You’ve lived and travelled all over the world. Tell me about some of the places you’ve spent time in and how they relate to your work.
The first place I went after grad school was Sierra Leon in 2002. It was pretty soon after the civil war ended, about 14 months. So, A) it was my first country in Africa and B) it was very recently out of a civil war. I have a lot of memories of that place, although it was now 12 years ago – of the diamond mines, of every single building having bullet holes. It was pretty raw. And I’ve got to say, it’s really surreal to be in a place where there is no blood on the streets and everybody is safe and living a hard life, but a relatively stable life, where the physical reminder of the conflict is so overwhelming and so in your face. Every single building, every health clinic is a reminder. So that is surreal to see, but yet it’s finished and you show up afterwards. And it is surreal to think that pretty much everybody except for you has those memories and lived through that. So you are there, sharing the same physical space with them but with a completely different point of view and perspective on that place and what is happening in that place. So that was a really interesting summer; I wasn’t there that long.
I have a memory of the rain that happens in West Africa. It is crazy, crazy monsoon rain and the sky just opens up and it is wild. And I remember being in a car and driving past… I don’t know if you know these particular plants, they are just one leaf and it is massive and it looks like an elephant ear. I don’t remember what it’s called. They are beautiful; it’s almost a heart shape. And a little pre-school age child was holding it up like an umbrella. That is such a nice memory that I still have. So clever, such a good use of that plant.
I also have some other memories… a not-joking-at-all near-death car accident in Sierra Leone. I’ve had three knee surgeries as a result, the first one being in an extremely sub-par “hospital” on the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia. I use quotes around hospital very much on purpose.
What were you doing in Sierra Leon?
I worked for the International Rescue Committee, and I was a consultant in the child protection section focusing on child DDR: Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration. It’s basically reintegrating child solders back into normal life. Mainly boy soldiers, but also girls that had been abducted. At that time they called them ‘girls that were associated with fighting forces’ because the girls were very, very rarely fighting, but had been abducted and were called ‘army wives.’ So it was in the child protection unit of the International Rescue Committee, working with an amazing woman who is still my friend today and mentor and is now working with the US government.
So that was my first experience in Africa. My first experience in Asia was in Nepal, before grad school in 2001. That was really interesting. I went out there to volunteer with a local grassroots organization working with children in Nepal. I had met the Executive Director at a conference. He was really incredible and inspiring and still runs this local grassroots organization today focuses on street children and very low caste children, so the Dalit girls for example. I had a great experience with this lovely, cozy NGO, and then I went on holiday for a week in Bangkok, and when I came back the royal family was massacred. I don’t know if you remember this, but it was crazy times. So I was in Nepal when the entire royal family was massacred except for one son who was obviously suspected to be the person who had orchestrated the whole thing. So that was intense and pivotal time for Nepal, and I just happened to be there.
And then from there, the longest and probably most intense job I’ve ever had was in Darfur.
What were you doing there?
Darfur was… how do I explain it? It was one of the best experiences of my life, and one of the most horrific experiences of my life, all rolled into one. Because of how horrifying and horrible it was, and I was around the best and most inspiring people who I’m still friends with today, and some of the most amazing Sudanese humanitarians. I think everybody who has done humanitarian work has a ‘Darfur experience.’ Everybody has that experience I think that defines them forever. Some people I know it was Pakistan earthquake, some people it was Indonesia tsunami, some people it was DRC… for me it was Darfur. I was working with UNICEF, and the first contract I had was emergency child protection. Emergency protection usually involves going into places like that, establishing a really quick work plan just for the first 90 days, trying to get local partners. It’s just establishing anything within the first 3 months. And I was the first international child protection officer based in Darfur for UNICEF.
They had had national child protection officers, but I was the first international one. This was in May 2004. So my first contract was just that, everything to do with child protection. And that was intense and I went back to New York and I was recovering and dealing with putting my head on straight again. And they asked me to go back out and focus specifically on sexual and gender-based violence for UNICEF. And I remember talking to the person now who is a very good friend who was at UNICEF headquarters and saying, “You know, I really want to do this, but I’m not a sexual and gender-based violence expert per se.” And this was in 2004, and she said, “Kristen, there are literally about 5 people in the world who are, and you are as close to that as they are, so just go. We trust you. Yes you will learn as you go, but we’d rather it be you than anyone else.”
So I went back out for another 14 months, and that was also pretty awful but also really great. I can’t really explain it. I interviewed lots of girls who had been raped and it was devastating. But I also, like I said, worked with the kinds of people that really deserve to be interviewed for this magazine, like Darfurian women who are doing incredible humanitarian work and never leave Sudan. Just some really inspiring, grounded, un-egotistical people. At the same time, you lose your faith in many aspects of the UN and lots of things. You’re like “This shit doesn’t work!” [both laugh]
Some room for improvement.
Yeah, it does and it doesn’t. There are things about it that work, and there are things about it that do not work.
