As an international aid worker, based in Wellington, my job is to help support vulnerable people around the world affected by war and natural disaster, when local support systems are unable or unwilling to do the job on their own. That’s what I’ve done for more than 20 years, and over that time I’ve worked in almost every region of the world.
A large part of my job hangs on the challenge of inspiring others to care about distant realities – typically involving the plight of countless strangers living halfway around the world from them. It’s an ambitious ask at the best of times, especially so over the past few weeks given the shocking events here in New Zealand. How can I ask New Zealanders to care about global events, when our hearts and minds are heavy for people suffering here at home?
I was struggling with this tension last week, when rain started falling in unprecedented torrents in two different places at once. In Westland, close at hand, the flood’s impact felt very real, while at the same time, a deluge fell across three countries in southern Africa, on a scale so huge and with impacts so far removed, it is almost impossible to comprehend.
In both places, rivers swelled up and swallowed land, electricity and communications went down, roads became impassable and communities were stranded from the outside world. People were forced from their homes as food, belongings and livelihoods were swept away.
After Cyclone Idai made landfall late last month, entire communities became submerged. Across the three countries of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, three million people were affected – whether by lost lives, lost homes, lost crops or incomes. At last count, 150,000 in Mozambique alone are now displaced, forced into camps on islands of dry land in the midst of a new lake that is six metres deep in places and stretches across an area twice the size of Auckland. The water is dirty and there is no food, so another disaster of disease looms large on the horizon.
I wonder if such a tension really does exist between what happens ‘here’ and what happens ‘there’.
A life in southern Africa is just as real and valuable as that of any New Zealander, and many in the path of Idai are in peril. But can I ask you to care about Zainabu, the young Mozambican mother and her baby halfway around the world, when in Haast and Franz Joseph – places we’ve been and friends we know – have been forced from their homes, with their children?
As I ponder this, I wonder if such a tension really does exist between what happens ‘here’ and what happens ‘there’. Perhaps the recent events, in their tragedy rather than in spite of them, tie us closer together with the wider world. For this week at least, a young mother in Haast probably has more in common with Zainabu in Bangula camp than with you or me. Were they to meet, they may find in each other someone who can understand their worries; they may both fear what they’ll find when they finally get back to their homes and how they will afford to recover their lives.
In a similar, broader way, perhaps even we as New Zealanders can better empathise and appreciate why similar events ‘out there’ matter and why we should care, when we have been touched by similar events here. In modern, diverse Aotearoa, empathy can be triggered in countless other ways as well. A Samoan or Tongan Kiwi may relate to Mozambique and Westland through the memory of a cyclone on their ancestral island. For a Kiwi of southern African descent, the connection and concern may be far more direct.
We can also remember that the events that happen ‘here’ and the ones out ‘there’ are tied together not just by similarities, but also by very real and direct causal links. The Westland floods and Cyclone Idai were not normal; both events were consistent with the types of intense and more frequent weather events we can expect as a result of global climate change. We have every incentive to connect across distances and differences to tackle these root causes together.
So here is my hope, and the best answer I can offer you, and myself: through empathy, born out of our own tragedy, strangers become familiar, and we discover new ways, new reasons and new capacity to care. New Zealand may be an island, but as the stories of Kupe and Cook remind us, the ocean has always been a means of connection to the rest of the world, as much as a marker of distance. But empathy does not require us to travel to build a new bond. Through empathy, the distance between ‘there’ and ‘here’ is smaller all the time, and with it, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
New Zealand is not immune to the great ills of the world. We’ve seen that when tragedy and disaster touch us here in New Zealand, others around the world take notice because they can relate through their experience to our struggle. As we learn to care for New Zealanders touched by disaster at home, our ability to connect, relate and care for others similarly touched around the world also grows. This thought gives me hope, even in – especially in – times of disaster.