I remember reading of an aid worker who had gone to Angola for a year. I think she was a nurse with MSF, and over the course of the year she was there, she was involved in intensive, life-saving surgery and emergency work almost every day. Famine, fighting, malnutrition, ignorance, custom and culture meant she saw an awful lot of deaths, pain and blood. And at the end of it, she said, the worst thing was that almost nothing had changed. All the work she had done, the effort, the wrenching, endless effort – Angola was as worse off at the end of her time there as it was at the beginning, perhaps more so. Not that she thought she would change the course of the nation, but at least, that something would be better as a result of her effort.
No. She could not see that they were. People had lived, yes, who otherwise would have died, but they lived only to die later. And meanwhile someone else died an equally stupid, avoidable death. Dynamics of care, cultural practices, attitudes towards war and conflict, the rhythyms and rhymes of bloodshed – nothing had really changed at all.
It was depressing reading, but it resonated with me deeply. It summed up how I felt about Afghanistan, only I had spent three or four years here.
W and T, two friends of ours who are at this time returning to Nepal, where they have spent the last five or so years as doctors wrote something to a similar effect recently:
…The first time we went to Nepal, there was a sense of excitement and adventure, and the second time we felt we had learnt the language and put time into relationships and could build on those, but now, after 5 years in Nepal we see all the difficulties ahead of us –conflict in the country, a busy hospital with long working hours and emotionally draining work, working in a culture where values like integrity, honesty and good work ethics are not valued. For us, going back this third time is about being obedient to God.
Yep. As Leonard Cohen puts it (always a good man to listen to when you are on a downer), ‘I did my best. It wasn’t much.’