Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Warriors and the rest of us

While in Nairobi at the home of a bibliophile friend I picked up Gerald Hanley's Warriors. The book is a memoir of Hanley's stint in Somalia as an officer-administrator during WWII. I only made it about a third of the way through before I had to leave, but the book's understated yet searing descriptions of this work have stayed at the forefront of my mind as I trek around Juba.

Hanley describes privations most Westerners today would find insupportable: a year at a remote outpost training a group of Somali soldiers with nothing but a bi-annual (if he was lucky) alcohol ration that he'd too-eagerly quaff in a few short days to break the monotony and the heat. Finally, a full year in, he received the order to descend to Mogadishu, dreaming all the while of the books and alcohol he'd stockpile, and the vegetables he'd demand, for his next posting, which would start some three weeks later and last another year.

Critiques of colonialism abound, and many are full of merit. But I find myself chastened by Hanley's experiences. Few today would travel across the earth to endure such trials. (To be fair, many of Hanley's compatriots went crazy or fell ill under the stress.) In my evenings with UN folks, I'm continually amazed how quickly the conversation turns to the vagaries of job privileges: if one has classification x, what kind of R&R policy does one fall under, and what are the salary implications? Should one's generator fuel be paid for by the organization? and so on. These are smart people spending long hours packed in converted shipping containers, writing reports and organizing logistics and coordinating meetings. Many of them appreciate the idealistic goals of their work. In mentioning their interest in parsing privileges (puzzlingly dull to an outsider), I don't mean to critique -- I think that kind of exchange is an inevitability, and useful, when working for large bureaucracies in which merit may be less important to success and remuneration than skill navigating rules. And I fully include myself in the category of those gone "soft" -- I enjoy running water as much as the next person, and wifi even more. But I do rather wonder how future generations will view us, our work, and our accomplishments in places like this.

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