BANGKOK – The life of an aid worker is almost never easy, but adjusting to normal life comes with its own difficulties. Roman Majcher never makes plans for a night out in Bangkok city, where he is stationed now, because he would probably end up drowsing off on a barstool. In South Sudan, where he had spent the last ten years, everyone would have to turn in when the sun went down. There was never any electricity to waste, because South Sudan completely lacks a power grid. The only people who had electricity were those who could afford their own generator. There was also no sewage system and no running water. Water was taken straight from the Nile and delivered in trucks, unfiltered, to the humanitarian camps where Majcher worked as an aid worker.
“You think Afghanistan is bad to work in? Well, Afghanistan is paradise compared to South Sudan”, Majcher said, gesticulating emphatically. “There is nothing there, and nothing works.”
South Sudan is a country the size of France, and has only 360 km of paved roads. People who live outside the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world. Aid organizations usually rely on helicopters to drop off food, water and medicine to desperate people. But during the rainy season, or in conflict-prone areas, transportation becomes exponentially harder. In these cases, Majcher says, bitterness entering his voice, “people starve and then they die. it’s as simple as that.” In most villages, living until thirty-five means you are old.
Working in these situations, where you are faced with immense psychological stress, guilt and physical hardship, it can get very hard to go on. Even more difficult is conceding that the unspeakable suffering you are confronted with is caused by unacceptable reasons that are difficult, if not impossible, to change. The government policy in Khartoum, for instance, was to actively keep South Sudan as undeveloped as possible. It only allowed enough aid in to keep the area under control, but kicked you out if you wanted to create something more sustainable.
“Realizations like these were the hardest to stomach,” Majcher said, shaking his head. “I was young and stupid and idealistic when I first started humanitarian work. I didn’t really understand that people could be agonizingly evil to each other on purpose. There aren’t really good guys or bad guys. Everyone is as opportunistic as the next person.” Many other misconceptions Majcher had were shattered too. He realized that the poor could be as corrupt and greedy as the rich, that the needy would not always be grateful for his presence, that people would hate him simply because he was white, because it then followed that he was imperialistic.
Some aid workers cope with these mental burdens by becoming callous and numbed to the waves of human suffering they see everyday. Many more start to become viciously cynical and stop believing that their work matters at all. But Majcher believes that cynicism is anathema to humanitarian work; it is a cancer that, more than corruption, misinformation or even a lack of donor money, can render aid ineffective. Simply put, once you stop believing that your work makes a difference, you do not do it as well.
Majcher believes that the solution is not to be blindly idealistic or stupidly optimistic, but rather it is to make a conscious decision to ignore the bigger picture and focus only on the quality of the paint. “You need to accept that the world is messed up and will probably never be perfect,” Majcher said, peering earnestly through his wire-rimmed glasses. “But the point of your existence is to help ensure that, for now, this child’s life will be a little bit better. Even if it may end tomorrow.” This type of help is not necessarily quantifiable, but then again the most important things in life never are. Aid, contrary to how most people look at it, cannot always be seen as an investment.
This is a sentiment Majcher understands well. He was born with muscular dystrophy, a disease where your muscles are so weak you can barely move without falling over. At fourteen, Majcher’s body was so curved that his nose was bumping against his knees. Poland, his home country, was at the time still a communist nation with atrociously bad medical care and a depressing lack of resources. Even at that age, Majcher understood that he was dying.
But hope came out of nowhere. Doctors in France took up his case for no real reason, other than basic human kindness. One by one, they struggled through the visa processes and arrived in Poland, armed with instruments, machines, medicines and determination. They worked with him for seven years, conducting dozens of operations, until Majcher was well enough to live a relatively normal life. “Why did I win this lottery?” Majcher had always wondered. He began to feel that he had to pay back what he received.