Category Archives: how do I work this?

It was never about Haiti

Back around the time that I got too busy to regularly stop, reflect, and write, I came across a thoughtful post on aid work in Haiti by Quinn Zimmerman called “The Aid Bitchslap.” I cross-posted it, and then, coincidentally, I stopped blogging due to time constraints. So Quinn’s post has been on my homepage for a very long time. I’m trying to find the time and energy to blog again, but in the meantime, Quinn emailed to let me know he’d written a follow-up to that first post. He’s put some space between himself and his Haiti experience, and it’s a good reflection. Here’s a taste. You can read the rest on Quinn’s blog.

“My first months in Haiti were lived unquestioned. I made friends, I explored the country, I fell in love and drank and danced and swam the Caribbean and made a fool of myself in any interaction with the locals because I could not speak Kreyol and had no background in French, the country’s original colonial language upon which Kreyol is based. It was, in many respects, the happiest period of my life. It was also the period during which, in August 2010, I met James Fortil.  A young man near my age who had come to Leogane from Gonaives, James worked with All Hands as a local volunteer in 2008 on another project in Haiti, and was returning to do the same again. Possessing a basic knowledge of English but stronger in Spanish (a language I also speak) given the few years he’d spent in the neighboring Dominican Republic, James and I bridged the communication gap, and he became my first true Haitian friend. In doing so, the process of a deeper, more personal understanding into the nature of Haiti and her people began, and so too the unraveling of my honeymoon with the country, with the work, with the people, and ultimately, with myself.
The process was a slow one. It came gradually, in those rare moments of silent contemplation, which given the nature of the base, and the constant attention that came from the locals upon leaving it, was hard to find. It came in drunken half-remembered conversations with James at the local watering hole (dubbed Little Venice given it sat on a drainage ditch), in which, tongue loosened by the alcohol, he would expose some of the fears and doubts he had about his future. It came in starting to feel disconnected from many of the newer volunteers, focusing most of my attentions on the long-termers, or, occasionally, on a pretty short-termer that made tent time more enjoyable. Mostly, it came from the gradual fading of the rush of being where I was. When the sensational transitions into the normal, and the normal is every day there, and you in it, you cannot help but begin to see things through a different lens. The rose-tinted glasses begin to slip. This was not a process unique to me. The discussions we had about Haiti were of two entirely different qualities depending on who was having them: the newer internationals fresh with excitement and seeing beauty in all things, and the long-termers engaging the cynical side of their characters. In retrospect, it was so cliché as to be embarrassing. In retrospect, many things.”

The Aid Bitchslap

Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”


Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman

(cross-posted with his permission)

“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.

Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.

I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.

I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.

“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.

We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.

We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.

“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.

Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:

1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.

I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.

If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.

Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.

Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.

Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.

It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.

Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.

See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.

Katniss and Agency

I haven’t followed all the hype and I haven’t read the book, but I did go to see the Hunger Games movie. And I thought it was pretty good. A lot of people were celebrating the fact that the main character was female and the book was written by a woman.

Then I read an article called “What’s Wrong with the Hunger Games is What No One Noticed” saying that all of us feminist women had been duped. That Katniss, the main character, was not strong at all, and she was just a new version of an old female fairy tale character that appeared strong, but that in reality, it was still all about her clothes and what boy she would pick, and that all the choices around her were made for her by men, and that she had no agency.

The article got me thinking, and quite a bit. And though I do see the author’s points, I related to Katniss’ character differently. The phrase “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency. I saw her as doing what a lot of us women (and men) do: playing the game just enough to get by; recognizing that we are playing the game; retaining our dignity and values whilst appearing to play along; and carefully picking our battles in terms of those times when we refuse to play at allbecause seriously, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to fight everything all the time. It can be exhausting.

The Hunger Games is reflective of the world we actually live in, not a film about the world we’d ideally like to live in.

In this world, the powers that be force us to play the game. We can stupidly play it, without thinking; we can buy into the commercialism, the sexism, the racism, the violence and the consumerism, with no regard to what is going on around us and no reflection on what we are doing… Or we can consciously recognize our own frustration that our values and principles are not reflected in the game, yet see that we are not strong enough individually to massively change it, and we have to navigate and negotiate within the system while keeping ourselves and our values intact if we want to survive. We have to find ways to work around the system, to confront it when we can’t take it anymore and to exploit those times that we see chinks in its armor. We also need to find allies to join hands with to help us survive and change things. We need to be smart sometimes and approach those who already hold power but have not totally been consumed by the system and its [evil] ways. Or find people who have infiltrated the system but haven’t sold out to it — and maybe we ourselves are those who have infiltrated but not sold out or sold out fully. Sometimes, though  rare, we can convince power holders that the system needs to change. Or through stealth, smarts or just plain ethics, we can force systemic change. This is how revolutions and social change happen.

