Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars there has been a distinct increase in kidnappings of Aid Workers for ransom (which seems a bit daft if you ask me – we earn very little, and most of our governments don’t negotiate with terrorists and wont pay ransoms, so they are really barking up the wrong tree if you ask me.) So, this led me to think about some of the situations I have been in and thanking my lucky stars that I have come out in one piece.
I haven’t been to Afghanistan or Iraq (although I was – jokingly, I think – offered a job in Iraq while I was in Kyrgyzstan, but I just laughed it off, especially after being told that the team there pretty much live in what can only be described as cages and are pretty isolated from the outside world. I think that might drive me slightly bonkers in a very short space of time.)
Ivory Coast #1
Considering I was only in Ivory Coast for a couple of weeks, I had quite an eventful time. Well, I was in the rebel-held north of the country.
I was going to a community to interview a group of girls about how one of our projects had affected their lives as part of an assessment I was doing of the overall project. I went to the community with the project team and a trainee, who was on a 6-month placement. When we arrived there was a pretty large crowd gathered, especially considering that we were just going to interview a group of about 10 girls. When we got out of the car we could sense that there was some tension. A rumour had circulated that we were going to deliver food aid…Uh oh…This can only lead to trouble…
The village elders came over to greet us, and then along stumbled a guy who was pretty wasted, sweaty and all over the place demanding food. Situations like this can escalate very quickly. The elders told the guy to move away and that we were not here to bring food. We were ushered into a grass hut where the group of girls were waiting. The wasted guy followed us in. In these situations so many things run through your mind…I was concerned about the safety of the girls who had gathered to speak with us, about the trainee, and about the project team and the community in general.
The guy got all up in the face of the project officer, ranting at her, foaming at the mouth, demanding to know why we hadn’t bought food and why did we want to speak to girls? What good was that?? We were ushered in to the hut next door to get away from the guy, while the elders dealt with him. As we were in the hut, he tried to enter, and the girls who we were there to meet surrounded us and surrounded the hut and totally squared up to him and refused to let him in. One girl held my hand and looked reassuringly at me, as if to say ‘We’ll protect you’. Oh the sweet irony of it. The next thing we heard was the Elders shouting at the guy and beating him with a stick and him then stumbling off, shouting. We were advised by the elders to leave the village and go to a health post near to the road (about a mile away) in case he came back with a gun or a gang of armed men. So we and the girls made our way to the health post (a small 2 room clinic), and continued with our work, complete with one girl’s pet mongoose and a farting baby. When we finished the focus group discussion with the girls, the Village Chief came over to see if we were ok, and how it had all gone, and we asked him if things were ok in the village; he smiled broadly, raised his staff and said “Don’t you worry, I know his father” and laughed heartily with a cheeky glint in his eye.
Ivory Coast #2:
Like I said, my time in Ivory Coast was quite eventful! I was a bit nervous about going to Ivory Coast as part of this assessment because I don’t speak very much French. I can just about say Hello and ask for a cup of tea and that’s it. But, it was part of an assessment that covered 3 countries in the area, so off I trotted.
As I said previously, I had a trainee with me and she spoke pretty good French, so she translated for me while I worked.
The Protection Team were in the process of starting a youth parliament and trying to get it established in the rebel-held north of the country. A group of 4 teenagers came from the capital to the area to introduce the idea to local youth and to local influential’s, one of whom was the NGO liaison from the rebels (yes, they actually had an NGO liaison officer LOL). I should add that this was not part of the assessment I was working on, but that day I had no meetings so I went along out of interest.
So we went to meet this guy in a compound that was full of men in uniforms with guns. Everyone is talking to him, except me; I’m pretty quiet – then he comes over to me and asks why I’m not speaking (I think the question was ‘is she dumb?”) My colleague explains that I don’t speak much French and that’s why she is translating – So the guy pulls out a knife and holds it to my throat, and tells a room full of teenagers (well all 4 of them) that he should slit my throat for having the audacity to come to this country and not speak French. One of the girls is totally freaked (and with good reason; it had taken her all her courage to go in there in the 1st place)….For some reason I just laugh, and then he starts laughing and removes the knife away from my throat…
A few days later, I see the same guy in a restaurant where we’re having lunch, and he comes over to me and says in perfect English “Have you learnt to speak French yet?” and laughs!
There are a couple more, but I think I will save these for another day….
Abidjan, Ivory Coast