Some societies are taught to believe that one’s worth is measured by gender, age and income. Once upon a time, in a far away land called Timor Leste, I proved them wrong.
While I was working as a United Nations volunteer, I learned the harsh reality of societal prejudice. At the age of 25, I left my country to serve as the youngest female UN volunteer in Timor Leste. I was young, idealistic and needless to say proud.
I was sent to work as a Civic Education Officer in a remote eastern district called Lautem. My task was to put it briefly, to prepare the Timorese people for their first presidential election. Preparation comprised of activities or programmes aimed at sensitizing and promoting democratic values through voter education, public information activities, events and informal meetings.
Working together with a mixture of people from various countries and diverse culture really opened up my eyes to the universality of human behavior. I left my country feeling proud but this was soon replaced by insecurity. Being the lowest paid UN staff, it was easy for others to make me feel small and insignificant. It is not uncommon for many UN volunteers to feel embarassed about their status quo.
Soon enough though, my job taught me to understand the importance and significance of my small role in the greater scheme of things.
There are so many people out there today who would not hesitate to try to convince you that you are worth lesser than them. There was one particular international staff who tried to make me feel that being a woman, young and the lowest paid, I was not worthy of his respect.
This person who worked as the Field Administrative Officer (FAO), felt that since he was in charge of administrative, procurement and logistics coordination, he had great power and influence over anyone. To put it simply, any staff who needed something as trivial as a chair, had to seek his approval and authorization.
Upon realizing such power, many staffs tried to get on his good side, by rubbing shoulders with him and giving him favours in order to get things done without all the fuss. He, of course, thrived on the attention and favours.
Being young and naïve, I did not quite understand the need for anyone to kowtow to him, as I thought that it was simply his job to see to the administrative and logistic needs of his fellow colleagues. Why else would he be paid for? Hence, I never bothered paying him more attention than needed and maintained our relationship strictly professional. I could not bear to be in his company since I questioned his intention and sincerity.
Needless to say, my indifference towards his power and position eventually hurt his ego. I began to notice that it took me more effort than anyone else to request anything from him. He would snub me in public and to put it bluntly found ways to make my work difficult.
The extent of his dislike for me reached a climax when he denied me access to a driver, trucks, chairs, equipment and additional staffs I needed in order to organize an important event. His excuse was the fact that I did not provide him with sufficient notice and it was the weekend where the word “work” meant nothing to him. It was of course an excuse used to make sure that I would be held responsible for a failed event since the word “weekend” did not exist in such a humanitarian work context.
I was given an ultimatum, to submit to defeat or to rise up to the occasion. I chose the latter. Instead of breaking down and pleading to him, I gathered all the strength and courage I had, to put together all the resources I needed on my own.
That weekend, I spoke with some local people who agreed to lend me all the furniture and equipment I needed from the local community hall, drove my own assigned vehicle to painstakingly transport all the materials and hired additional workers from my own pocket. It was a lot of hard work. I could have made my own life easier but I chose not to compromise my dignity and pride.
The event was a huge success and I guess the biggest battle won was in essence one of personal triumph. The FAO soon learned that I would not be broken down and what I lacked in age and position, I made up in strength and determination.
There are many forms of dictatorship. It may not always appear in the form of an Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Saddam Hussein. It often appears in the form of a senior person in a position of power. We are often taught or made to feel that we are not good enough due to the fact that we are young, uneducated, poor or being a female.
However, if we learn to have respect and belief in ourselves, nobody can take that away from us, no matter how hard they try. They may break our physical being but hopefully they will never break our spirit. We can either submit to these prejudices or we can always prove them wrong.
Perhaps what we should think about is why there will be some people who love to put us down? I personally think that it is often the only way they know how to deal with their own insecurities. The good thing is, there will always be a few people who will recognize and acknowledge our hard work and potential and those are the people who really matter.
My experience as a UN volunteer has taught me that every person, no matter how low they are in the scale of things, they each have an important role to play and they should never let other people try to convince them otherwise.
Always serve with pride and dignity so that you too, can bloody prove them wrong.
Written on 4 September 2006