Care for the stranded traveller

Travel, especially when you are an independent consultant, can have unexpected challenges.

I arrived in Khartoum in the early morning. That is how the plane schedule works. And I hadn’t thought to find out the name of the hotel where I was staying, because someone was going to meet me.

I had forgotten that I had to put a hotel name on the form you fill out for the immigration desk, so I made a stab at what I thought the hotel name might be. It didn’t seem to be a problem; I got through.

After I got off the plane, I had put on my head covering and the long coat I had gotten in Somaliland, in order to seem respectful of local customs. I got my battered suitcase off the luggage belt, and I headed outside the luggage area.

No one had a sign with my name on it. No one approached me to ask if I was the person they were supposed to meet. I got a bottle of water, and sat down to wait.

I waited for a long time, so long that most passengers had gone.

After a time, a taxi driver approached and asked if I needed a ride into town. I said I was waiting for someone to meet me.

He went off, probably to pray, and then he came back sometime later. He asked again, if I wanted to go into town. It was about 4 a.m. by then. He seemed like a kind man.

I asked if he knew any hotels in town where I might stay, and he said he knew one. I panicked, in the taxi, when I realized I didn’t know how far it was to town. Did I have enough US dollars? I asked him how much it would be, and panicked again when he said $50. But it turned out he was talking about the hotel, not the taxi ride.

He brought me to a nice-looking hotel, and I checked in. In the morning, I called my friend, who was by then worrying about me. A family emergency meant she couldn’t come to meet me herself, so she had asked someone else to do it. That person likely had not expected to see a North American woman wearing a head covering and long coat, so probably I had caused confusion myself.

We had coffee, laughed about the situation, and she took me to the hotel she had booked, which was near her office.

It was not the first time I had neglected to get details I needed before I travelled. One other time, I had been going to Juba, in South Sudan, and someone was going to pick me up.

I got to the airport, lined up in the self-organizing line to get my passport stamped, retrieved my suitcase, had it inspected, and moved out to the front of the building. But there was no one there to meet me.

I spent time chatting with some of the taxi drivers loitering there, explaining that I was being met. Soon, however, the sky clouded over and it looked as if it was going to rain.

I thought I had better take some action. I remembered a hotel name from an Irish friend who had been in Juba earlier that year, and a taxi driver took me there.

The cost of a room for the night was high – $125 US, as I recall – but the hotel said it had internet. I could send a message, and find out where I should be, I thought. And if the worst came to the worst, I could stay there overnight.

The storm hit as I was headed to the room, which was one half of a trailer unit. I tried to log in to the internet on my laptop. It didn’t work. Then I started to hear a loud pounding noise, which I thought might be coming from the other half of the unit. Was there a maniac next door, I wondered. But it was pouring rain outside, far too strongly to go outside.

When the rain finally slowed down, I ran to the main office to say that I couldn’t log on to the internet. Along the way, I discovered that what I had thought was pounding on the wall was actually nuts falling on to the roof from the trees above the huts. I laughed at myself.

The hotel let me send a message via their internet. Soon, the person I was meeting drove up to the hotel, explaining that another international person working with their group had had a major health emergency and they had been at the hospital with her since the night before.

The hotel was very pleasant and gave me the money back, although they didn’t have to, and several hours after landing in Juba, I was finally at the hotel where the workshop was taking place.

I had gotten careless, I guess, after much travel over the previous year. I should have made a note of relevant information like hotel names and phone numbers – and from then on, I did.

But these incidents were encouraging in a way. They showed me that in every place you go, no matter where it might be, there are people who will do their best to help a stranded traveller.

Airlines, unfortunately, are not so kind when it comes to the problem of a badly battered suitcase. Now I travel with one that is much harder to damage.

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The value of transparency

When you lead a team of local people on an international development project, and your agency advertises a job locally, you get a lot of emails. Especially when there are very few jobs available generally in a small community.

Many of them are clearly being sent by people who are shooting out a general response to a wide variety of ads.

But not all. Some of them come from people who are seriously applying. Our ad offers hope, in an otherwise bleak economy. And people will reach out for hope whenever they can, even if they don’t have the qualifications spelled out in the ad.

