First written in March 2008, following the death of a friend while overseas.
A friend died the other week. Like most of my friends these days she lived on the other side of the world, so I would be hard-placed to call her a close friend. She was the sort of friend that another friend might say, “I was just in Dubai last week and I ran into so-and-so, and they said to say hi.” My default response to this is usually to think, “Bugger, I really need to send them an email.” She was the sort of friend who used to receive essays like this when I sent them out on my mailing list for people interested in my travels to read. I probably have a hundred or so friends like that. I imagine she did too.
Carol passed away in the back of an ambulance on the way to hospital. She had recently returned from a long flight, and it’s thought she had a blood-clot that worked its way loose. As with the death of any young person, it was a little shocking, and very sad. Carol was on the sunny side of thirty-five. It was frustrating to think that as an aid worker, she had toiled in refugee camps in the war-torn Balkans and eastern Chad, with displaced people following the Bam earthquake in Iran, in relief camps in Asia after the Boxing Day Tsunami, and countless other places I couldn’t begin to list off, yet it was a blood clot a few millimetres thick in southern England, just minutes from high-quality surgical support, that finally took her life.
When Mike and I got the news, we took ourselves away from the office for an hour or so and found a quiet bench above the reef at the top end of town beneath the palm-trees, overlooking the Coral Sea. It was sunny and bright. The sky was blue with wispy white clouds. We could see across the bay to the jagged outline of the Finisterre Ranges plunging into the sea opposite. The water sparkled as it drifted with the currents. The palm fronds cast dark shadows that moved backwards and forwards with the breeze. I sat with my legs dangling and swung them slowly back and forth. Mike sat with his soles flat against the dusty ground. Mike has longer legs than I do.
We sat there for some time. We sat in silence and watched the sea. We shared our memories of Carol. We smiled at the stories. They were good memories. Then we prayed together. Mike has a way of praying that is very conversational. If you’re not concentrating, you’ll miss that he’s switched from talking to you to talking to God. I like it. It was achingly appropriate for the moment. Intimate, in a place of exquisite physical beauty, like a natural temple. If there has ever been a more fitting place for a requiem I haven’t found one.
Mike and I are housemates in a small town in Papua New Guinea, where we both work for the same aid agency. We both knew Carol from different places, through this same agency. Mike, who also worked in the Tsunami operations, met her in Singapore, where she helped him through a difficult patch in his life. I knew Carol from a tiny hovel of a town in eastern Chad where, in mid-2004, hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled Darfur and were sheltering in the desert. We had each and seperately remained in irregular touch with Carol over the years. Until that morning, Mike and I had been unaware that the other knew her. Life in the small family of international aid workers is like that.
As we sat there on the bench and lapsed into another contemplative silence, Mike asked without looking at me,
“Do you think Carol had any regrets?”
Mike is always asking questions like that. Deep questions that probe to uncomfortable levels of self-awareness. It’s what makes him both an interesting and exhausting guy to share a small bungalow with. Not many nights go by when we don’t find ourselves sitting out on the front porch beneath the neon strips, soaking in the acrid scent of the mosquito coil, shirtless in the humidity and wrestling with some deep facet of our humanity.
Regrets? It’s a question that strikes deep at the heart of most aid-workers at some point in their professional and personal existence. Aid workers typically give up a lot. Friends. Families. Financial success. Geographic stability. All for what? To the onlooker it must seem a strange question. “It must be so rewarding to do the work you do,” I frequently hear my acquaintances say. I smile wanly and nod, not having the energy to discuss the matter. Just yesterday the immigration official in Brisbane looked at my exit card and asked me who I worked for. I gave her the name of our well-known charity and she smiled.
“You must love your work,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, and a little piece of me died inside.
