TRAVEL ADVICE! for the traveler kid who doesn’t normally cross oceans

OK punk, you got your first humanitarian aid job? Well, me too! And I’m trying to document how I’m going about it, to refer to later when I almost forget again what to pack in my carryon to avoid what happened this time when my bags got lost (ok, the third time…) and cuz I like writing advice for people like me who didn’t grow up flitting about the world but instead are only now flitting as grown-ass Adults, whose airplane tickets are paid for by stuff like jobs and school, and who perpetually feel like we missed some kind of basic training for this sort of thing cuz everyone else in the airport is suddenly walking somewhere else really fast and shouldn’t I follow them…?

Rant:

International aid and development work is some elitest shit. In general, employers expect 2 years abroad experience for an entry-level NGO job (or unpaid internship!). Professional-level fluency in a foreign language and a masters degree are also basic entry requirements. Of course, this means that sons and daughters of rich people who sent them to European language summer schools and volunteer vacations have an unfair advantage over equally or better qualified but poorer peers. And that’s another ugly truth about this field, which is that besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s a wealthy-class field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home. Writing about and linking to others’ writing on ways to get around some of these barriers to entry and thinking on how to change the dynamics and structures of this work are too much for this post and for my brain lately (see the post about living in a concrete box for details). What I can do is offer some experiences navigating what is.

End rant.

So here is my ongoing series of international travel and aid work how-to’s:

 

New posts will be added to the Resources page of this blog.

Self-Care in a Concrete Box

this is not the box i live inLiving by myself under strict, early curfew in a dark concrete room with electricity for about 3 hours each night for the last 8 months or so, I find myself able to practice the daily rituals that doctors and therapists and yoga teachers recommend, like flossing and deep breathing. It took effort to put good habits into place, but now that I’m an expert at the alone routine, I figured I would share some links in case you ever find yourself similarly forced to amuse yourself for the last 5 or 6 hours of every day. These ideas are of course a bit tailored to the particulars of low-resource, high stress, and poor sanitation of my current rural Central African Republic living sitch, but hopefully you can alter to your more well-lit, stable, and cleaner conditions. Because hopefully you live in those!

My normal evening is spent winding down after work and early dinner, sitting on the toilet reading news articles I downloaded to my phone during the last 5 minutes before they shut the generator (and therefore internet) off at work, washing my hands and then my feet in the sink, doing a 20-minute workout video followed by a 20-minute yoga podcast, then taking a shower while fending off the cockroaches that come up from the drain as they start to drown by bearing down on them with a waterproof headlamp held in my hand like a chair against a lion, then watching the OC or Friends on my computer while I play Spider Solitaire on my phone and/or flossing and moisturizing, dialing my partners’ phone number to receive the no service noise 10 or 11 times, until finally pulling down the mosquito net and reading in the dark til I fall asleep.

Not the most glamorous existence, but it makes the time pass, and more importantly, it ticks all the self-care boxes I need to practice regularly to build up resilience so that when I am woken to gunfire at midnight or a hospital run at 3am, or I go a month not taking weekends while we navigate delivering late deliveries of life-saving supplies held up by crummy roads and armed hold-ups, I got some structure and built up reserves in place to see me through to the next R&R vacation, when I eat whole blocks of cheese and tofurkey-veganaise sandwiches and go on hikes through the the woods to get back to normal.

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[Centrafrique] On walking

I could see the Bossangoa cathedral in the distance, and the Ouham river was at my back, so I was firmly oriented here. like Boston with the Pru and the Charles, or New York in midtown with the Empire State Building and the river (as long as you don’t get too far south so the Wall St high rises mess you up) you always know how to get home. And yet, taking this path instead of that one felt momentous: here is my world, expanding. The metaphor with Warcraft (the original, back in the 90s) and its Fog of War feature blacking out the parts of the map on which your characters haven’t walked feels dangerously apt. Here in Centrafrique, my movements are limited by daily updated security protocols and the personal dance I perform negotiating savvy safety measures and victim-blaming self-censure, between participation in the life around me and the knowledge of my difference as barrier to integration, as target. The list of possibilities is long enough to mar reasonable discussion about personal choices: harassment, mugging, stalking, kidnapping. It was aid workers same as me who were beheaded in Iraq this month. Were they just trying to find healthy expression of exercise, of peace in solitude, of independence, of embracing the community in which they lived by boldly stepping into it, and was that stupid? I don’t know the circumstances of their capture, but I know I should take sensible measures to avoid my own.