So that was the hardest part for sure. Then I worked in Uganda, doing sexual and gender based violence coordination, so that was less front line. And Kampala I would say is probably… looking back now on all of the capitals I have lived in, it is wonderful. You’ve been there, haven’t you?
I haven’t actually. I hear it’s like Nairobi but more manageable and quiet.
That’s right, that’s a very good description. It also feels a lot less… it’s kind of a corny thing for a white American woman to say, but it feels a lot less Westernized than Nairobi. So, for example, the vast majority of professional Ugandans who have professional degrees and professional jobs still come to work in African dress. And that is kind of nice. It is a manageable city; it still has bad traffic but it’s not like Nairobi. It’s a beautiful country. I remember I used to fly in and fly out kind of a lot, and when I was flying into Kampala, my heart would just get so excited and I would be like “I love this place!” It’s a beautiful country, and it is stunning coming in on the plane, there are lots of lakes and it is lovely.
So I lived there, and I ended up deciding with my partner at the time, who’s now my husband, to have a baby. So we got pregnant in Uganda, and stayed in Uganda until I was 35 weeks pregnant, which is the longest you can stay for most airlines because most airlines don’t want you on their planes if you are any further along. They don’t want you to have your baby on the plane. [both laugh]
So we flew back to London when I was 35 weeks pregnant and had Olivia and stayed in London for… not that long actually. Going to London was on purpose, only staying in London for 10 months was not on purpose. I ended up moving to Kenya when Olivia was 6 and a half months old because Charlie was in the army and he got posted to Kandahar.
So he got posted to Kandahar, and we weren’t married yet so I couldn’t really stay in the UK and work, and I didn’t want to stay in the UK and not work because we didn’t have that kind of money. So it was pretty simple really, my options were stay in the US, and the places in the US that I could think of where I could work as a consultant would be terrible places to be a single mom, i.e. New York. I could have gone to where my family was in Texas, which basically meant not work, which was not a good option. Then I started looking for cities where I basically had a relatively robust social network, where I could have friends and where I have a strong chance of getting some work, and where I could potentially afford a nanny. And Nairobi was super dead obvious at that point, because I had a lot of friends there, and as you know there is a lot of work to find. And I did. Looking back it was for sure the best, an amazing decision. It was a great 17 months. It was a little bold in terms of visas and having Kenya be on my side the whole time. That was a little bold and naïve of me. But it was fine, I was always in Kenya legally, which meant I had to leave every 3 or 4 months and come back.
Yeah, I have friends who have done that there. [both laugh]
I have about 19 different Kenyan visas in my passport, which probably does look a little sketchy. And I remember coming back in on a few occasions and I only had Shillings, I didn’t have Dollars. And trying to pay for my visa, and them telling me “You need to give us $40.” And my saying, “Can I give you Shillings?” [laughs]
So I stayed in Kenya with her and we saw Charlie every 3 months when he had leave. And that’s when I started consulting for the Nike Foundation.
So this is my question: How did a woman from Texas get this sense of adventure and being out and beyond, and being connected to this humanitarian way of living?
Are you making assumptions about Texan women? [both laugh]
My mama’s Texan!
It’s a good question. Well, so I studied social work. And I think from a relatively young age, I don’t know why necessarily, but I had a social justice conviction. And I applied that social justice conviction to AmeriCorps for two years. I was a coach for AmeriCorps and a trainer for AmeriCorps and I was super into AmeriCorps for a few years, which was an incredible experience. And I would say definitely another top 5, top 3 defining experiences for me, as was Darfur. So AmeriCorps was a very important thing for me in terms of my personal and professional development. And I loved the mentors I met through that. And actually the two mentors that I met through AmeriCorps were both former Peace Corps alumni. And so just having exposure to them, and hearing them talk about their work in Niger, or wherever they were… they were older, so they were the first class of Peace Corps. I didn’t want to do Peace Corps because I had already done AmeriCorps but I wanted to somehow find a way to apply what I felt and had done through social work, I wanted to be able to apply those frameworks, policies and practices to what I used to call international social work, because I didn’t know what it was called.
And when I was an undergrad I saw a documentary about Tibet, and that had an impression on me. So there were just little influences that started to build up I guess. So I started Students for a Free Tibet at my college. I was the President, and we started working with Tibetan refugee community in Austin.
So here is another defining moment. This was probably 1999, at the latest. I went to Hotmail [laughs] and I searched into the Hotmail search engine something like “international social justice training” because I felt like my social work degree wasn’t really bringing any of that kind of thinking in, and I wanted to complement the social work degree with some kind of international training. And I found this website and this person called George Lakey, who runs an institute called Training for Change. And completely on a whim, emailed him and said “I’m super inspired by what you do and this training that you offer.” It was a three week long training in Philadelphia. I didn’t have a dime. So I emailed him and said “Could I come early and stay late and be some kind of work study intern/slave? Can I come without paying you anything?” And he wrote back and said, “Yeah, of course, come early, stay late.” At the time, I thought I was really lucky and had gotten this one-off scholarship from him, but when I got there I realized, he basically makes no money and is basically a monk and I think about two people had paid for the training, and there were 17 of us there. [both laugh] He’s amazing. I was like “I got a scholarship!” Actually, all of us had scholarships.
