Thursday, February 28, 2008

on being an ex-pat

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding
~ Albert Camus

Evil and good intentions are the ingredients that make up the recipe for a typical job description of a humanitarian aid worker. An evil occurs, we find it impossible to stand aside and do nothing, so we organize to do good (or at least do something we perceive as good and hope that based on our intervention things get better). Sometimes it works. Other times, as Camus suggests, due to a lack of true understanding, it tragically results in more harm. When more harm happens humanitarian aid workers realize it may have been better to have done nothing at all. But, because it did more harm than good severe pangs of guilt occur and all one can do is try and do something to repair what went wrong. Sometimes it works; sometimes it happens all over again. Here begins a vicious cycle of evil, ignorance, good intentions, success stories, misunderstandings and humanitarian aid.

The end of my contract is drawing near and I am starting to get sensitive. I want to know if I was helpful, I want to be missed, I want to stay, I want to depart gracefully, I want to be told I have done good, and most importantly I want to explain what it’s like to leave a place that has fundamentally touched my soul. Everything that was given to me was given from a place where it seemed there was very little left to give, but it was given nonetheless and I am a better person because of it. My biggest fear is that I’m taking away more than I have given.

I cried three times for no apparent reason in the last 33 hours (twice to the dismay of one friend who had to witness my meltdown and had absolutely no idea what to “do”). I don’t know where to being in terms of organizing the things I have learned and internalized from this experience, but I want to try. You see, I believe people take many things with them as they move about in this world. The things we carry include memories, events, traumas, relational dynamics, broken trust, recollections of selfless support, lessons learned, childhood experiences, the voices of loved ones and the voices of those that have done us harm. As a psychologist I know this process is consistent with the theory of Object Relations. Object Relations theory attests that we internalize major relational players in our lives. An object refers to anyone or anything that is the target of an individual’s instinctual desires. With that being said, once we reach adulthood our psychic house is packed and the voices of our mother, father, mentor, abuser, savior, friend and lover. Out experience of them all are inside our head, ready to comment on any choice, decision or act we ‘choose’ to make during this time we engage in this thing we call life.

application in the ex-pat world

I think this internalization process is what makes the ex-pat population a unique group of people. By definition an expat or expatriate is someone who has taken up residence in a foreign country or in more extreme examples someone who has renounced one’s native land. Where, on the one hand, the melting pot of ethnicities and mixing of so many well traveled people with unique histories and unique world views make for some very interesting conversations, it also has a tendency to destabilize those of us who might have arrived to a new place carrying way too much “baggage.” Now that I think about it maybe it is the nomadic ex-pat who created this idiom. Unfortunately what we carry includes the things we thought we could leave behind exactly in the place they were created. This wish is also known as the quest for a geographical cure whereas something terrible happens and we think that if we move far far away, the pain connected to the event will stay put. In reality, people take their same old lives wherever they go. No place is perfect enough to strip you of that. And some places have a way of magnifying your demons. It’s kind of like a psychic experience of Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave and the magnification of abandoned demons can sometimes cause people to fall back on very primitive defense leading to some very interesting lifestyle choices; hence my fascination with the ex-pat world.

A 37 year old Dutch wat-san expert left home at the age of16 with his backpack and motorbike and rode through central Europe all the way to South Africa. Upon arrival he jumped on a sail boat. After mastering this new trade he could be found sailing alone for months at a time in very deep waters. When he got bored with this new identity he docked his boat in New Zealand and decided it was time to learn how to fly planes. For the next 2 years he lived illegally in this far off land exchanging his new skill like barter for the things he needed to survive. He has been out of his home country for so long now he has some bizarre form of partial citizenship. When he does go home he stays in an artsy trailer with no electricity or running water on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He rarely, if ever, visits his family and describes them as religious fundamentalists who never understood him. Relationally, he moves from one mission affair to another. Hyperactive by nature it is difficult to get him to sit in one place long enough to truly feel connected to him, but the minute you meet him you realize he has a huge heart; and, as one of my dear friends (and his short time lover) indicates, “even though he doesn’t stick around very long, you will have no regrets with KJ. He is what he is and he doesn’t suggest otherwise.” He knows what he can give and if his partner is satisfied with that then a relationship with him can be nice, while it lasts.

