Tag Archives: aid worker

Where to go? There, where there is most need?

For those who want to read quick and efficient; please go directly to the last paragraph.
For the others, enjoy the reading towards the last paragraph.

Vulnerable households are those who had to flee their own village because of fighting. They walked for days with a few items they could carry and had to find a new secure place to live. Vulnerable households are households where a pregnant women is leading a family with 8 children and possessing only one small cooking pot and a tiny jerry can. Vulnerable households are elderly people who don’t have family left and need to take care of themselves while they are prone to sickness.

Being vulnerable in the humanitarian context means that life circumstances are impacting your ability to have equal access to human rights. Your capacity is diminished to anticipate, cope, resist and recover from natural or man-made disaster or conflict. People differ how they are exposed to risks as a result of their social group, gender, identity, age etc. With our work we are looking which people are in need the most. Even if the entire population is affected, we need to make this focus on the most vulnerable to be able to have the highest impact with the work we are doing. And since it takes time and resources to reach everyone, prioritisation is also needed. So we are aiming for the biggest impact, in the shortest time with the fewest resources.

I have struggled with this a lot. How can you prioritise a need? Is one need more important than another? And does this mean that someone deserves help more than another? How can you prioritise who to support, where to support, when to support and what type of support to give? Because if you decide that there is most need in place A, it means you can’t be in place B at the same time. So people in place B will still struggle to survive. I find this difficult and painful to accept.

Someone said to me that prioritisation of the needs can be compared with a triage in medical emergencies and disasters. The triage is used to determine the priority of the patient’s treatment based on the severity of their condition. An example is the wounded people in a battlefield; they are assessed by a doctor and labelled in 3 different categories. The labels indicate the patient’s need for medical treatment and transport from the battlefield. The three categories prioritise which people to treat immediate, before others, to save the most lives:

  • Category 1. There are those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive. These are the people who are less affected, or who had the right capacities to cope with the disaster themselves. Maybe they still need help later because they don’t have all the human rights, but there is no direct life-threat.
  • Category 2. There are those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive. They are either already dead or beyond help. Of course this is tragic, but it is a waste to spend time and resources on them.
  • Category 3. There are those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome. This is obviously the group of people where you can have an immediate life-saving impact. Those are the vulnerable people who are in need the most, the group we try to aim for.

If it is put like this, prioritising needs sounds very helpful and logically as well. Still I will not be able to go to place B at the same time as place A. But even when that one drop of water falls precisely in your mouth, it does provide relief. That is where I am holding unto. There is still hope.

We recently did a distribution where we tried to reach the most vulnerable households in a remote village. The distributed kits with items included blankets, cooking pots, a bucket, hygiene items and fishing tools. An impression of this intervention can be seen below. I am sure that the distributed items supports the households to recover from their circumstances, which will impact their life immediately.

Having a big impact. Doing things quickly but efficient. No waste of money. Always busy and having no time. Goal oriented. It sounds like a familiar Western thought… So let me give you one word of advice: If you are on your way to reach your goal while you are juggling five other balls around, please don’t forget to meet the people along your way. Look around and spend time to truly see the other. That is what I am trying to do as well. I hope I can make the right decisions how to prioritize the needs. But while I am running to the big crowd who are in need the most, I will still open my eyes and stop when I am seeing someone sitting along the road. This is giving me unexpected surprises, true connection and a more purpose-driven life!

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are solely ours and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any organisation.


About Rain and Relaxation, and being lucky I am not made out of ice-cubes

Rest and Relaxation (R&R) is often a topic for conversation amongst aid workers. It is a bit like how we are talking about the weather in the Netherlands. If you meet someone, the way to start a conversation is making a comment about the weather. This is how you come closer to each other. Whether it is stating that it is sunny, or complaining that it is too windy, you will always get a reaction. You talk about the weather with strangers if you are waiting for the bus. You talk about the weather when you are making plans for the weekend. You talk about how the weather has been in your last holiday. And you talk about the weather when you are calling with your parents from South Sudan. We just can’t stop talking about the weather. Maybe because we have different seasons and the weather can even have the four seasons in one day.

Some ‘outsiders’ might say that it is always raining in the Netherlands; this is not true, on average it is 93% of the time dry. We do however distinguish between different types of rain, to describe accurately whether it ‘miezert’ or ‘stormt’ or ‘stortregent’ or ‘hoost’ or ‘plenst’ or ‘motregent’. We even have an app called ‘Buienrader’ which is used frequently nowadays before you go outside, to see whether it is raining. I see it more as an app to mentally prepare yourself for something. Because obviously when I look outside I can see whether it is raining or not, and even if I am too lazy to walk to the window the rain will not prevent me from going outside anyway. It is just mentally good to know if the rain will pass by quickly or if there is a very serious storm coming up.

