A few weeks ago WFP Logistics Officer Alastair Cook walked in and dropped a 1kg stack of papers on my desk. He wasn't angry, he was just doing me a favor. I heard from an associate that Alastair was a commited field writer and kept a detailed journal for family and friends back home. As luck would have it he got lost on his way to meeting a wound up walking into our office. I asked him if he would be willing to share what he had written and he responded with, "Sure, I'll drop it by later." Drop it by he did - with a resounding thud.
I have spent time reading through passages that are filled with humor, pride and obvious devotion to his work. His stories and anecdotes are hilarious, heartwarming and all too familiar to field staff that have spent their time out on the pointy end of the spear. That is where Alastair has spent most of his life - in the field doing the heavy lifting that makes our humanitarian world go round - and he has documented in detail his experiences, challenges and victories.
Why does he spend his last waking hours following an 18hr work day transcribing his day's journal entries into a Word document? So he can send it home to his family in London and New Zealand. While Alastair is out there making everything right in the world his daughters are back in London going to school. We all know this story and no matter how many of our friends and coworkers suffer through the exact same thing it never makes it any easier. It is one thing to say that it's the life we've chosen, it is another thing to actually have to live it.
I think Alastair would agree that being separated from our families is the hardest part of the work we do. It is not the bugs, guns, tragedy and sometimes violence that makes our job so hard. It is the knowledge that we're out there trying to make the world a better place and that our kids still might not understand why we're not there for them. Reading through Alastair's work I cannot help but think that in some way his journal is atonement for not being the parent that we wish we could all be. We want to tell them that it's the world's greatest job but we don't for one minute want them to think that we enjoy it more than being at home because we don't. It is so hard to convey the feeling that comes from having just helped save someone's life yet we desperately want them to understand as it somehow seems to justify our absence. So, what do we do? In Alastair's case he takes his family along with him.
Every word, every bit of humor and every frustration that he writes about is meant to bring his family to the place where he works and to help them understand what he goes through on a daily basis. All his victories and losses are stacked up for his family to see, his days are detailed showing that every waking minute is devoted to the work at hand and that while his life is spent somewhere south of comfortable at least he is not suffering. This is exactly what we want our kids to understand - that we are out there every day pushing ourselves to the limit, taking big risks for other people and saving lives as a result but also that we will always, no matter what, come home at the end of the mission. Never for a minute would we want them to lose faith in us or the task at hand because if they lose faith in us we might just lose faith in ourselves. And, if that happens we might as well just pack it in and head home because that is when life becomes dangerous.
It is clear, at least to me, that while Alastair's work appears on the surface to be a simple chronicle of his experiences it really is a testament to his commitment as a father. Many of us struggle with the separation issue and each of us have come up with a solution. Alastair has developed his own and it fittingly seems to match his approach to work and life - full throttle, hands on and no holds barred. He sure has got some lucky kids.
In the coming weeks we will publish excerpts from Alastair's journals as part of a special series featuring WFP field writers. In the mean time please take a look at this VIDEO which Alastair published on YouTube following his return from Kenya in 2007. I guarantee you'll be dancing before you are halfway through it.