The other night, my flat mate and I were out aggressively making new friends in our new city. This process is, as you can imagine, vaguely embarrassing and unpleasant particularly because you spend quite a lot of time accepting/soliciting invites to events that you would normally have absolutely zero interest in but, because of your lack of socialising options, you think well alright I will go to this Hard House club night, I might enjoy it I suppose… It’s only when you actually arrive at said club night that you remember – oh yeah – I hate clubs. The less said about Hard House the better.
Anyway, after encountering the usual stock NGO type conversation (“How long have you been here?” + “What do you do?” + “How long are you staying?” + “Is this your first time in [insert geographic region]?” = a thorough assessment of any expat aid worker) and imbibing a little too much and exchanging all manner of field cred proving anecdotes we ended up having a conversation with a guy who mostly worked in Somalia for a mine clearance NGO.
As you can imagine, most people working in Somalia do so in pretty difficult circumstances. The work is dangerous, the country is dangerous, there’s very little infrastructure, little governance, even less effective governance and, as such, fairly scant short to medium term prospects for most of the population.Trying to affect positive and lasting change in such an environment is bound to be a difficult, frustrating and occasionally depressing process. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t drive you crazy at least 50% of the time.
Drinking heavily is the favoured coping mechanism amongst the NGO crowd, of course, but there are a whole plethora of other options. Some people go on these mysterious disappearances where they secret themselves away at some campsite or the nearest resort with wifi for a week or so without telling anyone before rolling back into your regular bar or restaurant as though they never went away. A good one I haven’t experienced but definitely want to is ‘Boda Polo’ or Polo played on motorcycles (recently featured in the pages of the New York Times but having been around since at least 2008 when I first heard about it). Cathartic affairs, bombastic public arguments, cookery, home brewing, obsessive running – you name it; an EAW somewhere is using it as a way of combating work-based stress.
I should give a big plug for the Whydev peer coaching scheme which is aimed at giving EAWs and all the rest of the development world a way of dealing with stress and fatigue without resorting to alcohol – read about it here, donate here.
But back to our night out. The way this Somalia-Mine-Clearing (SMC) guy handled it was by comparing his nights out to the ones his brother had. His brother worked in ‘the City’ (the financial district in London) and earned piles of money. In fact, most of his family were engaged in business or finance in some lucrative way that meant the amount SMC was pulling in could be found down the back of the sofa in most of his relatives’ houses. Obviously, this makes sibling rivalry a little difficult. The way he retaliated it was this: on a night out with a bunch of EAWs you’re more than likely to have at least one interesting, intelligent conversation that isn’t about your own area of work. Because a) the people attracted to the field tend to be well travelled and have a wider range of interests than people in other fields like banking (i.e. are not focused on dough) and b) the industry, such as it is, is a huge and diverse one so you’re quite likely to meet someone who does something you’ve no idea about but which interests you. Which is actually pretty great. Essentially it comes down to this somewhat paraphrased sentiment:
If I was working in the City, making 250 grand a year, I’d also have to do long hours and would be just as stressed as I am at the moment. I’d go down to a bar after work and, what, spend a couple of hours talking to another asshole who makes a lot of money. What would we talk about? Making lots of money? No thanks.
So, to eventually come to some kind of a point, for all you jaded or newly jaded development types: it’s a frustrating and poorly paid world for us but at least you’re pretty much guaranteed some good conversation every once and a while. You just have to get out there and talk to people.
Who’s for another drink?