Hueler Spotlight — Mary, Humanitarian Aid Worker

Not your average Hueler. Read about this Hueler’s inspiring aid work.

Note: For security reasons and the sensitive nature of the job, we have changed the name of the author to protect her identity. We also cannot mention the name of the non-governmental organization (NGO) she works for or the exact locations in a blog publication.

What inspired you to get into aid work? And how long have you been doing this for?

It was my dream to work in humanitarian aid for a long time. Ever since I was at school, I knew this was the sector of work that I wanted to get into. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of making a difference, however small, to vulnerable people. In particular I was interested in working in disaster recovery and relief. After studying for an undergraduate degree in Geography and Environmental Science, I went on to study a master’s in Crisis and Disaster Management.

After completing my studies, I began searching for a job in the sector. It is notoriously difficult to get a foot in the door in the humanitarian world, but after some perseverance I eventually got a place on a recruitment week for a NGO in early 2016. This week was intense and pretty crazy, putting us through our paces to see if we had what it takes to handle life ‘in the field’ as a humanitarian worker. At the end of the week, I was offered a job in Afghanistan! And that’s where my life as a humanitarian worker began.

I have now been working in Afghanistan for a year as a manager on a multi-sectoral project that encompasses WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), nutrition and food security in two different regions of Afghanistan — Kandahar and the Central Highlands, where I am based.

The Central Highlands of Afghanistan — picture taken on the road

What does a typical day look like for you?

There isn’t really such a thing as a ‘typical’ day in my job.

I’m predominantly based in the Central Highlands, which in the winter involves being based in our office in a small town. Due to the weather over the winter, we are unable to get out to the remote communities where we work, as the mountain passes are closed due to the snow (temperatures get down to -30°C, so they are very harsh winters!). So between December and the end of March my work is mostly office based, preparing donor reports and working on preparations for the coming months in the field. We also use this time to run training sessions with our national Afghan staff to build capacity.

In the spring, summer and autumn months, my work runs in cycles of being out ‘in the field’ in the remote communities where we work. This is the part of my job I truly love!

It involves hours and hours in the back of a Land Cruiser on the craziest roads I’ve ever experienced in my life, constantly being shaken around in the back and banging my head on the roof of the car! Once we make it out to our field base, where I live with my team of national staff for weeks at a time, we begin work driving out to remote villages. We hold community assembly meetings in which we deliver training on hygiene, sanitation, nutrition and kitchen gardening, distribute hygiene kits and kitchen garden seeds and materials, as well as discuss with the community where to site the latrines and water points we will later build.

One of the key aspects of our work is community involvement and collaboration at every stage. We want the communities to own the changes and to feel empowered. The kitchen garden aspect of our project is how we work to strengthen the food security of the communities where we operate. We teach the women in the communities how to build and maintain kitchen gardens in order for their families to have easy and free access to fruits and vegetables. These communities rely wholly on agriculture and farm in areas that are incredibly prone to both flooding and drought at different times of year, so are very vulnerable to crop losses which can often result in missed meals, or for some portions of the year living solely on bread and green tea for most meals. By bringing kitchen gardens into the communities it both empowers the women and provides improved food security and nutrition to the communities as a whole.

A memorable moment for me in the field was during one community meeting when we were following up on how the community had got on with their kitchen gardens. In the meeting, the men were doing a lot of the talking, then suddenly one woman cut in and began talking loudly. I asked my translator what she was saying, and she was saying,

“The kitchen gardens, this is the women’s work! We planted all the seeds, we have taken care of the gardens. This work belongs to us, and it has helped us provide vegetables for our children!”

This was awesome to see; in a culture where women often don’t get a chance to speak up, this woman made sure we knew it was the women of the community who had done the work– and they were proud of it.

A woman working on her kitchen garden

What are the main challenges you face, or what has been the biggest challenge so far?

One of the main challenges I faced, especially at the beginning of my time in Afghanistan, was adjusting to the cultural norms of the country. As a woman managing a team of all male Afghan staff, I had to quickly learn how to do this in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. I also had to learn how to ensure I am always culturally appropriate in small everyday ways, from always ensuring I dress appropriately (which involves a long skirt over hiking trousers and a large headscarf when out in the remote field locations– definitely tricky when we have to get out of the car and hike to a high-up village!) to making sure I don’t make a cultural faux pas, such as blowing my nose in public or eating with the wrong hand.

Another big challenge for me has been the food. Especially when out in the field, food options are very limited. The team mostly eats naan, beans, and meat. As someone who is intolerant to gluten and also vegan, having Huel with me is great. It means I can quickly mix up a shaker and have all the nutrients I need to keep me going for the day. I always have some with me, and it’s especially good when hiking long distances at high altitude!

What do you do to occupy your free time?

Free time is something that is often tricky to fill in Afghanistan. For security reasons our movements can often be restricted, and there are limitations on what we can do and when. In the small town where our main office is based in the highlands, I can sometimes meet up with a few expats from other NGOs, and at the weekend we can sometimes go on a hike just outside of town. This is my favourite way to spend my free time. Afghanistan is truly a beautiful country, something people don’t often see.

You’ve mentioned you’re working on a water and nutrition project — how do you think Huel could help on this?

In terms of nutrition, we have to provide solutions that are culturally appropriate, sustainable and accessible. This means introducing foods that Afghan people can include in their diet and are suitable to their tastes. In the Central Highlands this is predominantly done through kitchen gardening, and in Kandahar, where levels of malnutrition are much higher, we also run emergency nutrition clinics where we distribute Plumpy’Nut supplements through UNICEF.

Mary is one of many Huelers that have Huel to help them to do good work and lead inspiring lives.

Huel is a nutritionally complete powdered food ​that contains all the proteins, carbs, and fats you need, plus at least 100% of the European Union’s “Daily Recommended Amounts” of all 26 essential vitamins and minerals​. So you know you won’t be deficient in any essential nutrients.

It’s been formulated by the renowned nutrition expert James Collier BSc (Hons), RNutr. James has over 25 years of experience working in nutrition and dietetics, including 7 years as a Clinical Dietitian in the NHS. He also has an Honours Degree in Nutrition with Dietetics.

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