I expected not to travel this fall. I ended up moving to a new city, which at times has felt like traveling. But unlike last year, there’s no cliff-jumping or scuba-diving or camel-riding for me these days. What I didn’t expect is that I’d be virtually traveling every day, and not just on my Instagram feed, but in the office where I intern. I sit down at my desk, and I’m in D.C. — but I boot up my computer and I’m in Nigeria, or Mali, or Liberia.
I’m interning for an organization that works to prevent conflict in weak and failing states. My project assignments vary, but they all have one thing in common: they all involve humans I’ve never met, in countries I’ve never been to, suffering in ways I’ve never even begun to experience.
Every day I interact with dozens of facts and figures pertaining to the peace and security landscape in West Africa. Some assignments are more mechanical, like generating lists of stakeholders or entering financial information. But the bulk of my work involves combing through incident reports, and analyzing patterns and trends in conflict.
That’s a sanitized way of saying that I spend the day reading about African children, women and men who have been attacked and often killed in horrifically brutal, disturbing, and tragic ways.
I have no clue what the geographical coordinates of my office are, but I can tell you the exact longitudes and latitudes of hundreds of shootings and killings, insurgency operations, armed clashes, domestic and gender-based violence incidents, child abuses, abductions, and rape cases. The details I’m privy to depend on at what stage I’m interacting with the data. If I’m inputting it, I can see names, ages, specific villages, sometimes full narratives of how the incident allegedly occurred: who killed whom, where, why, and how, what the perpetrator did with the body, where it was found, who found it, if police action is being taken, and so on.
Each incident report whisks me away to a whole new world — one that has specific streets, buildings, and colors, maybe even imagined sounds and smells. It’s a world populated with individuals who have rich pasts and presents, but have been robbed of their futures. There’s an intricate plot and a nail-biting climax, but no neatly-tied ending. I see places I’ll never see and meet people I’ll never meet, who have no idea that someone on the other side of the world is caring about the exact date and location they were abducted, raped, or murdered. But for a few fleeting moments, I’m transported into their lives, their homes, their families, their communities, their deaths.
And then I click down to the next Excel row.
My first week here, I left the office every day for lunch. The second week, I stepped out a couple of times. A month has now passed, and I’ve discovered that it’s easier not to leave at all, to stay in the arms of my desktop reality until ripping myself from its suffocating embrace at 5 p.m.
Some of the challenge has come from confronting my own ignorance about the intensity and frequency of violence in West Africa. I seriously underestimated the sheer volume of incident reports that would come across my desk; the numbers are easily five to ten times what I’d anticipated.
But the greater part of the challenge has come from feeling so close to these strangers and their tragic fates and yet being so far away. I feel a confusing connection to the victims I meet in incident reports. I spend my day interacting with them, but only virtually, and postmortem. I feel frustrated that I can’t save them, that the most helpful thing I can do is turn them into a statistic.
On one level, I am amazed that I’m able to have such an intimate relationship with the other side of the world. Then again, that’s normal in our digital age.
But on the other hand, I am vexed by the contrast between my emotional and physical capabilities in response to these horrific incidents. There is no limit to how emotionally invested I can become, and yet, there are countless limitations on how physically invested I can become. I can’t run to the sides of the wounded or dying I read about. I can’t turn back time and warn a young girl not to go into that store that night. I can’t waltz into a northern Nigerian village and announce that reports of mob violence are on the rise and expect to affect change. I’m hyper-connected emotionally, but disconnected physically — by obstacles of distance and time, by realities of life and death.
I’ve always thought that the Internet encouraged us to become desensitized, removed and even complacent, promoting impassioned posts as a “productive” response to tragedy and allowing us to feel that we’re helping when we’re really not.
But this job has made me do a full 180. That I can’t do much physically means, for me, that I must do something emotionally — whether that’s public or private, whether it’s work or after-work, whether it’s calling a friend to share thoughts and feelings or writing an essay about how I’m grappling with this delicate subject matter. Whereas before I thought of the Internet as a black hole of emotion, I now see it as a portal to whole worlds of emotion.
And in turn, I’ve realized that the degree of removal I associate with the Internet is not always bad. In fact, it is often helpful, even necessary to achieve maximum clarity and effect when handling sensitive issues, like those I’m handling daily. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be heartbroken over the horrifying violence daily affecting women and girls in Nigeria. It simply means that I have to scale back my grief just enough to strip the names from incident reports, and power through to the next Excel row.
I thought that the challenge of this internship would be adjusting to a 9-to-5 desk job. But as it turns out, I rarely get home feeling like I’ve spent the day behind a desk.
(Except for the leg cramps. Those are real. Those are very real.)