Once the Games started, Katniss disappeared from the fray. I didn’t see this as weak or lacking agency. Instead, she decided to leave the scene and wait things out as long as possible. This was a strategic decision and a smart individual survival tactic (yes, suggested to her by a man, but so what?), but it was also an avoidance tactic. I saw her as rejecting the game itself and the violence and competition that most of the rest of the group embraced. She distanced herself from it and refused to play. As often happens in real life, she’s punished by ‘the system’ (with fireballs and other manufactured obstacles) to force her back into the game. (Notably it’s another smart and creative woman who creates the situations that force Katniss back into the game. And yes, most of these situations are in the hands of men and being directed by men, but that’s kind of how the real world works these days and has for centuries, isn’t it?)

Katniss opened herself up to alliances with other players in the game. She did this not to aggressively kill as some of the other youth who formed alliances did, but rather for mutual support and patient survival. The last thing ‘the system’ wants is people organizing and supporting each other to reject it, it prefers to pit people against each other, to foster mistrust. Katniss didn’t engage with others in that way. She opened up to Rue on the basis of trust. We see her flipping back and forth with regard to Peeta and it’s fairly obvious that she is feigning a storybook lovestory to the mass media and outside world in order to survive and game the system by momentarily giving it what it wants, yet also forming an underlying friendship with Peeta based on trust. (NB: I was reminded of People Magazine covers and survival tactics of stars whose fame is ebbing – give the public what they want. I’m also aware that mainstream media has hyped up and sexified the actress who played Katniss. I haven’t been following the Hunger Games collateral but I’ll assume we have happy meals and clothing and other such crap… and there is the ridiculousness of this… which kind of proves my point about the world we actually live in and the evil systems we can’t get away from…)

Early in the movie it was clear that Katniss hadn’t bought into the Hunger Games. She wasn’t friendly or likeable. She’s living in a man’s world and the women in that world are relegated to roles of fashion, emotional overreactions, false statements and bad make up. The men are evil manipulating power seekers in most cases. People are pitted against each other. It’s dog-eat-dog.

But it seemed to me that Katniss, as a smart young woman, recognized all of this. She didn’t want to play the game but understood that to survive and keep the values and goals that she had in life — her love for her sister and her own survival — she needed to appear to be playing by the rules of the Game. My sense throughout the film is that she does so with a clear understanding of what she is doing, and she has not sold out, she’s kept true to herself. That is real agency and internal strength. She refuses to kill, perhaps a harder thing than joining into the violent game young people are forced to engage in. She shows us that we can reject that world and that system we don’t wish to belong to. We can find like-minded people and together move, struggle and survive within the mainstream systems that are destroying us as a whole and, one hopes, eventually change or topple them. Sometimes we can even game those systems using guerrilla tactics because the systems do not expect us to maintain our values, ethics and solidarity, because those running them think we are not smart or strong enough to overcome, or because the systems don’t understand us or our way of thinking.

At a personal level, I related to Katniss. I often feel trapped in systems whose values I don’t share and whose games I don’t want to play. I prefer to reject these systems and play by my own rules when possible. When I get tired enough of fighting, or I know I simply can’t win because the system is too big, I’ll bypass it, ignore it, avoid it as much as possible, and do my own thing, or just curl up mentally into a fetal position and let it kick me, knowing inside that it may think it has won, but it hasn’t because I’ve held to my values and been true to myself, and once I’ve regrouped, and when it’s least expected, I’ll be back, hopefully with some other like-minded people.

We all take something different from books and films. We bring their messages into our own experiences. I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency, I saw her as living out the struggle that many of us do and making choices I could relate to within the limited space that was available to her.

Love the way you lie

I’m pleased to feature the fabulous “J,” (retired formerly of Tales from the Hood blogger blog) guest posting here on Shotgun Shack….

I used to think it was up to INGOs to voluntarily be more truthful and accurate in their marketing, more forthcoming with information about program challenges and even failures, and less prone to simplistic, dumbed-down public messaging. It used to really annoy me every time a marketer would go on about how if we don’t “hook” the donor in the first 15 seconds we lose them, or how donors don’t want to hear that aid is complex and difficult, that aid successes are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as our glossy direct mail and interactive websites make it all seem.

