Cynicism, Sacrifice and Humility

Life in Juba occasionally feels like an experiment in communal living, a monasticism with new and interesting methods of self-flagellation, and significantly less silence. There have been a number of occurrences of late which have given me pause to reflect upon how reliant we are on the kindness and sensitivity of those around us. When you live in such close proximity to people a certain amount tension is inevitable, and with the continuous movement of people team dynamics are constantly shifting. It is a fragile balance, easily damaged and difficult to repair. It is at times like these that I am deeply grateful for the existence of Björk.

However, the community most on my mind of late has been the one which I am going to be living amongst come September. I am increasingly aware how little I actually know about Yuai, my soon to be home. I have read reports and proposals aplenty and can tell you all about the PHCUs (Primary Health Care Units), nutrition needs and WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) projects that we run. I have read books on the history of South Sudan, about its colonial past, and the extended civil war and factionalism which lead to its separation from the north. But the reality is that I know very little about the Lo Nuer, the Dinka and the Murle, the main tribes in my locality in Jonglei – the state in which Yuai is located – as communities or as people.

If there is one thing I do know about Yuai, however, it is that it is an extremely isolated place. If you Google the name of our previous base in Jonglei the first result is not a news site, or even an agency report, but my friend and predecessor’s blog from two years ago. This is not somewhere with international media attention, or indeed international anything.

I have recently noticed that when I tell an experienced field worker, especially one nursing a beer, where I am going to be based their instinct is to chuckle knowingly and remark that if you can survive Jonglei you can survive anywhere. One Jonglei old hand posed the most challenging question I have fielded so far: ‘What are your motivations?’

Now I have been asked that question, or a variation thereof, plenty of times, and considered it independently many more, but this time the question was put in a concrete context. The seasoned aid workers I have talked to, their stories – or the ones that seem to mean something at least – are not about well managed projects, balanced budgets or sociological observations. The stories that mean something are those that tell of feeling welcome, about trust, warmth and connection. And this particular aid worker, who has worked in Darfur and on the Kenya – Somali border, outlined why Jonglei was the most difficult context he had worked in. He touched upon the many impediments to working that I am well aware of, from the rains that turn it into a sodden and impassable swamp for five months of the year, to the sheer scale of the place. But he also talked about the more personal elements – the inherent suspicion bred of decades of civil war and intertribal violence; the absence of a hospitality culture and concomitant reticence of the communities to allow you to participate in their lives; the tendency towards entitlement and aid dependency that meant that engagement, initiative and buy in to the projects were frustratingly difficult to achieve; that he had never once been invited into a family’s home for a meal. And it was the second group of frustrations that made Jonglei so difficult and dispiriting. His advice was that I need to be sure of my motivations, and clear on what I want to achieve, or else I would invariably get frustrated and demotivated by it all.

Now his experience may not be representative, but the larger point still stands: in a context such as this the pat “I’m here to help” answer just doesn’t cut it. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain some truth – idealism definitely motivates many people to get into this line of work, but it’s not enough to sustain you. Bleeding hearts don’t last. And if we are honest with ourselves, neither is it entirely true.

The most difficult response I received when I told people that I was moving to South Sudan was when people expressed the sentiment that I was doing something brave, heroic or sacrificial, which wasn’t uncommon. This was difficult firstly because of the stirrings of pride that accompanied the praise, as the ego was burnished a little too brightly. And it was also difficult because I disagree, for reasons that are difficult to express succinctly. What I am doing is not heroic, it is not a sacrifice, and it is not even particularly unusual – there is a veritable glut of us out here.

By presenting or seeing yourself in such a way – as heroic and benevolent, with wholly altruistic intentions –  you are painting yourself in a position of power: you are someone here to right the wrongs that the South Sudanese cannot, you are here to solve a problem. In doing so you strip those around you of their agency and autonomy, not to mention their dignity. Uncomfortable colonial overtones abound. We are not saviours, and we will not be welcomed as such. Nor should we expect to be. In fact, where I am going it sounds as though I may not be welcome, at least at first. But there should be joy in what we do, regardless of whether or not we experience an emotional affirmation in recognition of our efforts.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.  I awoke and found that life was service.  I acted and behold, service was joy.”
– Rabindranath Tagore

In his elegant and challenging piece for the Atlantic, Teju Cole points out: “…there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”  The ‘here to help’ chestnut makes it all about us, about our need for validation and fulfillment, and it defines our purpose by what we are able to achieve. And when we are faced with our inability to effect change, as we inevitably will be, such thinking sets one up to become bitter and cynical as we are confronted with the seeming futility of our efforts.

“If you believe you’re going to… change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.”
– Chris Hedges

To return to the point about being honest about our motivations, and the problem with the ‘sacrificial saviour’ narrative. There are of course things which I have given up to be here, important things, comfortable things, safe and secure things. There will be things I will miss – weddings, birthdays, late nights chewing the fat with old friends, and myriad similar moments, and these are things I value and do not set aside lightly. But the distinction needs to be made – this life is not in and of itself a sacrifice.

I have chosen to be in South Sudan, and I want to be here. I find it exciting to be somewhere new again, to be back on the continent where my interest in justice, development and the wider world was kindled. I like living somewhere where the everyday has an edge, and less bubble wrap to soften the edges than it does in Ireland and the UK. I enjoy observing the chaotic bustle and colour of the streets and marketplaces, the three people per motorbike approach, the feeling of a city bursting at the seams. I love the smell before a storm, and how the rain here has a weight and heft where back home it is most often grey, dank and half-hearted. I love the interesting people you meet: people who have done things of value and whose character and authority speaks of their knowledge and experience; adrenaline junkies who’re addicted to the buzz of chasing the latest disaster; people who have seen too much and succumbed to the cynicism that I spoke of above – the range is fascinating. I love my job, I love that I’m learning all the time, and I definitely enjoy the intermittent feeling that I am actually quite good at what I do.

All of which makes the frustrations and disappointments that much easier to bear, and makes it all the more gratifying when you know you have contributed to something worthwhile. For our projects, the good ones anyway – the ones where the internal and external circumstances align sufficiently with good planning and available funds – they do do good. They make a difference. But it is incremental, it is slow, and it is difficult to quantify or to measure. It is difficult to determine causality, and even more difficult to watch your efforts and hard-won improvements be wiped out by events outside of your control.

Being honest about the range of your motivations can also keep attitudes in check. If you think you are somehow doing people a favour by deigning to work and live in their country the implication is that they owe you something, whether a debt of gratitude or some form of preferential treatment. And such attitudes will inevitably spill over into your behaviour. Whereas if I am honest about the fact that I am benefitting from being here, and that it is a privilege and not a sacrifice, then I will treat others accordingly, with respect and a willingness to actually listen to the needs of the communities we are serving, rather than imposing my ideas of what is best upon a context about which I can ultimately only ever know very little.

In other words, the cultivation of humility is essential to doing good well. It speaks of trust and integrity, and like anywhere in the world trust has to be earned. Now it may just be that in this particular place there are more impediments to relationship than in most. But such is the privilege of being here.

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5 thoughts on “Cynicism, Sacrifice and Humility

  1. With your self-knowledge and wisdom, I doubt that you’ll experience resignation in Yuai. Whatever your motivations, it’s a courageous move for which you’ve sacrificed a lot. Your writing is really beautiful. I just googled the forecast for Yuai. It looks like there’s a thunderstorm on the way tonight. In Vienna too, torrential rain and sheets of thunder are pounding on the panes. Every so often the room lights up with flashes of lightning. Take care and keep writing xx

  2. Pingback: Rest | Seasons of Migration

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