17 November 2010

The Aid Workers

There was a map of South Sudan on the wall behind his desk. The lines demarcating the boundaries between states were drawn in clear black ink against the smooth ivory paper. Near the bottom, Juba, the capital, was nothing more than a solid black dot.

I had arrived the day before with a few reports about Sudan in my suitcase and a few ideas in my mind of the story I would write. Touch down and lumber across the tarmac in the glare of the midday sun; shuffle through the sweaty crush of immigration; then down a dusty road cut with craters, past slopes of mud huts and charcoal fires, to my pre-fabricated hotel. Internet is out so I can’t confirm interviews. Drop heavily to sleep. Early morning departure, but we’re lost and running late. By the time I arrive at the small compound of the international NGO whose country director I have come to interview, I’m exhausted.

From inside his spare, cement office, sunlight flooding in through the room’s single wood-framed window, I take out my notepad and ask him about the program I’ve been sent to write about it: do you think it will work in South Sudan?

He smiles. “On paper it’s so easy. When you get here, it’s not.”


It takes an enormous amount of vanity—to drop into a country for a few weeks and think that you can capture the reality of a place. Because of course you never can.

Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand. Distrust of outsiders runs deep, but they want to talk too, to vent, to plead: This is what it's really like.


Kim is wearing jeans and tennis shoes and though she is young, she has dark circles under her eyes. Her office is just like everyone else’s in Juba: spare, except for her computer and a gigantic map of Sudan on the wall, marked with red pins where the international NGO she works for has projects.

She tries to explain the basics of their contract with USAID, functionally, how it works. She pulls up spreadsheets and all kinds of official documentation. It becomes a tutorial. Most contracts run about 12-18 months, she says. Barely enough time to get programs up and running, especially because nothing ever gets started until six months after it’s “launched” anyway.

And the donors require NGOs to come up with exit strategies. It’s insane, really: in one of the most underdeveloped countries on Earth, they have to explain how they plan to turn over operations (such as running health clinics) to local authorities once the contract is up.

—We know we won’t be able to and the donors know it too. So, we make it up.


He was one of the first aid workers I ever met. A salesman, he ran a USAID-funded HIV/AIDS project in Southern Africa in the heyday of Bush II’s big push.

One night we had dinner with some American aid workers in Lusaka. Gathered around an outdoor fire, drinking and smoking cigarettes, he expounded on the process people from Washington go through when they come to the field for the first time: the initial whiplash of being face to face with extreme poverty; a sort of guilt-laden depression; and then, the moment:

—They look up at me and ask: what can we do? His eyes were glowing like embers as he spoke. “I say: Follow me!”

A salesman and a savior.


Time is different here, fluid, flexible. Arrive at Medair’s offices, on the dusty road near the airport, around 5 p.m. Jospeh, a twenty-something from Kenya who in the space of one week has become not only my driver but also my fixer—the man knows how and where to get anything—beeps the horn and we wait in silence for several minutes at the dilapidated metal gate.

I used to ask Joseph to come back in one hour, but the assumption that my interview would start on time and last roughly 45 minutes was all wrong. Sometimes the person I’m supposed to interview doesn’t show, and other times, they ask me to stay for dinner. I remember arriving thirty minutes late to meet the country director of an international NGO, an unforgiveable sin back in Washington, and was dumbstruck when he acted as if I was right on time. It didn’t throw off his schedule, it was just part of the rhythm.


The compound where Chuck stays is a fortress. Thick concrete walls, enormous coils of jagged barbed wire, a massive and heavily guarded gate. But inside it’s like summer camp: cottages scattered along winding dirt roads and grassy hillsides.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday. We grab beers and popcorn and sit beneath the shade of a eucalyptus tree. The rustle of the leaves is so pleasant that for a moment I forget it’s pushing 95 degrees out.

Chuck is a straight shooter, a veteran. He knows the problems with aid and isn’t going to make excuses. “Exit strategies are bull shit,” he says. “But changing a system that is so politically entrenched is very difficult. We must be realistic about what we can do.”

Later, I ask him why he came back to the field late in his career after a return to the United States.

He shrugs: I get bored back there.


