Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beyond the Gate: PiAf

This is the first in a new guest post series, Beyond the Gate, featuring first-person perspectives from recent alums in a variety of fields. Everything — from grad school to entry-level corporate jobs to fellowships — is fair game. This week, we hear from Nahal Zebarjadi '07, a Princeton in Africa fellow who spent the last year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo working for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian relief agency.

The gates of old Nassau can open onto unpredictable places
by Nahal Zebarjadi '07

Imagine … A sparkling, methane-containing lake surrounded by verdant hills whose slopes clutch onto a bustling, colorful city – welcome to the Kivus, also known as the epicenter of protracted conflicts which in late 2007 alone displaced over 400,000 people; or the harsh Equatorial sun beating down on wide, red dusty roads, lined with men laboring to push bicycles piled high with coal to sell in the city; the obstacle-course of muddy potholes on the streets of Kinshasa after torrential wet-season downpours, as the continent’s third-largest metropolis swings noisily back into action; farmers and fishermen of small river villages carrying their crops and even their houses on dug-out canoes downriver to trade.

And then imagine seeing an IRC doctor save the life of a pregnant, 20 year-old mother of 3, bleeding uncontrollably as she lies in a pool of dirty water in a canoe -- if she had survived the several hours it would take her family to paddle her to the nearest nurse, she would probably not have survived the ensuing infection: her meager basket of fish would not be enough to pay for her antibiotics, if they were available. Or hearing the president of a newly-elected Village Development Committee, explain that now her village can wake up and control their own development as a community, and demand accountability of their leaders. Or being shown the craft made by a group of survivors of rape in eastern Congo – women and even young girls who came together, supported each other and taught each other simple skills like knitting that would allow them to make an income to send their children to school.

Follow the jump for the rest of the entry and more photos.

As a Communications Officer for IRC, my job was mostly to see our projects and write about them. Though what I absorbed was inspiring, my own experience also included frustration and loneliness. It felt like I was gaining so much more than I could possibly contribute by writing a news piece. Simply doing what my education had taught me – to write – was challenging in this radically different environment, as I figured out where I belonged in the organization and how I should be doing it. The small expatriate community was so transient that each wave of new-best-friends seemed to enter and leave my world again before I knew it. Security protocols in Kinshasa prohibited me from walking almost anywhere in the city, so I had to (embarrassedly) ask an IRC driver to take me wherever I went, with a closed glass pane separating me from the street kids and peddlers knocking on the car windows, ‘Mundele! Mundele!’

But beneath the surface of these immediately visible barriers, was the real gold to be discovered. My colleagues became an astonishing source of lessons on humanitarianism, life in general, and friendships that will stay with me. I got an insight into how development works in the field, through one of the leading organizations in the world. Despite being a ‘mundele’ or foreigner, the friendship of my Congolese colleagues broke the separation I initially felt from the culture around me. And I found ways of connecting with the streets, by stopping at local shops and stalls to speak, or getting lost in unending reams of colorful fabrics at the market.

In short, I can’t believe my luck. PiAf was not just my first job; it was a professional, intellectual and personal adventure. When I left Congo I carried affection and respect for a fascinating country; personal connections with extraordinary colleagues working on the issues important to me; and a great basis for continuing my studies and my work. I can’t imagine any other job afterPrinceton that would have given me this combination of learning, challenge, inspiration and sheer pleasure. I believe that this experience will continue to influence my life in profound ways.

(If you feel a pinch of excitement, contact the PiAf office or visit the website. Or if you have questions email me at

-Nahal Zebarjadi '07

Check back next week for another Beyond the Gate.


Cordelia said...

Applications are due December 1st for Princeton in Africa's 2009-10 Fellowship year. Come in and speak to us to learn more.