Another Day in the Drop Zone

They fly into lands of hunger and madness, dispensing food while warlords dispense terror from the barrel of a gun. They trade safety and comfort for the sharp edge of altruism, predictable careers for the daily bread of death and disease. They're relief workers on the front lines—and once they're hooked, they can never go home again.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


BEFORE THE SUN had risen much above the horizon, Loftus and I put on running shoes and headed for the dirt airstrip. We jogged back and forth for a half-hour, past women lugging jugs of water on their heads, past thin hunters with spears, past naked, giggling children.

"They think it's the most bizarre thing," Loftus said. And it is. But in Sudan, where serious illness is a scratch or a sneeze or a dirty fork away, staying fit (or at least unsick) is important. Loftus travels with an arsenal of health- and sanity-preserving weapons. She eschews the beans-and-rice strategy of bush survival, opting instead for jars of garlic and olives, packets of cumin and coriander, powdered coconut milk, cans of tikka marsala, and bags of bulgar and lentils. She carries $60 tubes of Lancôme skin cleanser, toenail polish, and a solar-powered cassette player. "I have one week off for every six weeks in the field," she explains. "If I didn't feel at home, I couldn't work here."

Sadly, these self-protective strategies can widen the gulf between aid workers and the people they help. It's not a white-versus-black issue; Kamemia was almost as much of an alien in Mangar Angui as Loftus, although his knowledge of Arabic, which some educated southern Sudanese speak, brought him closer to a few. Aid workers learn to be insular: The hands extended toward you—and everyone wants to shake your hand—can transmit any number of gastrointestinal diseases. Loftus has already perfected a method of waving in such a friendly way that people don't realize she hasn't shaken their hands.

for another village, we were watched closely by two women who had been employed, during our visit, to wash our dishes and bring water from a well a half-mile away, carrying the 20-liter containers on their heads. They had been paid with a sack of maize, which would fulfill perhaps a quarter of a family's needs for a month, after the women pounded it into powder and cooked it into a sludgy porridge. But they wanted more, and they held out their hands to Loftus as she stowed her food in her trunk. The women wore torn, soiled bits of clothing and, like all but the luckiest of local villagers, had no shoes.

"Don't beg," Loftus said sharply to one, in English. "It doesn't make you look good."

It sounded harsh, and it was. But her words reflected the sort of hard-heartedness aid workers must adopt to keep from being driven into utter depression by the insurmountable misery around them. It also reflected an effort to stay sane by following the rules even when doing so seems callous or futile. You can't save everyone, nor can you protect them from vultures in their midst. Sometimes you have little choice but to walk away. During the food distribution, as women left with entire 50-kilo bags, Loftus spoke with local officials who told her the food would be kept nearby and redistributed the next day. By that time, as they well knew, she would be gone. And the chiefs would divide the food however they wished.