An Unread Diary of an Aid Worker

kenyan_children

 

By NIKOLA JOVANOVIC

Today, and in the days to come, the impact of natural and human-made disasters is ever increasing, and this is not only in numbers and volume, but also in its complexity.kenyan_children

Floods are often followed by landslides due to unplanned deforestation. The number of deaths and severely injured has increased as houses are built next to dams due to overpopulation. Global warming brings heavy rainfalls which correlates to more and frequent floods, and having in mind that the current irrigation systems are not able to manage excess water. Volcanoes are reawakened, earthquakes are much stronger and more common; and the number of victims, refugees, or people without basic needs for survival has experienced an increase of approximately 200% in the last 10 years. The nature is fighting back for everything that we have done to her.

Due to these circumstances, my work in the Red Cross and in the disaster response department becomes more important, responsible and needed on a daily basis. This chapter in my diary is dedicated to one of the most beautiful countries where I have met some of the warmest and friendliest people.

Let me bring you to Kenya!

Two years ago, I participated in a massive relief operation in Tana River district; an agricultural area about 400km south from Mombasa where people’s lives depended on fruit growing and animal husbandry. In the beginning of 2009, this area, inhabited approximately by 40.000 people was faced with heavy floods that had destroyed almost 1500 households. A few weeks later, they were struck by El Nino followed by strong wind and monsoon rains. Not long after the withdrawal of water, the high temperatures brought them a harsh and long-lasting draught. The final number of the most affected households had risen to 3.600 with around 36.000 people being affected in 16 villages. Global warming and climate change took their toll.

International Federation of Red Cross launched an emergency appeal and attempted to provide for the immediate needs of the people in those villages. Not only had the necessary items arrived but the logistic, relief and assessment teams were also deployed. In a short period of time, four assessment teams were established with the main goal to organize and assess villages, to estimate the exact number of people who required support, and to classify the most urgent items needed for successful relief. My team was number four: Delta FACTii team.

Our team leader was from the UK, deputy from the USA and other team mates coming from countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Jamaica, Benin, and including myself, from Serbia. Working in a multicultural team was nothing new to me. Actually, I find it to be as one of my favorite parts in field operations. The staff members who come from different parts of the world and the diversity of experiences, extensive knowledge and amazing ideas form the essence of the Red Cross movement. They bring the fieldwork to its highest level.

After a two-day briefing, we became familiar with the cultural heritage and identity of the inhabitants in the villages where we were about to operate. The team was ready to go. We were assigned to manage two villages and had four days to complete a detailed assessment of the needs of the vulnerable people.

Europeans who come to Africa may tend to believe that they know much about this continent. After only a few of weeks of their stay, some may think that they know everything. But it is not like that. Actually, it`s not even close.

Indeed, those beautiful landscapes, warm people with specific but magnificent culture make a profound impact upon you. Wanted or not, you must love it. The contrasting colors of the Baobab trees and the red soil, the villages with small houses and straw roofs, with many kids running all around you; smiling and hoping to receive attention, make Africa unique and your work priceless.

I remember the words of my team leader; an experienced old man who had been in the field for more than 30 years, “Wherever you go, no matter how hard a disaster has struck, you always find happy children.” That was true! During a break in the field, I spotted a group of children who were playing football with an improvised ball of papaya peel. I asked them about their favorite football players and they looked at me very strangely. I repeated my question once again and one of the goalkeepers told me: “What do you mean who is my favorite player? I am!” Then I realized that they probably never had the opportunity to see how this game looks like in Europe or South America, and they had no clue of who David Beckham was, or any other football superstar. But, it was not important for them; they had their own game, their own heroes, and they were most likely happy in their play. Hmm, isn`t that supposed to be the essence of this game?

Moving on to the third day, it was a heavy rainy one. It was raining throughout the night and morning so our travel from the compound to the village was challenging. We were in our Toyota and slowly set off to our destination that was about 15km far from the base camp. The soil in this part of Africa was mostly like clay, and despite having a good car and an experienced driver, we were stuck in the mud and attempted to get out unsuccessfully.

After fifteen minutes, I saw a person with a donkey passing by. He raised his arm and greeted us with the famous “Jumbo” word that meant “Hello” in Swahili. He was singing some old Kenyan song, had a piece of grass in his mouth, was holding the donkey with a load of wood on its back, and was slowly heading towards the market for selling his goods. He stopped for a moment and we exchanged a few words. He lived in the neighboring village where the flood had destroyed most of the houses and the bridge that used to connect two sides of the river. On one side, there were the farms and part of the households; and on the other, there was the school and the church.

And then I asked him: “OK, if you don’t have a bridge, then how do you take your kids to school?

“We swim with them on our back,” he responded.

“But Tana River is full of crocodiles!”

“Well yes, but this is a risk of life, you know,” he responded smilingly and with perfect white teeth.

Risk of life, I thought… Yes it is more than that!

After the four long days and nights, we were ready to make an action plan: how to distribute all the emergency items to the villages and how to make reciprocity, and where and when the items would be distributed. Together with us, we had a field clinic from Norway and a water- and sanitation team from Austria who had joined us in this operation – everyone in their respective field of expertise.

The weather was great, we started our trucks and in no time, the emergency items such as mosquito nets, blankets, jerry cans, tarpaulins and basic food items were distributed in the field.

The beneficiaries knew everything. They stayed in two lines, with prepared documents (at least those who had any), bags and wagons. Everybody was there: village elders, hunters, children, women, sorcerers, and other villagers. They were staying together in the queue and everybody knew their place; there was no pushing, tension or any form of restlessness. This informed me that it was not their first humanitarian distribution, and this was not the first time those people had lost everything and needed to start from beginning.


Natural disasters force those people to start all over again and almost every year. Every year, there are more and more situations like these when the lives of those people are put on the edge, but this is not only in Africa; it is everywhere. A while ago, I saw some terrible images of natural disasters in Japan, New Zeeland, and Pakistan. I asked myself so many times: Isn`t it already too much? Do we really need to go to wars after all these natural disasters? Haven’t floods, earthquakes and Tsunamis taken enough lives and added enough human suffering?

During my flight from the field to Nairobi where I was to head back to Serbia, I was tired, exhausted and wishful of dreaming in a cozy bed; but I looked down through the window and thought there is still too much job to be done, so many people to help. Once again, I found the strength to get back to the field and realize that I have the best job in the world. (Nikola works for the Red Cross in Serbia and this piece originally appeared in Global South Development Magazine’s April 2011 edition)

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