29 August, 2010

Ponderings of an Itinerant Aid Worker

So I’m nearing the end of a year in Somaliland. Within the next two months I’ll be moving on to greener pastures (most likely – there are definitely some, but not too many places which will be drier than where I’ve been the last year, and I don’t plan to go to any of them). It has been nice to see this year be much wetter than most here, and the camels, goats, and sheep appear much healthier than when I first came, but it is definitely still very dry and brown around. The capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, seems to be getting quite a lot of rain, but we’ve missed out on most of it here in the East.

As I’ve recently informed our staff of my planned departure, and the earlier end times during Ramadan leave long afternoons / evenings in the house, I’ve become contemplative. Over the past four years I’ve lived in the jungle of Liberia, a couple places in South Sudan, and in Northern Somalia. I’ve seen communities embrace projects that provide opportunities and give hope. Others have rejected similar endeavours and the greediness and ignorance of a few has spoiled the chance for their friends and neighbours. Some leaders and community elders have struggled to improve things for the next generations, while other officials have sought only their own interests and divert funds and resources intended for the common good to their own pockets. Along with the challenges have been many rewarding experiences and motivation has come when needed in so many different ways.

I’ve worked with quite a few different teams of national and international staff. I’ve had fun picking on Canadians and their sparsely populated tundra of a home and been confused as to how Europeans of different countries can live so close to one another and yet have so many cultural differences. The same can be said for Africa and the different tribes that are contained even within the same country borders. I’ve witnessed and had to fire staff who have stolen from each of the projects I’ve worked in and who in spite of their relatively well-paying jobs take what was intended for the poorest and neediest in communities. While this is sometimes the hardest thing to deal with of all, the most rewarding experiences I’ve been able to have are positive relationships with staff that I’ve seen grow and develop. There have been a few staff in each location who I’ve been able to work with and help mentor and coach that I know are helping and will continue to provide hope and support to their communities. Seeing those who are committed to improving their own lives, the lives of their families and of their people surpasses any physical benefit of the projects I’ve been a part of. Having access to markets through a new bridge being built, those who are malnourished receiving food that will help them survive, or the construction of lasting buildings that will be used for good in communities is great, but it’s not enough. Without the relationships that have been built with incredible individuals and seeing the development and commitment of these all-stars, there’s no way I’d still be doing this.

As I wrap things up here and prepare to hand over to my successor, I am beginning to look ahead. With the opportunities that I’ve had, the things I’ve been able to do, see, and be a part of, I am spoiled for life. I don’t know how I could go back to a ‘normal’ job in the States or some cosmopolitan city. How long could I last in an office or doing something where all the answers to the problems I might face will be found in a book or the internet? Of course I know that it is possible to do exciting things elsewhere. And all over the world are people in desperate or difficult situations who can benefit from someone walking alongside them through life. Even in offices, workshops, sports teams, clubs and any other type of environment I know inspiring and rewarding things happen. People are given hope, thrive and develop when supported, and lives change. Wherever one may find him/herself, life is life and people are people the world over. But I may have gone and ruined any chance I had at living a ‘normal’ life somewhere where things work. I was chatting (Skype is great!) with a friend working in Afghanistan yesterday, venting some anger after I’d spent way too much time and energy dealing with various levels of bureaucracy and self-interested officials on a couple different issues. After briefing him on the situation, his reply summed up so much about this business: ‘Yeah, but if the job were easy, would we like it so much?’ The work is a challenge, and that makes it fun (once the frustration passes). It is disappointing and depressing at times, but that is also why the rewarding moments are so inspiring and invigorating. How can I ever do anything else?

24 August, 2010


This is the time of Ramadan. It started 2 weeks ago now, and I missed most of the first two weeks of it as I was away from the office. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours for a complete lunar cycle. It will continue until around September 9 (depending on when the next new moon is, the exact day of which cannot be known until it is actually seen). Fasting for a Muslim is not just fasting from food, but it is a fast from food, drink, cigarettes, sex, and they are not even to swallow their saliva. So, during the day for the next two weeks, our staff will be working without the strength and energy provided by food and water. The dates change a little each year, so it would be really tough/easier in the extreme latitudes during a summer/winter solstice. Imagine it occurring during late June in a place like Anchorage where they’ve only got an hour or two of night. But, were it to fall in December, you wouldn’t even have to miss a normal meal. For those who are sick, for children, and for others who have valid reason, they are not to fast. But, for the healthy, it is a sign of devotion that should be taken seriously.

The schedule during Ramadan changes. People will wake up before dawn, and eat a full meal at around 4:30am. This way they have enough strength to work throughout the day before eating again after sunset. Of course by late in the day the body is tired and energy levels drop. The first few days are usually the roughest, so I’m glad I missed out on it. To compensate for this, our and many other offices have adjusted work schedules. We begin work now at 6:30am. It is quite early for me, and it is taking some getting used to, but our staff have not been having trouble showing up on time. Most of them definitely prefer the earlier start as it allows them to sleep or rest most of the afternoon. We’ve got some busy days ahead which will involve a lot of heavy supplies being loaded and offloaded at various locations, and those who will be labouring in the sun and heat will be doing so without the benefit of a drink of water. 8 hours of lifting and moving around 100 pound sacks would be no fun in any condition, and especially during Ramadan I don’t envy those who will be labouring for us. They’re planning to start at 5am so they can be done as early in the day as possible. So, for the next couple of weeks, this will be something which affects the daily life of all of us who are living and working in the Muslim dominated world.