When I worked on a project in Serbia more than a decade ago, the agency’s policy was that while their human resources officer placed the ads, the responses came to the team leader. That was me.

They told me I should review the responses, short list them, and only respond to those who were short-listed. So that was what I did….

Until one day, I got a polite email from a local person who had submitted an application but hadn’t received an acknowledgement. Politely, they said that they had thought our procedures were different than those they had been used to. Their sense of disappointment – of hurt, even – came through the message.

From then on, I sent a reply to every applicant, whether I thought they were serious or not. I explained the process we were following, and that we would be short listing candidates and only inviting those people to an interview. And I thanked them for their application. Often I got messages back thanking me for those replies.

Sometimes it was challenging. Once, I got an application from someone working in our agency’s Belgrade office who wanted to join our team. I thanked him, and explained that he didn’t have the necessary qualifications. While he didn’t reply, I came to realize that fairness mattered to him. When the agency head pushed me out of my job, it was this man who took me aside to say that what had happened to me was not fair. (He subsequently went to work for the agency in Afghanistan.)

Sometimes, having short listed candidates, the interviews could be challenging, too. If we wanted to support community capacity, we had to acknowledge it, even when people didn’t have the particular skills we needed.

I remember one, in particular. An older gentleman who had qualifications, but not the ones we needed for our team. I suppose I could have just said that, very early on, but it did not seem respectful. And so I asked him to talk about his background and what he had done in his life, and expressed appreciation for his service to his community over the years.

Some years later, when I was doing research in northern Bosnia, I got to know a young woman who was one of the first local people hired for an important international office there.

The war in Bosnia had been going on when she went to high school. She didn’t have a lot of qualifications to offer, but she was spunky. She asked how she was expected to be able to put forward a traditional resume when her country was coming out of a devastating war.

Long story short – she ended up being hired for the team, and eventually managed a very large portfolio of economic development projects. Ironically, as things settled down in Bosnia, other international agencies in the country found it hard to believe her impressive post-war resume.

From these experiences, I learned that if we want to create change, we need to model good ways of working. If we are not going to be transparent about our own procedures, it is hard to demand that others (including governments) be transparent about theirs – and that matters in countries where procedures have not been fair and transparent.

Sometimes, people think they are short-circuiting procedures for a good purpose – to promote local young people who you have treated as proteges, for example. But the answer is not to promote them by manipulating the hiring process. I heard from some local people, looking at the two jobs advertised in one organization, who wanted to know if the outcome was fixed. It was normal for them that while a competition was being held, someone had already been chosen – and why should they waste their time applying? It was hard to know what to tell them, because the honest answer was yes, the ‘competition’ was effectively fixed.

It is not just ‘what’ we do in terms of international development that matters – it is ‘how’ we do it as well. And that applies to everything we do, including the hiring processes. There, if we don’t demonstrate our values, we support the status quo – and that may not be the intended result of the project itself.

A tank in the distance

We were driving around the countryside looking for polling station locations when I saw a tank in the distance.

In Bosnia in 1996, there were many tanks – international forces were stationed in many areas to support peacebuilding after a terrible civil war in the Balkan country. This one was still hazy in the distance as we got closer to the small building that apparently was the local polling station.

I still don’t know how to explain my intense sense of panic.

I had been in the country for six weeks, travelling with a driver and interpreter. In our area, much ground had been extensively mined and burned over by retreating forces. When you spend your time working with people primarily through interpreters, in an area where you always have to watch where you step – actually, as well as metaphorically – you can come to feel disconnected from yourself in odd ways.

And somehow, I found myself – for a few minutes, at any rate – feeling as if this was still wartime.

We stopped at the school. Soon, as the tank got closer, I could see that it was a French tank, in desert camouflage paint. The tank pulled up, and soldiers got out. For a few minutes, there was some confusion. They thought my interpreter was the election observer, and I was the interpreter. Once that was resolved, we had a bit of a chat, and then we were both on our way – us to visit another polling place, the tank to continue its patrol of the area before heading back to the French base at Mostar.

