28 Oct LA to Darfur | An Aid Worker’s Story
What appealed to you about becoming an aid worker?
First, I realized that I wanted to be doing work that was giving back or making a positive change. Second, I have always loved traveling and seeing the world. I like the sense of adventure and discovery.
What are the differences between your day to day life in LA and the one in Darfur?
Leaving LA for Sudan is often a mix of excitement and sadness. I try to stay balanced by eating well and working out. I maintain certain routines that are important to me, like running and yoga and taking time to stay in touch with people at home. Sometimes the transition between the two can be quite taxing though – just things like food and the weather can be a lot to adapt to. Sudan is extremely hot and dry. On top of that, it’s a very conservative Muslim country under Sharia law, so I have to be fully covered up. Days like that I really miss Venice beach.
What programs are you working on?
I currently oversee 3 different nutrition projects and have a team of about 20 staff. Darfur is such a complex situation – there has been a civil war for over 10 years so some areas are still in the ‘emergency phase’ while others are in ‘recovery’. One project identifies and treats malnutrition in children under five. Another project is focused on education of mothers in order to prevent malnutrition – some of the behaviors might seem really basic, like hand washing at proper times or exclusive breastfeeding, but these are the things, that, if done properly, can make the difference between life and death.
Are you ever worried for your safety in Africa?
Yes! The things I worry about the most are getting into a car accident or getting sick. Of course, there is the risk of kidnapping in Darfur. Because of this, I always travel with armed escorts when going on field visits or I travel by helicopter when heading to an area not accessible by road (due to safety). You are always on guard and alert – that in itself can become quite stressful. I’ve been sick a few times (I got typhoid fever at the beginning of 2014) and I fear for my life pretty much every time I get on the road.
How has doing this changed your perception of the world?
One of the ways is that I feel an extraordinary sense of gratitude for the life I lead and the opportunities I have. Leaving the comfort and security of home makes you realize how much we take for granted. Hot showers, clean water, not fearing getting sick, clean air, being able to walk outside or go hiking… things that seem simple yet I’ve come to treasure them. It has also caused me to question why there is so much inequality, and in particular when it comes to women. What can I do to influence this? How can I change it? There aren’t any easy answers, but asking the questions is a start. I’ve also learned that life is too short, and too precious, to spend doing something you don’t love.
Have you learned the intricacies of African cooking and food?
I love trying new food. That’s one of my favorite things about traveling. In most parts of Africa, people eat food that is local and seasonal, because that is what’s available and affordable. It’s often minimally processed, if at all, so that’s a huge thing we can take away. I love exploring local fruit and vegetable stands and cooking healthy meals with new foods I find. Sometimes it’s just a simple fruit salad but with delicious, local fruits. The food is heavily influenced by both African and Middle Eastern dishes – I love the hummus, flat breads, various side dishes like the kidney bean and chickpea stew called ‘ful’ as well as salads. I was once offered goat liver, which is quite healthy but I had a hard time eating it!
What things do you miss most when you are there?
I miss my husband when we’re apart, and our loft by the beach. I miss the food – I’m obsessed with kale salads and fresh blueberries and you can’t get either of those in Sudan. I’m also unfortunately addicted to really good coffee so I end up carrying half a suitcase of Intelligentsia coffee with me when I leave LA. Of course I miss my girl friends but we have Skype to stay in touch. I crave the feel of the sand at the beach and the smell of the ocean…
What are your future plans?
I don’t know yet what exactly I’ll do in the future but I believe in following your heart before anything else. My passion is humanitarian aid work but I’m also working on figuring out how to integrate that in a way that feeds my creative side. I love writing, fashion and travel. I’d love to collaborate with a fashion brand that is enthusiastic about improving the quality of life for women in the developing world. I’m also working on a book about my life and experiences.