A 41 year old stunningly beautiful gal from Utah has managed UNICEF ex-combatant reintegration projects at a country wide level in a number of exceptionally violent countries (Liberia, Somalia, Kosovo & Niger to name a few) and is currently making a remarkable amount of money at her P3 UN status level. Brilliant and well traveled she demands respect at UN meetings and social events; however, she suffers intensely on the inside and much of what you see is a front. She is a functional alcoholic with childhood demons that are severe and powerful. As a result of her addiction she disappears into her house for days at a time and drinks herself into oblivion. Each and every time she resurfaces with the stamina and endurance of a marathon runner that people barely notice she was missing. She lives in such an intense state of denial that her closest friends either join her in her denial or feel helpless in their attempts to help. Over the last three years she has flaunted her promiscuity with men like Samantha from Sex in the City; but, early in the morning, when the sun is rising and the men are missing, you can hear her start to cry when she realizes she doesn’t even know the name of her latest conquest. Her longest two relationships were with married men who also worked within the UN system. Their respective departures for a new mission (i.e., malicious acts of abandonment) tormented her for months. With each experience of abandonment, the message spoken by the voice of her mother in her head was confirmed: “you are unlovable and everybody will eventually leave you.” She needs help but instead has committed herself to the quest for the geographical cure.

A 17 year old Lebanese teenager was born and raised in Monrovia. His grandparents came to Liberia 30 years ago to escape the war and oppression raging in their own country and his father is a successful businessman in the big city. Forbidden citizenship by Liberian law (as the Liberian Constitution specifically indicates that all citizens have to be of black African decent), this teenage boy hovers between two homes. In Liberia his family only speaks Arabic, eats Lebanese food and interacts with other Lebanese. In Lebanon he doesn’t quite fit in. He can’t really tell where he likes being more; in Liberia, where he an exceptionally privileged outsider who has servants and drivers or in stunningly beautiful Lebanon where his family has been marginalized and maltreated for generations. He has been informed that in a few years, on one his many trips back to his “homeland”, he will need to select a bride to bring back with him to Liberia. He can’t quite phantom what type of girl would sign up for this. This boy idealizes his infamous cousin who owns a number of restaurants in town and is known to be the local Casanova for in-coming slightly naïve ex-pat women as the turnover is quick and the need to feel special is intense. If you look closely enough you can already start to see the same saunter to his step and flirtatious gleam in his eye.

A 35 year old French man who is the regional manager for ICRC. During previous missions he has trekked through mountains in Nepal for 12 days to find a detention center that was said to be torturing Maoist detainees for political reasons. While stationed in Darfur he stood in front of a rebel solider with an AK37 at a checkpoint to get permission to have access to starving children and their sick mothers. This gentleman finds himself somewhat bored in the moderately stable environment that is Liberia; however, he is truly passionate about his organization and their beneficiaries and doesn’t want to get caught up in this ex-pat phenomenon of chasing the next crisis. He is grounded and intelligent and principled. Before he joined ICRC he owned a bar in Prague for 8 years. This was after he had dropped out of a doctorate program for philosophical reasons. A romantic at heart, he has become used to the transitional nature of ex-pat relationships in the humanitarian world. With that said, he can typically be found to be engaging in a exquisitely serious relationship with a new found love during any one of his many interesting missions. He has loved them all but at the end of the day his love for his career has always won out.

These are just a few of the many fascinating individuals I have met in the massive ex-pat community that makes up humanitarian aid workers. Liberia is the second largest UN mission in Africa and therefore there are so many more I could choose from. Each strikingly unique in their story. Each strikingly unique in their ways. Each somewhat phobic when it comes to commitment. For those who don’t reach the level fear it would take to be called of relationship phobe, they very likely have mastered the concept of serial monogamy, simply based on circumstances. More often than not expats are vacillating between two extremes of engagement: utter enmeshment and extreme autonomy. I am no exception and it reminds me of a fable:

A troupe of porcupines is milling about on a cold winters day. To keep from freezing they move closer together. When close enough to huddle, however they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread apart, but again begin to shiver. This sends them back to each other, and the cycle repeats, as they struggle for a comfortable place between entanglement and freezing.