But now, I dunno.

Maybe I’m just jaded. Or cynical. But I seriously doubt that the aid industry is going to voluntarily make fundamental changes to the way it talks about what it does. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think that maybe this kind of change will have to be driven by donors themselves.

* * * * *

Eminem’s controversial 2010 duet with Rihanna, and even more controversial music video captures a theme with which many of us are familiar: the smart, beautiful woman who, against all apparent logic, just cannot bring herself to walk away from an abusive, violent, perhaps deadbeat partner.

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s alright because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

* * * * *

Throughout my own career in the aid industry, it has on many occasions been my job to take private donors to the field, either to see projects that they’d already supported or projects that my employer of the day hoped they would support. In every instance, without exception, I found myself in the field with people who had been mis-educated about relief and development work by marketers. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed removing the wool from their eyes, in some cases forcibly. I held back nothing about the context, likely impact, sustainability prospects, complexity, difficulty, and so on. I did my best to make sure that they had as clear and complete a picture of what was going on — the good, the bad and the ugly — as possible. In every case their time at the project site with me showed them a picture that contrasted starkly with what they’d been led to believe about how their money made or would make a difference. In some cases they were shocked to learn what we actually did with their money.

But in no instance, ever, did any one of them say, “I think you guys are a bunch of crooks. I’ll be donating elsewhere after this…”, or “This development thing is a lot of bullsh!t. I’m done as a donor.”

* * * * *

I’m not calling anyone person a liar. Not NGO marketing or comms or PR people. I think that the instances in which NGOs tell outright untruths are extremely rare. But I absolutely believe that the gravitational pull of the aid industry is towards painting a picture for its donors of what it does that is un-nuanced and incomplete enough to be untrue. And we continue to paint this picture because our private donors continue to insist on it.

Donors: you have the power to make this better. You have the power to insist that we tell you what we’re really doing. Based on my own experience, I believe that if we get the chance to tell you, you’ll still support us because good aid makes good sense and you’re smart people. But you seem to be addicted to a fake version. I don’t know why, but you love the way we lie.

Bullets, beads and CDs

A former neighbor of mine has a Lesbian Christmas Party every year and she invites a few current and past neighbors. If I happen to be in town, I go. It’s a catered party with fantastic food, lots of good drinks and a high energy, extremely competitive Yankee Swap.

A Yankee Swap is not a Midwestern thing, I’m pretty certain it’s of East Coast origin. The way my old neighbor does it is that everyone brings a wrapped gift of around $20-25 and places it under the tree. After everyone’s pretty sauced up, numbers are drawn out of a hat. Whoever gets #1 picks a gift, opens it, shows it around, and sits down. Then whoever has the highest number goes next. That person picks a gift, opens it, shows it around, and has the option of keeping the gift or switching it with the gift picked by person #1. It goes on down the line till you get back to #1, with each person picking a gift, opening it, showing it around and then deciding if they will keep their gift, or swap it for a gift that someone else has picked. At the end, #1 gets to swap whatever he or she has for any gift in the room.

Normally the Swap gets pretty out of hand. My neighbor plays MC, calling out what the gifts are, hustling people along, reminding people who has what, and generally getting folks riled up. So there’s some rowdiness. People hide things. There is generally a lot of hooting and laughing.

Customarily, certain gifts carry the party. One year it was a tool belt. Another year it was a waffle iron. Whoever has one of the prized gifts knows they won’t have it for long, because someone else will draw something boring and swap it for the coveted item and they will get left with the dud. If you have the Wonder Woman Snuggie but someone down the line unwraps some Tupperware, you can guess what you’re going to be left with.

This year, the swap starts. And it’s really really tame. Disappointingly so. No one is stealing anyone’s gift. There’s minimal competition. It’s not as crazy loud as it usually is.

So I think, ‘I need to do my part to get this party started.’ I pick a gift, open it, and it’s a couple pairs of fuzzy socks. All devious like, I think ‘I’m stealing that nice bottle of Kahlua over there.’ Never mind that my old neighbor has been announcing that particular gift bag as ‘bullets, beads and CDs’ — my eyes are on the Kahlua portion of it.

So I make a show of going across the room to change my boring gift for the Kahlua. ‘These socks are great! But I’m switching them for this!’

