Huambo, Angola sits in the lush high country of southwestern Africa. During the days of Portuguese colonial occupation it was the second city of Angola and known as Nova Lisboa. Several factories, including a VW assembly plant, and the country’s main Agriculture Institute were set up in the city.
In 1994, the city was a battleground for government and UNITA forces. The rebels controlled the city which was completely derelict: buildings pockmarked by mortal shells, streets gutted with potholes, electricity and water supplies a convenience long forgotten. NGO workers and stray dogs were the most visible residents. And there weren’t too many of us, perhaps 50 tops, driving around the silent streets in our white Toyota pickups.
Whenever I visited I stayed with my small team of nurses in a gutted building where the bedroom windows were nothing more than smudgy plastic and the shower a red plastic bucket and rain water. We cooked our meals on an open flame and after dinner sat around sipping beer and playing cards. Kerosene lanterns were our only source of light.
UNITA, a nasty rabble of ‘rebels’ led by a West-backed ‘Dr.’ named Jonas Savimbi, patrolled the city, though the evil Doctor himself was headquartered about 50 kms outside of town. NGO workers were sometimes kidnapped and then murdered. I recall one inter-agency meeting where we discussed the gruesome agenda item of how to respond to the discovery of two local NGO staff, dead, at the bottom of a Huambo well.
The sun rose early in Huambo. One morning before 600 I was woken by the most beautiful male choir singing in a style that reminded me of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Acapella, tight male harmonies. I jumped up to see what was going on. As I pushed aside the plastic window I caught sight of a platoon of UNITA soldiers jogging by on morning parade, singing like a band of angels.
This memory is one I will cherish forever. It was no more than 45 seconds of sound but it touched me deeply, especially because this snippet of beautiful music was so far removed from the hate and horror of war from which it came.
I recalled that memory a few days ago and realised, not for the first time, how grateful I am for having had a career in international aid. Not because I feel proud of ‘helping’ people or ‘having made a contribution’–I think readers of this blog know by now that I am sceptical of any such claims made on behalf of international aid workers–but for what I received from the people met and places I worked on 4 continents.
The aid business not just allowed me but actually paid me to see the world. I may not have made much money during my ‘field days’ but I was always conscious that if I included all the paid travel I did I would have been in a much higher tax bracket indeed. Being able to spend time in places like Huambo, North Korea, Iraq, Tajikistan, Solomon Islands and even Oxford have made my life so much richer than if I had pursued my imagined dream career as a lecturer in Indian History.
Out-of-the-way places and countries that I grew up believing were ‘forbidden’ or behind some sort of ‘curtain’ fascinated me from a young age. What was China really like? Who was this Enver Xoxha and what was his country Albania like? Could you listen to rock and roll in Russia? Later, when I was dealing with Iraqi refugees, I wanted more than anything to visit Iraq and see for myself how wide the Euphrates was when it flowed through Baghdad.
Being an aid worker has given me the opportunity to visit or work in all of these countries and many more. I have had conversations on world politics and Michael Jackson with North Korean ‘minders’ while driving around their country doing a nutrition assessment. I’ve sipped endless cups of sweet tea and repeatedly toasted every possible thing under the sun with Iraqi peshmarga in the dusty, landmine-ridden mountains of Kurdistan. I’ve celebrated Christmas with a bottle of beer and hot paneer pakoras in Sikkim while gazing through the crystal blue sky at Kanchenjunga. I’ve heard a band of angels sing in a war zone.
When I look back to my University years these experiences would have struck the younger version of me as absolutely ‘out of reach’. Impossible. Not that I didn’t want to experience them. I just had no idea that such experiences even existed. And certainly, not the foggiest how to have them.
I am a strong believer in the Universe. I used to call it God but don’t any longer. I only know that there is an Intelligence around us that gives form to our deepest desires, even if we ourselves are not yet conscious of them.
While at University, I wrote many letters back home to my parents in India, in which I expressed a vaguely imagined but relentless desire to live an international life. A life I could only articulate as ‘adventurous’. And the only vision I had for such a life was to teach Indian History at a small liberal arts college!
Through an incredible series of coincidences, some of which I’ve described in earlier parts of this blog, I found myself ‘an aid worker’. It wasn’t until several years into the career that it dawned on me just how beautifully the Universe had answered that deep desire of mine to live an ‘adventurous overseas life’. Not just beautifully but with so much more sophistication, intensity and suitability to my character. Far more and far better than I was able to imagine way back then.
For this and for the all the places and people I’ve been able to visit as an aid worker I am and will alway be grateful and blessed.