Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mama meets Maslow in her African hut

They say you're only three pay checks from the street. For the majority of HQ-based aid workers, this means anything from $6,000 to $60,000, and with three months notice factored in HDEO reckons we've got it pretty good.

For the corporate drone, website geek or unionised labourer things are possibly a little tougher. And for the semi-legal plasterer, plumber or prostitute, things start to get really tricky. For the migrant, as long as the return ticket is paid, there is the option of returning home, to the poverty you left, to the scorn of your village, to the derision of your peers, the anguish of your family. Not much of an option, but at least you'll know the language and the geography.

So who is at the bottom of the pile, when it comes to having to relocate due to "trouble at mill?" Who's left holding the baby (literally) when the bombs start to fall, the men on horseback ride into town, or the fields dry up?

Mama of course. Mama might be a fourteen year old whose man gets killed defending the region, or Mama in her thirties might have to herd her six ducklings out of town under cover of darkness to avoid rape or any other one of war's weapons. Or Mama might be in her sixties, with bad eyesight and brittle bones, pushed out by a rising river.

Either way, life for Mama can continue with only what she can carry on her head and strapped to her back. And when she gets her chickens to somewhere "safe", where there's at least no one shooting or ripping at her clothes, she has one or two things to do before she can sleep.

Shelter will be the first priority. Without having to quote Maslow, she knows "safety" is crucial in her hierarchy of need. Maslow - interestingly - doesn't explicitly mention shelter, but perhaps "security of property" covers it. (Perhaps. Or does that refer to the apartment Fiachra and Tara bought in Tallinn in 2006 that's not worth much these days?)

Mama will first have to find about forty good-sized branches to twist into a frame. Then beg or borrow enough grass, cloth or plastic sheeting to cover at least the top, if it's raining or the sides, if it's windy. (Of course, she may have to trade sex with a stranger for this basic human right, with the kids watching, but what to do?)

Next on the agenda, clean water (and something to carry it in, and store it), some rice or wheat, fuel to cook it, a pot to cook it in, a dish to serve it in, and ultimately, somewhere to shit. That's about it for day one. It doesn't even get Mama much onto Maslow's third level (friendship, family, sexual intimacy... although one could argue that Mama has outgrown Maslow, arriving at "acceptance of facts, spontaneity and problem solving", without the luxury of passing through the prisms of "respect" and "self-esteem" Maslow thought essential.)

Feisil Omar's picture, at the top of top of this post, made my heart bleed for all its banality. It was taken yesterday, but could just as easily have been taken seventeen years ago. That's was when, almost to the day, I left Somalia, having been surrounded (albeit from a house with clean sheets and a fridge) by these little beehives that people have to call home when they lose their roots. They sprout up along the roadside like mushrooms, like rainclouds, like warts, thousands and thousands, bringing with them the crackle of terror, the glow of disease. They burn down, they wash away, they deny education, animals and snakes get in, insects too, water, filthy water, is often kilometres away.

So remember, no matter how awful it seems, it could all be a lot, lot worse.

And give your Mama, or someone's Mama a call one of these days.


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