The weight of decision is heavy! To sit within walls and cars is offered to me as an option, perhaps recommended, occasionally enforced on pain of firing. I can and I have taken it. For weeks at different times in the last half-year, my steps were confined to the space between my room and my office, transported in between by white land cruiser. Twenty steps to the car, ten from car to work. I do workout videos in my concrete room each night to remind myself how little I move, to jump out the frustration of traveling across a globe only to reduce my vision of the world to rooms surrounded by walls, guarded, infiltrated only by elite people who speak the colonial language and showed the right credentials in terms of references, education, past job experience, and “right” motivation to be hired. A reminder to always distrust the so-called experts who wield their experience of “having been there” to mean anything. The phrase is empty, it’s the nature of their lives in the place that matters.

Both of these threats feel at once overblown and essential: to shelter in place is to not act, it is easy and small and sensible and safe. You can always create a good case for that decision. But to take independent steps down a grassy hill, cutting through a corn field and across a busy main road: that too is small. It is normal and sensible, it is a gentle easing of the tension between alien outsider encapsulated in enormous SUVs and the regular people in a place traveling at a reasonable scale: by foot. It is big because it is a peace offering, it is an act of refusal to fear and degrade and separate. The fear is easy to give into, but to acknowledge the presence of this limiting fear is to acknowledge racist and classist biases that slide easily behind reasonable fear in a war zone. It is not brave to walk, but it is in a small way kind.

The weight of the decision is exhausting! To walk is not to integrate! A walk, a struggle to keep face neutral, to create a friendly, open smile without creating open invitations (to touch, to follow, to expect), eyes guardedly down under the pressure of deciphering cat calls from friendly acknowledgments when they are all in an unknown language– this is not immersion! I always miss New York, where no one says hello, so there is no question of the intent of the person shouting Cherie! across a road. To participate in life is to open oneself to new errors of rudeness, perhaps more painful because the insults come at a more personal level. No one feels individually slighted by the turned-away face hidden behind a car window.

Regardless, to walk is the normal I want to manifest, a decision I want to make lighter. I want to be able to sleep in past my ride, I want to be able to go here or there when the moment is right, to feel like the space I take up is at human scale and I don’t need a driver and a metal box to meet my basic needs. I would like to be seen enough to become a normalized part of the morning commute, a munju not worth commenting on, normalized by enacting the normal of life in the place where I live. In Mali, in Ethiopia, in Allston, walking was how I met my neighbors and came to know the place, came to be known in small ways (the regular coffee order, the after work grilled corn, the hellos by name, these are threads of social fabric). In CAR, the intimate nature of civil war calls into question the value of these mutual pleasures and respect of regular neighborly contact: in a place where months ago neighbors killed neighbors stole from neighbors tortured neighbors, where is the value in walking? We know from past horrors of war and genocide and mass sexual violence that traumas stay with peoples intergenerationally. With the grave, lasting weight of trauma, what is the value of stepping into normalcy weeks later?

I don’t know.

As I come to a fork in the path, a woman calls my name. She’s sitting on a stool next to three little girls, stirring a big black pot balanced on three stones. She’s a secretary at an ngo in town, I know her. Her house has new thatch on the roof and scorch marks on the walls, but it’s a big one with a wide yard surrounded by tall, ripe corn. She introduces her girls and I see a young man, teenager, who is maybe her son sweeping corn husks across the yard. She lets me know the path straight ahead is flooded but I can go around a different way. This is the point, right? You can’t have mutual aid unless you allow yourself to be vulnerable. The decision rests large but it allows the decider to grow smaller. There’s healing value in that.

[Centrafrique] LA got nothin on BANGUI.

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Let me refer all haterz to Knaan.

[Centrafrique] Bossangoa, la ville hospitalière

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[Centrafrique] Bangui – Bossangoa by air

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The first thing I notice on the puddle jumpers that fly from the capital city to my for-now hometown in northwest Central African Republic is the amount of uninterrupted forest cover. I am from the USA East Coast where all the woods are well-surrounded by roads and none of the trees save a few story-riddled exceptions are older than, oh, about 80 or 90 years. Woods where I grew up are criss-crossed by rock walls that were hand built by farmers when the woods were cornfields. I remember when I made it to the West Coast after a big cross-country hitchhiking adventure, and this Earth Firster walked with me down a narrow logging road through an enormous series of dense, tree-covered mountains. On the west coast of the US the mountains are sharp and pointy, and they rise steeply one after the other after the next. This place was a small range, maybe considered hills in that land of snowy peaks, and from our drive in to the campsite we had the chance to cross a long ridge looking down at tree-covered valley followed by narrow, tree-covered valley. I was awed by the quantity of forest without end. If you got lost, walking straight till you came to a road wouldn’t save you. It was incredible.

