WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

The trailing husband (of an aid worker)

We sincerely thank Federico Bonadonna for allowing us to publish the translation of his moving account of what it means to be the trailing husband of an aid worker.

 

I have followed my wife for ten consecutive years in places I had barely heard about (and some places I’d never heard about), not to mention other countries where I had sworn to myself I’d never set foot, so strong was their reputation of being dangerous, dirty, or miserable.

On our first date in Rome, I told her I hated to travel, I hated the “Chatwin-like mysticism” of the journey, and I did not completely understand the point of international cooperation “with all there is to do for the poor in Italy”.

aid workerAt that time my work focused on extreme urban poverty and I had never experienced being stuck in a besieged neighbourhood during a civil war, resulting in hundreds of deaths – practically ignored by media (apart from the local ones); and I was physically allergic to ethnic fashion (I still am, a bit). My future wife looked at me in silence… and less than one year later I was beside her in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Since that moment I have done what the character of a song of Sergio Caputo (Italian songwriter, ndr) does: “I will follow you to show you something more, I’ll come with you should this be my work”.

Together with my wife in these 10 years, I’ve had stones thrown at me (even if the stones were for her, in Yemen, because she had unwillingly worn a colourful veil from which strands of hair protruded), been spat at (the spitting was also for her, for the above reason), and contracted intestinal and skin parasites. I fasted for days in the desert while she ate local food sitting on the ground, for weeks I only ate junk biscuits and drank Coke, I slept in infamous shacks among rats, cockroaches and snakes. A couple of times I threw up my soul as a result of serious food poisoning.

My wife and I have passed on a road a few minutes before it was shaken by a bomb attack and for years have breathed toxic fumes because of open air dumps and the constant burning of trash.

With her in these years I have visited orphanages that provide meager amounts of food to scrawny children – intentionally ensuring they do not appear well fed in order to discourage parents from abandoning their children there to give them a future. I have seen children looking for worms in the earth to eat. I’ve stared into their eyes: some were full of hate, others of pleading. Those eyes have tormented me for months.

I have seen China advancing in Africa, blowing up mountains to pave landscapes, build railways, bridges, motorways, or to extract minerals. I have seen the new colonialism, and the future shapes of the world: “Cindiafrica”, with her 3.6 billion people – mostly young. I have visited pristine places, and other landscapes definitely destroyed by pollution.

aid workerI have followed women on a three-hour trek to fetch water from the only well accessible to them, and trek 4 hours back, loaded with overflowing carboys. I have seen the result of the aid workers job: the joy of inhabitants in remote areas that celebrated the opening of new wells, the building of schools and health posts.

I have come dangerously close to contracting malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and bilarziosis. I have understood that danger is part of the job: traveling on Russian helicopters that have fallen (and fall with alarming recurrence), driven by not-always-sober Ukrainian pilots to go to South Sudan, where there is a war – which means they shoot, kidnap, and rape… it means they have kidnapped, killed or raped people you know. Places where lodging outside of Juba are huts where poisonous snakes and rats live, infested with malaria-ridden mosquitos and cockroaches (I know an aid worker who fears nothing… except what I just listed: she has a phobia of beetles and she insists on going to those places, because that’s her job).

I have seen refugee camps with lean women and children as far as the eye can see, thousands of exhausted people, massed in camps between Kenya and Ethiopia, sitting on UNCHR rice bags. Being an aid worker is not a job for those who work for agencies that spend 70 or 80% of resources in staff (the aid workers I value and talk about are not only able to write projects and make ends meet; they dirty their hands – they risk). Aid workers do not think that the danger is always the fault of those who are kidnapped or attacked, or that you can always avoid danger. No, cooperation, in some places, is physically and psychologically dangerous work.

I met hundreds of people, extraordinary volunteers and aid workers, and then others too busy with looking good. Sensible entrepreneurs and infamous bastards. Elegant diplomats and others who cannot be described.

In these 10 years I have understood that I had understood nothing: that is to say that I, and all the people I know, have been born in the right place and at the right moment in history, that we have a material luck we cannot even understand because we are so far from the daily tragedies that the vast majority of people in the world go through every single second of their existence. And that even if unperfected, improvable, and modifiable, international cooperation – in all the shapes it assumes and has assumed in the course of history – is the most democratic tool for development. Cooperation, however, is made of aid workers: people of flesh and bones, with their dreams, passions, and ideals; but also with refined skills and knowledge that merit the utmost respect, because aid workers do not love danger, but their work by its very nature implies danger.

 

Federico Bonadonna
February 2019
Photo Credit ©FedericoBonadonna

Pages:

How living abroad has taught me a few things about work

What Expats Can Do invites all expats to draw lessons from their experience abroad, and be a voice to help enrich the lives of individuals that do not have the opportunity to travel, and cannot witness firsthand what happens in the less fortunate areas of the world.

 

As some of you know I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, until a couple of weeks ago. Like most expats that have advantageous conditions in their working contract, I had a maid. She was a fantastic woman who took care of me and my house with devotion and professionalism. Thanks to her I was able to devote a lot of my time to my work and all the projects I love.

Shortly before leaving Indonesia for good, she shyly approached me one morning. She was holding a threadbare plastic folder that contained a few recommendation letters, printed on worn-out sheets. She proudly showed them to me and asked me if I could add mine to her dossier. My heart shrank and I could not avoid comparing my situation with hers.

Ani has no LinkedIn profile, no electronic CV, no website, and no blog. All of her working history is contained in those few worn-out papers – and when an employer leaves, she can only hope they will find her another job or be motivated enough to recommend her on expat websites and mailing lists. Her whole working future depends on the willingness of her employer to put energy in this search.