I didn’t remember that time until years later, when I was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan at the theatre in Yellowknife. There is a scene, in that movie, where a tank comes trundling over a bridge towards a soldier crouched down on the other side of the bridge.

And bam! The panic of seeing that tank approach, years before, hit me. I am not sure how I managed to stay in my seat. I could feel my heart pounding; I wanted to get up and run.

Mostly when we tell stories about our time on overseas assignments, we don’t share stories like that. We tend to focus on our achievements, our solutions, and our capacity – not the times when we felt insecure, or panicked, or completely at sea. It is easier to share stories where we are in control, not the ones where we felt vulnerable.

So I rarely if ever tell this story.

But not so long ago, I did. It seemed to have been drawn out of me, by the subject we were discussing. And it had a completely unexpected result.

It encouraged someone else, who had served overseas as a soldier, to share a similar story of an experience he had when he returned home. He had reached out to help me, in a powerful way. Somehow, shared vulnerability had created a powerful moment of connection. And I felt a tension relax in the room.

It hadn’t occurred to me, in Bosnia in 1996, that maybe what I had experienced might be a manifestation of PTSD. I hadn’t even heard of the term then. Once PTSD became part of our lexicon, I connected it primarily with military service overseas in conflict situations – when one was under fire, having to deal with IEDs or bombs, having to fire at others, having to ride in tanks or hide in bunkers.

But maybe our experiences did have one thing in common – a feeling of intense vulnerability, in a situation where one wasn’t in control of much – if anything. And maybe that was why it had been so hard for me to remember it – I didn’t feel comfortable with having felt so vulnerable and so frightened, even if it was only for a few minutes.

A few years ago, at a seminar at my university, I was part of a panel with soldiers. Being a civilian working in a post-conflict situation, with little institutional support, is a different experience than being part of military service – I wondered if we would have anything at all in common.

When I spoke about doing election observation, in other countries, I mentioned how, after I got back to Yellowknife, I didn’t use paths through fields for almost a year. I walked only on the paved sidewalk or the road. In Bosnia, where no one knew what areas had been mined but where, if there were mines, they were likely to be along the roadside and near bridges, one had to be careful. I remembered a Swiss commander who told me that his men even had to pee on the road, not go off to the side.

The next morning, at coffee, a Canadian colonel came over and said that when I told that story, he was instantly back in Bosnia, where he had served as a peacekeeper. It seemed as if that one story had created common ground between soldier and civilian – a ground that is not always there.

As I get older, I am less inclined to draw big and overarching  lessons from stories. I pretty much just tell the stories, and let others draw their own conclusions. In this case, the lesson for me was that sharing vulnerability can sometimes create common ground in a way that sharing stories of strength may not.

Grieving while away from home

My friend Vi died while I was working in Serbia on a large-scale international development project. So, even though she had asked me to write her eulogy, I never heard it delivered in person – because I was in Uzice when I got the news of her death. It was second hand, in a sense, through a condolence message from another friend. Her husband had tried to reach me, but didn’t know how, and her computer, which had been such an important link to her friends around the world as she was dying at home, had been damaged in the flurry of the end.

We had been friends for a long time, during most of the 25 years I lived in Yellowknife. We used to have lunch together every Wednesday, and we shared much that grew from our initial work at a local newspaper – the impact of dysfunctional childhoods, seeking public office, travelling to Siberia to run a women’s conference. I could go on for a long time….

She had become ill after I went to Serbia in the late summer of 2001. She chose to share her experiences of illness, and then of dying, via email messages shared with friends around the world. She tried many things to deal with the illness.

One I remember vividly to this day. She was having a major operation in Edmonton the same night I was expected to be at a dinner in Uzice hosted by the man who led the organization carrying out the project. My agency was a sub-grantee, and there was a great deal about the relationship between the organizations that I didn’t know then, but learned later. However, even not knowing that history, it was clear that the grantee somehow saw our organization as a threat – not a partner.

It was one of those typical Balkan dinners – noisy, lots of alcohol, people fawning on the organization’s leader, lots of self-congratulation, and smoky. It was when they pulled out the big cigars, and the man was smoking his, that I was asked to speak.

