I left the Philippines when the new virus started to affect Wuhan. That was the first of February. I went prepared, even brought with me masks and hand sanitiser. It was the only time I spent over 3 hours waiting for my flight. Then, I arrived in Uganda not having to get myself checked or quarantined, like it is now. I only have to show the usual yellow card to let the officers at the airport know I am vaccinated with yellow fever and I’m good to go.
Two months since, I am self quarantined in my little house up in West Nile after I was told I am a PUM – person under monitoring.
I left KAMPALA just in time for the government declaration of national lock down, even private vehicles are not anymore allowed in the streets. But I was there in Kampala when the first case was confirmed. The same day most expats with families are able to leave to go home fearing the worst being here. I got exposed from one of those under 20 people despedida, thanks to the many meetings we do trying to anticipate the arrival of the virus at Uganda doorstep.
With the national lockdown, my organisation has to stop our field intervention in the refugee settlement. Myself being in quarantine is relegated to work-from-home and had to endure Skype meetings to get something done for our projects.
Social distancing is already hard, being self-quarantined is harder. I don’t envy those with families with them, especially young kids. The same time the office has output expectations while on it. But hey, I am not complaining, just stating facts!
The virus is a great equalizer; it is a serious business. If we don’t follow all the precautionary measures we put many peoples life at stake, and to be in charge of getting guidelines for our intervention in the failed, I have to set an example for all.
Last night I dined with a friend. He’s the coordinator of one big international humanitarian NGO. We worked in a very different field, but somehow it is still connected.
Over wine, we got talking about the kinds of things we see in our places of work. On why expatriates like us are discouraged from being in insecure locations such as inside the settlement to spend the night, let alone live every day.
I said I would not do it. I am done with my cowboy days but I am sure young humanitarian actors will push their luck and try the adventure. But is it an adventure to live with the refugees if you represent oppression and reason for them being displaced? Maybe not, but that’s a story for another time.
On a more serious tone, our conversation gravitated on the subject of abortion. Since both of us work in the health sector, these are subjects we know are sensitive, and talked on hushed voices, and never blurted out in daylight, but we know it happens, and justified.
You see, without blaming anyone or any agency, we know that rape happens in the settlement or camps. People are in an insecure location and vulnerable situation, and many are just vultures taking advantage of the case, and the people they think are below them.
Imagine my surprise to hear that not only women are vulnerable in such a situation. In one week, he said they got report of men being raped but women out numbered them. Reports of defilement is available at police stations, but whether or not perpetrators are apprehended is hard to tell.
So, what he told me why they do it – abortion to victims of rape, made me think twice about why I am doing what I am doing here in Uganda. I even have to agree to disagree with him based on my faith.
That’s why abortion is hush-hush is because it’s the last resort. He said the best is still to have more robust policies on the protection of women and men against sexual exploitation and abuse, and stronger enforcement from the authorities. But when that system fails, there should be a support network that will catch these women victimized by their vulnerability, in a place where they thought they are protected but are not.
Being a victim is a hard pill to swallow. The psychological trauma it brings to the victim makes it hard for them to think straight. The fear of being discovered, labeled, and eventually ostracised in a community where you’re supposed to get your strength from to go on each day is tremendous.
What happens when the rape resulted in pregnancy?
That’s when another cycle of psychological trauma happens. Being pregnant from a rape always remind that person of what happened, of how she was not able to avoid it. Blame herself for bringing it to herself. The fight internally gets intense, making it hard for her to fight back, and often, the psychological trauma wins over the rational way of thinking, which can lead to many difficult decisions, including abortion and the worst suicide.
The mental health support system is as complicated as it can get. Not everybody understands what they are talking about, and when in such a complicated situation, often, the victims are left to fend for themselves. Making it hard for women to feel they had someone on their side. My friend told me that even he doesn’t like that program they have on abortion, but after seeing women getting into such a situation, he knew it has to be done. But he also told me that its the last resort when all support fails, and if they don’t do it, women will also find a crude way to get rid of the pregnancy that will also put their life further at risk.
So for us not to get there, as a humanitarian actor, we have a lot of responsibility for the people we serve.
First, when we design policy on protection and prevention of sexual violence and abuse, don’t let it on paper and pretend that action will magically materialize. No, it never does, that is why we should put weight on it and enforce it. We are making sure something or someone answers for the atrocities received in the hands of perpetrators.
Second, empower the support groups. Avoid the victim-blaming that often happens when rape is discovered. Nobody wants to be accosted and violated. Notably, no one should take advantage of a vulnerable situation to exert power over women and men.