My friend, of course, was heartbroken. He was talking about experiences in forest like this and forest different than this. He was looking at the path we walked on– the narrow dirt roadway that wound its way up and along the ridge for slow miles– and in his eyes the ecosystem was already lost. Not just because the whole area was set to be logged in the next few years (come on, why the hell else was I in a deep woods with an Earth First kid?) but because it was already turning into an edge community. He pointed to the road and explained how the small gap in underbrush is an impassable void for deep woods species of animals and plants. At edges, new, invasive species thrive, diving in to soak up sun and space, creating walls of hardy, weedy, first-line succession plants that block the movements of stable, late-succession ones. The animals that evolve in uncut forest adapt to niches within the stable abundance of very specific resources, abundant from the spaciousness of the habitat not necessarily from the richness of the soil or the sun. Cuts into old growth forest interrupt this delicate balance of a whole body, allowing new species to infect the wound.

Holding close my friend’s heartbreak and my East Coast awe of that Cascadian temperate rainforest, I fly from Bangui la Coquette to Bossangoa. Behold the grand motherfucking Congo basin, one of the Earth’s great lungs, a carbon sink of untold magnitude, a tropical rainforest so precious that god scattered the earth upon which it walks with gold and diamonds.

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From Bangui to Bossangoa we cross the barely noticeable divide between the upper edge of the Congo tropical rainforest and into the very bottom edge of the dry Sahel. By car, you can see the change in trees types and spacing. By living in each place you feel the change in humidity, in rain, in access to fruit.

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If we must have a metaphor for this flight across CAR, let it be one of edge ecosystems. It’s been years since I studied natural ecosystems and I was, honestly, shocked at my friend’s description of edges as a form of violence as we walked together in the Cascades. In agro-ecology, we seek and create edges. Edges are a basic Permaculture Principle. Edges are efficient, edges are diverse, edges are productive. Edges support more types of species and a greater quantity of plants in a smaller space than any other kind of ecosystem. They are fertile and fluctuating, and for that reason edge species are resilient and hardy, thriving amidst competition by making the most of available resources. Humans are an edge species– we live along rivers and in clearings, we create paths wherever we go.

The violence that runs now across CAR is one of edges, a country cut by imposed borders and by competing livelihoods that evolved in the depth of uncut forest to the south and unending desert to the north. Yet agriculture produces most at the edge of forest, not within it, and the cattle herds of the north seek grassy, fertile edge ecosystems in which to pasture. Both of these ways of life thrive most at this frontier. Here in Centrafrique we see the violence and the fertile strength of edges. Here we see the resilience of communities and people who survive despite and because of the clash of ecosystems upon which they live.

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early thoughts on race and religion and foreignness… and land… in CAR

I believe the CAR crisis is at base a land use crisis (pastoralists vs farmers), fueled by climate change (desertification pushing pasturelands further south, across borders), meddled in because of uranium (France’s oil), funded by minerals though fought over trauma (there’s no incentive for anyone, at any level, to stop). I’m trying to figure out how to explain all that. Here’s one try:

One of the Central African Republic phenomena that doesn’t get reported or talked about, and that gets a little deeper into the complexity of how this is not a religious conflict at its root, is that the Lebanese and Arab merchant class, the owners of Bangui’s big supermarkets and nicer restaurants– who speak Arabic and wear head scarves or boubous, who decorate their stores with paintings in Arabic script and have prayer rugs folded in the corners– are still around, still owning and selling and walking in downtown Bangui, still speaking Arabic to each other, still practicing Islam in public. It’s simplistic (though at times expedient) to say that Muslims are being ethnically cleansed (lynched, murdered, ghettoized, bombed, chased out of) in CAR. The violence is more specific than that.

I asked a Central African (Christian) driver about it today and he said, of course no one targeted the Lebanese merchants. According to the driver, people only targeted the black Muslims in CAR for reprisals because they saw the Central African Muslims as collaborators with the Seleka. To the extent that partial truths are true, what he said is true: some Central African Muslims did welcome the Seleka victory last year (after all, while some Seleka are Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, many are Central Africans, from neglected and marginalized parts of CAR; otherss joined later to partake in the spoils and power), and still others benefited from the massive Seleka looting that methodically pillaged and burned villages across the Christian and non-Muslim parts of the country, which were comparatively better developed than the barren eastern dryland from where the Seleka first organized. Others still were implicated when Seleka forced Muslims in towns across the country to house Seleka troops while they went on their pillaging. Certainly, in Bossangoa for example, the rumor was that even the Muslims trapped in the École Liberté camp were hoarding the belongings of Christians seeking refuge in the camp at the Évêché. When the last Muslims evacuated École Liberté, their former neighbors were already looting (or “reclaiming,” depending on your perspective) the scraps left behind before the last Muslim person had boarded the last truck.