I don’t remember what I said, in truth. It was as yet a long way from the time when the people working for his organization would be calling me a ‘witch’, and I didn’t at the time fully realize that the way our team worked – and thus the way I worked – was seen as a threat by his organization. I didn’t fully realize myself, in fact, how different my approach was to the typical Balkans one – that I saw myself as enabling my team to do their job effectively, to plan collaboratively with them, and to support them in doing their work. This was also different from how the grantee organization organized its work within the country team. It was, in hindsight, a clash of cultures.

At any rate, back to the dinner. The subtext, as I saw it, was a kind of gloating about his agency’s success and prowess. (And not long afterwards, I was called to Belgrade for a discussion with our agency about an imbalance in messaging that he had seen during his visit. As it turned out, this referred to the opening of the sub-office in Valjevo for which our agency had been made responsible. We had just moved in, and to ensure that local people could find the office, there were two 8.5×11 pages with our agency’s name on it, and only one page with his agency’s name on it, temporarily taped on the gates outside the office yard.)

The overall project was about revitalizing communities through democratic action, and so I spent a lot of time in the 60 communities we worked with. That was what I was focused on – the ways in which communities were finding hope, and new possibilities, through the work of our project. But it was hard, because my heart was back in Edmonton, wondering how Vi’s operation was going.

Later that year, as her health status worsened, I had to make a hard decision. When was I going to go home for a yearly visit? She was determined to stay alive until Christmas, to see her newest grandchild. I decided to go in November, rather than waiting til Christmas.

She had persuaded the health authority to let her die at home. She had a hospital style bed in the living room, and people gathered there regularly to talk to her. For years, ever since her mother’s death, when some friends crossed the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to her, she had worked quietly with bereaved families, helping them put together the small booklet about the loved one that is such a typical feature of northern funerals. And she took the same compassionately unflinching approach to her own passing.

I remember several evenings in her living room, as we talked. What I most remember is the time when I had to leave. Our friend Anke, who delivered the eulogy, came with me to drive me to the airport. But she, and Vi’s husband Richard, went into the kitchen to give us time alone.

We hugged, and she told me she would say hello to another friend who had died a few years earlier. And then she began to cry, great wrenching sobs from the heart. We knew we would not see each other again.

When I got back to Uzice, I worked on the eulogy. Vi had asked me, during that visit, if I would write it. She also was working on her own pamphlet, choosing pictures and stories of the significant events in her life – and it was beautiful. Anke had agreed to deliver the eulogy, and so I knew I needed to give her time to read through and reflect on it. But it still didn’t seem fully real, in a sense, particularly because I was regularly working 14 hours a day with few breaks.

I was in the office just after our Christmas (Serbians mark Christmas on January 7th, so our Christmas Day is just an ordinary day) when I got the condolence message from a friend. I sent my own condolence message to her family, and then I began to hear the details from friends, including the women from the Siberian trip who had helped with the memorial service. Typically, Vi had found a way for ministers from all the churches in town to take part. And people said the eulogy had touched people. She had celebrated Christmas with her family, and (through the infinite grace of hospital staff) had been able to see her newest grandchild. She had achieved all that she had hoped for.

After I was back in Yellowknife, the next year, I ran into George Tuccaro, who had done similar work with bereaved families and as quietly as Vi, and he hugged me and said “we gave her a good sendoff”. That was healing, for me.

But that day, I was alone in a small office, in a community not my own. I played music, and I grieved, and my friends in the office did their best to give comfort. It was something they knew how to do, because they had so often had to provide similar comfort to bereaved friends during the bleak years of sanctions against Serbia, and then the war in neighbouring Bosnia, and then the bombing of key Serbian infrastructure in a western bid to force Milosevic out of Kosovo.

I tell this story because, given the many times we debate the practicalities of international development work, we rarely talk about how this work affects us as human beings while we are doing it. My New Year’s resolution, this year, was to begin reflecting on this process for myself. This is the first of an occasional series of posts on that topic.

(This post was inspired, in part, by a thoughtful and lovely talk I just listened to this morning. With thanks to Meghan O’Rourke and Hanya Yanagihara, who talked about grieving as part of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers podcast.)