To me, this fable speaks to a lesson about boundaries and a wildly cited belief that intimacy is a thorny affair. This transition from entanglement to freezing captures what it is like for most independent free thinking humanitarian aid workers to be close to someone else. The experienced outcome of these relational connections (and disconnections) will likely depend on how each party evolves and changes. More often than not everyone moves on and no one has regrets. Typically it is a lesson from one porcupine to another, a mirror of sorts that points to the need to balance concern for self with concern for others. The trick is to balance the two so that one does not dominate or stifle the other.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

bittersweet reminiscence

returning to the idea of saying nothing together

A few months ago I posted about the tragic loss of my dog, puppino. He was taken away ruthlessly and it truly troubled me. I think sometimes we forgot how affected we are about things until something bittersweetly reminiscent happens. Well that something has happened – I have completely fallen in love with another puppy, dama.

Shortly before Sharon left for the states to join her husband she did something very kind – she found me a new little puppy because she was worried. She was worried I was going to be alone and knew how much I loved the canine race. At first I was a bit nervous because; a) I didn’t know if I had it in me to train a new puppy and, b) I didn’t know if I had it in me to attach to another puppy that I would eventually have to say goodbye to when I left. Well both things have occurred in abundance.

Ok, using the work training and abundance in the same sentence might be stretching it but I have trained (albeit minimally with a very permissive mothering style) and securely attached to little miss dama. I was strong for a very long time and really forced her to be an “outside dog.” She was to be a dog that just happened to be living in close proximity to a human being and aside from food, no strings, particularly of the heartstrings variety, would be attached. Dama is smart and feisty and has a whole lot of feminine spunk and therefore, from the onset, it didn’t really seem like she needed me all that much. Where puppino was chill and relaxed and a bit clingy, dama is intense and proliferated and independent.

With these sovereign qualities noted, I still know this much is true, Dama has infiltrated my heart and I am completely smitten with this little firecracker of a dog. Presently she barks at everyone who comes within 50 feet of me and she constantly cooks around the house causing all my colorful Guinean rugs to chaklar (Liberian English for scatter). While performing these feats she often has her pet stuffed reindeer (courtesy of her very thoughtful auntie Sharon) in her mouth.

Unlike Puppino, Dama started learning tricks very quickly and was sitting and shaking by the time she was four months old. She is also able to lie down and roll over on command if she feels like it, but more often than not she’s not so interested in performing these extra tricks for a treat and usually returns to the old reliable shake.

I return to the idea of saying nothing together because she just, this very second, came over and in the sweetest of moods offered me her paw. Sitting here in the dark with my laptop I was touched by her gesture and just sat there with her, paw in hand, for quite some time.

So just like her dear sweet predecessor Puppino, Dama does that thing dogs do when they can’t seem to get their message across. She simply places her paw in my hand, shifts her head to the side and waits. Over and over again with a glint in her eye; it feels like she has something very important to say but since I can’t understand her she decides we should simply say nothing together. Although I will miss her desperately I couldn’t possibly be more satisfied with her adoptive family. Having frequently stopped by for home visits the young boys in the family are fighting over who gets to walk her around town and the father, one of our reliable drivers, speaks oh so proudly to everyone within hearing distance about how dama will soon be joining their family.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

lost but hopefully not forgotten

It has been over a month since I last posted. Much has happened and I am struggling with where to begin. Rather than wait any longer I will simply put some words on the page and see what happens.

A journey across this massive continent, another battle with malaria, meeting new friends, saying good-bye to old ones, touching group sessions, warm welcomes, tragic losses, exciting beginnings, pending transitions……they all seem important yet oh so disconnected from one another.

But I digress, let us begin….


