A short wooden sword

When I was living in South Korea my Hapkido master decided to start teaching us sword fighting.  Amazing right?  Yeah I thought so too until he handed me a rather short wooden sword.  In response to my frown he gently pointed out that I was too tall to have a normal sized sword because I would keep hitting the roof.  As much as I could appreciate the practicality of that, I could not help but feel slightly insignificant and childish as I glanced down the row of would-be sword fighters with their full-length weapons.  Mentally I could not reconcile my black belt status with my short sword.  Three months into my new job that same feeling of conflicting status is creeping in.  I may like to think of myself as a black belt in communications but as a humanitarian I am still very much holding a short wooden sword.

Humanitarians love to tell war stories.  On the whole they are great and really make you want to light a fire, toast marshmellows, listen and learn.  Sometimes however these stories can take on a life of their own and, in some circumstances, be used as a way to determine whose sword is bigger.  There is a sensitive balance between technical and context experiences.  Technical expertise gives you the theories, best practices, and transferable skills but context experiences give you the nuances and credibility.  Unfortunately the only way to get context experience is, well to be in the context.  Somehow when I am sitting in a room listening to my colleagues talk about Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in support for the Syria Response, or their experiences in Rwanda, Pakistan and Sudan, my usual stories of the lengthy international negotiations over the great brussel-sprout shortage of 2004, running 16 events in one week, having articles published, or achieving market leadership of a canned meat product just don’t seem as impressive.  I am once again the black-belt with the short wooden sword.

So how do you deal with a short wooden sword?

I need to be honest with you here.  I stopped writing just after I finished that question because I didn’t have an answer.  I get the whole learning, developing, experience and knowledge takes time but I am not naturally a patient person.  I am not good at not being good at things.  And, well part of me feels as though I have done the training and the learning.  I have attended internal training, I’ve been part of simulations, I’m nearly finished my Masters in International Conflict Management, I’ve read books by former humanitarian workers, I read their blogs, I’ve even read the Sphere Standards and I do have some limited field exposure.  And that all paid off cos I am now in my dream job.  But I still have so much to learn and experience.

It is now a day later.  And after a night of red wine, delicious food and wonderful conversations with my new colleagues I just decided to get over myself.

As my Hapkido Master said when he was toasting our achievement of our black-belts after a year and a half of training twice a day, five days a week, ‘Now the real work begins.’

And just as my Hapkido Master was always there for me as I fumbled my way through learning new wrist locks and Jackie Chan like moves, I do feel rather confident that my new colleagues will be there for me too.





Filed under Emergency Communications, Preparation, Training

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”*

I didn’t like the play but I loved the line.  There is something incredibly telling in this line and the more imbedded I am in the humanitarian response world the more acutely aware of this I become.  Humanitarian response wouldn’t exist without the kindness of strangers.  Money, goods, petitions, volunteering, even working as a humanitarian all involve an array of strangers committing acts of kindness to help someone they don’t and probably never will know.

If I could be so bold as to add to Mr Williams’ words, yes I rely on the kindness of strangers but I have never been so dependent on my growing global family.

I’ve been in my new role for three months.  Anyone who follows on me Twitter or Instagram will know I have taken to tagging everything with #Ilovemyjob.  Honestly I do.  It is without doubt one of the most rewarding and challenging roles I’ve been honoured to hold.  More than that though the people I get to meet and work with are remarkable.  And I mean that as literally as it can be meant.  These people are worth taking the time to remark on.  In previous blogs post I have talked about different people I’ve met since starting this humanitarian journey; women, children, colleagues, even school principals.  Some of these people you meet for an hour and will never see again.  Some are forever imprinted in your mind and their faces haunt you at 3am.  Those special few become like family.

I am travelling a lot at the moment.  I’ve just started the first week of a three week trip across three countries.  My suitcase, which seems to be getting larger and heavier every time I use it, is filled with files, reports, equipment and cords.   I have meetings, in offices, over meals and via Skype booked solid and when I am not in a meeting I have emails to respond to, stories to write, strategies to prepare and reports to digest.  Yeah, I do love my job but this is not glamorous as some might think. And as much as you are always around people, the demands of work, if not managed carefully, can make you feel lonely very quickly.

