We saved lives and failed to save lives

The Irish Times Magazine - - ADVICE - Colin Mur­phy is a writer, doc­u­men­tary maker and jour­nal­ist Do you want to share your Time of My Life story? Email magazine@ irish­times. com with “Time of My Life” in the sub­ject line

One night in the sum­mer of 2001 I found my­self stand­ing in a muddy field, hold­ing a clip­board, in­ter­ro­gat­ing chil­dren. The chil­dren were in makeshift huts, thrown to­gether from wood and mud and plas­tic sheet­ing. There were lines and lines of these huts, stretch­ing off into the dark­ness. I moved along them, shin­ing a torch in­side, ask­ing the chil­dren where their par­ents were.

The chil­dren had been dis­placed by the war in An­gola; I was work­ing with an aid agency there. The aid agen­cies were pro­vid­ing emer­gency ra­tions for these fam­i­lies; ad­min­is­tra­tors had come to the con­clu­sion that some fam­i­lies were gam­ing the sys­tem, build­ing sec­ond huts in or­der to regis­ter for a sec­ond ra­tion. We had ar­rived, unan­nounced, in the small hours, to check.

As I worked, I could hear the fran­tic scram­bling of peo­ple run­ning in the dark between the huts, try­ing to get to their sec­ond hut be­fore an aid worker found it un­oc­cu­pied and can­celled its ra­tion.

The ra­tion con­sisted of a few ki­los of rice, beans, a tiny bit of salt, some oil. Per­haps some fam­i­lies wanted to eat more than their nu­tri­tional min­i­mum; per­haps some wanted to sell the food in the mar­ket and buy a blan­ket or some bat­ter­ies or a pair of Euro­pean char­ity- shop shoes.

When we fin­ished, at dawn, the head of the op­er­a­tion, a so­cial worker by train­ing, whom I knew to be a good and brave man, stood on a ta­ble in the mid­dle of the field and called the peo­ple “cheats”. And then we got back in our white 4x4s and drove back to the town for break­fast.

I was two years in An­gola. We did some ex­tra­or­di­nary work and some or­di­nary work; we saved lives and failed to save lives, and could do noth­ing about the over­rid­ing threat to them, the then on­go­ing war. I would like to say it changed my life: that I forged a ca­reer as an aid worker or ad­vo­cate or politi­cian de­ter­mined to fight global in­jus­tice. In­stead, I came home, and now I write plays and jour­nal­ism for an Ir­ish au­di­ence and watch Net­flix and oc­ca­sion­ally help out at my kids’ school. An­gola was too messy for neat in­sights into hu­man na­ture, or pol­i­tics, or global in­jus­tice. I learned some­thing of what hap­pens when the state col­lapses. I learned that there was an ir­re­duc­ible com­plex­ity to such crises, that could not be fixed merely with money or good in­ten­tions. I learned that I was tougher than I thought, and also more vul­ner­a­ble. I came to feel that my own niche might be found in watch­ing things and writ­ing about them.

Pass­ing Spar in Phib­s­bor­ough one night re­cently, I stopped to put some coins in the poly­styrene cup of a woman who was hop­ing to get into a hos­tel. She looked wrecked. It was snow­ing. A man passed as I did so. “They’re all scam­mers,” he mut­tered. There’s not much you can do, as a writer, of prac­ti­cal im­pact. But you get to watch things, and think about them, and try and place your­self in other peo­ple’s shoes. An­gola of­fered other paths, of more im­me­di­ate worth and greater con­tri­bu­tion; some­how, this seems to be the one I chose.

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