‘Ohhh! She’s going for the bullets, beads and CDs!’ shrieks my fairly tipsy former neighbor to some applause and cheering.

I take the gift bag and go back to my seat on the sofa to relish that nice bottle of Kahlua and see what else might be in there…. And…. Well….

As you might notice, it’s not Kahlua at all. It’s chili chocolate beer. And it’s not anything like the bullets or beads I might have imagined. It’s anal beads, a vibrating bullet and a Marvin Gaye CD so you can get your sexy on. Aha. So that’s why she kept saying ‘bullets, beads and CDs.’ I feel my face turning a bit red as I sit hoping maybe someone will eventually want to swap with me and thinking that from here on out I’ll be known as the kinky former neighbor….

So, the moral of the story, I suppose, is that things are never quite what you think they are.

So pay attention, or you may just end up with the anal beads!

Call for guest posts on aid worker identity

This is a call for guest posts on the topic of aid worker identity. I’d like to pull in some links to existing posts or invite you (readers) to submit guest posts around your experiences as an aid or development worker in terms of identity while living and working ‘in the field’, particularly in relation to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class or anything else that strikes you as important.

So, as an aid or development worker….

  • How do you conceive of, negotiate and construct your identity when living and working in a community that is not your own?
  • How do you make sense of your identity when facing the disparity in resources between you and the communities you’re living in?
  • How are aspects of your identity as an aid worker viewed by the local community as compared to your home community, for example how are aspects of gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity identities viewed ‘here’ as opposed to ‘there?”

Selected blog or opinion pieces submitted will be posted here on Shotgun Shack as a series of guest posts. You are free to post using a pseudonym/ anonymously or using your real name. If you’d like to share your experiences but not post them publicly that is also fine – you can send me a private email with your experiences and indicate that you do not wish to go public on the blog.

These submissions would be used as part of research for a PhD that Kaisa Wilson is working on at Edinburgh University. Kaisa contacted me via Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like and said some of the SEAWL posts are quite helpful in pulling in more nuanced and qualitative aspects of aid worker identity. She asked if I could invite some posts on the above topic for my blog via the network of folks that read SEAWL.

In terms of Kaisa’s research, any submissions would be used for the PhD research and /or any articles or conferences that might come out of that. Kaisa would not include any details that could potentially identify those who are submitting and anonymity will be preserved. Submissions (either by blog post or if you decide to send something by email and don’t wish for it to be published) would be added to interviews that Kaisa is conducting to form part of the body of research.

If you would like to participate, please cut and paste the following paragraph on to the bottom of your blog post to indicate that you consent to Kaisa using it for her PhD:

By pasting this paragraph below my posting I am indicating that (1) I agree to my posting being used for the purposes of this PhD; (2) questions about my participation in this study have been answered satisfactorily; (3) I am willing to take part in this study.

If you have any questions or want to send in a submission for this little project, please email me at shotgunshackblog[at] Alternately, you can contact Kaisa directly at kaisawilson[at] If you would like a copy of the final research results, Kaisa will make them available to you.

Thanks and hope to see a few submissions or links to existing post on aid worker identity! I think this is a super interesting topic and one that can generate some good discussion and thinking.

Plateau: the self-loathing aid worker’s theme song

Joining in on Tales from the Hood’s Rock n Roll Marathon, I offer you Plateau, which could be the Self Loathing Aid Worker’s theme song.

Originally written by the Meat Puppets and covered on Nirvana’s Unplugged, this song was not written about aid and development at all of course, but I like metaphors, and Cobain perfectly captures the self-loathing aid worker’s angst.


Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belonged to strangers, some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills, and shake the many hands

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it was fun

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Many a hand began to scan around for the next plateau
Some say it was Greenland, and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn’t help you if they could

Doin Surveyz…

Doin Surveyz.... Photo courtesy of

The aid and development blogosphere has grown over the past few years. So…  it’s time to find out a little bit more about who is reading this type of blog and what readers are interested in.

A number of bloggers have gotten together to create a joint survey of readers: please take it here. It’s short and anonymous.

After you take the survey, please tweet it, blog it, or otherwise share it with others who read aid and development blogs.

Much appreciated!

(Go check out for a few laughs.)

Teen Angst

I don’t live in London, so I’m not in a position to understand the context of the London Riots like those in the thick of things can. Like many though, I’m watching and thinking about why they happened now, what caused them, how they are similar or different from other recent (and future) ‘uprisings’ of youth, and what they mean in the larger scheme of things.

