The Lighter Side of Humanitarian Storytelling
It’s been another heartaching couple of weeks in this world. Clashes in South Sudan, bombings in Turkey and shootings in the United States. It can be easy to lose sight of the humanity and the hope still out there – and of course, there is plenty of both.
So with all due respect to the terrible things happening, I’ve decided to write about some of the good and small moments that I’ve experienced as a humanitarian storyteller. These memories aren’t related to each other. They don’t come with lessons. They’re simply scenes I remember as I’m falling asleep or taking a walk or sitting around with friends and talking about life.
In praise of unique places to rest your head
The stars were just starting to twinkle when my traveling companions and I arrived at our accommodation for the night: a few small buildings with no electricity – no surprise in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo. With flashlights in hand, we checked out our rooms. I laughed when I saw my bed: an extra-wide gurney with the backside permanently stuck at a 30 degree angle (like this one, but not as fancy). So many questions popped in my head. How did this get here? Why extra-wide? Was this recently used for its original purpose? Who else has slept here? Did they feel weird about it or not care? I didn’t care. I was grateful for a sheltered place to sleep. And I slept well that night.
Monsters like me
Anyone who’s not dark-skinned and has traveled to a remote area of the world has probably had this experience: I was working in a rural part of Burkina Faso when a small child saw me, literally trembled, then screamed and cried like she’d seen a monster. All the adults around her laughed. The girl’s mom swooped her up and carried her far from me. My comparatively light skin scared her. Poor girl.
Amateur farm help
Several times I’ve shucked corn with the people I’m filming. Extra hands help the work get done faster. However, I’m never as quick or efficient at shucking as the people who do it all the time. Everyone usually has a good laugh at my expense.
Ready. Set. Photograph!
The parents and their kids were begging me to photograph them. There were 35 or 40 people in all, so I posed them on one side of a field and walked about 20 paces away. I wanted to make sure everyone fit in the picture. I turned around. The kids sprinted toward me as if a starter pistol had gone off. What?!? I laughed and screamed with everyone else. I also shot off a few frames, including the one above.
The big pig who saved a family’s life
When I was in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, several people talked about this amazing lifesaving pig. Not only did the pig lead its owners to safety during the storm, but it was humongous. Like, so big you couldn’t believe it. And it lived in the shadow of tanker ships that washed ashore during the storm. It sounded like a fairy tale. I had to see this pig. So one day a colleague and I trekked out to the pig’s neighborhood. It was a maze of temporary shelters and tarps and debris. We walked this way and that. Then we rounded the corner of one of the tankers and there was the pig sleeping in the ship’s shadow. And my, he was pretty large! Friendly, too, though he mostly slept when I was there. I wrote a story about the pig and its human family, but it never ran.
Photo: Children run in a field outside Al-Shafa General Hospital in Bhairab, Bangladesh. (Al-Shafa means recovery in Arabic.) Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl.