Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Crisis - the Radio Programme!

For the last couple of evenings, I've been listening to 'Crisis', a radio drama made by (BBC) Radio 4 about aid workers, in honour of World Humanitarian Day. For those of you not familiar with the concept, World Humanitarian Day takes place on August 19th, the anniversary of the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, and commemorates humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in the course of their work.

The BBC are generally good adaptors, but on the other hand I've seen what they (and other TV and radio channels) have done to other professions (see the well known documentaries 'Casualty', and 'the Archers', for example), so there was no reason to suppose mine would be any better represented. So my expectations were mixed. On the other hand, there was no way I was missing it!

So far I've listened to episodes 1 and 2, and I was pleased to discover that at least some of it seemed familiar - especially the human stuff about 'but I have to go to a difficult post to get on' and the lack of mutual comprehension between regional/country office type people and lunatics who want to spend all their time in tiny bases in the middle of nowhere. I'd like to think that sending someone who, we are told, doesn't know what she's doing, to a sub-office is unlikely, but experience suggests otherwise, and anyway, the idea that NGOs do do that is kind of the premise underpinning my career plan, so... well...

Episode two they started to race through the stereotypes: the drunken expat, frustrations with staff members, confused beneficiaries, issues with violence and the rains, fighting the centre for resources, the corrupt local offical. Although to be fair to the BBC none of those stereotypes are exactly without foundation, I slightly regretted not making myself an aid worker stereotype bingo card beforehand.

Other parts were less familiar. It may surprise people to know that I do not in fact have legions of colleagues traumatised by kidnap experiences, although I suppose most of my colleagues also aren't interesting enough to feature in radio programmes, so the fictional heroine of a radio programme will by definition be more interesting than the rest of us. There was also something misleading about the whole 'expat in danger' premise of the story - I get that it has to be accessible, but local staff make up by far the biggest proportions of aid workers killed (by something like ten to one) - although admittedly there were some nasty kidnap incidents in Darfur, so they're being accurate there at least.

What I think jarred most though, was that the way in which aid work was depicted seemed so different from what we try to do. Admittedly I'm working on a food crisis, not a rapid onset refugee crisis, but the premise seems, so far, to be: poor Africans helpless, local staff unable to prioritise, expat (white girl?) saves the day. Which is a view of aid we're trying *not* to propagate. And they make it all seem so easy: oh this camp has no water. In that case, we'd better drill a borehole. Whereas a lot of the time it's an awful lot more complicated than that - where does the borehole go, what about sanitation, what about food. And even more complicated when you get to slow onset stuff like a food crisis - where working out who to help and what they most need is a lot more complicated than 'this camp has no water. let's drill a hole'. That said, to be fair to the BBC, it may be a bit much for them to convey the complexity of the entire aid industry in five 15-minute episodes, and the logistical nightmare of moving stuff around was well captured.

So overall, I'd probably give it an 8 or so out of 10. Not sure if I can be bothered to listen to the rest - being rather familiar with aid worker stereotypes, it felt a lot like I'd heard it before - but if you haven't heard it before and want to, I'd recommend it.

Anyone else got any thoughts?

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bamako in the Rainy Season

So, after my lovely holiday in the UK, it was back to work. Not Dakar, as before, but back to Bamako. The Funding Coordinator job fell vacant again, so I was asked to come back, and despite mixed feelings (short version: more interesting job in Bamako vs amazing quality of life in Dakar), I agreed.

The good news is though, that in the two months I've been away, Bamako is transformed. I realise the moment I arrive, stepping out of the aeroplane and waiting for the wall of soul destroying heat to hit me... not feeling it... taking a cautious step forward... still not feeling it... and practically skipping as I realise that that's because there is no wall of heat!

Where before it was 40 degrees, now it's in the high 20s or low 30s, which feels fresh in comparison - even cool enough to run outside. The rain is frequent enough that there's less dust. And the hills surrounding the city, which before were barren, brown and shrouded in dust have erupted in green. The little gardens near Oxfam's new guesthouse are pushing up vegetables like no tomorrow. And above it all, the sky is still blue, except for the few days when it rains, when it's grey and dramatic.

So mostly it's warm and humid and sunny, and sometimes the clouds gather and the heavens open. And when the heavens open, they really open - great pelting raindrops that soak you through in seconds. There's not much to be done except wait it out - umbrellas are pointless against the force of the rain, taxis all leak and don't have windscreen wipers so it's not a good idea, and fun as it is to frolic 'Singing in the Rain' style, walking would be a disaster - not only would you get soaked, but flood-induced electrocution is one of my new fears, and more realistically the raging torrents down each street mean that it would be easy to fall into the drainage ditch - which wouldn't be much fun.

