Prepping for CAR: on storytelling, a personal manifesto of sorts

The next step in my life is to head to the Central African Republic to do aid work there.

What is happening in CAR?

Your best bet to follow the CAR crisis is through the #CARCrisis twitter hashtag, and #Centrafrique if you read French.
Here’s two places to start (1, 2).

There is not a lot of news in the Western media, and the news that comes out seems outdated by the time it’s released, as far as I can tell by comparing Twitter and Al Jazeera. Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouchaert (@bouckap) is doing incredible real-time reporting with quick first impression analysis (see this Storify for example, but be prepared for graphic photos). HRW and Medecins Sans Frontières are doing great work getting the word out about the crisis; the country is big on aid workers and low on journalists right now. “Big” is a relative word: much of the global humanitarian NGO and UN expertise and resources are in and around Syria right now, for better and for worse (see @darthnader for a critical Syrian anarchist’s perspective on international aid).

Twitter will get you the news out of CAR, but it won’t answer your why’s. I will be reading as many backgrounders and reports as I can in the next week or two, and I will try to post an in-depth summary of WTF is going on then, mostly because writing book reports has always been my favorite learning style.

My role and how I’ll write about it

I have struggled a lot with blogging while working in Mali on an ag project (you may have noticed, from the ‘DIY projects to agriculture’ ratio posted about these past few months!). I have actually written quite a bit publicly about my work and about the farmers with whom I’m working, but as I posted when I first moved to Bamako, those stories belong to the people telling them. If I was told something with my NGO worker cap on, it was because farmers were consciously choosing to share that information with the NGO I was representing. The understanding was that their words would be used to further the stated goals of the ag organization, and they decided that participating was in their best interest. Sharing with me as NGO rep was a critical choice farmers made based on the information we gave them about how their words would be used. For example, we often survey farmers for input on program design or other times ask for stories to use in fundraising pitches to rich and Western donors. All interviews start with an introduction and consent agreement so farmers can choose if/what to share based on how the information will be used. Off the cuff remarks while I’m working don’t come with legal consent mumbo-jumbo, but they’re still made from the understanding that the person is speaking to an organization’s representative, not a comrade, friend, random stranger, or English-language blogger.

We are each the protagonist of our own story. I grew up self-publishing feminist zines to claim space and define my narrative for myself. As a young woman survivor of sexual assault, writing to the subcultural anarchist and punk spaces that I moved within and which gave me the tools to demand the respect to be heard, that narrative was mine to claim, to push, to insist on my right to state my piece loud and bold. My narrative ten years later, today, is not a marginalized one. I am employed, hyper-educated, published, white, wealthy, an expat aid worker from the US. I am choosing to work in communities that are oppressed across several spectrums, not least of which is the active ignoring by international NGOs of (failure to seek out, follow, offer services to) local-led community organizations, social movements, and organizing. Part of my work to redistribute power includes checking the privileged space of my narrative. The people with whom I work are not props to be used as part of the story I tell from my vantage point as the protagonist in my life (see every US-made movie ever about conflict in Africa and all the genre of journalist autobio, some of which are incredible, but…).

In Mali, the ethical choice of what to write has been easy, even if it’s led to a more boring blog. The stories told to me during work hours are used for work. The critical reflections that discussion with farmers, whether in formal focus groups or translated through a Malian colleague over lunch, inspired are for work, to push our work to better meet the needs and priorities of the people with and for whom we’re working. I also use twitter and occasionally this blog space to signal-boost the writings of others.

What I have not gotten good at is parsing out what is my story to tell. I started this blog as a place to park my stories, because I love writing zines but got tired of the endless photocopying and mailing process. I love telling adventure travel stories but I’m usually too embarrassed to do it aloud; I’d rather type. I love having a place where I can use a run-on sentence and the shitty grammar of my hometown instead of the refined and polished language of a professional writer.

Finally, I do think there is something to be said for bringing a DIY, punk-infused, anarcho-feminist perspective to aid and development work. International development and humanitarian aid are non-profit industrial complexes that perpetuate all kinds of neocolonial injustices even as they messily attempt to provide necessary services and resources into the hands of those who need them. One of the frequent criticisms of aid work is that the time and energy would be better spent afflicting the powerful in their comfortable rich country offices where the free trade agreements and militarized humanitarian interventions that somehow manage to protect corporate interests while marginalizing people’s movements are written and shaken on. I truly and continue to believe that the antiglobalization protesters in DC and Geneva, and the environmental and food justice activists from the Pacific Northwest to Appalachia are doing the most strategic activist work in closest solidarity with international comrades. I want to be another voice writing in support of that work, and drawing out the connections between that work and the work of people fghting for their own liberation across the ocean.

I also see a myopia in US anarchist/activist circles that choose to look away from issues of hunger and conflict because those things are too melodramatically tragic and overwhelming to face with the careful, cynical outlook preferred by some many US radicals. For many, the problems of the aid industrial complex are cause enough to ignore the same issues that aid work attempts to address. By conflating the two, US radicals prevent connections and solidarity with the people impacted by hunger, conflict, and the aid industry. So I want to write to them, my main audience of friends and comrades back home who I look to for critical feedback and also emotional support and love.

There is value in my standpoint and my narrative, but only if I can remain conscious and careful of how I wield it, the space it takes up and how that size can push aside others, especially other narratives that are being told for their own liberation. I try to use twitter to signal boost other narratives, but I do want to try to tell my own. With so little written word and information coming out of CAR right now, it feels like this is the kind of tricky justice work I should attempt, even as I risk doing it wrong.

So I’ve come to a strategic decision. I will use this blog space to tell my story, which I acknowledge is an over-told one. My first priority is my work, and the majority of my energy and writing will be directed that-a-ways, to writing and action in my real name related to my actual assignment, generally related to food security in the Central African Republic. But I am going to try to use this blog space too. This is anonymous. It is reflective and cathartic. It is where less pressing but important matters of emotions, trauma, language, and critical political analysis from my particular epistemological standpoint can have room to air themselves.

Honestly, my motivations are also selfish, but in a selfcare sort of way. Something I worry about when (choosing to) diving in as witness and relief worker to a terrible and traumatic situation is preserving my ability to respond with strength and grace in the face of my own internal fear/trauma/etc. Having an open writing space to reach out as main character in this personal drama will help me preserve a cleaner integrity in the public, external space of my work.

(you can really skip this whole navel-gazing essay and go straight to this instead)

Trackbacks

  1. […] disclaimer: I want to direct new readers to these two posts about CAR crisis background & why I’m writing what I’m writing, and add the reminder that the advocacy & technical writings are reserved for work; here is […]

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