I don’t consider myself a traditional humanitarian aid worker. I’ve never selflessly taken the plunge or been bold enough to take up a job in a hostile and dangerous country. Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique are considered low-risk as compared to many places. Or are they? Today, we are faced with rising environmental, economic and political instability and a growing disarray of complex and tangled ‘wicked’ problems such as climate change and terrorism. A growing number of the world’s citizens are in need of help from international humanitarian and development organisations and at the same time, the number of security incidents affecting aid workers is rising.
When I signed up to the Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) by SaferEdge in July 2014, I had already started to challenge my perception of ‘safe’ working environments overseas. I had lived and worked in Kenya in the months prior to the insurgent attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, which made international headlines and took the lives of 67 people from nearly a dozen countries around the world. I lived a stone’s throw away from Westgate. The shopping centre was my ‘local’, my safe space. The live camera-phone footage from a favourite café, of diners scrambling to safety between overturned tables and recognisable tableware, and the feeling of panic knowing and not-knowing that friends were in Westgate at the time of the attack, still feels very present.
So, aid worker or not, I wanted to take the HEAT course to be better prepared for the risks. With colleagues, Emma and Mel, I set off on the drive up to Witney, reading out-loud the course material setting out our imaginary ‘aid mission’ in tribe-warring ‘Clanistan’. (Fake) visa in hand, I felt a mixture of anticipation and apprehension as I crossed into the country.
Nothing can prepare you well enough for the moment you have a gun to your head in a hostage situation, but the mental challenges Safer Edge put me through during the 4-day course leaves a sense of calm that I might be able to manage such a situation with more control. The course was as mentally challenging as it was energetic, fun and informative. It was great to learn about potential risks, threats and vulnerabilities, but it was also helpful to get to know myself, and my natural reactions to life-threatening situations – you can’t predict how your body and mind will respond in an ambush and hostage situation, just as you can’t anticipate the surge in adrenaline and emotion that follows a complex road traffic crash. Though getting dragged from the boot of a vehicle into a muddy corn field, being handcuffed and bagged wasn’t a very pleasant experience, it will certainly make it less terrifying if it should happen in real life!
It was the means of delivery as much as the content of the course which has left me with a sense of readiness to embrace and respond to potential threatening situations. The trainers were open, honest and forthright about even the most sensitive of situations, from treating gruesome grenade injuries and amputations to victims of sexual violence. They were sensitive and learner-centred, sharing vivid accounts from their own personal experiences in conflict and disaster zones to help the learning stick. A couple of months has passed but I’m still finding myself thinking ‘DANGER! CRAB-C!’ and looking out for cuts and burns to dress!
I was asked to write this blog because of the enthusiasm I had shown when sharing my experiences of the Safer Edge HEAT course with colleagues when I returned to the office. I hope this positive account will encourage others to embrace the training and similarly challenge themselves!