Third, regardless of faith practices, we have to find solutions that best serve the many. I am not endorsing abortion. Like my friend, I am against it and will never advise it on anyone, but if all else fails, make sure that the solution identified will serve best the person and allowed to believe that s/he is not a victim but rather a survivor.
Fourth, as a person, we are our brothers and sisters keeper. We look out for each other and support each other by making sure that we all are equitable. God never wants harm to come our way, He wants us to live in harmony, but the world is crazy now. We become selfish and self-centered to the point of destruction.
The life where I live now is never easy. We make do of what we have, take advantage of the simple pleasures where it is merited. My friends here and I take our jobs seriously, that’s why our after-dinner subject was something that resonated in my head long after the wine wears off.
I intended to see the majestic Kilimanjaro. The mountain I heard so much about from friends who had no problem climbing mountains. It was once in my list of mountains to conquer, when the knees, the weight, and the heart are still in their prime.
Anyway, I had a good time at least, watching the brothers when my plane from Nairobi passed over the mountain, exposing its snow-covered top in the early morning of July last year.
It feels like Tanzania is just a dream, and Kilimanjaro is an illusion since I visited the country six months ago.
It will take me two days before I can go to where it is located.
Meantime, I enjoyed the warm days on the beach of Dar Es Salaam doing nothing but watch the sea, read, nap, eat, and drink, taking in all the sun I could bear.
Azure Boutique Hotel was a haven. A welcome respite from the heat of Arua in the north of Uganda, west of the Nile river.
Even the crab fascinates me.
After a good rest, good food and a good night’s sleep. I was excited to plan my next destination and see more of Tanzania.
Seriously, how can you not love doing development work when you see your team braving the midday sun to reach people in their homes. Not going for lunch until all are seen and given the time to share their stories.
Since I moved into the new house, one I can call my own until the end of my engagement here in Uganda, I started to enjoy my evenings.
For over a week now, I stopped going home late. One because I am done with my acting roles as head of the base and logistics support and two I lost the privilege of having a night driver at my disposal, so I have to take the daily driver to go home. I take offense in the beginning, but that was petty. I can live with it, I mean without a driver I could ask to buy me eggs and bring me to the supermarket after work. I have to be creative, so I don’t offend people and still enjoy the bliss of being chauffeured to get my groceries once in a while.
As a result, I get to enjoy my house even more. I sit in the balcony with a glass of wine or a cup of espresso and enjoy the blue sky until the sun sets in. Or prepare dinner that cost nothing and eat in front of the tv. And sleep whenever and however I like.
It’s my no stress strategy. Looking at the positive in a negative situation because I know that my issues are nothing compared to the many that I meet every day in the settlement.
No more housemate for me until the new recruits start coming. So I’ll take advantage of my “me time” while trying to catch up with all my backlogs.
You see the being alone thing comes with a big responsibility that I didn’t ask for. But it sort of like dropped on my lap like a hot potato. The difference is I cannot throw the potato on another person lap because there’s no one else here.
You must be wondering what I am blabbering about. Well, for contexts I will tell you about my week.
For a long time, the mission is struggling to find solutions to make work easy for the program. First, the support team is supposed to do that but something must be blocking them from doing a smooth job despite all the necessary supports provided.
So, before the holidays, the boss finally accepted that the problem is not the lack of capacity, but the lack of integrity of the people themselves, those that were asked to provide support to all the projects in the base. I will not go into so much into detail because I may land my ass in jail for libel or worst I’ll be sent home for this blog.
Fast forward to last week, the person handling the case ended his mission. He had no one else to hand over some of his responsibility to but me – the last one standing in the base out of three. Well, actually I knew they will leave before me, I signed a 12-month contract and theirs was just a quarter of that.
The first one left two weeks prior and it was just as good as being alone but that’s for another letter.
With my colleague leaving I grew another head to put a hat on and started to do some base management. Which I never did before because as many know I am a field person — I like to be out in the sun and shuffling from location to location visiting people.
The field person is the first head, the original head until I arrived here because I was told immediately to do project management at the same time. So the second head grew almost overnight until I hand it over the person we selected last week. I hope she checks out well so I’ll be on my merry technical way.
So back to the original thread of the story.
With the third head, I was suddenly tasked to handle sensitive documents which were for the naive of me didn’t think much of it. But when the document was not well received and signed by the person I used to work with I was confused with the reaction of the higher being that be.
