Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

From an office job in the IFSC, to clearing bombs in Zaire

When I was a girl, I never imagined I would be living in the Congo, racing through the jungle and helping villages to clear bombs and grenades from their land, says Niamh O’Sullivan.

Fri, Jun 1, 2012, 08:24


When I was a girl, I never imagined I would be living in the Congo, racing through the jungle and helping villages to clear bombs and grenades from their land, says Niamh O’Sullivan.

On the road: Niamh O'Sullivan in Yakoma, Équateur Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, packing provisions for five people to live and work for a month in the field

MY FRIENDS FALL into three categories. There are those who have managed to hold on to their jobs in Ireland but work under the continuous threat that tomorrow could be their turn to receive their P45. There are others who have lost their jobs and were forced to leave, and another group who left Ireland voluntarily to pursue work opportunities abroad, hoping to progress in their career to a level that doesn’t exist at home, and to be challenged with new experiences.

We all entered the working world at the same time, but our roads have diverged. I belong to the third category.

I was always interested in humanitarian work, so after I graduated from my sociology degree in 2003, I spent a year in Honduras volunteering in a women’s refuge. The experience was a real eye-opener, fending for myself in a very different culture, learning about the problems other women around the world face, and feeling the reward of helping others build better lives for their families.

Dublin was booming when I arrived back, and everyone was encouraging me to stay. I got an office job in the IFSC, where I worked for three years, but I couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk for the rest of my life.

In 2008, I made the decision to go back to college to study for an MA in international relations. After I graduated, I secured a job through Irish Aid to work as a community mobiliser with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ethiopia. The work was tough, both physically and emotionally, but I was addicted to the constant buzz of activity.

Ariel bomb found in a farmer's field of maize

Since last August, I have been living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, working for the Mines Advisory Group, an international NGO that helps to clear bombs and grenades left over from the deluge of wars that have taken place here in recent history.

Zaire is probably best known in the memory of the Irish public for the massacre of nine Irish peace-keeping soldiers in 1960. It was the Irish Army’s first overseas mission since independence, and the death of so many soldiers in one incident shocked the State. This is constantly in my mind as I find myself in the same country, helping to bring peace and security by removing abandoned military weapons.

My teams and I work in a region about the size of France, visiting villages and schools to pass on security and mine-risk education messages to children, teachers, village leaders, hunters, metal workers and groups of women. We teach them how to identify unexploded ordnance, such as bombs, grenades, rockets and mortars, and how to protect themselves. If we receive information regarding an unexploded ordnance in somebody’s field, we investigate and pass the necessary information to the clearance team.

One village chief told me recently about the day that an army arrived in his village, opened fire and reduced the population from 2,000 to just 198. The survivors fled to the forest to hide, from where they checked once a week for a whole year to see if the soldiers had left. The village chief started to cry as he recounted how they eked out an existence, drinking unclean water and witnessing those weaker than themselves succumb to illness and die. My team was the first NGO to ask him the story of his village.

Stuck in the mud

For three weeks of every month, I live in an isolated rural village, sleeping in a tent, collecting water from the local stream, washing out of a bucket, and eating nothing but rice, beans and leaves from the cassava plant. We then return to base camp for a week to refuel and file our reports, before heading off to another location.

Local children surround our camp daily with the sole purpose to stare: to stare at the white woman eating breakfast with her colleagues; to stare at the white woman refuelling the motorbikes; to stare at the white woman using a computer; and then just to stare some more.

I have one male colleague from France, but we are the only westerners, and the colour of our skin can be an issue. The white person represents the coloniser, and many people still blame western interference for the country’s current problems. If my car breaks down, they might not help until I pay them to, but if my driver gets down to fix the car, they will all give a hand. I have learned to take a step back, because often when people see my skin they interact with me and my team in a very different way.

It can feel very isolated here sometimes, and it can get very lonely. When I am on deployment, I have no internet or telephone network, but Skype is amazing when I’m back at base. Being far away doesn’t mean missing out on events at home, and I can watch my nieces and nephews getting older by the month.

This is definitely not the job I dreamed I would have as a little girl, but it is one I find challenging and immensely rewarding. I wake up every morning relishing the day ahead and wondering what the next adventure will be.

Presentation ceremony to village chief after he was trained as the MAG village Focal Point

I might share a mat with a village chief, or speak to women who are excited to see another woman in a position of authority that they can look up to and respect. I could be travelling on the back of a motorbike through the jungle, racing down the Congo river on a speedboat, or watching the lush canopy of the rainforest rise up around me from the window of a tiny nine-seater plane.

Some people pay thousands of dollars to do these things on adventure holidays, but I get to do it for a living.

My friends and I are all continuously in contact. Those who are abroad are working in the careers they wanted: financial banking, mineral mining, or international policy work. Those in Ireland are working hard, making wedding plans, getting puppies and starting families.

And as for me, I will return to Ireland eventually, because I don’t want to be trekking around the African jungle forever. You have to have energy and you have to be young to do this job, and I too would like to work quietly and consistently hard, and plan weddings, get puppies and start a family. But that will come.

For now,there is still a lot more growing left to do.

- In conversation with Ciara Kenny.

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