Close to suffering
Nigel Timmins’ first job was in Kabul when the Taliban took the city. He is now the humanitarian programmes unit manager for Christian Aid’s work in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean –operating most recently in Egypt and Libya.
Christian Aid has two managers for disaster related work – emergencies, but also things like preparedness and what’s called risk reduction. One covers Africa and for everywhere else there’s me!
I became a Christian when I was 16 and while going to my youth club I heard a talk on international work and thought, ‘That’s for me.’
So after I did my Bachelor’s degree, I saved up and did a Master’s in water and sanitation engineering, with a focus on developing countries and appropriate technologies. I then did some voluntary work for seven months in Guatemala during their civil war.
I left there and got my first job with a French agency called Action Against Hunger in Kabul in 1996; while I was there the Taliban took the city.
It was after this I started working for Tearfund, still in Kabul, together with my wife. We later moved to respond to the famine in southern Sudan in 1998.
Subsequently I was involved in the responses to wars in the Balkans, Burundi, DRC, and Darfur as well as natural disasters like the Kashmir earthquake and Asian tsunami.
In the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan I met people who had listened to their family members tap away inside their houses for three days and eventually stopped tapping. They weren’t able to dig their own family members out.
A man had been in Colombo, Sri Lanka on business when the tsunami hit. When I met him he was sat on the concrete foundations of his house, where the entire building had been swept away.
It was just a flat concrete platform. He had lost his wife, all his children, his savings. He had in the space of a few minutes lost absolutely everything.
In the Southern Sudan at the end of the 90s we were running a feeding programme for children and pregnant and actating women when I remember a Dinka woman coming towards me wearing what was quite common there, a skirt without a covering for her top half.
She didn’t speak English and I didn’t really speak Dinka, but I remember her lifting her breasts and then dropping them because they were flaccid and they flopped back down against her chest.
She was saying to me ‘Look, I don’t even have enough milk in my breasts for my own child.’ That really stuck with me for many years, particularly when I became a parent, the idea of not having enough food to feed your own child.
Often people ask how you can believe in God when you see all this suffering going on. My experience is actually that the closer you are to suffering, the more God is real. Not just to you, but the people involved.
The more you’re able to distance yourself from the experience and intellectualise it, the more it becomes problematic. Somehow God is more real in the presence of suffering that outside of it. This is when faith becomes more alive and it becomes more real.
Very rarely have I seen people blame God for what has happened. Interestingly, the more experience you have with these situations, the more you realise how culpable we are as humanity.
For example, in countries that are prone to drought, you will find the poor people on higher ground and in countries that are prone to floods, you find the poor people next to the river.
In the context of disasters the inequality of society brings to the fore our ability to be inhuman one to another and the need to express love between ourselves. Even in natural disasters, discrimination plays out time and again.
In the last six months for my team Haiti has loomed large, as has Pakistan; we’ve got ongoing work in the Philippines and we’re wrapping up work in Burma after cyclone Giri; we’re still doing recovery work following cyclone Isla in Bangladesh; we have fresh flooding in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India and have recently seen heavy floods in Eastern Sri Lanka; we’ve got disaster reduction work in the rest of the Caribbean and Central America trying to prepare for cyclone season; and then in South America there’s been major flooding in Colombia, landslides in Rio, and in Peru the Amazon’s been suffering increasing incidences of drought and heavy fires.
In the Middle East and North Africa, there’s ongoing work in Gaza, and most recently the situations in Libya and Egypt have come to the fore.
Who knows what’s going to happen in Libya on a political level, but whatever resolution is found, the fact that so many people have sought to harm and kill each other will make uniting it again very difficult.
The real challenge will be how Libyans can forgive one another in order to move forward. In neighbouring Egypt, despite growing cross-community tensions our local partners continue to promote tolerance and understanding.
This is vital work at the current time and one of the encouragements has been the strong sense of solidarity visible in the communities where our local partners work (in mixed communities of Muslim and Christian) and the work they are undertaking is illustrative of this
In this line of work it is so humbling to see the capacity of others to survive and recover and still have the ability to love others and seek to build community.
Often the media, either intentionally or unintentionally, portray people in such disasters as victims, but I think ‘survivors’ is a much better term.
People’s emotional needs are enormous. In places like Egypt the Christian churches are reaching out to the whole community, Christian and Muslim alike, with the desire to work with all people in times of distress.
Even in this country, the church’s message to asylum seekers and refugees should be, ‘Welcome, we care about you as people, rather than labelling you as immigrants.’
Nigel Timmins was talking to Hannah Kowszun.
Interview first appeared in, and reproduced courtesy of, Third Way magazine