms when a new person comes in; being a manager can be even harder. Amid tension and stress, people look to you to guide and lead immediately? How can any human being be expected to do that when they are new to a context, learning, need time, grace and patience?
On my last permanent overseas stint, the team dynamics were particularly difficult from the beginning. The international staff team were all amazing human beings, strong characters, able workers and professionals. Not surprising that this made for a high degree of “storming”. My first (and as it turned out only) two months in South Kordofan/Sudan were marked by incredible pain and hardship as our team went through the “storming” process. Sadly, reality robbed us off the chance to ever get beyond it.
Our team experience was no doubt thwarted by external factors as well. There was a darkness hanging over Kadugli even when I arrived, when everything was still peaceful; a sense of calm before the storm. I could never find peace there—and know others felt it, too. It was not something you could put your finger on. It was just there and added a weight to your heart.
Our living conditions were not brilliant. The guest house was directly adjacent to the office, so we never got any real respite from the office environment. We had little privacy; little space to just “be” and restore our energies. A heavy, humid heat hung over Kadugli at all times and we could only rarely run the air conditioning, and never at night, as the neighbours behind complained. As city power hardly ever worked, this made for many a hot, sleepless nights. Barking dogs, the noise of donkey carts, people shouting in the streets and fighting cats could further interrupt that precious sleep when sleep did manage to find you in the sleep and humidity.
And so team members were tired, exhausted, and worn out. This, too, can weaken people’s resilience, make them more edgy when dealing with others, over-sensitive and emotional. Time I am sure would have been a healer for us all. But it was time we were never granted
Children posing at a celebration at a local health centre near Muglad, South Kordofan, 1 June 2011