And so, when it rains, Bamako shuts down. The other day we were out in it trying to go to the market, which was anyway closed (though now I know what Bamako will look like in the early stages of a biblical flood, which is always interesting, so the trip wasn't wasted), and passed a flock of motorbikes huddled under each bridge, allowing just a small space for cars to squeeze through. That car was more or less solid from the top down (just a couple of drips) and had a windscreen wiper, but the water was rising steadily through the floor, even when we weren't driving through mini lakes, so I was glad to get out of it.

Once the rain stops though, it's glorious. 20-odd degrees, crisp and fresh. And surrounded on all sides by green. It's something I could get used to, but sadly I won't have the chance - this goes on till mid-September, and then the heat starts again.

For now though, the transformation is total - not something we see in our green country, where it rains all year so it's always green, and dust is a rarety. I think this is why after all this time and all this packing, I still love travel - this is a side of nature that I've read about, that I understand in theory, but which I haven't really experienced before, and which, experiencing it, takes me by surprise by how literally miraculous it feels. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

I went on holiday!

I just got back from 2 weeks of holiday back in the UK. I'd been away three and a half months by then, and I had tickets for the final day of the rowing at the olympics, and there was no way I was missing THAT, so off I went.

All in all it was wonderful to be home. The weather was good, and the UK in summer (where there is a summer) is a very nice place. I drank lots of tea and lots of ale, and ate lots of pub dinners. And lots of Olympics. Started with an opening ceremony party at Emma's, complete with torch relay against the other flats and me breaking my toe in a particularly competitive egg-and-spoon race. Then the cycling road race on Putney High St - amazing in it's combination of the everyday ('I'm on Putney High St. I used to row near here. That's where I used to shop') and the amazing ('Holy Crap there are flags everywhere! And those people are going so damn fast! And COME ON CAV'). Then the gymnastics at the O2 - spectacular and fascinating, and a legitimate opportunity to perv at underage men in lycra with massive guns. Then a morning at the big screen in Hyde Park to watch some athletics and some rowing.

And lastly, and best off all, the rowing at Dorney, again combining the everyday with the amazing - the day before I was practically skipping, and odd to think I was excited about going to Dorney. Normally I hate Dorney! And I was going to Dorney on the train not in a car full of rowers and smelly wet rowing kit. And when I got there I wasn't going to lie in a front loader, being soaked, but instead to watch the best rowers in the world compete. And it didn't disappoint - of course we got soaked, but what would a trip to Dorney be without getting soaked, and it gave us an opportunity to one up one another about 'the wettest I've been at Dorney'. And we ran into a few people we knew, of course. It started with the minor finals, which was fun because we could all see things they were doing wrong, before building up to the real finals - where we watched Team GB win two Golds and a Silver, including Golds for two people in the men's four who we all knew slightly from Oxford boatie-ing.

Generally as well the country had a different spirit - everyone was so happy, and there was flags everywhere. In the US and Israel I found this creepy, I think because they were there all the time, but as an unusual outburst of patriotism and realisation that actually our country could put on a pretty good show and could be actually pretty good at sport and hey even the weather was fine, all coupled with the knowledge that in a week or two we'll be back to our normal, grumbly selves, it didn't seem so uncomfortable. And as a returning exile delighted by everything I found in my homeland ('It's so GREEN!' 'Aren't pubs the most wonderful cosy homey things in the WORLD!' 'Gosh it's so easy to travel around here, the distances are so manageable' 'Aren't our old buildings so PRETTY!' 'Yes, yes I do want another cup of tea'), it suited my mood exactly.

When I wasn't Olympic-watching I spent a lot of time (though never enough) with friends - some of whom I barely saw when I lived in the UK, because there's something about being back for a short time that makes you pull your finger out and see people, rather than assuming that you can see them whenever so never bothering. I even ran into a few randomly - Alex from Pembroke in Cardiff, Rob from Georgia at the Olympics, and Mishi from Geneva in Oxford. Apparently the UK is a very small place - who knew? Anyway, lots of catching up was done by all, and I left much reassured that I will still have friends when I go home.

Picking up on the politics was fun too - what's happening at the ERS, what's happening with the local Lib Dems, and how Labour in Oxford are introducing mental plans to screw over people in multiple occupancy houses, which in the case of Oxford is basically everyone under about 40. Sad not to be there to help fight it, but sure they'll do something equally daft again, so I'll have future opportunities.

All in all then, there were two things that made it a wonderful holiday - picking up the threads of my life, and experiencing the UK in a way that I never have before and will never have the chance to do again. Which couldn't really have been much better.