Very early on in my ‘Tuesday’ posts I wrote about a tendency I have to personify the places I visit: seeing countries as people, if you will. Given I have had the opportunity to meet a few more interesting characters in this place we call planet Earth, I will take a moment to describe a few on my new cherished friends:

Madame Guinea is a serious lady who has an enchanting effect on those she meets. Stunningly beautiful, tall, perfectly put together and exceptionally aware of the impact she has on people, she doesn’t bother approaching others for what she needs and rather waits to be approached. On the streets you won’t hear her yelling after foreigners or asking for handouts: she is reserved, proud and a bit standoffish. Observing these aforementioned qualities, she is no fool and is well aware that life is not easy. Her childhood was filled with tough times, poverty and dangerous encounters and she has promised herself she will not be duped by anyone ever again. She has learned with time that beauty such as hers can be used to manipulate situations and does not hesitate to do it, given the opportunity. If you are lucky enough to find her at dusk with the sun dancing in her hair and the moon just beginning his desperate search for her, you will very likely see her surrounded by a number of admirers trying to impress her with their flashy cars and Rolex watches while trying to nestle up to her long neck soaked with a faint sent of lilacs. She is a charmer indeed and will very likely place a spell on anyone who crosses her path.

Brother Morocco is a complicated fella. Berber by decent he is tough, weathered and hard working. As a small child he loved to play a small hand drum that was given to him by his grandfather. Together with a troupe of friends he used to run tirelessly through the labyrinth of alleys that make up his familiar market and he would play until the sun rose sheepishly over the Atlas Mountains. Every morning he loads his cart full of goods to be sold at the market and rides slowly down his rocky mountain route with his faithful donkey. In the market he pursues shoppers relentlessly and tries to take visiting foreigners for all they got. He does this not out of cruelty or maliciousness but rather because he sees the act of bargaining as a game and views each new customer as a new opponent in a complicated game of strategic trickery. A sucker for the ladies, he can’t help but flirt with each and every one that crosses his path. His only wish is that these women were aware that he does this not because he views them as sexual objects; but, rather because this is what has been modeled to him by his uncles and cousins. Collectively they have decided it is their right to openly comment on the beauty that awes them. But do not be mistaken, brother Morocco is a romantic at heart and hates to see the annoyed look on the faces of the women with whom he is so enamored. What to do? He knows nothing else and is resistant to change. At night, under candlelight, he reads poetry and philosophy and periodically visits ‘la place’ to listen to local music and ruminate about the things he has read. Every night he dreams of meeting the love of his life and making mad passionate love to her in his cozy little mountain cabin.

King Cairo’s reputation precedes him and it is true no one should question the dynasty that is Egypt. Given many of his discoveries and creations still exist and remain inspirational yet unexplainable after 3500 years, no one dares to stand and challenge his prowess. His contemporary version of self is a slim well dressed bachelor that likes to smoke apple Shisha at night while hanging out with a close group of male friends. During the day he prays faithfully, visits his mosque and unabashedly believes in God and family. He drives a simple car but works hard and dreams of a stylish upgrade. He rarely uses his head lights at night and fully appreciates the chaos of his city’s traffic. Sarcastic and exquisitely witty with friends and loved ones, he is serious and statuesque in his professional life. Ready to treat his partner as the queen she deserves to be, his found wife will not be left wanting for anything but she will need to learn the rules of the household. If she integrates well, she will live a very comfortable and coddled life filled with precious gems, antique furniture and stylish gowns and scarves.

Grabbed by the Malaria, Part Three
If you can even believe it, I once again tested positive for malaria. The first time this happened (a few short months ago) I was med-evaced out of Voinjama by chopper and was hospitalized at the UN Hospital staffed by Jordanian docs in Monrovia. Not getting any better at the local clinic where I had a drip in my arm hanging off a broken plan branch while listening to mothers delivering babies in the room next door, some very concerned friends and colleagues decided it was time I went to the big city for treatment. My recovery took weeks and after puking on the shoes of a group of Pakistani peacekeepers on the chopper, I learned the hard way that malaria is, in fact, no joke. Having suffered exceptionally bad reactions to the malaria prophylactics I have been caught between a rock and a hard place ever since and returned to the field praying (ok not praying as I would be lying if I said I did this) but wishing very hard with my eyelids pressed tightly together that I would not get malaria again.

