[Taken from the Ugandan Journals]

In transit at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I bought a copy of Six Months in Sudan by James Maskalyk. I vacillated over the decision to buy it. Mostly because of not wanting to draw shillings from the ATM just for a book. In the end, of course, I would.

I’ve read accounts from MSF volunteers-turned-writers before, but none which has ever been quite as introspective. On buses in the last weeks, and finally tonight in a cheap Kitgum hotel that few could find on a map, I reached the end.

My overwhelming reaction is to feel small. Absolutely fucking tiny.

It came on top of a week of interviews with people savaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Reading about James’ work in Abyei – so instantly snuffed out by war – and about those medical staff who make a direct difference to people’s lives, my overwhelming reaction is to feel small. Absolutely fucking tiny.

All I do I write. All I have are words. I try to put thoughts – descriptive, introspective – down for others to consider.

I’ve never directly saved a life.

I can’t point to something I’ve written and see in it a specific change for good in the world.

Perhaps, in the months that remain for me to begin writing these experiences into the world, I just might. It’s a chance at redemption. At having seen a thousand little things that I wished I could fix, but couldn’t. Or could have fixed, but didn’t.

I want to be there, wherever there is, as a force for direct and unambiguous good. I’ve had the thought more than once already that I wish I had studied medicine. Between where I am and how I want to be lies an ocean of heroes. Fighting the big fights and making the real differences. Saving lives. Changing things. Next to which I feel so artificial. A poor facsimile of potential. The journalist-listener.

Some days later, leaving Uganda, those stories would lie coiled around my daydreams.

Every journey in the last years has tried to close that space between myself and making things right in the world. But reading about the work that people in organisations like MSF do, I still feel so very far away. Part of it has been physical distance. Not being in the most broken of places. And part of it is internal distance. I feel so powerless to help, were I even there.

These hands cannot heal. They can only write. Try to imperfectly capture the ephemera of people and the most impressionistic outlines of place. Of what use are these, compared to healing. Compared to building. Compared to teaching.

Some days later, leaving Uganda, those stories would lie coiled around my daydreams. Would mercilessly fracture my sleep. I would also come to realise that these hands could fashion them into weapons of a sort. Powerful in the manner of music, rather than gunpowder.

As eyes and voice of a swallow can tell stories to kings.

  • Yolande Steenkamp

    I feel so touched by your piece. Thank you for giving voice to your feelings of raising arms that are just never long enough to reach to give what is needed. Thank you for providing me a moment to sit with my own smallness. We are all small. So excruciatingly powerless.

  • just back from juba, south sudan, and a photo assignment on maternal health; south sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. it was pretty harrowing, many pix that will not make it beyond my hard drive. i suppose i was just an observer…with a camera, watching and not getting involved. only this time it was different in that i had a full 8 days there, 8 days spent in the wards…talking to people, sitting down and asking questions, simple hello’s, simple asking their names, how were they…and this before my camera was even raised. it made all the difference and it made telling this story – days in the life of the hospital and everyone in it – all the more layered and honest i hope. i became part of it, for that short time, rather more than just the observer i think.

  • Richard

    I suspect that that time before the camera will be well spent, in the richness of the stories that you will be able to tell beside the images. It struck me the other day, watching someone talk about what a photo of a desperate child meant to them, that photographs can be a form of undirected energy. Drama without context. They can do wo much good if seen in a particular context, with a specific story. Change the story, and you change what that photograph means to observers.

    That effect of stories and context on how we understand images is what makes those days matter more than many realise, I reckon.

  • Richard

    And yet we raise arms. And pursue our small directions. Not because they will always succeed, but because nothing can ever happen without them. Working without guarantees feels like the toughest task sometimes, yet it’s exactly the work that can – and must – be done.

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