Are you a ‘field’ person?

In the INGO world there are three types of people. There are those who stay in the headquarters of an organisation, say, managers, finance officers or fundraisers in Paris, New York, Geneva or somewhere else in the West. Then there are those who work in the capital cities of countries in the developing world; the country directors, the co-ordinators, the people who write reports. And then there are the field people. They are the people heading the ‘sub offices’, the delegates, the people who implement projects or monitor political or human rights issues on the ground.

I fall into the third category.

Someone I work with once asked me this question: which of the following smells do you like the most – petrol, a fresh newspaper or french fries? I replied petrol, straight off. He told me that if you answered ‘petrol’ then you are a ‘field person’ and prefer to be on the road, if you answered ‘newsprint’ you are office type, and as for french fries… then you are most likely to be a lazy bum.

Since I finished university I have always seemed to have ended up in jobs that require a lot of time in ‘the field’. In my last job I lived in HQ but traveled for extended periods, and now I work in a small sub-office. This kind of work pattern plays havoc with your personal life and forces you to redefine your notions of hygeine, safety and what is a fun activity to do on a Friday night. Nepaliketi has a great post on this subject – You know you’re a field-based girl when…. Her list of what constitutes being a field-based girl includes things such as:

#5 when showers are few and far in between and bucket baths become a luxury and most definitely when you consider squeezing your hand sanitizer over your body and wonder if that could be equivalent to a shower.

#6 when you have mastered the art of reading while bracing yourself in the land rover on a much too bumpy excuse for a “motor road” and sleeping with bedbugs, rats, mosquitoes and/or cockroaches no longer bothers you.

There are times when I envy the lot of the ‘desk officer’, sitting smugly in her office in DC or Brussels in front of a computer. She has normal office hours, a  is not woken up at unthinkable hours by goats, bedbugs, enthusiastic devotional singing or drunk men hammering on a hotel room door. After work she will go out with her normal friends, or perhaps her normal boyfriend. She does not take bucket showers and has no need of hand sanitizer, but instead walks into the office every morning emitting a floral, confident smell.  She does not struggle to explain her job or lifestyle to friends and family, because it is, well, pretty normal.

Ok, I think I am doing something called ‘projecting’ here. But I think you get my drift.

So why do us field people do it? Sometimes it is not by design, but just because that job happened to come up. But there are other reasons too. First and foremost is the immediacy of life in the field. You get to to see how a political situation or development project is shaping up on the ground. You understand that what were once just numbers and names that you read about in a report or news article are someone’s reality. You can ask regular people all the questions you want, because you are not separated from them by an office wall.

The other great thing is experiencing rural life. I might add that this was an aspect of the job that took a while to grow on me, as I’m a London girl born and bred, and not used to life in remote, slow-paced places. Recently I got stranded in a very isolated place with no electricty because my plane had been cancelled and there wasn’t another flight for several days. Each day was framed by two meals of daal bhat, and social interaction centered around activities such going for a wash at the water-tap, catching up on local gossip and having long, tedious conversations about vegetables.  After about my fifth conversation about potato cultivation, I began to think to myself I need to get out of here before I go completely insane. However, 48 hours later something had changed. I felt calmer and quieter, and had begun to adjust to a different pace. I studied Teach Yourself Nepali by candle light in the evenings, tried some new phrases out and even found myself taking part in very earnest conversations about the price of goats. I realized that the conversations about sabzi cultivation were actually very, very important. By the time we heard the roar of the plane coming over the hills to pick us up and take us back to the city, I was almost sad to leave. Almost.

Some days I don’t know how much longer I can keep this lifestyle up, for all of the adventures and insights it brings. Maybe in the future I will be that ‘desk officer’and my life will become a bit more stable. But I’m sure that if and when that day arrives I will catch a whiff of petrol very now and again, or get a craving for tea-with-5-sugars in a little glass, and I will miss what I have now.


2 Responses to “Are you a ‘field’ person?”

  1. nepaliketi Says:

    you know what, i most definitely think you will miss being a field based girl…i used to be the girl that worked at dupont circle in dc, went for drinks after work in adams morgan and scheudled manicures for lazy sundays and a year of that convinced me that there is more peacebuilding to be done than which is possible from my cubicle and through my computer screen … i was still learning and i didn’t waste my time, and perhaps if i were VP and more involved in the decision making than completing tasks as assigned it may be more meaningful. but, still….i think you’ll be nostalgic about your milky tea and smelly socks come that rich mahogany office.

  2. I want your job….its ok, when you come home we will camp in the garden for extended periods of time, go bin raiding and wash in the pond.

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