Something rather special happened for this trip though.   I was invited to stay at people’s houses.  In the whole three weeks I am away I will not see in the inside of a hotel room.  I get that this might sound horrible to some people but I was giddy with excitement and so honoured by the invites I may have gotten a tad teary as I clapped my hands with glee and rushed to buy company appropriate PJs.

Now I am nothing special.  I am not being invited to people’s house, invited to join in family dinners or parties because I am amazingly hilarious and entertaining. Though for a single woman I do know some great Dad jokes!   It is simply because these people are really, truly, genuinely kind.  And they get it.   When you travel a lot, when you work odd hours in order to be globally connected, when the things you see, do, read about and work on get serious, when you miss birthdays and farewells and brunches with your friends and family back home, they get that having that human connection, that kindness, that sense of support is important.

So thank you.

Thanks for your kindness for it is noticed, valued and relied upon more than you will ever know.

*Blanche DuBois, A Street Car Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

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Filed under Emergency Communications

Farewells, Credit and The Mintie Strategy

Before I even start writing this post I know it is going to be all over the place, it’s been that kind of week.  So when I don’t know where to start I always go to the end.  I like the big picture.  There is a certain level of comfort there.  Knowledge of the end game makes retrofitting strategies easier, it also makes contingency planning so much more fun.

The week ended in a farewell.  It was fun, great company, amazing food and my favourite brand of apple cider was sold at the bar.  But it was odd.  It was an end and a beginning in collision.  There is something humbling about seeing someone else’s farewell when you really don’t know them or their history.  There are jokes, looks, comments and, in this person’s case some rather interesting photos that you don’t know the details of but at the same time, being free from those details means you have the privilege of seeing the big picture.

This big picture was fascinating.  It was hope, regret, frustration, appreciation, bitterness, kindness and genuine friendship expressed through the chink of beer filled glasses.  It made me slightly sad at times.  Like seeing a great end of a movie but not finding out what the title was and realising you’ll never know the story behind the final scene.  At other times it made me happy because there was a sense of family, real family, warts and all we’ll be there for you family.

A couple of weeks ago the guy who is leaving made a comment to me.  It was one of those comments that sends your mind spiralling out of control and things that seemed impossible just unravel in seconds and are suddenly so unbelievably simple.  And no I am not going to tell you what he said cos that is not the point.  The point was it made me realise some very obvious, embarrassingly rookie mistakes that I have been making.  I was caring about credit.  In my enthusiasm for my new role and the excitement of being able to achieve a degree of forward thinking strategic communications that I was never quite able to achieve in my previous role I forgot the most basic of basic communications rule.  Never, ever care about getting credit for your work.  Most writers get this, as we are used to being edited, re-worded, writing for others and unnamed in publication but every now again, when you are really passionate about something, your heart gets a tad too attached and suddenly any sign of red pen makes you want to clench your fists, stamp your feet and throw a childish tantrum.

Enter the Minties.  Now for non-Aussies, Minties are a chewy mint flavoured lolly/candy/sweet.  They also happen to have one of the best packaging graphics of recent times.  Their slogan is “It’s moments like these you need a Mintie” with an array of amusing graphics that capture those little moments in life where you just know you have to laugh cos otherwise you’ll cry.

I’ve been a Mintie Strategist for about three years.  I stumbled across the Mintie strategy accidently.  A few years back I was invited to attend a conference.  When I arrived I was placed, with some other colleagues on a row of tables at the very back.  On the table was a note saying that the back table were not allowed to speak, make comments on the proceedings and nor participate in the activities. We were there purely as observers.  Also placed on the table was a bowl of Minties.  Honestly, I was rather put out.  Asking a communicator to forgo all forms of communications is really just asking for trouble and I am sorry but the moment you tell me I can’t do something it is all I think about.  Two things made the situation worse.   One, the people allowed to participate, well I don’t want to say my colleagues and I were smarter than them but if you wish to draw that conclusion on your own I understand.  Two, I was under strict instructions from my boss to behave; he had started to threaten me with Botox if I did not learn to control my facial expressions.

