If you had to leave Nairobi for two weeks, and there’s a tropical island paradise just an hour away by plane, why wouldn’t you go there? That’s how I ended up in Zanzibar with my friends. I always love meeting new people and hearing their stories, but a few of the ones I’ve met here will remain with me.
At, and veritably surrounding our hotel in Kendwa, were numerous Italians on a package holiday to Zanzibar. Of course, we met numerous Australians, the most well-travelled and laid-back people on the Earth. You don’t hear many other people say something like, “We only have three weeks left, which doesn’t give us much time. We really think we can only fit in one more country and even then it won’t be a proper visit.” I love their wanderlust. The obligatory Germans are here. (They love the beach as much as me! I can’t recall an international beach trip without Germans.) The French, Dutch, Estonians, and Swedes are here on four to six weeks of holiday, too.
And then there are the others: the Belgians with their three young children who have lived in Africa for nine years, the last five of those in Burundi working for the military police and a French school; and especially the English girl who has been on a contract in South Sudan for two years. She gets a break every three months, but this time it’s been four months since her last time off. Count that up and you realize she spent Christmas 2012 working in a refugee camp.
Through some comedic travel misadventures, my friends wound up at a different hotel than me the second week of our trip, and I told them about the English aide worker.
Me: “She’s really nice. I invited her to join us, but I think she just needs some time to decompress.”
Friends: “Oh. Why does she need so much time by herself?”
Me: “She’s been working in a refugee camp for four months straight.”
Friends: “Wow. Intense.”
After four days of peace and rest, the aide worker and I had a chance to chat at the end of the pier over a glass of wine at sunset. We’re both envious of the Belgian kiddos growing up in Africa. We’re grateful we don’t have any allergies (except poison ivy for me) and we attribute it to being exposed to lots of good germs as kids. We think the Belgian kids will grow up with immune systems forged from iron! And we both think refugee camps are the most awful places on Earth. And that the media doesn’t tell people about them because the truth is just too awful, unsexy and hopeless. To be honest, I’ve never been to a refugee camp nor do I want to visit one. I saw an International Red Cross/Red Crescent video from a refugee camp and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched. It’s not like the overly-edited commercials you see at midnight of one hungry child and an aide organization asking you to make a difference in the life of just one child. These are entire families, entire towns relocated for years to a “temporary camp” where they have to rely on donated food and water; refugee camps are thousands of people begging and fighting for food, water and dignity. Think of how differently you act after you’ve been away from home for a few days and you find out your flight home is delayed or something similar. Imagine than same feeling magnified times one thousand with no hope of ever seeing your home again and then think of how you’ll act. Intense, right?
I’m grateful to people like this aide worker and to the Belgian family. I’m grateful that they are able to provide hope and peace to those they serve, no matter how fleeting. I know with certainty that it is not a burden easily shouldered and I doubt I could do so. I feel privileged to have met them and shared such a peaceful space with them.
The organization the English worker is affiliated with is SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL,- a French NGO that for 30 years has quietly worked to improve health conditions for those displaced by conflict. Their site hasn’t been translated to English yet, but if your curious you can check it out here: http://www.solidarites.org/en/. If you want anything translated, let me know and I’ll give it a go.
Anyone want to volunteer to think of (better) post titles for my blog?