Before I will go to the R&R topic, I cannot skip my obligation now to talk about the weather in South Sudan. Well, I can tell you, I only need two words to describe this weather and that is that it is ‘very hot’. And especially when you are in the field without any air conditioning, except for the warm wind blowing in your face, this can be very hard. And it is everyday the same, I don’t need different words to describe the intense sun rays on my face. In this tropical climate it is now the hottest period of the year (Feb-April), before the summer rains are coming. It easily reaches 40°C, with peaks of 45°C on a day. Always being sweaty, and always feeling hot, that is what it’s like. You can imagine I would have loved to be in the Netherlands when everyone got crazy about the freezing weather a few weeks ago, which made it possible to ice-skate on the frozen lakes and canals. In the Netherlands when it is raining really hard and people are complaining we use to say: ‘you are not made out of sugar’. Maybe what I need to say to myself right now is ‘I am not made out of ice cubes’. So don’t complain about being in the heat. Just face it.

So R&R is the topic you cannot skip when you are talking to other humanitarians. You can start with asking about their last R&R experiences, or discuss great places to go to for your next R&R. Then another thing is to tell how crazy long your last rotation has been (a rotation is the period of working between two R&Rs), or how many weeks you still need to go before you can leave the country. You can even discuss the whereabouts of your other colleague to another colleague; where you think he went to on R&R and when he is probably coming back. And then if you are talking to someone from another organisation it is always interesting to know what their R&R policies are and how long their rotations. Talking about R&R is how you start your conversation. It is how we are connected.

The idea behind Rest and Relaxation is that you are granted for leave because the working and living conditions do not allow you to rest and relax after work. We are living in a stressful working environment, in isolated and insecure locations with lack of basic facilities and privacy. So this regular time away is needed to recover mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually to prevent exhaustion, burn out and other related symptoms.

So besides all the excitements about R&R’s, that we are truly blessed to be able to visit a lot of new places and countries in such a short time, it is quite a serious thing. And I know it. And I feel that I need it. My body feels exactly in which week of my rotation I am currently in, physically and mentally. But do I fulfill the expectations that ‘the Medair worker fills this R&R time with restful activities’?

Because to be honoust: in our recent R&Rs we completely went crazy when setting foot in another country after coming from South Sudan. The freedom to walk around, and to eat whatever you like. The excitement about visiting new places. Our energy and adrenaline was just unstopable. In South Africa we drove more than 4,000 kilometers within 2 weeks time, while doing a lot of crazy activities. In the Netherlands we visited so many friends and family that sometimes we had 4 appointments in different places on one day. In Ethiopia we started hiking an intense trail at an altitude of 4,000 meter one day after we arrived. In Egypt we stept in the most uncomfortable and cheapest train, normally for poor people, bringing us to our next destination after more than 12 hours.

A question I have been asking myself a lot recently is: ‘How do I recover from my work environment’? Can you only do that by laying on the beach and doing nothing? Because already the thought about resting for a whole day (which I translate in doing nothing, going nowhere and sitting on the same place) makes me panic. I do need time on my own, to think. But I think I am actually overthinking my whole life already too much. And actually while sitting in that crazy overloaded train I was able to process my mind and put things in perspective. Also, I gain a lot of energy when having the freedom to do a lot of things.

But I know that my pitfalls are that I always go on, I don’t know my own limits. I will continue until I fall down. So with that knowledge and the reflection on our R&R habits, I start to feel guilty. Because maybe I am doing the wrong thing? Although feeling guilty is also something I need to stop doing. Because I am not perfect, although I often want to be.

You see how I am struggling with my thoughts and actions. I do think that how you travel, or how you spend your R&Rs, is in a lot of ways a metaphor for your own life. When you have the freedom to do whatever you want, you will do whatever you feel comfortable in doing at that moment.

I always like to encourage people to step out of their comfort zones, to do things they have never done, to do things differently then they normally do. I remember a friend saying to me ‘but maybe your comfort zone, is stepping out of your comfort zone all the time’. And maybe it is true. Maybe I need to find myself again, by sitting on the beach and do nothing. Luckily I am not made out of ice-cubes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are solely ours and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any organisation.

Lesson from the handicapped guy

I was walking around in a village, to find out and observe how the people are living and what their biggest needs are. The area can be described as a forestry highland wherein the villages and households are very spread. Most of the people fled to this area in the beginning of the year due to fighting in their homelands. I see men planting seeds for the coming harvesting season. Women and girls are walking to the swamps to collect water. Young boys are running around with guns made from blue carton boxes, which were dropped during a food distribution.

Amongst these people I saw a young man limping around. He is paralyzed, his legs are kind of folded, but he is still able to walk with a stick. I felt sorry for him. It is already difficult for normal people to live in these circumstances, how is he able to survive? I know that in a lot of cultures people with weird sicknesses or disabilities are ignored. They are seen as less and worthless, they are disabled because they have sinned or have been cursed. Imagine if you are a minority, and you are disadvantaged and on your own, what would that do with your self-esteem and your motivation to live?

During my time in these villages I had moments that I didn’t know what I was doing there. We are coming in with a helicopter full of food and water, to sustain ourselves during this week. But the people around don’t even have enough food and they need to drink the black dirty swamp water. If they are sick they can walk for two days to the nearest basic health facility. I felt a minority. But then an advantaged minority.

