I want to take a diversion in my writing for a second. I’m writing this blog to help myself and maybe others make sense of the humanitarian world. That’s the purpose. But today I find my thoughts clouded by other things.
I’m taking a memoir class. I’m writing a memoir about my time in South Sudan. It’s not the most gripping or intimate story that could be written about a place that has so many gripping and intimate stories. It was a place after all that when it was part of Sudan, they had been at civil war for almost 50 years. A huge percentage of South Sudanese males had served in the military, nearly all had been affected by the war. The stories that they can tell you about that war and their time, those stories can boggle the mind. The lack of resources, the difficulties, the unmitigated violence, the immorality and the morality of it all.
On the other end of my spectrum of time during aid work, I met a lot of Syrians who had, have or are working inside their country during the civil war. During a time when violence and desperation has gripped an entire country. These are people that some have lost their homes, their families, even their country. I cannot think of a greater loss.
These are not my stories. They are there’s. People just happen to trust me sometimes. They tell me things. I’m your friendly neighborhood counselor. That’s all.
In my memoir class I’ve shared pages for the class to read. Keep in mind this a class in Portland, Oregon, the most liberal and sheltered of American cities in many ways. I’ve written pages about the beginning of a small fight (yet not small to people that died in it or experienced it) that we were on the periphery of. I’ve started to explain tribal dynamics. I’ve written about tribal court. I’ve started to write about my own very human problems. Problems that anyone and everyone could and has experienced. We all just experience them in slightly different ways.
Generally the reactions to what I have written have been positive. But the mind never captures and focuses on the positive. It looks at other things.
One thing that was said today, was that there wasn’t much happening in my work (the writing). To put that comment in context, it wasn’t a bad thing at all. It was in regards to tribal court, which is just that, tribal court, people sit around and make a decision. There was another comment before, about war stories and how the person loved war stories because even when nothing was happening, the suspense held them in.
Life is not cut and dry.
I become angry at America sometimes. And it’s not just America. It’s humanity. But America provides a good example.
I remember being home in Wyoming once. I was having dinner with a family. Friends of mine. The grandfather of this family, first time I had ever met the guy, said something to me. He found out I was living in Beirut, Lebanon at the time. I had to clarify of course that this was in the mid-east. When you say mid-east, particularly to someone from the rural parts of America, or suburban America for that matter, or from a lot of America, that immediately gets associated in their mind with Iraq. And not just with Iraq but with the war in Iraq. You know what he asked me?
He asked me if I saw dead people in the streets.
I shook my head, said no, Beirut was a modern city, had a civil war a decade and a half ago and some problems since then but it was a modern, functioning city (for the most part, we can talk about the trash crisis later) . They had one hell of a night life. Bars, parties, great food, good places to shop, some of the most beautiful women in the world. It wasn’t this small vision that he had.
But I know why he had the small vision that he had and I certainly wouldn’t get mad about it. I know where it came from. But this thing from my memoir class, it gives me a certain thought….
People want to hear about violence. They want to hear about pain. They want to view the world through a very particular lens.
And I don’t know why.
I walk outside for a second. There’s a drunk homeless guy down the street. He was shouting Army cadence for a minute. I recognized it. Then he went into some rant about a black mamba, a cobra, I don’t know what the hell he was talking about. There’s a story there.
Aid work for me is about bureaucracy. It’s about navigating an endlessly Byzantine system of checks and balances in order to get a job done. But many times the job, I don’t understand the job.
Perhaps if I would have been a doctor it would have been simpler. If I simply have a body before me and it’s in my hands, in my skills and my knowledge level to save that life, then I would perform the task and the person would live or die. But what then?
The whole process of creating economic stability, or livelihoods or civil society or all these big terms, they seem a bit…out of reach. I can’t quite understand them. And that brings it back to South Sudan and a very specific time and place.
It was the Abyei area, in May, 2011. We had spent a lot of time and a lot of money building poultry houses, grinding mills, resource centers, grain stores, fish shops, government buildings, renovating schools and the list goes on. A lot of it got burned down in a fight between the North and the South. Some of it got taken over and used for other purposes. To this day I don’t know if any of those projects survived and were used for their original purpose.
This is important to me. It’s that question that you ask yourself at the end of the day. Does my life, does my work have any meaning? Or even more importantly, to hell with my life, are we actually advancing as a species? Does these things actually help people? We can talk about violence and loss and desperation until the end of time. But what about those things we do in-between that violence and that loss? Does that help people? Does it make us better?
If I was on the shores of some island outside of Greece helping people off of boats right now, is that not a worthwhile endeavor? Of course it is. But what happens to those people then? For me, though the drama of that story may be captured by that journey, the true meat of that story is what happens afterwards. What happens to those people? I can’t wave a magic wand and make the system actually work the way it should. Particularly since I don’t even know the way it should actually work. And if you show me someone that says they do know the way it should work…..well, to that I call bullshit.
We are struggling for answers. On how to make meaning. On how to be useful. On how to have a meaningful life in the face of a world that may be completely insane. Or in the face of the problems and challenges that exist within ourselves. There are no easy answers. There are only complications. Now I have to ask myself, where do I, where do we go from here?
Thanks for reading my somewhat rambling post. I hope that it sparked some internal thought on your part.