Monday, April 5, 2010


A few days in Ngungu, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m becoming numb, if I’ve reached the point in the humanitarian and development field where little, if anything, surprises me any longer. Maybe this sounds melodramatic, but walking the short distance between our office and guesthouse, I see things that would shock people unfamiliar with life in the developing world. Has something changed in me to the point where I barely notice some of these things any longer?

I walk with the team to go and visit one of the local authorities this morning- it poured last night and mud is everywhere, punctuated by the occasional stone jutting out of the alleged ‘road’ through town. We pass between two houses and make our way towards a central square of sorts, the office for the government representative. We pass one of the front courtyards of a house, and I see a toddler, a little boy who looks to be maybe around a year old. He’s wearing the ragged remains of a white sweater, of which a few shards dangle from each corner. He has nothing else on and sits plopped down in a pit of mud, making noises to himself. His nose is dripping a grayish-green mixture, and his face is streaked with dirt. His stomach, distended, protrudes from underneath the bits of sweater that remain. This kid is a toddling, lurching, pediatric nightmare- undoubtedly undernourished and presumably filled with amoebas, parasites, and disease from the contaminated water he drinks and the mud he plays in. Drop him down in front of your average parent in the States, Japan, or Europe as-is, and Child Protective Services (or whatever the local equivalent) would seize him from his abusers without a second thought- in Ngungu however, the mud puddle is day care. I walk by, and although I see the toddler, I barely react- I keep walking- another day in Africa.

As we continue back to the house, I pass a soldier. This isn’t anything unusual; DRC is a heavily militarized place, and soldiers are a constant presence. What strikes me though, is that rather than a soldier, this is a kid of about 13, wearing fatigues and cradling an automatic rifle. To identify him as exactly what he is, a child soldier, is to understand that his existence here, in these fatigues and with his gun, violates dozens of UN and national policies about the use of kids in combat, and would expose his leaders to charges of child abuse of the worst sort if this were a different place. I glance at him as I walk along, and although I have some peripheral awareness at how bizarre and wrong this is, I keep going.

On the way back to the house, I see three women, walking barefoot in the mud; this may actually be the best strategy to keep from slipping. This isn’t what catches my attention though. The women each have a 25kg sack of cement on their backs, attached by a strap tied onto their foreheads. They’re clearly struggling under the weight of the bags, and have a blank glassy-eyed expression on their faces that can only be described as cow-like. I’m well-aware of how bad that sounds, but it’s the truth- it’s as if everything making these women people is gone, and all that remains is a beast of burden. The vacancy behind their eyes is something that would shock most people, I know, but I’ve seen it countless times over the past few years, to the point where it doesn’t faze me, I simply accept it as part of life here.

When I was a kid, and through my early teenage years, my dad was a funeral director. To answer the inevitable question, we never did live in the funeral home. Having him in this line of work meant that I was exposed to death far more regularly than most people, certainly most kids, to the point where walking in on my dad in the middle of embalming someone or scraping ashes out of the crematory seemed almost normal. I remember asking him about it once, how he handled being around bodies, some whom were people who had undoubtedly suffered violent, untimely, and painful deaths. He explained that the only way he could do this sort of job was to compartmentalize himself, the same way firefighters of police officers would at the scene of a horrific accident or crime. It’s not that this is a unique skill, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. I’m starting to think that humanitarian worker is another one of those professions where this is necessary- seeing so much human suffering, degradation, appalling conditions and misery can tear you apart if you don’t have some way to cope with it. Many people in this field turn to alcohol or drugs, and burnout/mental breakdown is a constant threat. Although I’ve been able (fortunately) to avoid substance abuse, I suppose this work has caused me to form a sort of mental callus, to the point that things that would shock me in another life barely seem to elicit a shrug.

In spite of the numbness that can (and does, at times) exist, there are little moments from time to time that make doing this sort of thing feel worth it, and make me realize I’m not completely crazy to go 15,000km from home and work in some of the most impoverished, conflict-ridden and otherwise fucked up spots on the planet. Looking out the doorway as I write this, I see a little girl in a clean neon-green dress, maybe four years old, running along a muddy path. She’s towing a homemade kite made of a few scraps of wood, a length of thin vine, and a plastic bag stretched across the frame. She clearly doesn’t have a care in the world, and seems concerned only with keeping the kite in the air- I can’t help but smile as I watch her.

Driving to a nearby village the other day, we get briefly stuck in a large mud pit. Forced to stop while the driver coaxes the Land Cruiser free of the thick brown/black goo, I find a scene of almost impossible beauty spread out in front of me. The sky is sapphire blue with a few wispy clouds sailing on the breeze, and a series of dazzlingly green mountains and fields planted with corn and potatoes surrounds our car. In the distance, I can see herds of black and white cows gorging themselves on the hillside. It’s a scene so perfectly idyllic as to be cliché, and a place that my family and friends back home are likely never to see.

The natural beauty and unadulterated joy I get to see and experience as part of what I do doesn’t erase the other side, the poverty, dirt, abuses of basic human rights and dignity, but it helps make it bearable, at least to the point where I’m not ready to abandon this field, not yet. The good manages to balance out the bad, to an extent, and form some sort of reasonable mental equilibrium. As I write this last paragraph, a song comes up on my iPod, and I can’t help but laugh at how well it encapsulates this state exactly. “I,” sings Roger Waters and Pink Floyd on “The Wall,” “have become/Comfortably Numb.”


  1. In my opinion, humans are creatures of habit that are infanitly able to adapt to any and all situations. Really what ever happens just has to be habitual for it to be ceased to be noticed as strange or bizar. That goes both ways, for good things and bad things. Taking what is wonderful for granted is just as comon as assuming that one's current horrible situaion will never change.
    The other day I was teaching my class a very interesting NPR article:

    In that article, among other things, it is stated that our brain works more when confronted with change, and that this is one of the reasons why it seems like time goes by quicker when we get older; because we are setteled into our habits and little changes, We actually remember less.
    I think that is very applicable to what is happening to you. Your brain is used to working at such a speed to try and process everything around you that even the slightest slow down or comfort seems strange; it's almost like you feel guilty. And yet you do notice all of these things, otherwise you couldn't write about them, it's just that they dont shock you.
    I think personally that there is nothing more healthy and normal than accepting the situation for what it is, "Normal" for where you are. Some change and testing your brain to push it further is good, I have certainly benifited from my many travels all aroudn the world in just that way. But being able to see that situation as normal seems, to me, in the end a way of accepting the humanity of the people around you. Of getting to know, and getting used to knowing, their human reactions to living in that situation enough to say that if you lived in the same situation, grew up in the same way as them, you would be them. And that in a way is beautiful.

  2. Every once in a while, I read your blog...and then I remember that you are the man.

  3. One thing that struck me while reading this: we deal with similar feelings in San Francisco, albeit to a lesser extent. I walk past homeless people daily and realize that in another lifetime this would affect me emotionally and make me very sad, but I've lived around this images for such a long time that I'm able to just mutter "no..sorry" and keep walking without the pangs of guilt that I really ~should~ feel.

    Just a thought from the other side of the world...