Half way during the week another helicopter came in to deliver supplies. Of course, this is a spectacular event, and everyone started running towards the landing place after hearing the noise in the air. The limping guy was also amongst them, I had difficulties in keeping up his speed. He had a big smile on his face and wanted to help carrying all the cargo. In one hand his stick, and the other hands some buckets he proudly walked towards our tents. He was confident that he could do this.

The day after we were trying to set-up a big tent with aluminum poles and a white canvas. It was a very frustrating puzzle and it turned out that not all the pieces were fitting together, and that the canvas didn’t fit on the frame. Some guys who were helping already gave up and said that the right stuff need to be sent before we can finish it. A lot of people were watching how we were struggling to pull everything together. Then we saw that the tent canvas maybe fitted on a small wooden frame which was already been built but not in use yet. And the guy with the limped legs, was the first person who climbed on this wooden frame house, to pull the canvas over. He believed that it was possible and that he could help in making this happen.

Later on I met his family and found out that he wasah called Mayom. And Mayom had a big self-esteem and high motivation to live, in contrary to what I was expecting the first time I saw him. I learned so much this week in the village in the middle of nowhere but especially from Mayom. Where I am sometimes drowning in all the things that I am not able to do or in all the things that I do wrong, Mayom acted completely the opposite. People around him might not have believed in his abilities but Mayom himself believed that he was able to accomplish big things. He believed that he was a good man. He was not depressed for all the things that he was not able to do, or for the things that he did wrong. No, he was the guy who didn’t gave up and who believed things are possible. Mayom took the burden literary in his arms and carried on with a big confident smile.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are solely ours and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any organisation.

The never-ending fractal of “the field”

I am realising more and more that “the field” is actually a place you cannot reach. It is the place that is always farther, more rural and more difficult to reach than where you are at that moment. And once you have reached that place it is kind of the field has moved away from you. It is like a fractal, a pattern that is repeated at every scale. Once you zoom in, you see there is much more. It looks endless.

Tree fractal

When we were in the Netherlands clearly the field was South Sudan. The place we know we were going to, but our only real knowledge was that it is far away. We had no idea how it would look like, where we were going to live, what the food would be, how the people are; South Sudan was the unknown. But once we were in South Sudan and we could hear the sounds, smell the smells and taste the flavors the field has moved farther. The field was the place outside our compound, where the real life is, the hard life of the South Sudanese people. The field is where all the other Medair staff is, who are not based in Juba. The field is the place where we really implement our work, it is the place where we are trying to reach to beneficiaries.

I was so happy when I had my first fieldtrip. It felt like freedom. An adventure to discover what is there when you go deeper. I had to do an assessment in a place called Don Bosco. We went out of town, passing the Nile by going over the bridge. And once we had left Juba and the tarmac road behind we paved our way through a maze of dirt roads and small houses. I glanced around during our half an hour ride. At the very end was Don Bosco, a compound of a catholic mission who offered space on their land to displaced people. Already since 2013 people fled to this area and built a camp. After the fighting’s in July 2016 the amount of people who sought refuge in the Don Bosco IDP camp increased. More than 5,000 people are there now living together in temporary shelters.

We came here to do an assessment on the water and sanitation situation in the camp. With the rainy season coming, the chances of a cholera outbreak are increasing. Clean drinking water and good hygiene practices are crucial for prevention. At the entrance of the camp quite a few women were queuing with their jerrycans to fetch water at the handpump. We took a water sample of the handpump to check the water quality. Then we walked straight towards the latrines which were also placed on the front side of the camp. The smell of faeces and urine became worse when nearing the latrines. I actually only realized when my colleague was warning me I should watch my feet, that there were faeces laying everywhere. It was the worst open defecation I had ever seen. It was clearly that the few latrines who were there were not used by the majority of people. I wouldn’t like it myself either to go to a filthy and smelly toilet.

To get a better picture of the needs of this community we now entered the camp and did some household surveys and focus group discussions. I was surprised how closely they put the tents together, sometimes there was not even a meter of space in between. The shelters were made from tarpaulins given away by the UNHCR. While walking around I felt the heat burning on my face. The shadow places of the big tree in the middle where occupied by women and children laying on the ground. Soon we gathered a group of women to discuss their water and sanitation needs. It was more difficult to find the men since they were trying to find some food or work during the day.

After a long hard day we came back in the compound in Juba with our findings. Someone asked me where I had been. I said “to the field”. The person started laughing “Don Bosco isn’t the field. You can easily drive there.” I didn’t bother. For me at that moment it felt like the field. But I also knew that to reach “the field” again I had to go to an even farther place.

One week later I sat in a plane towards the real field, I thought, to a place called Melut. The nutrition team is setting up some clinics in the area, and the WASH team is supporting this by building some latrines as well. Our base, where we were sleeping, was in Melut town. But the next day I realized that this wasn’t the field. The field was a long two hours drive away towards the camp in Khor Adar. Once again, the field has moved further. It is a place you cannot reach. It is like the speed of light, it is all relative. A never-ending pattern. I love fractals. I love the field.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are solely ours and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any organisation.

In case you still don’t understand the fractal nature of the field