While visiting King Cairo with my lovely and amazing parents (who seem to be embracing the freedom of retirement like an adolescent embraces the freedom of life with a driver’s permit), I once again realized these nasty little bugs were swimming around in my bloodstream and I was struck by the thought that they seem to be remarkably drawn to my Midwestern blood. Night after night I cycled through high fever and bone shaking chills. When we reached Cairo I was lucky enough to be put in a hotel that that had a doctor on call.

Dr. Rayban entered my room at 5 pm dressed like a classy European business man. Handsome, wearing a smart suit and flashy tie, he had a quick style of diagnostic assessment and I instantly trusted him. After finishing his examination, he reported that all he could give me was some antibiotics (in case there was a bacteria involved) and paracedomol for the fever. He needed confirmation via laboratory tests before he could treat me for malaria.

Observing I was truly out of it and had been sleeping for the last few hours he noted it was important for me to be up and drinking fluids until more could be done. Interestingly he prescribed TV; well more specifically he prescribed the Egypt vs. Cameroon African Cup game that was very likely playing in his room, but not mine. I compliantly turned on the TV and we watched the game in comfortable silence for a while, cheering and clapping as Egypt went up 4-1. The doctor left my room only to return every 3 hours to check on me. He nodded in approval when he noticed I still had the African Cup game on when he returned.

At 10pm we had a decision to make. My fever was still 102 and everyone was worried. The doctor was still being limited by the need to have a test to confirm the diagnosis we all assumed to be true. The tricky thing is malaria meds are like Chemo – they wreak havoc on the body and make the poor patient feel like crap. Doctors don’t want to unnecessarily put a patient (or their liver) through such treatment if they don’t need to, hence the need for diagnostic confirmation. The reality was I would either need to miss my flight and go with him to the clinic in the morning or get on the plane and deal with it when I got back to Liberia. I very quickly sat up and said let me go home. My poor worried parents looked at me like I was certifiably crazy, “What is wrong with our daughter? She just asked to be sent back to a third world, post-conflict country for medical treatment. And, by the way did she just say home?” But, as every ex-pat in Africa knows, it is much easier to get treated for malaria in Africa than to go home and stump their local general practitioner with this bizarre tropical symptom presentation. Western doctors have no idea what to do for malaria and in Africa malaria is the equivalent to the common cold, it just happens to be all that more dangerous and tragically successful in taking away the lives of vulnerable babies and precious loved ones.

I returned to Monrovia sans luggage (after a 10 hour lay over in Casablanca) and went directly to the local clinic. I was quickly administered a very simple paracheck. All it takes is a drop of blood on a small plastic test strip: the equivalent in the west would be a home pregnancy test – 5 minutes and the big looming question is answered. Positive as expected I was handed a plastic baggie of meds went home and slept for the next 18 hours.

I returned to Voinjama to the delight of dama who, even after 3 weeks, hadn’t forgotten her doting mother and I did indeed feel like I was home once again. The simplicity of life had returned and work was once again touching my soul. Several days after my return I ran into a dear friend from Nigeria who, after we greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek said, “Gomah you feel warm.” Oh dear lord I thought, not again. I went home and took my temp and he was correct – 101.

I had to admit I felt a bit off. I had played basketball earlier that day and had felt unprecedently tired, needing to rest frequently. ‘Frequently’ in this case was approximately every ten minutes which is pretty disruptive to a basketball game. I was hassled by my local crew of ballers who all commented on my evident loss of stamina. I just figured I needed a few more days of cardio to get me back in shape. I had to admit I had welcomed the vices of vacation like a smoker welcomes a found pack of cigarettes in a packed away winter jacket and had indulged in every new found delight while getting to know the aforementioned Brother Morocco and King Cairo.

Needless to say I needed to get a confirmation and once again returned to the local clinic for a paracheck. The staff recognized me immediately and looked a bit anxious given my poor recovery performance a few months back. I think they were afraid their typically successful efforts with local patients would once again fail with this fair skinned outsider. But, fortunately for us all, after a small adjustment to the medications (which if anyone is interested simply meant cutting the yellow pills out of the package of white and yellow pills), I rallied and smiled two days later when I heard one of my staff members say – “see now, she is turning into a true African, malaria can’t even keep her down.”

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