I had not had a Mintie in years.  I don’t normally eat lollies but in an effort to occupy my mouth I started chain chewing these little treats.  Every time the desire to speak up made my lips part I found my teeth stuck together with minty deliciousness.  The Minties achieved in one afternoon what my parents, teachers, past bosses, friends and ex-boyfriends had all failed to do.  They shut me up.  Suddenly I found myself listening.  And I mean really listening.  Not to their words and ideas, but to the sentiments behind them; their fears and hopes; their concerns and excitement.   In some cases their underlying motivations for power and control.  I started to really read the room.

When you communicate you have to think about your audience.  You have to consider not only the message you want to share with them but you have to think about how are they going to receive this message, when are they going to receive it, what else is going on in their world that will affect how they hear your message.  Most importantly is what they are telling you they want to hear truthful or are they just saying that to look good.

All of us, unknowingly or otherwise, share and receive information with bias.  We listen for things that affect us and put conditions and personal meanings into words, tones and actions.  As a communicator you have to be aware of that.  As a humanitarian communicator you really have to know that.  You have to be so very human in your choice of words and message.  Sometimes though, as I said before when you are overwhelmed by the task at hand, when you are tired, passionate, excited, frustrated and eager to just blurt out your message it is so easy to forget that.  These are the moments when I stop and have a Mintie.  The Mintie slows me down, stops me from blurting out something inappropriate and gives me a few seconds to pause and re-read the room.

It creates the calm and stillness of mind that reminds me everything that I am trying to do and achieve is not about me at all.  I will and do achieve more when I don’t care about the credit.  It brings me back to the end, the big picture.


Minties. Keeping me out of trouble.


Filed under Life

What’s in a story?

I am wearing a Panama Hat.  Yes, I do look ridiculous, especially as I am also wearing an old tracksuit with UGG boots, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket and sitting inside on my couch.  But I felt inspired to write about my recent trip to Panama and thought it only fitting to don my Genuine Panama Hat, made in Ecuador.

Panama is hot.  Sweaty, red face hot.  Especially if, like me, you do stupid things like go for a walk along the Canal mid-morning in black exercise gear, without a hat and no water bottle.  Just as well that I wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of experienced humanitarians who have that whole practical preparedness thing going on.  Oh right, I was.

I was in Panama for a Global Relief Forum.  A week with some great humanitarian minds challenging, debating, and at times arguing how to improve our responsiveness to the changing humanitarian needs.   And boy can these guys debate.  This combination of passionate, intelligent, experienced and principled people is awe inspiring and a tad humbling.  The more I heard the more my inner communicator jumped for joy.  It is my job to tell their stories and engage others in their work and after just five days of listening to them I thought wow, there are so many stories here it will take me years to collect and share them all.

Armed with what has been described as my ‘annoying and misplaced’ enthusiasm for storytelling I oooh’ed and ahhh’ed and asked two reasonably innocent questions, ‘Have you told this story to anyone?  Can we do a piece on this?’

I expect people to get embarrassed, nervous, even excited when I ask to share their story but I was unprepared to have a high number of people turn to me and say “I was told this isn’t a story.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had thought I might encounter some resistance, I mean these are busy people and stopping to tell a story could be a tad annoying.  But no, instead I found a bunch of people keen, almost desperate to share their experiences, challenges, and successes but disillusioned by ‘this isn’t a story’.

Imagine that.  Imagine being told that your work, in some cases your life, which is spent travelling to some of the worst disaster affected communities isn’t worth talking about.  Imagine having been someone who was on the ground in responding to the Cyclone Nargis, Asian Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, imagine working in protracted conflict zones like Sudan, Pakistan, DRC, Somalia, imagine pouring your heart and soul into new projects to expedite the delivering of lifesaving aid, of working tirelessly with other agencies and governments to protect human rights. Imagine all of that and then being told, ‘this isn’t a story’.