But what was serendipitous about that was that I was the only North American. And I had no idea that was going to happen. So that was a universal blessing. So there was a Nepali person, a Burmese person, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, and Japanese… I was the only whitey in the room, which was really awesome. And by the time that was over I was like, “Right, I’m going to do this work, but I’m going to do it somewhere else, or maybe I’ll do both, maybe domestically and internationally, which would be the dream.” And one of the people I met at that training was the Nepali guy who ran the NGO that I then went out and volunteered for.
So that is kind of how the Texas lady went out and ended up in these armpits of the world. [both laugh] Some of them are armpits, not all of them are.
Do you have any tips or insights about understanding or integrating with a culture that is different from your own?
Oooh, another good question. I think in a lot of places women and white Americans have a lot… you’re not starting out in a place of strength if you know what I mean. As in, you aren’t starting out fitting in or being accepted, if that makes sense. So being white and being American in many places, like Sudan, it’s…. It’s like, here’s who we like, here’s who we don’t like, and Americans are often on the don’t-like list. And females are often on the you-might-not-be-safe-here list. So with that in mind, I think a bit of it comes from experience. I literally feel like I could go anywhere right now and it’s easy. It’s pretty easy to figure it out, fit in, get where you need to go, make friends, stay anonymous, don’t stay anonymous. I think now it’s easier, but I’m trying to think what the stepping stones were.
This is probably an obvious thing to say, but it has always been easier and beneficial to make friends with other women. Or to at least establish some kind of a connection and camaraderie, a sisterhood kind of thing with women. I’m trying to think how to say this without sounding hippie dippie… I feel like I have an intuition about who I choose as a priority in a new place to spend my time with. Sometimes it is literally a twinkle in their eye… it sounds so corny! [laughs] I just have an intuition about who I need to spend time with in the early days because they become kind of like your guide, the person who tells you what to do and not to do. So that is one tip: meet somebody, find somebody, establish a relationship with someone that you feel you can trust. For females it’s probably going to be a female. That’s always been helpful.
Maybe something that’s related is, what’s the first thing that you do when you are in a new place? Or some of the first things? Maybe that is related to some of what you are saying.
Have you read David Sedaris’s essay on this?
You can Google it. It is absolutely hysterical. It’s called Six to Eight Black Men. Anyway, what he does is interview the cab driver and has a long discussion about what he needs to know in that place. That’s the first thing he does. I don’t do that, though.
So what’s the first thing I do? Well, I think it’s easier for me, because I’m not just a world traveller with a backpack. I’m always there for something, and I always go into an office… I guess Kenya is the only exception to that. So there is always a team and logistics and operations. In those cases when I’m going for work, I apply the same rules. Scout out the office, see which local staff and/or international staff that has been there for a long time that I get a good feeling about that I should listen to and take guidance from. If I’m not going to work, like the Kenyan example, I had friends who had been there for a while.
I think there is a really common ground rule when you are dealing with different people than you. It is just to be human and having a sense of humor and being warm. Some of the more memorable and unlikely relationships I’ve struck up with people like a boda boda driver in Khartoum or the guy who selling water and Pringles in Darfur… those kinds of relationships come from me having a sense of humor with them, me trying to tongue-in-cheek speak the language. Just having that experience for them be positive and stand out for them, so you’re not just the person who doesn’t know how much money to give them who’s counting the change, or the person who’s rude, or the person that doesn’t make any eye contact. Just trying to be someone they look forward to seeing again.
In some countries, it’s not necessarily it’s a good thing to be an American. So I have lied and told people I’m Canadian. [laughs] Or, I’ve also lied… if you get a bad feeling from somebody, I’ve lied and told them that I’ve been there before when I hadn’t. That I’ve done a lot. If you get a taxi driver or something and they ask “Oh, first time here?” And I say “No, I come here a lot. I’ve been here three times.” I’ve done it loads of times. “Do you know where your hotel is?” “I do, yes, I’ve been there a lot.”
Any funny or random stories to share?
While I was going on a holiday with my daughter, sister and Mom near Kenya, there was a camel I was introduced to by a young man from Lamu that was trying to talk me and Mom into paying for a camel ride. I asked if the camel had a name and the answer … are you ready? “George Bush.” And then I of course laughed out loud very hard and asked him “Why did you name him that?” And he said with a completely serious and straight face, “He is stupid and stubborn but the other two camels will not go anywhere unless he leads them. He is the leader… but he is too stubborn and stupid for me to use for rides … but the other two (that I do use for rides) won’t go anywhere without him.” No joke, this is a true story. [both laugh]