Perhaps the most devastating – and simultaneously most hopeful – experience that I have had as a humanitarian worker was during the final stage of Angola’s civil war. In February 2002, I was in Moxico, where internally displaced populations were arriving in droves, often in critical condition.
The IDP camp had been quickly constructed as people continued to arrive from the bush. Whole villages were fleeing the scorched earth tactics used by the government to rid UNITA of its civilian support base, which consisted of rural agriculturalists who had no choice but to surrender their crops and sometimes their children to armed groups. People arriving at the Moxico camp had been on the run for months, experiencing one eruption of violence after another. Mothers sat with their lifeless infants asking humanitarian workers for wooden boxes to bury their children, rather than for food. It was the rainy season, and the plastic sheeted shelters were, for all intents and purposes, useless. Therapeutic feeding centers were beyond maximum capacity, with more than five children sharing each bed. Nearly everyone in the camp had the glazed look in their eyes – a look to which humanitarians become so accustomed that we tend to wear it ourselves.
I heard an outburst of laughter. It made no sense. I quickly assumed that someone had cracked up. In this setting, a mental breakdown would have seemed somehow more appropriate than genuine laughter. Even some of the most even-keeled aid workers were beginning to wear thin. The doctor at the therapeutic feeding center had turned off the generator one night in a desperate attempt to sleep, despite potentially damaging the vaccines and medicines. He woke to the rage of a colleague who blamed him for his self-centered hopelessness. The local bar had been full the night before with whiskey-cokes drowning out the noise of the torrential rains and the burdensome expectation of what tomorrow would bring.
The source of the laughter was an old man. Men of his age were hard to come by in the camps; the war had been particularly unkind to the youngest and the oldest. Yet there he was, telling a story to a huddle of children. The life coming out of him was larger than his malnourished body would seem to hold. The children’s faces and bodies were animated and focused in a way that I hadn’t seen in months. The glaze had been broken to reveal the life giving capacity to imagine.
It was a relief.
And though the moment did not last long, it dawned on me that in all of my experience as a humanitarian worker, I had never witnessed an intervention with such immediate power to relieve a group of beneficiaries. Compared to those of us with Land Cruisers, warehoused stockpiles and donors’ strings to pull, this old man had nothing. Yet with his spirit so seemingly intact, he was able to give the children a momentary experience of freedom, with the intense pain of reality fading into the distant background of the tale he was telling. I knew that we would collectively do our best to assist these people. But I wasn’t convinced that it would be enough. Perhaps if this old man had more stories to tell, he and the children would somehow find the wherewithal to get through the critical weeks of rain and hunger to come.
Maybe without even being aware, the old man imparted to his listeners the wisdom of being fully present. He instinctively knew how to reconstitute community on the spot — luring young minds to a place that transcends the devastating conditions of now, releasing them from the suffocating grip of fear and promising a temporary sense of respite.
I went back to my room and attempted to stabilize my mind. It was then that I began to wonder: where do we humanitarians go to rejuvenate our spirits?