When I first met Carol, I was on my first relief deployment. We spent several weeks living with about a dozen assorted national and international relief staff in single 2-bedroom bungalow that served as both office and lodging on the edge of the Sahara desert. Abeche was a miserable town. It was hot, it was filthy, it was impoverished, it was hostile, and it lacked any sense of hope. The place looked as though it had been bombed, although it hadn’t. At least not in the last decade. The dirt streets were lined with garbage and they washed out whenever it rained. Kids in ragged shirts and bare feet chased our Land Cruisers down the street, banging on the doors with little metal bowls seeking alms. In the market, a maze of tiny wooden shacks with threadbare scraps of fabric pinned up to keep the worst of the day’s heat at bay, we found rocks on which chunks of rotting meat had been laid out for purchase, stinking in the sun and swarming with flies. On a visit to one of the sites where refugees had taken up lodging, we found twenty thousand women and children cowering beneath thorn-bushes in the desert with nothing more than towels and rags hung up in the branches to protect them from the elements. To this day I have never seen people living in more abject conditions than I saw in eastern Chad.
Carol was perhaps the most unlikely of people to find out there. When she arrived at our compound, she carried with her two enourmous packs for her month-long deployment, one of which was a sports-bag filled exclusively with things for her to eat. She was intolerant to all sorts of foods, to the point of being almost incapable of surviving on the diet the rest of us were on. Her fair skin was highly sensitive to sunlight. She was allergic to insect bites and swelled up whenever stung. She refused to sleep in the tiny airless bedrooms, crammed as they were with other staff, and set up her own tent outside in the compound, which became her little haven to escape the general disfunction which plagued our headquarters. If I honestly summed up my perception of Carol’s experience in Abeche, I would have to say that she hated it.
Like most of us in the sector, Carol’s life was a curious balance of acute disatisfaction coupled with an indescribable drive which took her from one miserable posting to another. In Abeche I listened to her talk about spending two months living in a thin scrap of a tent in the freezing Iranian winter following the Bam earthquake, which she despised. I heard her describe getting sick after the water she and her team were drinking in the Balkans became contaminated by human remains from a nearby mass grave. Together we weathered the cracked foundations that would eventually see the Abeche relief response collapse amid a quarter-million-dollar deficit, to nobody’s real surprise. Three years later, and she would still send me notices of employment opportunities in Chad, and I could see in my mind the cheeky spark that would be in her eye that was typically Carol.
In a perverse trait the English often exhibit, Carol seemed to revel in the misery. She found humour and release in highlighting the distress, discomfort and disfunction. She and I and sometimes our burned-out and disillusioned manager, a young American called Joel, would gather on little stools outside her tent in the evening warmth and rail against all that was wrong with the world at large, and our little corner of it specifically. After spending three weeks in the desert with Carol, I might have been forgiven for thinking it would be her last relief posting.
It wasn’t. Despite the physical, emotional and psychological hardships she knowingly put herself through, Carol had a passion, and that passion was making sure that children in threatening situations could find some safety. She focussed much of her effort on setting up centres within refugee camps for children to gather, play, be safe, get away from all the distress and trauma of displacement, and just be kids. She pushed hard to ensure other aid workers understood the importance of protecting children. She worked to incorporate standards of child protection into our daily work so that their needs weren’t overlooked while we developed our emergency response plans.
I can’t say what Carol ever saw from her labours in the relief field. Whether, when she left our organization a little over a year ago she felt her work had all been worthwhile. To many this may sound like an odd statement, but I think it’s something that a lot of people in the aid industry struggle with. Does our work actually amount to anything, or are we simply beating ourselves against a harsh immovable object until we’re nothing more than pulp? Countless children in relief camps in Chad and Darfur still face the daily prospect of violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual abuse of kids in camps is widespread. In many places, even aid workers and peacekeepers take advantage of of the children they’ve been sent to look after.
When Carol died, she was unmarried and she had no children of her own. She certainly wasn’t wealthy. I have no doubt she had a core of friends and family around her who loved her, but she had also spent much of the last decade away from them, from the people she cared about the most and who cared for her. Was what she did worth that price?
