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The truth is complicated
THEO PANAYIDES meets a young NGO worker thriving on life in some of the world’s furthest flung danger spots
It’s the coldest day of the year, and Alexandra Mitsidou is coming down with something. This is not, in itself, a surprise. Alexandra isn’t great at looking after her health, she admits, and is forever falling prey to this or that bug. “Almost every country I visit, I get gastro problems. This is just what happens.” She shrugs airily, with a 26-year-old’s blithe conviction that good health is important but not, in the end, that important: “But it’s okay.”
None of this would matter, necessarily, except that she’s embarking on a 48-hour plane trip tomorrow, with lengthy layovers in London and Miami, and it’ll be a pain if she’s sneezing and sniffling all the way to Central America. Meanwhile we sit, nursing oversized cups of tea which remain largely untouched, in a rather “uninspired café”, chosen not for its charm but for its proximity to the house where she grew up. She doesn’t live there anymore, which is not unusual for a 26-year-old woman – but she doesn’t live in the same city either, or indeed the same country. She’s currently based in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, working for an Irish humanitarian organisation called Goal. Before that she was in Kenya, in the north-western border district of Turkana, “sent there to support the emergency response to the Horn of Africa crisis” – and before that she lived in India for a few months, in the province of Maharashtra, doing research for a thesis on ‘Child Deaths Due to Malnutrition in Tribal Areas of India’.
At this point, many readers will raise a fist and cry ‘Right on, girl!’, while perhaps just as many will roll their eyes and go ‘Oh no, another do-gooder’. I admit I’m quite often in the second camp – but Alexandra is excellent company, a bright-eyed charmer who comes off (even) younger than her years.
She’s smart, candid and enthusiastic. She’s even brought gifts for me and my colleagues, a bag of organic coffee and a bag of corn snacks which Hondurans (apparently) love to dunk in their cups of java. She’s just three years out of college – a double major in Anthropology and Spanish at the University of North Carolina, followed by a stint in Bilbao doing a Master’s in International Humanitarian Action – and still has a lot of student tics about her body language. She’ll do that young person’s thing of drawing invisible quotation marks in the air, or give a quick shimmy to indicate someone who thinks they’re sooo cool; at one point, making an argument so obvious it should go without saying, she leans forward, puts her hands together under her chin and pleads “Come on!”. She says ‘like’ a lot, and indulges in the Valley Girl shtick where she puts a comical pause before ‘no’ (“I’m like … no”) – yet there’s a wonderful earnestness about her, as when she talks about drawing ‘Tina Spaghettina’ and ‘Ronnie Macaroni’, cartoon mascots for her family’s pasta business, which were nominated for an In Business award. “Do you know what In Business is?” she asks with a childlike directness. “I have no idea what it is. Maybe it’s a magazine.”
But it’s not just her style that makes her likeable – it’s also her life choices, and above all her philosophy. Not the volunteering per se, which she did as a teenager (a pivotal event in her life was a summer she spent as an English teacher in a squalid little village in Peru); lots of youngsters volunteer to work in the Third World for a few weeks, even if Cypriots tend to do it less than other Europeans. Nor is it the NGO work per se, NGOs having become such a global industry that it’s no longer a big deal to find someone working in remote or perilous places. What’s surprising is how Alexandra feels about the people in those places, and how vehemently she objects to the stereotype of ‘doing good’ in the missionary sense of alleviating suffering or providing charity.
I hate the concept of charity, I think it’s very one-way. If there’s something your readers should take away from this line of work that I’m in,” – she smirks self-consciously at her own pompousness – “it’s that it isn’t charity. I don’t see it as that. I see it as a partnership, because [the locals] also have a huge active role. It’s actually them driving the change, and you facilitating it”. When she says this to “most people with very good intentions”, she adds with a touch of asperity, they nod sympathetically and spout the well-worn metaphor that she’s ‘not giving the locals fish, she’s teaching them how to fish’ – but if anything that’s even worse, and “I find that a bit patronising and a bit offensive”. The indigenous people of Turkana, for instance, have known ‘how to fish’ for centuries’; they’ve been living this way for a very long time, while “our society has only been this way for the past… century? And we’re already having unbelievable problems sustaining it”. Simply put, the West is in no position to teach anybody anything – but it does have money and know-how, and can help fix the problems caused by climate change and urbanisation.
That’s not enough for many Westerners, who like to feel they’re ‘saving’ less developed nations. Friends in Cyprus used to approach her with questions like “So, how bad was India?”, just like everyone now wants to hear about crime in Honduras (the country has the world’s highest murder rate). NGOs have been using people’s secret craving for bad news – just as long as it happens to other people – for years now, notably with “Bono and [Bob] Geldof and all that, the black skinny kids with the flies on their mouth”. A journalist friend recently explained to her that, when it comes to child malnutrition, “you have a standard storyline. There’s the starving child, there’s the voiceless mother: she has no past, she’s never cheated on her husband. There’s, like, the corrupt official. There’s the aid worker who’s pure of heart. They always play on that story – and that’s what people consume, and that’s what they want. But it’s wrong, we have to break this. No more!”