The tools at her disposal, her independence, and ability to promote herself are not the only differences between her, and I though. While I can afford not to work and still live in perfect dignity, if she does not work, she does not eat. Like many other women in the world, she is the breadwinner. Her husband lost his job months ago and has not found another.

I am grateful for my expat life because it has put me in contact with the other half of the world, that part of the planet’s population that cannot afford not to work. And in order to work, they are often forced to adapt to dreadful and underpaid jobs, which many in our privileged positions would abhor.

Some time ago I visited the flowers market in Jakarta. There I discovered that many of the floral decorations used in weddings require a lot of ice to be kept fresh. Within the market there stands a little room where a woman produces and sells ice for this very purpose. She spends her days breaking ice blocks, putting pieces of ice into a machine that grinds them, and collecting the ground ice in big bags to be sold. For hours she is in that freezing little room, bent over ice blocks and filling bags with ground ice. She has one bare hand and a drenched woolen glove covers the other one.

Another thing I often observed in Jakarta (but this is true for so many countries in the world) is that trash collection is as lucrative as ever. I took this picture close to my house in Jakarta:

 

 

The mother of the child sleeping on the cardboard must rummage in the trash to find recyclables that she will sell to the “lord of trash”, as I explained here. She obviously has no one to leave her child with, so improvises a bed beside the trash on the street. I wish no mother on earth would ever be forced to do something like that.

Ani and her worn-out folder sent my mind spinning and I remembered another episode I witnessed in Lubango, Angola, in 1991. At that time we collected food donations to distribute in the war-plagued region, and stored them in a warehouse. When we were ready to distribute, we employed workers for the day to help us load the trucks and unload the food at various distribution points. The stock of food consisted of bags of wheat and cans of oil. I will never forget when a worker, who lifted the last cans onto a cement step where they were being arranged, used his hands to scrape a few drops of cooking oil and collect them into a plastic top that had fallen during the loading operation. I cannot describe what I felt and I do not even think it necessary.

What I want to point out is that when we do not get in touch with such situations, it becomes easy to forget they exist. But they do. This is my small contribution as a reminder to reach out to those who are not as fortunate as I am and don’t get to see all that I see.

 

Claudia Landini
Italy
June 2018

Photo credit ©ClaudiaLandini
except the head photo ©Jean Clauzet

Pages:

The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

 

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

Pages:

How contact with local realities can spur your empathy

Our current challenge on What Expats Can Do is “Directly experience the lives and lifestyles of those different from us”. It made me reflect : How can we experience different lives if we do not have an entry channel to them? How can expats really become advocates for the lives and lifestyles of the people of their host countries?

 

mosquito net

In South Sudan photo credit ©Claudia Landini

We know that arriving in a new country and learning how to function in it is an amazing experience in that it defies our preconceptions, opens up a whole world of unknowns both on ourselves and our culture and the hosting culture, and confounds our certainties and expectations making us feel vulnerable, and in a way, new.

However, our contact with the local reality is often obstructed by circumstance and marked by disparities. We might – and we often do – find ourselves living in conditions that are much more luxurious and comfortable than those of most of the local population. This creates a barrier which makes it difficult to build relationships on an equal footing, but more so it prevents us from getting in real touch with all sections of society and learning about the reality of the more uncomfortable aspects of life for the people we are living amongst.

I personally have been very fortunate in this respect because my life abroad has been driven by my husband’s work for the Red Cross, within which I also worked at the beginning. I won’t use this article to talk in detail about this beautiful movement (you can find out more here and there), but there are three things that are important for me in relation to our current challenge:

  1. Whenever a foreign delegate of the Red Cross arrives in a new country, he/she fits in or works in collaboration with an already established local structure, with which he shares seven very simple but highly impacting principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. This means having a privileged entry channel into the new culture: Everyone involved shares the same values, intentions, methods and purpose, and this creates a base of commonality that serves to speed up the process of building relationships.

2. Working with the Red Cross means working for the most vulnerable, and acting on the basis of humanitarian principles. Local people know that when they welcome a foreign delegate, she is not there to make a profit from the country, but to work to alleviate the suffering of the local people. In my experience, this has made an enormous difference in how local people see the foreign person. And it certainly contributes to building deeper, long-lasting and fruitful relationships.

huila angola

In Angola, photo credit ©Claudia Landini

3. Working with the Red Cross means coming into contact with situations that would not be accessible otherwise. In my long experience abroad I have visited war zones, hugged malnourished children, evacuated dying people, talked to families who have lost their homes and all of their belongings, seen people discriminated and dying in solitude because they had AIDS, and visited villages where in the Internet era there is no power or even latrines.

Contact with vulnerable, marginalized or disadvantaged sections of society has been central to my life abroad. Through it, I have increased my capacity for empathy and become a more complete person. All through these years, I have approached my hosting cultures through the most painful and dire situations – epidemics, famine, wars, natural disasters. This has carved a path for me towards human suffering, and it is in shared suffering that the truest feelings and the most beautiful side of human nature can be found. It is in these kinds of situations that the best of human values are expressed. All through my life abroad I felt as if I was embracing the whole world, as if I was touching the real core of our times. And each time I was so privileged as to see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands the conditions of people who are exactly like me, but who were born on the wrong side of the planet, I felt my own humanity expanding and gaining value. Living in contact with people that struggle to rebuild a house destroyed by a hurricane or have to cope with discrimination and marginalization when struck down by AIDS or Ebola, has been the greatest lesson life abroad could ever teach me.

 

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
February 2017

 

Pages:
error: Content is protected !!

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. Read our Privacy and Cookie Policy here. The Cookie Policy we comply to is here

Close