Everyone has a story and every story is worth telling.  How you tell it, where you tell it and to who you tell it to, sure that is important.  But never let someone tell you your story is not worth telling.

Stories lead to friendships.  Stories lead to identifying things we have in common and understanding things that are different.  Stories lead to education, knowledge, and wisdom.

Ok, so rant over back to Panama hats and sweaty walks along the Canal.

The water goes up then down, the ships come in and then go out.  All in all a fine canal.

The water goes up then down, the ships come in and then go out. All in all a fine canal.

Friends, boats and humidity.  A great day out.

Friends, boats and humidity. A great day out.

My morning walks along the Panama Canal.

My morning walks along the Panama Canal.

For a non hat person, I having way too much fun with my Panama Hat

For a non hat person, I having way too much fun with my Panama Hat

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Filed under Emergency Communications, In the field, Preparation

When listening hurts

Think of the hardest, most difficult, worst time in your life.  Then think of the one thing that someone could have said or done to have made things seem better.  Got it?  Please tell me.  I have a strong feeling I am going to need those words.

I often describe myself as a storyteller.  A more apt description is a story listener.  I listen to stories, funny stories, horrible gut wrenching stories and everything in between.  I listen to stories even when they are not spoken but being told by the tilt of head, an awkward laugh, the clench of hand or the shift of the eyes. 

Last month I spent a couple of weeks in Bangkok meeting my new team members, getting to know them and their experiences and simply just listening to them.  They are amazing, impressive and generally quite amusing.  I laughed a lot and felt welcomed.  But there is a distance present.  They are a tight knit group of people with bonds forged in the harshness of the work they do.  But there is most definitely distance; an underlying remoteness that I guess is the heart and mind’s natural protection.  There were times with these people where the sadness was overwhelming.  I don’t own this sadness.  It is not mine. But as a story listener, as stupid as it might sound to you, sometimes listening hurts.  Really hurts.  I want to be able to say or do that one thing that will make all the difference to that person and their story.  I want to make the sadness go away.  There are moments, rare beautiful moments where just being there makes that difference.  More often than not though, I just feel helpless. 

So how do we cope with helplessness?  Well I have a number of strategies but most of them are not technically the healthiest and most mature of options, and given my parents often read this blog I’ll leave those ones to your imagination. 

So the healthier options?  Um, before I share I should probably give you a geek alert.  Cos, well my latest coping strategy is Gandalf.  Yep, I did really just write Gandalf and yes I do mean the wizard from Lord of the Rings.  I just think of the scene in Two Towers where Gandalf frees Theodred, King of Rohan from the negative influence of Saruman.  When the sadness takes hold of me from listening and feeling these stories I just imagine Gandalf coming to my rescue. 

Oh Gandalf, my hero.

Oh Gandalf, my hero.

Think I’m crazy?  Yeah so do I really.  But hey what ever works, works.  And if that fails I just think of my little niece or nephew currently baking away in my sister’s tummy.  I imagine him/her dancing away with the full protection of my sister and brother-in-law’s love and once again know that worst moments can only be the worst because we have better moments to compare them to.   And when you really think about it, there can only be one worst moment in your life but there can be an infinite number of better moments.

Artistic interpretation of my little niece or nephew as it dances it's way into life.

Artistic interpretation of my little niece or nephew as it dances it’s way into life.


Filed under Preparation

“Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”

There are a few standard questions you get asked in the humanitarian world.  One of them is “Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go?”  I’ve never known how to answer this question.  I’d like to answer that I am fine to go anywhere.  But as a woman there are some rather unpleasant realities you have to face around personal safety that sadly places some destinations and some situations on the no-go list.  This week I met with two different friends who have both just returned from the field; one a seasoned humanitarian, the other just starting out.  One in their mid thirties and the other not even 25.  Aside from both being annoyingly intelligent, funny and lovely, they have two things in common that I know of, one is me and the other is Sudan.