First, it was not my job to handle such a sensitive document when dealing with staffs. Two there was no anticipation on the part of the person responsible and of course if she hasn’t thought of it how will I know it, I am not in Human Resources for a reason. And the lady has the balls to confirm what I already know that I was tricked – because a crook, is a crook, is a crook, that’s all the explanation I needed to make me feel good.
The worst is not that. The person I though supports my debacle further drilled in my incompetence, and a third person did the same. Made me think … are they kidding me? Because it felt like I am the only one who doesn’t know what to do in a situation like that.
I cried a little. Self-pity crept in. And I am ready to throw in the towel because it was clear I cannot do someone else’s job.
Then I am angry. The woman which I thought has balls actually has none. The boss whose always siding with her may also have less of it and the third one is as clueless as me.
I decided to keep the third head realizing that after talking to a very dear friend – there is no one who can do this here and I am ready to take it on until the new person arrives or feel guilty if you know something worst happen. It will be a lot of work for me, but I am not new to hard work and dealing with complicated people so bring it on!
After a good night sleep, I am better.
Today is another day. For the whole morning now I am still trying to find my motivation to open my work computer and get something done, cutting down my backlogs and start fresh on Monday.
Until the next letter. Looking forward to your reply.
What I experienced in the last 5 months of recovery gave me the opportunity to really dig into the issues people with disabilities have in their lives (not that I don’t do it every day for the last two decades). But most of my experience is not comparable to those I’ve seen in the field where I work. The struggles that I complained and whine about are nothing to the struggles people experience living in camps or even within their own community.
I become spiritual when the accident happened, and I thank God more and more for the experience. I learn to appreciate more my life and the people I encounter in it.
When I had the accident The Day I Broke My Leg, I was overwhelmed by the attention I got from my landlord and colleagues – that they are willing to look after me until I am comfortable enough to be on my own.
How many people will do that for you?
The same when I was at the hospital. That one week in January that I was there was both fun and funny (on hindsight). Although I did not cry, I was like a cry baby always pressing the help button and asking the nurses to do things for me even in the wee hours of the morning. I know I disturbed them because I can see sleep in their eyes when I needed to go to the toilet at 3 in the morning or I needed adjustments in my bed very early because I cannot stay still and all my beddings hanging off it. But I don’t see them angry or annoyed. I like to think, I am fun to be around because while I speak English, they answer me in Arabic or French and when no translation is possible, hand gestures and head movements enough for us to understand each other.
It was enough time to have a routine, I eventually became friends with most of them at that time. But I am sure by now I am just a memory or maybe forgotten, but I will not forget them. I tried to get their names but in the chaos of checking out I lost my list, and photos are all that I have of them. God knows how thankful I am for them looking after me. Extended to the two ambulance guys that brought me to the airport and back to the hospital and airport again until the airlines finally allowed me to fly home.
There is not a day since I left Tunisia that I am not thanking God for sending me those people. For crossing their path and making my experience as a person with injury good despite it happening overseas and life-changing. I felt that God is working in them and I pray every day for them, that they continue to be a blessing to others they encounter in their lives and in their work.
If I have a way to get this story to them, I would like for them to know that there is no amount of “thank you” enough to show my gratitude. I can only continue to pray for them and ask God to continue to bless them and to let them continue to give kindness to all the people they care in that hospital.
From the hospital reception to the ER nurses to my doctors and the floor nurses and aides that kept me company all through my one-week stay at Clinique Amen La Marsa, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To my family in Tunisia, the couple that adopted me and never left my side, waited for me and being there when I was out of surgery, thank you. I believe that God brought me to your home for a reason. When I needed help, you did not hesitate and even offered me a place in your heart to make me feel comfortable being alone in a new country.
To the friends I met, truly Filipinos are people of the world. Who would have thought that the first meeting we had would be a start of a lifelong friendship? At my lowest time, when I was not allowed to fly the first time, you were there. You took me back and brought me to the hospital safely and there again the next day as if God has planted you on my side until I am up in the air and landed in the Philippines.
With the 6-month grace period of recovery I give myself coming to an end, it is time to express my gratitude to all the people that helped me through this disability journey from Tunisia to France and here in the Philippines.
It has enriched my life and had opened my eyes to a new perspective on the kind of work I do and made me want to do more. Nobody can tell me now that I cannot advocate for disability because I am not disabled, because, with the little time I was in that shoes, I can say I understood the struggle. Living with it even for a short time reaffirmed that this is what God wants me to continue doing. So continue I will.
I do not wish for this kind of accident to happen to anyone, but this is a good opportunity for me to pay the kindness and generosity allocated for me forward in anyway possible.