You know you are a humanitarian when…

Family, friends, collegues, and foes, predicated it impossible that I would not work for more than two weeks. Well, it’s been five weeks now. A good hand over and two moving farewell parties (one in Goma and one in Kinshasa) made it a bit easier to leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my chosen home country of the past three years. Since then, neither emptyness nor urge to go out there again immediately. The identity of an unemployed humanitarian is a difficult one to sell here in the rich world. So I simply don’t sell it!

Ten years ago this time, I was bracing for my mother’s 60th birthday, which would be followed by a trip to St. Petersburg and then by the start of my first humanitarian mission.

Today, I am luckily still bracing for my mothers 70th birthday, which until not too long ago I was not sure would happen. Thank God for life!

Ten years ago, I was by no means sure there would be a second or third mission. I found out with time that this lifestyle was for me. I can say that I see sense in my work, and that I enjoy it at the same time. As long as I can still say this, as long as I am still healthy, and as long as I haven’t become cynical, why stop?

Humanitarian life has its particularities and ironies, which are often only understood by those, who lead this life. A Facebook group directed at insiders called “You know you are a humanitarian when…” brings some excellent quotes describing the particularities of being an aid worker. Great thanks to Tonton Ed for translating some of them on his blog.

Here are my highlights.

You know you are a humanitarian worker when…..

  • Unlike your friends who have normal lives, you don’t have a
    wife/husband, children, or house, and when you return home, you sleep in
    your parent’s place.
  • You have a university degree, you manage a
    team of at least 10 people and a multi-million dollar budget in a civil
    war situation, but you earn a minimum wage.
  • You earn a minimum wage, but you have a cook, a house keeper and a chauffeur 24 hours a day.
  • You enjoy sending verbal missiles at your colleagues from other non-governmental organizations.
  • You are always criticizing the United Nations, but secretly, you would love to work for them to triple your salary.
  • When you return home, your friends and family all ask the same
    question, “So how was it?” hoping that you can summarize 1 year of
    mission in 3 minutes, because after 3 minutes, they are no longer with
  • You tell your acquaintances that you work in the humanitarian field, and they respond “Ok but what’s your job?”
  • Upon returning home and looking for work at the unemployment office,
    you put in a listing under “southern coordination” and you explain to
    the work counsellor that he/she would be better off not wasting a lot of
    time on you. Anyway, you don’t fit into any of their categories!
  • When you return home, you love making the round of your friends, but
    when you realize what their every-day lives are like, you wish to return
    quickly on mission.
  • You really laugh when young street marketers
    stop you in the street and ask you “Have you ever heard of Action
    Against Hunger?”
  • You would love to work in Latin America or Asia, but you always find yourself in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sudan.
  • You understand mysterious phrases such as:
    The watsan always sends his sitrep to the HoM before leaving on
    R&R. (The water/sanitation guy always sends his situation report to
    the head of mission before leaving on break.)
    o The nut and food sec
    want to use Plumpy Nut to combat kwash in under-5s in MdM’s CNT. (The
    nutrition and food security group want to use Plumpy Nut (a weight-gain
    product) to combat kwashorkors (one type of malnutrition) in children
    under 5 years of age in Médecins du Monde’s (Doctors of the World)
    therapeutic nutrition center.)
    o The logs at Sol are working on NFI
    kits and shelters for the DAH proposal in RDC. (The logisticians at
    Solidarity are working on non-food item kits and shelters for the DAH
    proposal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
    o Kilo Juliette for
    November Yankee, the situation is Oscar Kilo. (Kiwanja project (KJ)
    calling Nyanzale project (NY), the situation is OK.)
  • The weekend, either you work, or you recuperate from an over-alcoholised Friday night.
  • You always have a VHF radio and 3 different telephone chips with you.
  • You have an external disc drive full of films, television series, music and nothing pertaining to work.
  • You know that Relief Web is not a site with geography content.
  • For you, malaria is just a bad flue that everyone passes around.
  • A reinforced Toyota Landcruiser is what you call a car.
  • You hop on a plane like others get into their cars.
  • Entire villages in Africa call you by your first name, but you don’t
    even know the name of the person who lives across from you at home.
  • All your friends are called Kasereka or Abdoul.
  • Seeing men armed to their teeth on every street corner seems completely normal.
  • You watch the news on TV and tell yourself that you have a job for life.

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