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The cost of idealism

During the years when I worked in international development, I met a lot of young idealists. Very few of them knew the reality of aid work.

Elayne Clift writes about social and political issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (

Saxtons River

I had just filed a book review about a woman who risked her life in 2013 trying to help people in the Congo suffering under the rule of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when I happened to see a journalist on CNN talking about Kayla Mueller, the young woman killed by ISIS in Syria.

The juxtaposition of what I’d written and what the journalist said about having met Mueller just before she entered Syria was striking. It can offer important lessons for other young idealists who want to head off to foreign lands to help people in war-torn zones.

The book I reviewed, Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen by Lisa J. Shannon, is a memoir by a young woman with courage, conviction, and a craving for adventure. Shannon went to the Congo with a Congolese friend to tell the stories of what was happening there under Kony in the hope that these narratives would motivate governments and individuals to intervene and provide aid.

By weaving narratives of what life was like pre-LRA and what it had become, Shannon skillfully revealed a tapestry of events at once moving and frightful.

Central to the tale is Mama Koko, a matriarch who stays strong as her family loses everything and is driven into the bush with slim hopes of survival.

One by one, her relatives become victims of unimaginable cruelty. Back in town, Shannon lives with Mama Koko and other survivors. She hears their stories and films people she interviews, putting herself and her friend Francisca in harm’s way to capture what they are willing to share with her.

The question becomes, why? When a United Nations security officer asks, “Who are you with? What is your function?” she struggles to answer that question for herself.

“It was weird enough in the U.S. answering questions about how I supported myself as a volunteer, the independent nature of my work,” Shannon writes. “The strangeness [in Congo] was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t sure I knew, even secretly, what my ‘function’ was.” It was a question that troubled Francisca the longer they remained in danger.

Why put yourself and others in terrible danger when you have no sponsor, no media assignment, and no organizational support? I wondered. What was the expected outcome and how, specifically, might what Shannon did help the victims of a long and vicious war?

I questioned whether the author’s ego might have played a part in her altruism, a thought that was supported by what Shannon recalled about leaving the Congo.

“The question [was] what now? I had decided how I wanted all of this to end,” she writes. “Francisca would emerge a leader for her country.” She had “suggestions for [her] future leadership role, the one I had built up in my head [].”

But years later, “Kony was still out there.” There were more deaths and greater shortages. And “for the people of [Mamma Koko’s town] there are all the things that are gone, that will never come back.”

* * *

In no way am I suggesting that Kayla Mueller, that beautiful, budding young woman who loved life and wanted to do good things, had an oversized ego. Nor do I know if Lisa Shannon does.

But like Shannon, Kayla Mueller was young and idealistic. It appears that she, like Shannon, acted independently in entering a war-torn country, without any of the rigorous and urgent training required by such groups as Doctors Without Borders, United Nations affiliates, or non-government organizations.

It also appears that she had no plan for how to translate her efforts into helpful action when she did leave Syria. She didn’t even have an exit plan.

The journalist who met Mueller on the Turkish border with Syria before she embarked on her self-appointed mission described her as “young and naïve.” The seasoned professional who had worked in many terrifying conflict countries worried about what would happen to her, especially in the absence of training and affiliation.

She reaffirmed all that was good and true in Mueller and her motives. Then she warned other young idealists not to do foolish things.

* * *

During the years when I worked in international development, I met a lot of Lisa Shannons and Kayla Muellers. They often came to me to ask for advice about how to implement their plans to “help people.” They were special young adults with a lot of stars in their eyes. I always found them inspiring.

But very few of them knew the reality of aid work, affiliated or not. And that was in the days before terrorist groups like ISIS were even imagined.

So I honor Kayla Mueller, and I grieve her premature death. Like other bright twenty-somethings, she gave us all hope for a better future when our kinder natures might prevail to prove that love conquers all. You only had to look at pictures of her bright, smiling face to know what she might have given the world had she made it out of Syria.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mueller’s untimely death and the lessons it might hold for other young, vital idealists.

Because the question is not only, “Why?” That’s not so difficult to answer. The hard questions are, “What is my plan?” and “Is it realistic?,” “Am I properly prepared?,” “How dangerous is it?,” and “What are the costs and benefits?,” “How will I make a difference?”

And, maybe most important of all: “Who will have my back when I need to get out of there?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #296 (Wednesday, March 11, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.

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