This is part two of our Q&A with three incredible humanitarians reflecting on how they got where they are, the hard truths about what their lives are like and their advice for people thinking about working in the sector.
Maria Duncan, from New Zealand, currently based in Nairobi. Has worked in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Hit the Iron Bell blog: How do you cope with the stresses and pressures of your work?
Talk to your family. Make sure you maintain those connections to whoever is important to you, otherwise the gap will become increasingly hard to bridge. Lastly, don’t ever feel guilty for the life you have because because what you’re working for is not necessarily that exact life for others, but the chance for them to be able to make those choices. So, enjoy that flat white on ‘R&R’ (see footnote) while overlooking the white sandy beach.
I’ve gotten better with age and experience. I made all the mistakes in the early days. Drank too much. Took unnecessary risks. Undervalued sleep. A year into my time in Afghanistan I started to red-line. My dreams filled up with violence, and I began to question my judgment and to doubt my resilience.
I sought out a clinical psychologist and ultimately found a guy who specialised in conflict zones. It was the best thing I could’ve done. It offered a safe space to debrief, and we brought a cognitive behavioural therapy – CBT – approach to my work. Through it, we broke down my experiences, tracked my mental health, and focused on the day-to-day. It helped to inform my decision on when to leave and, gratefully, helped me to prepare for my reentry back home. I ended up resuming our contact in other duty stations.
These days I eat well, exercise, and make sure I get more sleep. I also speak more openly about my experiences and of the importance of mental health. I’m a better person and professional for it.
A plane with the UN Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS) photographed by Ben in Afghanistan in 2011.
For me, reading, exercising, journaling, and binge-watching TV shows (both funny ones and more serious ones) have helped, particularly during remote field assignments. Talking with trusted friends and family and, if possible, a therapist or counsellor, are also important for anyone in this industry.
What do you miss most when you’re in the field?
The view overlooking Lake Pukaki down to Mt. Aoraki (in New Zealand), which is why I got it tattooed on my wrist! As well as many other easy-to-access places of solitude, with no rubbish, and oh-so green that I find close to my home in the South Island of New Zealand. Of course, family and friends – that’s a given – and especially watching all the little nieces and nephews grow and become little people. Marmite (the NZ variety!) and just good produce that tastes really fresh, like sweet pumpkins and awesome creamy avocados (the Marmite and avocados together are a powerful combination!) Also, really good Thai takeaway. And a stocked kitchen with good knives, more than one chopping board and not just unidentifiable spices that were bought by someone who passed through the house before you and have probably lost their flavour.
Maria and other aid workers in a sweet shop in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2012.
There are the obvious things: family, friends, intimacy, privacy, big nights out, decent sleep. Then there are the details – the ocean, hardcopy newspapers, good coffee, poached eggs, drinking from a tap.
My family, my friends, Mexican food, and mosquito-free living or, more specifically, not having to worry about mosquitoes and malaria. I lived in a small town in Tanzania where I was one of the few foreigners and I often missed the anonymity of life in my hometown (New York City). In certain places where security is challenging, I also miss freedom of movement like being able to walk down the street, go shopping by myself, etc.
Can you describe one of your worst days?
Although I have been involved in several security incidents, the worst day (built up over several weeks) was definitely realizing that by staying in my role I was contributing to everything that goes against why I am in the sector. Needless to say, I sent the right email that day.
There are a few contenders. Sadly, they all involve loss. I don’t often speak about them.
When I was living in Tanzania, a friend (also an expat worker) was killed in a road accident. She was one of the kindest and most inspiring people I have ever met. I will always miss her.
Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and the largest urban slum in Africa. Photo provided by Amy.
What makes it all worth it?
One of my closest friends (she put up with living and working with me in a 4x2m container for nine months so, you get the picture) and I had an amazing experience where we played a big role in saving a young boy from horrific violence. There are many things I am proud of, but it is the individual stories (and this one in particular) that will always be closest to my heart.
There are a few contenders [for my worst days]. Sadly, they all involve loss. I don’t often speak about them.
There are a lot more hard days than good ones. Occasionally we make a meaningful difference for someone. Otherwise, it’s the relationships that I value. The shared, binding experiences with colleagues, the opportunity to see unexpected flashes of humanity in some of the worst situations.
Working for UNFPA in Sierra Leone, I visited a fistula repair center and saw how the women and girls were restored physically and emotionally through the surgery. Many of these women and girls had previously been banished by their communities and families, and now they had come to this place of healing. I think about this a lot.
What is your ultimate dream job in the sector?
I take it day-by-day so as an Access Advisor, I feel really happy where I am. As long as I am supporting ethical, principled programming, as long as I am challenged and learning, and as long as what I am contributing to is giving people choices, that’s what I ask for right now.
A photo from inside South Sudan's largest camp for displaced people, in Bentiu, in 2014. Photo supplied by Maria.
I’ve been really lucky to have landed the gigs and to have had many of the experiences I was chasing. Everything from here is a bonus.
I periodically take timeouts. Mostly to reflect and recharge. But I circle back because this work moves me in particular ways.
Do you think at some point you may leave the sector to pursue a different career? If so, what else could you see yourself doing?
Every humanitarian will tell you they dream of the café or bar they will run when they leave the sector! However, my family are in hospitality and so I know the work – and little return – involved in that. I am not sure, but I think I would like to translate something similar to back home as there is plenty of work to do there. An area that has always interested me (which I do think stems back to my belief that people are mostly inherently good) is criminal justice and corrections. I strongly believe in rehabilitative justice and believe we have got it all wrong. We do not adequately support people before, during and after incarceration; then we’re surprised when they reoffend and just stand with the door open, ready to once again throw away the key.
A precarious way for a car to cross a river, in Gilgit, northern Pakistan. Photo provided by Maria.
I periodically take timeouts. Mostly to reflect and recharge. I write, I give talks, occasionally I teach. But I circle back because this work moves me in particular ways. These days the key thing for me is balance. I pour energy into other passions and I’ve carved out space for relationships. Decoupling my identity from my work has been important.
Sunset over Spantik Mountain, in the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan. Photo provided by Maria.
(***Editor’s note: R&R, or ‘rest and recuperation’ is a system that allows aid workers living in difficult or dangerous environments to leave for regular breaks, to protect their mental health and wellbeing)