When the #metoo campaign came out, to be perfectly honest, it took a while for me to realize that well… me too. I had to read other women’s accounts before I realized that… well, me too. It’s never gone as extreme as seeing a man forcefully masturbate in front of me or force themselves on me (although I was followed a few blocks by a naked man who seemed to be a bit mental… oh wait, me too!) but after reading a few experiences, I realized that I wasn’t exempt. Frankly, my experience had become so normal, I had completely blanked out and accepted the normality of it all. I had gotten completely used to it.
“You’re a humanitarian worker? Oh you must be a wonderful person, saving all those lives.”
That’s my mental cue to either a) look for the nearest hole to dive into in embarrassment, and/or b) start mentally checking out of the conversation.
Eight years after doing my first emergency and three years into doing this full time outside of the Philippines, I have learned and unlearned more things in the humanitarian field than I can remember. I’ve halfway given up remembering catch phrases, terms and jargon, because a couple of years into getting used to a word, it’s going to be changed into the latest buzzword to add to an arsenal of words that mean the same damn thing. I’ve started feeling jaded about the many hoops and steps we must take to be absolutely positively sure that we are doing and reporting everything in the most accurate, least double counted, zero fraudulent way. I can feel the cynicism just ooze out when trying to make a project based on needs from the ground, because, let’s face it, a lot of the projects we do are defined by donors from up high who have preconceived notions of what will solve the latest or most prolonged world crisis. But if there’s one thing that continues to stay sunny and bright and perky, it’s my feelings about the people in every single country I’ve worked in.
Rather than waiting for my free 100 hours of French lessons in a school of questionable quality, I signed up for 40 hours of French in Alliance Française Strasbourg over a 2 week period in the middle of a couple of deployments. Disclaimer: universally, I am known to be terrible at languages, including my native tongue of Filipino. In university, I scorned French because I thought it was incredibly mainstream (in hindsight, this hipster decision of mine was a karmic bitch slap to the face) and took Italian instead… because I really loved Italian food. This is not the best basis for a decision like this. Sage advice, you can point at a menu without having to say a word but it’s embarrassing to have to mime using a toilet because you can’t speak the language. To this day, all I remember is “io sono Gabriela”, which doesn’t really take you anywhere.
There’s probably hundreds of articles and books written about moving to France by people of varying nationalities (Peter Mayle has probably cornered 5% profitability on that topic alone). Totally unoriginal, I’m now going to be one of those people. Don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning. Not that I think my experience is unique - far from it - but there is something about moving and living in France that appeals to my sense of humor and irony.
Last year, we made the decision to move to France after a crazy exhausting year hopping back and forth (mainly for me) from the Philippines to the United States to France to Sierra Leone. Ten months ago, we finally did it and ended up in Strasbourg, a lucky coincidence because when I visited the city last year, I fell in love with everything about it. But before the fairytale of living in this amazingly beautiful historic city, there was the comedy that came with the move.
Years ago, when Barack Obama first came in as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, I was still very much for Hilary Rodham Clinton. I’m not American but I liked her style and I really wished I could vote for her. She was tough, she stood for things I believed in, and I just felt like she had proven herself many times over. But Obama was charismatic and smart, and he swayed me and I thought, “well, there’s always the next time. And she’ll be the next US President.” I was absolutely sure of it then.
Eight years later, that certainty has most certainly dimmed. The most qualified presidential candidate in the history of the USA lost to this ridiculous candidate who should have been shut out from the onset. And yes, it signals a lot of things - that terrorism is playing such a large part in our lives, that people are scared and turning to more basic responses, that xenophobia is winning out. But for me, it mainly feels like we haven’t accepted gender equality. A lot of people, though by a close margin, are still not ready yet to have a woman hold the most powerful position in the world. The toughest thing for me to accept about today isn’t the inevitability of a POTUS Trump. It’s the fact that for me, a candidate like Hilary Rodham Clinton should have been a done deal against someone like Donald Trump. And yet she wasn’t.
As this day winds down and this new world order sets in, I wonder if other women will agree with this sadness I’m feeling. If Hilary Rodham Clinton couldn’t break the highest, toughest glass ceiling, then who could?
I thought that in coming to Sierra Leone and working in an Ebola response, I would have a lot of thought as fodder to blog about. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s five months after and a massive case of writer’s block as I struggle with understanding enough of the complexities of this response to write something coherent about it.
In all the emergencies I’ve worked in, even the smaller ones, there was always something that stood out to me that made it important or urgent. For example, Haiyan meant understanding that the scale of typhoons had increased enormously, and preparation and response needed to scale up if we ever wanted to catch up to these changes. The Bohol earthquake helped me understand what an earthquake response needed to be, particularly if a big one hit Manila. Typhoon Ketsana was a wake-up call for how unprepared the Philippines was for a disaster and the importance, not just of preparedness, but of disaster risk reduction.
But this Ebola response will probably be one of the most significant responses I’ll ever work on, even if I get to respond to another one in the future. The last few months have been a trial and error of what worked and what didn’t work, keeping in mind the scale of the emergency, but also safety of the people involved. Remembering this will pave the way for a better and faster humanitarian response for a disease that still mystifies and terrifies most of the world. More importantly, this response is important to me, not just because the scale of the spread and number of casualties has been so large in comparison to previous outbreaks, but because of how important the humanitarian side of it is, in spite of this being thought of as predominantly medical.
My journey to Sierra Leone started from a gray and dreary Paris (I discovered that rain + winter makes Paris less romantic. Harrumph) through Casablanca, Morocco to Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was a lucky break I was in France because the Philippines discourages travelers from going to West Africa (really, my country needs to be a little less backward about things like this) and even blocks people from leaving if they find out that's your destination. (It's disappointing that the Philippines churns out thousands of medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and are known to be excellent caregivers. And yet, the government discourages them from going to West Africa to help in the response. But anyway).
For anyone going to Sierra Leone, the trip at the moment (with all the flight cancellations to Africa) is through Air Brussels (Brussels) and Royal Air Maroc (Morocco). From Morocco, it's a 3-4 hour plane ride to Freetown (I'd be more accurate but I was passed out during my midnight trip until we landed at the annoying hour of 4am). Let me tell you, it's a huge shock to the system to go from chilly Paris and Morocco at - degree weather and come out on the other end at 30 degree Freetown (technically, that's a lot hotter than the Philippines right now!).
After a few months off from the world of emergencies, I'm back in it as a Programme Manager for Oxfam's Ebola Response in Sierra Leone! I'm thrilled to be working in this programme, not just because it's a chance to be directly involved in an emergency I've been following since it started in early 2014, but also because it's a huge opportunity to grow more in this field. As much as the Philippines has been an excellent training ground with the numerous typhoons, floods, monsoon rains and other assorted natural disasters we're affected by yearly, working in Africa introduces a whole different world for living and working.
Why did I decide to work in this response? Though the decision was easy for me, it wasn't without weighing the risks carefully. A wealth of documents and information from the news, humanitarian organizations and Oxfam helped tilt the balance towards working here.
One, I knew as a non-medical professional, that my chances of catching the disease would be significantly lower. Contact with Ebola victims would be very low to non-existent. My interactions would mainly be my colleagues, partners, other agencies working here, and communities that weren't in red zones.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.