[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.
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.
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.