The question, of course, is my own. I look at my life as an aid worker. I think back over the suffering I’ve seen and the suffering I’ve put my own body and soul through. When I’m back in Melbourne I look around and I struggle with a genuine envy of the people who have managed to find satisfaction living their lives there. Surrounded by their friends and families, enjoying simple comforts. Drinkable tap-water. Being able to go out at night without worrying about being bitten by malaria-spewing mosquitoes. Not having to wrestle with the aid-worker guilt of being able to step away from the depths of human suffering in some forsaken war-zone and just get back on a plane and escape it all for a week of R&R. I spend time with people I care about, only to say goodbye a day or two later, knowing that it’ll be half a year before we see each other again, and during that time, despite our best efforts, we will drift slowly and inexorably apart.
And for what? What does my life out here actually achieve? As an expatriate working for a relief team I have none of the immediate impact that, say, an emergency surgeon does, where a life in his or her hands is saved through the skill of the knife. I sit in an airless room by the dying light of my laptop because the power’s out- again- and write project designs. If they get funded, we get another fifty thousand dollars for a particular program. But does the money do any good? And the proposals I write that don’t get funded? I stand and supervise a food distribution in the Sahel, surrounded by thousands of black-faced women in brightly coloured garb all chattering noisily, watching as one sack after another gets dragged across the sand by skinny villagers. But does that food actually make a difference? Does it get to the mouths of the people who need it, or only to the strongest? Or does it, perversely, wreck the price of cereals for the next harvest and leave farmers worse off than they were before? And if I wasn’t there, surely the food would still be distributed. The system runs without my little cog in the machinery. I visit a small village high up in the hills of Honduras and listen to a family tell me of the hardship they are facing now that their harvests have failed. And as I listen I know that no matter how much I want to be able to meet all their needs, that we don’t have the funding to do anything about it right now, and that they are on their own. Does anything I do actually make a difference to people like these? Or will their lives play out, indifferent to my efforts? Indifferent to all the things I’ve given up.
As I sit here on the decking of yet another seedy third-world hotel, this one overlooking the lights of the fishing trawlers on Iron Bottom Sound outside Honiara, I answer my own question. Something within me- however idealistic and foolish- tells me I’m not wasting my time. However much I wrestle, however much I repeat the question to myself, I know that as long as I’m still out here, I clearly still believe there’s a purpose. I may not be able to put a name or a figure to that outcome of that purpose. But It’s there nonetheless, driving me. The day that little spark dies, the day I give up on the belief that what I’m doing is worth something, is the day I pack my bags and return to a sedentary life in some characterless suburban sprawl in the western hemisphere.
I truly hope that day never comes.
Some days it really is a very little spark, beaten back by the inadequacies of a large bureaucratic organization, the corruption of a self-serving government, the overwhelming forces of global markets and geopolitics that dominate the context of every plan we try to impliment. It hangs on despite the odds. It’s an ethereal belief. It has no real substance. I never actually experience the reality of the lives that I strive to better. I’m aiming for something I’ll probably never see. Something intangible. If I’m very lucky, maybe I’ll read in some project report that people were happy with the work we did. Maybe.
The hunger for purpose is nothing unique. Aid workers don’t hold the monopoly on this particular driver. Sure, it pushes us to peculiar extremes. A bit like BASE jumpers. Maybe a little more worthwhile, I don’t know. But like everybody else, I think we’ll still end up, on the morning of the day we die, looking back on our lives and wondering whether we actually added anything. We’ll never really have an answer to that question, even then. We’ll just have to trust that something good we did filtered down through all the rubbish and found its way into somebody’s life.
Mike and I talked as we sat there by the reef and listened to the sloshing of the waves against the rocks. A friend of Carol’s who had caught up with her shortly before she passed away reported that Carol had been healthy and happy. She was looking well, was enjoying her new job outside the aid sector, and was going to the gym regularly. During her time in our organization, Carol’s name had become synonymous with Child Protection, a real champion for that cause. Mike and I were hesitant to put words in her mouth. But as we talked, we guessed that while Carol may perhaps have regretted some of the things she didn’t get to do before leaving, she wouldn’t regret how she’d spent her time here.
Then Mike looked at me.
“How about you,” he asked in his typical, innocently blunt fashion. “If you died tonight, would you regret how you’ve spent your life?”
I thought about that.
I’m still thinking about it.