I’ve never been to Sudan and in truth I’m not sure I want to go. I studied it and the Dafur genocide as part of a research assignment about the world’s obligations to prevent atrocities.  In 2011 we reported on South Sudan’s declaration of independence and subsequent signing of the Geneva Convention.  Last week I listened on two different nights to two very different but equally frightful accounts of life in Sudan.  Both nights my mind wandered as I listened to my friends talk about their experiences.

In 2008, after three years living, working and travelling overseas I returned to Australia with very little idea of what I was going to do with my life.  Since I had been teaching English as a second language I thought I might as well continue, at least until I worked some things out.  I started teaching at a local TAFE college.  All of my students were refugees.  I’d gone from teaching adorable cheeky South Korean kindergarten students to sing, dance, read, write and speak English to teaching grown women, mothers and daughters basic life skills in Australia.  My new students were a mix of Afghani, Iraqi and Sudanese.

In addition to the classroom teaching I also took on some extra volunteer work with one particular Sudanese family.  The mother had never held a pen before and was illiterate in her native language.  She didn’t understand money, time, or doctors.  The father had a scar that ran down the right hand side of his face, a damaged eye and a pronounced limp.  The eldest daughter kept running away from school, frighten every time she was asked to stand in a line.  The youngest children were shy and it took weeks before they would come out of their room when I was visiting.

Of all the academic research I have done and all the accounts I have heard from colleagues the story I remember most about Sudan is the one the father told me while standing in a supermarket car park. I was leaving the supermarket with my weekly shopping and he had a job collecting the trolleys.  We smiled at each other and I stopped to say hello.  He was always smiling and laughing.  As we were chatting in an awkward imperfect English he asked me why Australian’s don’t smile all the time.  He said, ‘Look at me.  I am smiling all the time.’  I laughed and asked him why he smiles all the time.   He pointed at the supermarket.  He said, ‘I smile all the time because everyone here gets to eat.’

I didn’t have strong opinions on refugees before that moment.  I didn’t know about humanitarian law, responsibility to protect ideologies, or Australia’s stance on foreign aid.  But his constant smile made me curious to learn more.  I am asked a lot by friends and family why I do what I do.  Why earn a third of what I could?  Why am I prepared to put my self and colleagues in potentially threatening situations all for what seems an overwhelming problem?

If you are or have ever wondered the same please watch this Ted Talks video.  I’ll let Bono answer for me.

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Filed under In the field

Tommy the Tumour is saying goodbye.

So I had a brain tumour.  Not as big of a deal as you may initially think.  It was benign, non-life threatening and a whole millimetre away from needing surgery.  So, not that big of a deal.  I called it Tommy the Tumour.  Tommy and I have been together for about five years.  Friday nights were our special evening where I’d take the weekly medication, go to bed early and try to sleep through most the ensuing nausea, dizziness and general icky feelings.  And of course the weekends were there to manage any residual ickiness.  After while you just get used to it and don’t even notice.

The hardest thing about Tommy was never knowing whether I should tell people about it him or not.  You see Tommy was a nuisance but he wasn’t a reason to not do things.  As much as I like to think I am good at communications there is really no great way to tell people that you have a brain tumour.  For some people I’d use the big medical words, but that’d just lead to the inevitable explanation and standard gasp.  Starting with benign didn’t seem to lessen the gasps and usually just got a quizzical look and questions about what that means.  Work people were the hardest cos I’d always be scared that they automatically think I couldn’t cope with things.  I’d of course rush to explain that I had travelled, lived and worked overseas, survived tuberculosis, barely missed a day of work and squeezed in a Masters, black belt, and a failed relationship.  Ok so that last one is probably not one to brag about it but you get my point. Life was very much still going on.

But last Friday morning  Tommy and I said goodbye.  I’ve gotta be honest I was a little shocked.  As my doctor went from large Latin sounding words to smaller Latin sounding words I just sat there .  When she finally said this is good news I smiled.  I really think 2013 is going to be an interesting year with lots of potential.


Filed under Life