In her old diaries, Trude Bruun put becoming a chef or a fire fighter at the top of her list of dream professions. Her dream was never really to go out and “save the world.” Today, however, the Norwegian is working in Khartoum, Sudan in the middle of what is being described as the biggest and most complex humanitarian operation the World Food Programme (WFP) is involved in. Here’s the story of how she got there.
What is your position with the WFP?
In May 2010, I started as a Junior Programme Officer (JPO) for WFP in Khartoum, Sudan. I work on the analysis of food security in the country under the VAM-department (Vulnerability, Analysis and Mapping). We provide food security analysis based on the conditions throughout Sudan and its surrounding regions. This type of analysis helps WFP know the scale and type of response that will work the best in a particular environment so that we can do our lifesaving work smarter.
Describe a typical day for you at work.
Honestly, it is rarely a typical day at work - and I really like that about my job. I spend a lot of time analyzing data and writing reports. Because I am working in the field, I also get to travel a lot around Sudan.
What do you like most about your job?
The operation in Sudan is still one of WFP’s biggest and most complex, so it’s been an exciting place for me to start my time with WFP. This year, WFP will be assisting more than 4 million people in Sudan. In Darfur, we’ll be assisting up to 1 million people through what we call our “food-for-assets” programme. As you can tell by its name, WFP provides food in exchange for work on different community development projects, like building roads or digging wells to help communities become more self-sufficient. I also think it is exciting to work in a country with a different culture and different traditions. It gives me a sense of achievement when I am strolling around Khartoum and it feels like home. It is both fun and sometimes frustrating to work with people from all over the world - but I learn a lot from it. I feel that through this experience I have become more open and flexible. At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, I must admit that the feeling that I (at least occasionally) make a small difference really motivates me. This is especially true for WFP where we work to meet the most basic need for the world’s vulnerable: food. It is also very exciting to travel around the country, and I have visited both refugee camps in Kassala and the camps for internally displaced people in Darfur.
Tell us about a day in a field worker’s shoes.
When you’re in the field, something unexpected always occurs. On my very first trip, I got a taste of the unpredictable nature of fieldwork. One of the last places we were visiting that day was a refugee camp on the Eritrea border. After a very long day, we arrived to the destination and started working when suddenly heavy rain started. The problem in these parts of the world is that there is only desert -- with sand as far as the eye can see. So, of course, when water is added to that, the sand turns into a terrible mud! First, one of our cars got stuck in the mud, and when we finally got it up again, the other car got stuck in a river. We were in the middle of nowhere! We had to get help from people living nearby, and to my surprise, together we actually managed to get the car out of the river. My watch said it was 10:00 at night when we’d finally overcome all of the challenges, and it was far too late for us to continue driving. We would not be able to cross the river that night. So, there weren’t many options besides going home with a local family and spending the night there. They were very poor, but still they opened their home to us and gave us food and a bed to sleep in under a starlit sky – near both goats and sheep. The next day it became clear that we could not get across the river without help, and WFP decided to send cars to help us. As long as there were cars on the other side of the river, these cars could help us by pulling our cars over. These guys are local drivers and know what to do in these situations, and finally they got us over. It was already late, and the journey continued to the nearest place to sleep that night - which turned out to be a refugee camp. I was glad to have a roof over my head and a bed. I slept like a baby that night.
What has made the biggest impression on you in your time at WFP?
First and foremost, the many highly-talented staff from Sudan and around the world working for WFP in Sudan impresses me. I share my office with a man from Sudan named Bakri; I learn a lot from him every day. I am also impressed with how fast WFP reacts when something happens, even amidst incredible local challenges.One experience in particular that made a big impression on me happened during a visit to a hospital in North Kordofan. Here, I saw the heartbreaking impact of childhood malnutrition. The children at this hospital were so thin and had big bellies. They had these wounds on their skin as a consequence of not getting enough of the right nutrients. These wounds look almost like burns, and the poor little babies couldn't stop crying.
When families, like many I’ve met in Sudan, have to work around the clock to make ends meet, it can be very difficult for them to make the long trip to the hospital. At the hospital, I met a woman who had been waiting all day with her sick child, but eventually she decided to bring her daughter home without having received any treatment. Her daughter suffered from diarrhea and was terribly thin. The doctors said that the child would likely die without treatment. It must have been heartbreaking to bring her sick daughter back home, but she had the rest of her children to also care for.
What is your advice to those who would like to work in development for an NGO or the United Nations?
My best advice would be to gain practical experience. I was probably a bit naive when I finished my masters degree thinking it would be easy to get a job; this turned out not to be the case. I think it’s absolutely essential to have a few years of overseas experience before trying to land a job in the U.N. system. Work or volunteer abroad for a while and try build up some experience. By doing that, you’ll prove that this is something you really want to do.