Sitting with a cappuccino and a Cretan breakfast in the beautiful and most importantly peaceful city of Rethymno just reminds me how the world is incompatible. Breakfast here costs 11 euros. About a third of the 23thousand naira given to a family of 7+ members to cover food needs during a cash-out in Maiduguri. Nutrition needs are painstakingly calculated to make sure donor money are not wasted. They say there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.
I landed in Maiduguri in early September. A hot and dusty town dotted with yellow Keke Napep, a sea of refugees, bullet shot marks, and pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns. Young men dressed up in military kakis manned a seemingly endless stream of checkpoints. Young men looking fierce with deadly weapons, smiling like children at a wave. Hard to believe they were the ones fighting Boko Haram. That they would ensure my safety. Together with the barbed wire around my house, the 8pm curfew and the 18y.o. guard. An illusion I learned to embrace, even as news of suicide bombers and attacks all around steadily streamed in. I learnt much, including that the life of a humanitarian has nothing of the glamour I thought it did only six months ago.
It had all taken a rather quick and unexpected turn. One day I was going about my day to day in London, the other, I was rushed off my feet, derailing my life and relationships, reading about the latest Boko Haram attacks and starring at a huge red dot on the travel advice map where NE Nigeria stands. Preparing my first humanitarian kit. T-shirts not too revealing from Camden Market. Check. Torchlight for all those power cuts. Check. Boots. Hard drive with movies to last me a year. Pills to last me a lifetime. Check. Check and check.
There were many lists flying around. Of things I’d need, and friends’ advice.
Take personal items to remind you that you have a life, and connections back home; Set up specific regular times to connect with loved ones, to share stories of good and hard times; Establish a buddy system with someone who will have your back at all times; Never leave your room without money and your passport. A calamity can happen at any time; It is good if you can learn the language, but most importantly learn the recent history of the place: politics, power relations, ethnic groups; Observe men and women around you by looking them in the eyes. This is both to acknowledge them as human and to be able to know them in case it all goes down; Mix your own drinks.
The first distribution I went to was in Galtimari. I was curious and excited to be’in the field’. Pockets of people gathered under the few trees offering a bit of respite from the scorching African sun. Refugees will spend hours and hours waiting for what is now their lifeline. Yes, some will try to cheat the system. Try to cash out twice. Try to push forward one’s own kin. Wouldn’t I? We go around prioritising one household over another on the number of goats and children, to the point that people stop buying animals and look at making kids as an income generating activity.
Five minutes out of the car and I am surrounded. At first, children trickle in. Curious to see the white girl up close. Few at first and then more and more. Then their mothers. I feel intimidated as one voice is joined by another and another. They speak to me in Kanuri and I am told that they are pleading. Pleading for a place on our highly sophisticated distribution list. They are the real refugees they say, owning only the clothes on their backs. They are among the 1.6 million people humanitarian assistance is not reaching.
On another day, an old man. I wonder if old by age or from the treck of leaving behind his life in a now conflict-torn village. He takes my hand shyly and says nagoudi with teary eyes. He’s also not among our beneficiaries. But his neighbor is. And every night they share their food with him.
It puts everything into perspective. Confinement. Frustrations. Choices along the way. For there is much I learned, lost and gained.