Some where along the way I realized I didn’t feel normal anymore unless I was getting on a plane every other week. Airplanes became my taxi, and I met a lot of people who traveled much more than I did, for longer periods of time, sometimes years.

I remember being at a dinner one night “at home” in Dar es Salaam. Looking around the table, I realized that each of my friends had just come back from another country or were getting ready to leave. There was Laverty, just back from Joburg, stopping in Dar “for a drink” then on to eastern Tanzania. Mark, on his way to Kinshasa. Alix and Jean were in Nairobi, another about to meet his wife in Kampala, another on her way to Kigali. I too was back for 24 hours, about to head to Liberia.

It’s like a drug. The motion, movement. It’s like noise, drowning out other voices. And for some, it acts like the tide does against the cliffs, chipping away at relationships. It can take real exhaustion or depression (or lots of alcohol) to make you feel quiet again, still.


I used to think it would lessen with exposure. Eventually, I thought, you'd get numb to the shock of poverty, you'd find a way to live with the fact that you're a millionaire compared to the people you have come to serve, to write about.

One morning in Monrovia, I set out with Wilson, my 40-year-old driver who waited out the Liberian civil war by flitting back and forth from Guinea to Cote d’Ivoire doing odd jobs. His contract with the World Bank was a new gig. Each day I needed him, he had work: $5 a day. (I was wracked with guilt on the weekends when I decided to save the $100 a day and use taxis.) When I left, he'd be out of a job.

As we set out he asked if the NGO down the road needed drivers, and if there was someone there I knew whom he could talk to. In an instant, something in my stomach went hollow and queer. I knew his situation, I knew his daily wage, knew it was decent, and I’d met lots of people worse off. But it isn't right—that existence should be so precarious, that distances between people should be so far.

You never get used to it. That obscene fact—that life isn’t fair—stares you in the face everyday, and it is grating and persistent and devastating.

I told a friend about it later. He asked if I felt guilty. No, I said, not guilt. Anger.


Nights in foreign capitals can get lonely. A disappointing meal, not feeling well. Non-descript hotel room, just like all the rest, suitcase on the floor, heap of dirty clothes in the corner, the BBC flickering on the television screen.

Some colleagues in town from Washington, and me, flown in from Tanzania, get to Havana late, looking shabby and tired after a long day’s work. We slump onto the leather couches like puddles, faces blank. After a few beers and a handful of peanuts, we get up to leave, all save one.

“He has a girl here,” a colleague tells me. “Don’t look so surprised. You know the story. Unhappy marriage back home, and it’s so easy out here.”

I meet her one night, out at a club playing pool. She is young and beautiful, in an outfit—black leather boots, a short, backless dress with abrasive metallic detailing—that belies her unassuming manner. She smiles shyly, says she likes my dress. Thanks, I say, I like yours too.

More details emerge as the night wears on: She has a diabetic uncle who our colleague helps to support. She has a day job too, earning money for her family.

"He says they’re alike. He says she’s a survivor."


A colleague and I meet for dinner at Afex, a compound for U.S. contractors on the banks of the Nile. Grab some food (it's all you can eat) and sit down beneath the pale pink and purple twilight sky. Below, the silvery blue iridescence of the Nile is glowing in the half light like the inside of a sea shell.

We talk about work—she's been in the country for more than two years and is a wealth of information—but as the night wears on, and we become flushed with humidity and beer, the conversation trails off like smoke.

—Sometimes I wake up and I’m just angry, she says. I find myself being short with people, almost for no reason. There’s no where to go here, no freedom of movement (international staff cannot have their own vehicles; too much of a liability for the agency), and no one stays. Friends leave.

She speaks expansively—about where she grew up, about her family, and, after some prodding, about a boyfriend in the States. The day before I'd accidentally interuppted their call one afternoon, and overheard his voice on the line saying: I love you I love you I love you. She'd laughed and covered the receiver with her hand.

There are so many late night dinners out with friends, colleagues. Every conversation is the same. They say: put yourself in my shoes.


  1. Lindsay - your world is fascinating. Thanks for giving us a glimpse.

  2. Wonderful reflection, Lindsay.