Sometimes you can’t capture a reason with words alone, and maybe there is no reasonable or tangible explanation for what is happening. But a few songs come to mind that do a good job of conveying that feeling of (sometimes pointless) teen angst…. I imagine many other songs could be added. (Send links and lyrics and I’ll grow the playlist….)

Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, 1976

“I am an anti-christ
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want but
I know how to get it
I wanna destroy the passer by cos I

I wanna BE anarchy!

Anarchy for the U.K it’s coming sometime and maybe

I give a wrong time stop a traffic line
your future dream is a shopping scheme

cos I, I wanna BE anarchy!
In the city

How many ways to get what you want
I use the best I use the rest
I use the enemy
I use anarchy cos I wanna be anarchy.”

London Calling by the Clash, 1977

“London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don’t look to us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing”

Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth, 1988

“It better work out

I hope it works out my way
‘Cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head
Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now”

Smells like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, 1991

“With the lights out

It’s less dangerous

Here we are now

Entertain us”

Geezers Need Excitement by the Streets, 2002

“Geezerz need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense
Geezerz need excitement
if their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense”

World Town by M.I.A. 2007

“Yo dont be calling me desperate
When i’m knocking on the door
Every wall you build i’ll knock it down to the floor
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me
See me see me bubbling quietly
See me see me acting like you ain’t met me

Hands up
Guns out
Represent the world town”

Killing in the Name by Rage against the Machine, 1993

“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”


We’re not gonna Take It by Twisted Sister, 1984 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“We’re not gonna take it

No, we’re not gonna take it

We’re not gonna take it anymore”

Fight for your Right to Party by the Beastie Boys, 1986 (suggested by @talesfromthhood)

“You gotta fight for your right to party”

Party for your Right to Fight by Public Enemy, 1988

“Power, equality
And we’re out to get it
I know some of you ain’t wid it
This party started right in ’66
With a pro-Black radical mix
Then at the hour of twelve
Some force cut the power
And emerged from hell
It was your so called government
That made this occur
Like the grafted devils they were”

I Predict a Riot by Kaiser Chiefs, 2004 (suggested by @catg89)

“I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I predict a riot, I predict a riot

I tried to get to my taxi

A man in a tracksuit attacked me

He said that he saw it before me

Wants to get things a bit gory

Girls scrabble around with no clothes on

To borrow a pound for a condom

If it wasn’t for chip fat, they’d be frozen

They’re not very sensible”

Panic by the Smiths, 1986 (suggested by @ithorpe)

“Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again ?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself
Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down
To the safety of the town
But there’s Panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside
I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play

White Man in Hammersmith Palais by the Clash, 1977 (suggested by @paulclammer)

“White youth, black youth

Better find another solution

Why not phone up Robin Hood

and ask him for some wealth distribution.”

April 26, 1992 by Sublime, 1996 (suggested by @michaelkbusch)

“April 26th, 1992,
there was a riot on the streets,
tell me where were you?
You were sittin’ home watchin’ your TV,
while I was paticipatin’ in some anarchy.

First spot we hit it was my liqour store.
I finally got all that alcohol I can’t afford.
With red lights flashin’ time to retire,
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire.

Next stop we hit it was the music shop,
It only took one brick to make that window drop.
Finally we got our own p.a.
Where do you think I got this guitar that you’re hearing today?

Never doin no time

When we returned to the pad to unload everything,
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings.
So once again we filled the van until it was full,
since that day my livin’ room’s been more comfortable.

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here,
It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year.

Some kids went in a store with their mother,
I saw her when she came out she was gettin some pampers.

They said it was for the black man,
they said it was for the mexican,
and not for the white man.

But if you look at the streets it wasn’t about Rodney King,
It’s bout this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.
It’s about coming up and staying on top
and screamin’ 187 on a mother fuckin’ cop.”

Burning down the House by the Talking Heads, 1983 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Watch out, you might get what you’re after

Cool babies, strange but not a stranger

I’m an ordinary guy

Burning down the house”

Baba O Riley by the Who, 1971 (suggested by @viewfromthecave)

“Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland…

(they’re all wasted!)”

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Bauhuas, 1982 (suggested by @meowtree)

“All we ever wanted was everything

All we ever got was cold.

Get up, eat jelly, sandwich bars and barbed wire

Squash every week into a day.