So, a partial truth: some Muslim Central Africans collaborated with the Seleka. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is the collective punishment, the collective revenge, being exacted upon all CAR’s Muslims starting with the pogram in Bangui in December 2013 when the Christian self-defense militia pushed the Seleka out of Bangui and turned their violence against the civilian Muslim population.

But not all of them. What you ended up with is that during the mass of anti-Muslim mob violence in December, January, and February, some non-Muslim Black Central Africans were ‘accidentally’ attacked and lynched for looking “foreign” and “Muslim” while the publicly practicing, Muslim, Arab expatriate merchants continued to live and work in the country. No one was really safe in CAR at that time, but this group, despite their public Islamic practice and actual immigrant status, were and are generally excepted from the anti-Muslim violence that is driving Central African Muslims from the country they were born in.

And that leads to the other mindfuck in all this. The language that is used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from CAR (the language of the driver I talked to, even as he explained how expatriate, Arab Muslims are not implicated in the crisis) is that “Muslims are foreign.” Muslims come from Chad. The mothers of Muslims come from Chad. Muslims are nomads. For those whose grandfathers were born here, their families are foreign, are nomads. It’s not foreign-ness per se that is targeted. It is the ‘foreign-ness’ of pastoralists, the association of settled Muslim communities in CAR with pastoralist Peulh and other Sahelian peoples whose herds may range from Chad, Niger, and Mali through Cameroun, CAR, and into the DR Congo.

In CAR, you can talk about conflict over diamonds and gold, which are funding the powerful and political of the militias, and you can talk about the Muslim Seleka and the Christian Anti-Balaka, each targeting the others’ religious group. But to get at the heart of the anger and the violence, you have to look past what glitters, whether mineral or faith. The crisis in CAR is about how you use the land.

Book review: Eating Animals (in Centrafrique)

Eating AnimalsEating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know why I felt compelled to read my first animal rights book in almost a decade after, first, the self-care decision made while getting a degree in agriculture that since I was totally on-board with, convinced by, and actively practicing an animal rights-guided philosophy I do not need to continue to expose myself to paralyzingly violent images of slaughterhouse suffering, and second, while I am working amidst atrocity as an aid worker in the Central African Republic, where I’ve been trying to limit my violent media exposure to that which is directly relevant to my job.

I read this in a day while in bed with malaria, feeling a little miserable about genocidal atrocities and the constant violences of poverty, colonial-aftermaths, and malnutrition. Amidst this human horror, there is no room in my being and certainly not in my words and outward action to give any fucks about animals. I tell myself this, but still I’m staying vegetarian. I told myself I’d learn to eat animals again, but even on a rice-and-boiled-greens diet, I just don’t. (no qualms about eggs though; a girl’s gotta survive).

Animals here in CAR are raised free-range; there is no industrial animal agriculture. Pastoral cattle herds are a key cause of conflict and a key towards the restoration of livelihoods and dignity of the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed from the country. Eating animals hunted in the forest or fished from rivers is one of the few reliable sources of protein for a settled population whose crops were destroyed last year and may not make it to harvest this year, a people facing famine. On an individual level though struggling goats are tied down straddling motorcycle handlebars, chickens are grabbed up by the legs and swung like bags, pigs are slaughtered in long, screaming ordeals. Though this book is certainly ripe with the descriptive violence from which I’m trying to media-fast, it felt really good to read an affirmation of kindness extended beyond humanity. Love is not a limited resource and doesn’t have to be cut short just because there isn’t enough in practice in a current time and place.

I read this book; I didn’t talk about it, and I won’t. But it felt good to commune with a favorite author on the complexity and importance of animal-based agro-ecoystems while also making a conscious, conscience choice to refuse all of it, to believe there could be something better, even in this world.



