Reading from my first novel at the launch party. London. 2000
The realization that aid work was simply a different form of missionary work effected me in a couple of ways. It gave me an intellectual framework that helped me make sense of what my profession was all about. I understood that this was not the only framework available but it made the most sense to me.
The fire in my belly, which up to that point had burned pretty brightly, dampened considerably. No one could give me an explanation or a justification for aid work that answered the power imbalance. In the end, proselytizing, whether for the Almighty or Development Outcomes, was, in my mind, akin to the guest who not only overstays his welcome but eventually claims the whole house for himself.
I had never been a true believer in either form of evangelizing but after this point I considered what I did to be just a job. A very interesting job for sure but ultimately, a way to earn money, see the world and develop a set of professional skills. The initial disappointment gave way to a feeling of liberation.
I continued to apply for and was appointed to management positions. Having managed bars and 24 hour greasy spoons at University I possessed the basic ability to lead small teams and write coherent, sometimes well crafted memos. It is only now that I’ve officially begun referring to myself as a writer that I see how important that skill has been in my pilgrim’s progress.
Graham Greene lamented his time as an intelligence officer in Africa partly because he was had to churn out official reports. It nearly killed his writing he said. I can attest to that. Every industry has its culture and supporting jargon. And development-speak is obtuse and constipated. Not as ridiculous as academic English but much worse than freshman creative writing. At University you’d find quite a few historians (my area of specialty) who could actually tell a good story as well as make a critical point. But in all my years in development I did not come across a single piece of official writing that jumped off the page and made me want to read on. It may have been clear and well argued but it was never scintillating.
I copied the style. I began inserting words and phrases into my reports that seemed to be part of the aid worker zeitgeist. I’d refer to people aridly by their titles not their names. I tried to strip all emotion out of my sentences but couldn’t resist marshaling scads of adjectives. When I wrote advocacy my earnestness was as visible as the whiteout. I thought it wasn’t bad but in retrospect and in recollection it must have been awful. But evidently it was better writing then that of many of my colleagues. My ability to put words together was the one area of my professional life where I never lacked confidence.
But like Graham Greene I too chafed at what I was churning out. It was like porridge coming out of a meat grinder. To keep myself sane I would spend weekends and evenings writing other things, mostly first chapters of abandoned novels. I got a couple articles published in journals here and there but until I wrote the first draft of my first novel, which was inspired by Sadat from Iran’s story, I had never imagined that writing could be anything other than therapy and office memos.
Another interesting thing about those years was that I had any time to write at all. I say I wrote on the weekends and evenings. But I also wrote during work hours keeping my left thumb and finger ready to hit ‘command’ + ‘tab’ and bring up a spreadsheet every time I sensed my boss ambling by. As my career progressed I was surprised to discover that my days very often had huge chunks of dead time when I could think of nothing to do except write.
This discovery made me uncomfortable. Surely I was could be doing more. Should be doing more. I felt incompetent and disloyal. Everyone else complained about the long hours and how much work they had and here I was, their manager, writing the first draft of a short story. There were certainly long periods of intense activity when it really was ‘head down bum up’. Yet, the many idle hours in my day remain one of the mysterious features of my professional experience.
Was I unique? Perhaps I was really good at doing the bare minimum to survive. Perhaps I was a genius and could do in 3 hours what others took 10 to complete. Maybe that was why I was a manager. I don’t know. But if I had to put money on it I would say I was not alone. And that many others were wasting time or filling time or passing time in non-official ways. Which gets one thinking about the concept of efficiency and cost effectiveness. NGOs are notoriously under resourced and over stretched. Why then did we have so much time to fritter?
Over the years the discomfort increased. I felt genuine guilt for not spending all of my official hours in meetings, making calls, thinking of new arguments in favour of aid effectiveness or, composing long emails with intelligent sounding insights. About 7-8 years ago the urge to write was so strong I had to force myself to pay attention and do the work for which my employer was paying me. It was a daily battle. I’d rush through my official responsibilities each morning and then a little after lunch slip luxuriously, as if into a warm bath, back to my latest piece.
This wasn’t right. I knew that. But I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stop writing. It was through writing that I made sense of my world. To cease and desist was as impossible as not breathing. Cognitive dissonance became a significant feature of my world.
In 1994 I found myself out of the UN and employed as Deputy Country Director for a British NGO in Angola. The country was in a weird state of semi-permanent war. Luanda the capital was bustling but dilapidated and Huambo, where I spent much of my time, was a shell shocked ghost town. I had broken up with Yvonne several months earlier and was very unhappy. I had to lead meetings in Portuguese, a language I had been given a mere 6 weeks of intensive instruction in. My boss was the truest of true development believers. I wanted to impress him but knew nothing of community development.
My writing was not yet causing problems for me professionally. In fact, I wasn’t doing much writing at all at the time. It was only years later that I was able to write a short story about Angola, a story that no one thought was any good. Fair enough. The story was no good because Angola was no good. It was here that I experienced my professional ‘dark night of the soul’.