The sound of the drum is calling

The sound of the drum has called

Flash of youth shoot out of darkness

Factory town”

Fire in the Booth by Akala, 2005 (suggested by @telamigo)

“One too many man you know get cut up
One too many man that could’ve been doctors
End up spending their whole life boxed up
You learn, if you study
Its all set out just to make them money
No cover, it’s all about getting poor people to fight with one another
So its logical that us killing our brothers,
Dissin’ our mothers
Is right in line with the dominant philosophy of our time
But time is a cycle, not a line
Comes back around you regain your mind
You be ready for the energy I channel in my rhymes
Remedy the pedigree, the jeopardy of mine
When the world’s this f***ed up, lethargy’s a crime
We can all fight with our brothers over crumbs,
Far harder to fight the one who makes guns
We can all talk sh** and get two dollars
Far harder to be the one who seeks knowledge
If we understood economics
We’d know money’s nothin’
Think nothing of it…”
Jungle by Professor Green ft Maverick Sabre, 2010 (suggested by @telamigo)
“I see no point in living life that right, so I just take what I can find
I see no point in living life that right, when you’re out here in this jungle
It’s wild round ‘ere, you don’t wanna spend a night round ‘ere
When you’re out here in this jungle, ain’t nothing nice round ‘ere
trouble’s what you find round ‘ere….
It’s blitz amidst the strife here
got kids with sticks and knives here
It’s hype here, we know no different prick
It’s just life here
Life from young the way we know from what we’re shown
Stacked trapped in flats where our front doors don’t face the road
God CID spinning round in cars
Shifting criminals at large
it’s hard not to think the bits are just a bing without the bars….”
21st Century Breakdown by Green Day, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)
“… My generation is zero
I never made it
As a working class hero
21st Century Breakdown
I once was lost but never was found
I think I am losing
What’s left of my mind
To the 20th century deadline”
Enter Shikari by Juggernauts, 2009 (suggested by @mforstater)

“…Now don’t get me wrong I love what you done with the place
I just wish we had a chance to help build it
Instead of just moving into this home of disrepair
And expect it to work, prosper and then share
Constantly relying on consuming to feel content
But only because we lost touch with this home that we’ve spent
Trillions of dollars tainting for our wants and not our needs
And now we’re growing tired of planting bleary-eyed seeds

….. And I know that we’ve still got time
But I do not think we’re invincible
And I’m thinking that its a sign
Deep breaths, clentched fists,
Here comes another jug-ger-naut!

The idea of community
Will be something displayed in a museum”


Teenage Angst by Placebo, 1996  (suggested by @manucartoons)
“Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever ever goes my wayOne fluid gesture, like stepping back in time.
Trapped in amber, petrified.
And still not satisfiedAirs and social graces, elocution so divine.
I’ll stick to my needle, and my favourite waste of time,
both spineless and sublime.”Since I was born I started to decay.
Now nothing ever – ever goes my way.
Invincible by Pat Benetar, 1985 (suggested by Leila)
“This shattered dream you cannot justify.
We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied.
What are we running for ? We’ve got the right to be angry.
What are we running for when there’s nowhere we can run to anymore ?
We can’t afford to be innocent
stand up and face the enemy.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.
And with the power of conviction there is no sacrifice.
It’s a do or die situation – we will be invincible.Won’t anybody help us ?
What are we running for when there’s nowhere”.

Violent Crimein by Mayhem N.O.D.B., 2008 (suggested by Harle)

(couldn’t find any lyrics for it….)

What’s hardcore?

As an expat aid worker (or journalist) you do a lot of talking and writing about how hardcore things are in the place where you are living, working or visiting.

You do this to get people out of their bubbles. You want them to know what is going on. To see what you are seeing and experiencing. To care. To react.

You feel the need to wake people up. To say to them: ‘You have no idea how hardcore it is here. You have no idea what people are going through!’

But sometimes you lose the plot and your narcissism kicks in. You totally change the nature of the story to: ‘You have no idea how hardcore I am because I’m living, working or visiting this place where people are going through terrible things.’

It becomes a contest of who’s the most hardcore.

Because that’s what this is all about anyway, right? You being hardcore?


July 10, 2011 update: This post was sparked by the 2 links below and related discussions on blogs and Twitter but I was unsure about saying so at the time.–researchers-respond-to-haiti-ptsd-article/

Then this morning I read this piece:

And right after that, I read this (including the first comments):

which refers to live-tweeting the visit of a rape victim to the doctor (something that really made me angry at the time):

And so yes, this post was dedicated to Mac, in case it wasn’t clear before.