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Food

Food is not so much a symbol of freedom as the first requirement of freedom.
(Jonathon Safron Foer, Eating Animals)

Maybe sometimes we don’t do the right thing because the wrong ting looks more dangerous, and we don’t want to look scared, so we go and do the wrong thing just because it’s dangerous. We’re more concerned with not looking scared than with judging right.
(Philip Pullmas, The Amber Spyglass)

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, on the resource curse and blood diamonds)

The land may vary more
But wherever the truth my be–
The water comes ashore
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
(Robert Frost)

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
(Robert Frost)

Book review: Trauma Stewardship

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for OthersTrauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I brought this book with me to the Central African Republic, and read it by headlamp in a dark room after they shut the generator off for the night each night over about a week. I started the book about 3 weeks after I arrived in this northwestern town comprised of burned and knocked down houses, empty quartiers, and, at the time, two crowded tent cities, one surrounding the main church and its many outbuildings, the Christian camp, at one point some 40,000 strong when the vast majority of the town cowered under Seleka control, and the other the square block of muddied grass surrounding a primary school in the center of town, where the Muslims were confined behind armed guards after a pogrom five months ago following the Seleka departure drove them out of their homes and storefronts. Within this context of tired, displaced people my work took me outside the city limits on rural roads that hadn’t been traversed by cars since the last Seleka pickup gunned it down the dirt paths, stopping to loot and burn and rape and burn, last fall. It’s spring now, and I work with people who are offering meager help in the face of incomprehensible terror and hard times– besides the violence there is the lack (of food, of seed, of tilled land, of tools, of clothes, of bedding, of anything one could have in a house that could go up in flames) to contend with, and it is just as hard.

The book is now in the hands of a 20-something Central African coworker who daily leads teams to rural villages, taking responsibility for their wellbeing in the face of constant roadblocks and hassling from armed men, who I think will be the friend I take away from this place in my heart in some many months from now when it’s time for me to leave the people who were born here and will stay.

I’m writing this from a peaceful place in Bangui, the capital city where gunshots ring out across the night but there’s fuel and food and places to go at night before curfew, to see other people and speak English, which is delicious. There are flowers and birds and a view of the Oubangui river and the Congo rainforest in the distance in front of me as I type. When I got to Bangui for a few days of rest, I felt urgent and sad and anrgy, at a loss for how to negotiate (a) people who didn’t realize how bad it is in the northwest, (b) people who knew and also were able to set it aside and enjoy life and beer and each other, and (c) trying to sleep in a quiet, comfortable bed with AC instead of a hot, no-fan concrete box with a thin mattress and the constant sounds of animals and people sleeping in tents around my little enclosed private room all night. But comfort and happy, relaxed people are not the enemy and they are not causing the pain of the people I work with and for. These other aid workers are here to devote their lives too to help and cope with limits of resources and time and energy and everything, too. The anger I felt, unasked for, welling up at their ease was both erasing their own trauma and so misdirected. It was my first vision of how hard it is to do this work, when I was able to see that part of me in others that at this moment I can’t access, that I have shut down: ease. Lipsky warned of ‘persecution complexes,’ and I felt one manifest. I was glad to have read about it so I could identify the feelings, sit with them, and move on.

I’ve read a lot of books and trauma and practiced care of secondary trauma. I’ve survived PTSD from sexual assault and worked/volunteered/practiced advocacy and support for other survivors; I’ve lived abroad where I spent isolated months immersed in malnutrition and agriculture where it is hard to grow food– from these previous experiences and primary/secondary exposures, I’ve learned tools, techniques, practices, and sources of strength. I am implementing them here in CAR, I prepared. Some of what I got from this book was a feeling of strength and resilience, because I know and do already much of what Lipsky teaches.

Some of what I got from Lipsky was frustration. She directs much of the book to burnout and compassion fatigue, and so many of the stories and advice are about how to gently pry oneself loose from the work at hand. But what if this work is– at the same time it is so, so harsh and hard– giving me life and vibrant energy and the most deep satisfaction in action I have ever found? I had an Owen Meany moment when I felt the 10 years of study and research and lesser but related jobs finally come out in responsibilities into which I was able now to step. Lipsky, I needed more joy and embracing of the work itself, I needed more love and advice for how to continue the work through the trauma, not how to shy away from traumatic, traumatizing work. I am fresh, of course. I can tolerate a book that doesn’t always speak to me.

In general, I think this is not the end of books for caring for trauma. I like some other books with more practical step-by-step guides. I like the lessons I’ve gotten from years of yoga classes with teachers, from a couple periods of time with therapists. I like the lists I’ve prepared for myself of herbal tinctures and writing and people to contact and small rituals and fantasy novels and a stock of yoga and high-intensity workout videos. This book is a very good introduction to self-care while giving care and it is good for those who have burned through their candle. I’ll guard the burnout advice in my heart and try to cultivate ease.



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