Category Archives: Why


We all carry scars. Physical scars, emotional scars. Scars from crazy adventures, scars from stupid decisions, deep scars from emotional experiences that changed who we are or were.

Sometimes the scars are small and non-descript. No-one else would know the backstory, even if they noticed the tiny scar. Sometimes they’re evident to everyone – particularly when trauma brings back that pain. The perhaps-out-of-proportion emotional reaction. The visceral re-experiencing of a past traumas overcome.

This week has been difficult. So many weeks are difficult. Some people’s scars, particularly emotional scars, were exposed by a traumatic event. Some of those scars are recent – not yet healed. Some are long-past but still bring up difficult memories.

Do we value the scars of our colleagues and friends? Not in the sense of sensationally wishing to know all the details, but in the sense of respectfully appreciating that the scars mean something – they mean, more often than not, adversity overcome and lessons learned.

There is a Billy Joel song called “Pressure“. The lyrics have often struck me

You turned the tap dance into your crusade
 Now here you are with your faith
 And your Peter Pan advice
 You have no scars on your face
 And you cannot handle

Some of my own scars run deep. Particularly emotional scars. There are things I have seen and experienced that have changed me. They have made me less open, less giving, less willing to try, to learn, to grow. It’s hard to move past those experiences and find ways to be open again.

Yet this tough week comes at a time when I have found – against all expectations – people who are able to challenge and encourage me to rediscover my strength and my humanity.

I won’t go back and I won’t put myself in those situations again, yet I’m finding, day to day, ways to put those scars and those experiences into perspective. I am learning to cope with the vicarious trauma of the work that I do, with the real trauma of some of those I work with and care about, in ways that are healthier and more constructive – with the constant support of amazing, strong people, some of whom are working through the same or similar challenges, who find the strength and humility to share experiences with me and help me find my own strength.

I am not sad about the scars that I carry. They are a map of journeys taken and the road less travelled and lessons learned. Respecting those scars and the stories behind them – my own and others’ – is a foundation for new journeys, physical or literal, with people who value past experiences and can see and share new paths.

The scars we carry do not define us; they remind us and help us to find new, better, sometimes wiser, ways of taking on the challenge of a life less ordinary.

Fantasy and Travel

Reading a passage in a fantasy novel this evening, I was transported back to Christmas Day 2011 in the rain forests of the Eastern Congo. It was a weird kind of day and in retrospect so exotic as to be life-changing. I don’t think it felt that way at the time but at this distance, it’s hard to tell. We’d gone hunting with the local people. We’d been there a day or two and taken a couple of walks across the bridge over the river which dominated the whole area. I remember being a little terrified by the ant-hills sixty feet or so up on giant tree branches. It was a little like being in a National Geographic special without the comforting best-British-voice commentary.

We joined the hunters around their fire. I remember reading before the trip that they used marijuana in their hunt preparations but we weren’t out to get high. The idea of being intoxicated in those forests, where one wrong step could lose you forever, is not appealing. It was that thick and intimidating. As we walked, the group I was with got a little behind the rest and within moments couldn’t see the others and were scrambling to find the hidden-in-the-undergrowth path.

After a while, we reached the point where they left us behind with one or two of their people; strung up their nets and faded into the forest. I’m sure they knew it would be a bad hunt because we were too noisy – strange, large people moving around when we should have been quiet.

The sounds drifted back to us through the forests. Thick, dense, suffocating forests. You could hardly see any patch of sky when you looked up. It was hot and humid and around us were giant, unfamiliar plants. I remember standing there – time seemed distorted and somehow irrelevant – and following the trunk and branches of a giant tree. Somewhere the sounds echoed. The echoes were hard to follow in that dense, overgrown clearing. The sounds were eerie. Terry Pratchett talked in one of his books about words being manipulated and used up and sent out to earn a living on the streets. I don’t think I really ever had a reference for the word “eerie” until I heard the unworldly sounds of the “pygmy” hunters driving pray towards their nets on that strange afternoon.

When I started travelling in Africa, a dear friend encouraged me to start keeping a record of each day of the travels. The discipline of writing is so valuable in capturing the moments that would otherwise be forgotten, an emotional and personal record of the things that happen. Perhaps the most specific moment of realising how important it is to record things was the moment I remember writing down in my travel journal that I’d seen a black and white monkey on the trip between Kampala and Fort Portal, seen from the window of the bus, and feeling a little like a scientist recording the sighting of a rare animal. I wouldn’t necessarily have forgotten it, but writing it down cemented the moment in my memory and made it possible to refer back to notes when I doubted, as time fades the memories, what I’d seen.

