During all these years I have thought of my inclination to do humanitarian work. Am I looking for an adrenaline rush? Travel or adventure? New experiences? Is it so I can test my inner strength? Or is it a quest for social justice that compels me? Do I want to be a witness? Do I want to make a sand-grain contribution towards collective wellbeing? Do I want to rattle my complacency by knowing what it is like to live in a place where your morning doesn’t start with a latte and end with a martini?
It was during my interview with MSF, back in April, when the answer to my self-interrogation crystallized. I had recently finished reading Bury the Chains where Adam Hoschild recollects the half a century struggle by British abolitionists to ban slavery. I was astonished by the revelation that human rights, as we know it today, was born in the eighteenth century. A mere two hundred years ago, not even a blip when we consider our evolutionary journey. Too often, bombarded by news of senseless violence and poverty fuelled by corruption, greed, and ignorance, one hears the tired axiom “Nothing you can do about it, that’s the way it is”. But we have done something about it. We abolished slavery in its most brutal form. We have created welfare. We have given women the right to choose. We have increased our tolerance to our differences. Now I know what you are thinking…slavery still exists in covert ways; not all women can choose; not all differences are tolerated; and welfare is a luxury that exists in only a few parts of our world. But when one considers that “human rights” isn’t even potty-trained, what we have accomplished is not so dismal.
We are psychologically evolving, or at least making choices about our future. Slavery was engrained in the economic and social psyche of our ancestors; today’s readers cannot read about it without being astonished at its brutality and senselessness. Today, the “inevitability” of violence and poverty are engrained is us. Tomorrow’s readers will be aghast at its brutality and senselessness.
Apart from being shamelessly hopeful, but not naïve about the centuries of work that lie ahead, I have also made a choice. Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist, descendant of a Yugoslav couple that suffered the Jewish Holocaust, recounts her mother’s journey on the Nazi train to a concentration camp; her mother, witnessing those around her succumb to sickness and fatigue, saw German women just looking on at the prisoners. Her mother’s observation of the inaction of German women changed Amira. She, a Jew from Israel, has chosen to report the suffering and destitution of the Palestinian people to a world that has done much to ignore it.
Knowing what I know about our world, I do not want to find myself “looking from the side”. That’s my choice, even if it only pans out for the next six months.
I leave Toronto tomorrow. The first stop is Zurich to see Sara. The second is Madrid to visit my family. Then Bonn, where I will be “trained” by MSF, followed by Amsterdam for a briefing. In a couple of weeks…PNG.
I’m off to have a latte. Later, a martini with some of my closest friends that I will miss, miss, miss, miss so much.