So what’s the real story? It’s political, for a start. Children were dying in Kenya partly because the government has built dams and created national parks (which are actually good things), so there’s nowhere for indigenous people to go to escape a drought. The truth is complicated – just like life in Tegucigalpa, where Alexandra admits it’s taken her a while to find her “normal rhythm”. She’s a Project Officer assisting on three big projects, much of her work being in the barrios (i.e. slums) where there’s “a huge gang presence” and you have to pay a “war tax” as you enter – “which is usually at gunpoint, it’s usually tense, but it’s business as usual. I mean, my colleagues don’t react to it anymore – I’m sure they do on some level, but they’re completely composed – and I try to imitate them.”
She’s been there for six months, with six months left to run on her (renewable) contract. Security is high; she and her colleagues (she’s the only foreigner, though her boss is an Irish expat ‘gone native’) are meticulously trained in how to avoid danger. Still, it sounds pretty scary. Even in the middle-class ‘safe’ areas, everyone drives to the mall and the streets are deserted; mostly you see “huge SUVs with black windows” cruising past homes surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. At first, recalls Alexandra, “I started walking to work. It was not recommended, but I was like ‘I’m not going to give in to this fear, I will walk’. So I walked every day for maybe two weeks, and I remember thinking: ‘OK, I’m walking, it feels good, but the truth is I’m not at peace. I’m worried all the time, I’m looking over my shoulder. There’s no-one in the street, if someone wanted to do something to me they could do it’.” Life was awkward for a while – but she’s now made some friends, ventures out to the countryside (which is beautiful) on weekends, and is generally starting to confirm, once again, that there’s good and bad in everything. Besides, she shrugs, “I haven’t seen that many horrific things”.
‘That many’? So she’s seen a few?
“Yeeeees…” She hesitates, her expressive face clouded with doubt. “My family’s going to read this interview, so…”
The family are worried, of course, but they “trust my judgment”. Besides, they know how much the work means to her. Alexandra asked her dad if he wanted her to join the family business a couple of years ago (her older sister is already there, having studied Business): “I was like ‘Dad, do you want me to come into the company?’ and he’s like ‘No honey, you’ll just give everything to the poor, stay in Kenya!’.” Pause. “He was half-joking.”
You couldn’t call her a black sheep, but she’s something of a grey sheep – and always has been. Painfully shy as a child, she grew into a ball of contradictions (both nerdy and sporty, a girl with lots of friends though also “kind of a loner”) then made her way to North Carolina as an “undecided major”. Didn’t she have any passions? “I had too many passions, that was the problem! I was interested in too many things. I wanted to be a marine biologist for National Geographic, I also wanted to be a cartoonist…” She took courses in a huge variety of subjects, from Animal Biology to Scuba Diving, Archaeology to Philosophy of Numbers (“You cannot imagine. I was, like, all over the place”) – then came that summer in Peru, and a realisation that she “really enjoyed the idea of being a facilitator”. Or maybe it came down to something even simpler: “I’m really fascinated by people”.
And now she’s in Honduras for a year (or more) – teaching farmers to increase their yield without soil erosion, trying to halt the landslides and floods that add to the misery of life in the barrio, even keeping a journal (which her friends in Cyprus assume must be “super-intellectual, [but] I’m writing that I miss tashi and I don’t want to go to the mall, things like that!”). What next for Alexandra Mitsidou? Cyprus is one option, and she actually spent a year here in between India and Kenya – “I was like OK, enough of this travel, I’m becoming [invisible quotes] ‘social capital’ and it should stay in my country” – but I reckon she’d be bored, or frustrated, after a while. “As a person, I stress out a lot,” she says sheepishly. “I’m very, like, fidgety.”
So where does she see herself in five years? “I always get asked that in job interviews and I always lie, because I have no idea!” she replies, laughing merrily. “I take life six months at a time”. She doesn’t even know if she’s going to stay in NGO work: “I don’t think people should ever limit themselves, or make themselves fit into a mould. Like, ‘aid worker’ – over. No. I’m a cartoonist! I’m – a bunch of things, I’m really fascinated by a lot of things. I love languages, I’d love to be a translator at some point…” She tails off, the eyes shining brightly. This is where being 26 comes in handy.
Alexandra’s still a college student, really. It’s not just the tics – she’s got the enthusiasm, and she’s got the idealism. A career in academia is one option – but only if she can be “one of those good professors who have a lot of field experience, and can ground their students but also let them dream. I’m in love with that age-group, from 19 to 22 years old, that think they’re going to change the world”. She’s become more practical since her own uni days, less starry-eyed – then again, she really is changing the world. “I’ve changed my approach,” she admits, “but I haven’t lost faith”. Hope her cold gets better, too.