In retrospect, in hind-sight, so far and so long away, I’m struck by how different the immersive experience of being in the DRC was from the organised, planned tourism experience of Korea. On that day, so long ago, I wrote so little about the hunt. It seems so simple compared to what I am now able to understand as the impact.

Someone asked me recently if I think that travel really broadens your horizons and makes you a better person. I don’t know about the better person bit but I do know that travel changes some of your perspectives – travel means that when I read in a fantasy novel about exploring native woodlands on a faraway version of the planet, the first thing I think of is hunting with pygmies on that strange, faraway Christmas Day. My sense is that that isn’t the norm. My response to the question was to try – I fear rather inarticulately – to explain that travel stretches the borders of the possible perspectives one can hold. For me, travel means that I compare things to that strange afternoon and consider ants and bugs in terms of a range including the rainforests of Congo, instead of the standard spectrum of the country I happen to have grown up in. And my sense, humble though it is, is that the same is probably true in terms of the kind of big conversations about politics and economics and freedom.

On Altruism and Motivation

I remember on an evening at a backpackers in Mozambique, years ago, arguing about altruism with some of the brightest people I know. I took the unpopular line – I still do: I don’t believe in altruism. Oh, I’m sure there are a few people out there – perhaps mostly religious, although I know my non-religious friends would contest that – for whom altruism is a great driver. For the rest of us, I don’t think it’s a real motivation and certainly not a long-term driver of our actions.

This is not a particularly popular position in the space in which I work, of course. But I hold by it. I don’t believe that every aid worker is motivated by pure good will. Not for nothing, but I’ve met a good number over the past couple of years and they, for the most part, are pretty comfortable – at least out of the public eye – with the fact that they have myriad and complex reasons for doing this work. We’re not just all in this, to steal a phrase from J, to save brown babies.

Personally, I’m motivated by being involved in something I think is making things different for the better. No, that’s not the same as altruism. I don’t want to do whatever the “leadership” thinks is right. This is not the army. I get immense satisfaction from doing things that I consider, based on my own (extensive and by this time pretty nuanced) reading of the situation, might make a significant or at least a measurable difference. And I’m willing to take pay cuts and position cuts and screw with the prettiness of my CV to do it.

Because otherwise, what’s the point?

This is something many managers seem to struggle with. Despite my best efforts, I find myself surrounded by well-meaning people determined to protect those aspects of work they seem convinced are necessary to “induce productivity”, to “motivate” (as if inducement was necessary, which presumption is itself indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation) – job security, stability, someone caring about my needs, etc. In their desperate haste to protect and control, they miss the big picture – that I care about (and can understand) the big picture.

No matter how many different ways I explain it, they cannot get their heads around the fact that I know the risks and accept the possibility of failure and I still want to do it. Because otherwise what’s the point? For some reason no amount of arguing or evidence or, when things become so frustrating that I’m tearing my hair out, crying, seems to help. It’s funny, I can persuade donors to invest large sums of money in what I personally consider stupidly risky projects, but getting my own friends and colleagues to believe that I want to take a risk is beyond my powers of persuasion.

Perhaps there is something about NGO managers, particularly because I am female and perceived as much younger than I am. I am constantly told what to do because it’s good for me (in the long-term, you know, once you’re past this little flutter about this particular thing…) and because they “care”. Perhaps it’s my fault because I tend to be conciliatory and, frankly, nice, in order to get things done. I am. I spend 90% of my time gently urging people to do the things they promised to do, so that something actually gets done. Is that a fault? A weakness? Do they not realise how angry I am all of the time? Do they simply write off the actual, visceral anger, when it appears, as having a bad day?

I’m not a nice person and I’m not an altruist. I’m a (now fairly highly) qualified and experienced professional. I resent being wrapped in cotton wool and I resent being treated as though I don’t understand the choices I am making. Something that could make the sector better and #reshapeaid would be treating every single aid worker as a grown-ass adult professional and expecting them to live up to that, instead of, as managers (and I am one myself), assuming altruism and assuming that altruism makes people too stupid to understand their own risks, responsibilities and choices.

It’s not altruism, it’s a career choice – and your infantilising protective instinct is getting all over my carefully considered decision to give up corporate salaries and easy living in order to do something real.