As an expat, my thoughts on Bamako….

Following on from a post I wrote about Paris ten days ago, I wanted to write about something that has been niggling in the back of my mind. It’s hard sometimes to express everything you feel in one, succinct essay – especially on such a difficult subject as personal safety and security. These are all my personal views and are not set in stone. Nevertheless I do think that as expats we are in a slightly different position to our counterparts back “home”. I would be interested to hear views.


It’s been a strange couple of weeks. Terrorism, bombings, Islamaphobia, hostage situations, Turks shooting down Russians…it feels like it is starting to get a little out of control. I am sure I am not the only one wondering where this is going to end.

But how much of what we feel is manipulated by what we read? I had a Skype conversation with a lovely friend back in our home town a few days ago, who told me some of the parents at our old school were worried about a trip the kids were making to London. It took me a while to work out why they were worried. Apparently they feared they would be the victim of a terrorist attack.

Okay I totally get it. Paris was hit, Belgium is all over the news. We, the UK, are heavily involved with both those countries, standing “shoulder to shoulder” with them. There is every possibility that attacks may happen at some point in our country, London is high up the list of places that may get targeted. But on the other hand, so must be the town where we live (home to GCHQ – otherwise known as the Government’s “listening post” for its intelligence agents). As well as other towns and cities near by – Birmingham, Bristol, Gloucester. In fact, there is always a small chance that these awful events can happen pretty much everywhere.

Not to mention that the biggest risk those children still face is being involved in a traffic accident on the way to the capital. And if you start Googling this for stats, you also find out that you are as likely to die from a bee sting as from terrorism in the UK. And 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist (although to be fair I think that was a statistic from the States…) I could go on….

Like I say, I totally understand the fear and panic these attacks have created – after all, isn’t that exactly why it is called “terror”ism? I also fully appreciate the worry of putting your children on to a bus and sending them into the “unknown” – it goes against our parenting instincts to do this, even if logically we know we have to let go eventually.

But as an expat, I still find myself getting slightly exasperated with this attitude. Just by living the life that we do we already increase our chances of being targets. And yet here we are.

Who remembers Bamako? That was the horrible attack in Mali that followed about a week after the Paris attacks. It led the news for about two days. More than 20 people died, including an American and a Belgian. But where is it now? In the flood of new stories coming out from places closer to home – Belgium, France, Turkey – it’s not suprising that what happened in Mali has somewhat slipped off the radar.

However, the chances of someone I knew being caught up in that attack were about 200 times higher than in the Paris bombings. When I heard a Belgian was dead my thoughts turned immediately to a new friend here whose husband covers the region and I knew was away at the time. My husband’s colleague and good friend also covers Mali – and in fact stayed at the very hotel where the attacks happened just a couple of weeks previously. In many of these countries there will be only one or two hotels where most of the expat visitors will stay – so when you hear about something like this, your thoughts immediately turn to who might be travelling in that area at the time.

As I said in an earlier post on the Paris bombings, I don’t expect people back home to have the same reaction to events in distant lands as they do to places closer to home. It is comletely natural that more people were going to be shocked about Paris, a city many will have visited or know people in, than Bamako. After all, many people wouldn’t ever have even heard the name of Mali’s capital before.

So when the news moves on, when the reporters have decided that although the Mali attacks were caused by a terrorist organisation they weren’t actually purely ISIS so therefore didn’t have anything to add to the ongoing story in Eruope, when the dead have all been named and none of them are British, then I know that yet another horrendous event in a far away country will be forgotten.

But as expats I don’t think we do forget. We counted them in and we counted them out and once we knew everyone was safe we sighed and waited for the next one. While friends back home worry about sending their children on a school trip to London, I have to put my children on a bus to an American school on the day we are told there is a specific threat against American interests in South Africa. The children come home and tell me they did a “duck and cover” drill that day. Although having already told them how to get out of a car-jacking situation without getting shot, and what to do if someone attempts to kidnap them in a shopping mall, they seemed to take this latest development in their stride.

We live with this sort of fear every day and yet we carry on. We take all the precautions we can without completely ruining the way we live. We are aware that as “westerners” we are vulnerable.

And yet here we are.

What do you think? If you are an expat do you think somehow we get more used to living with this sort of fear? Or perhaps you think we are actually MORE protected than some of the people back home? I would be interested to hear views.



My thoughts on Paris

I wasn’t sure whether to post this. Is is a bit of an outpouring of thoughts, a little jumbled and still not entirely clear even to me. But I think like so many of us, we try and order those thoughts by writing it down. I am not even sure whether in a week or two I will even agree with what I have written myself – there is so much to absorb at the moment, I find my thoughts changing constantly on this subject. But for now, this is my take on the latest terrorist attacks in Paris.


My Facebook page feed has been an interesting place over the last few days, as I am sure yours has. When something like the Paris bombings happen we are all united. Not united necessarily in our opinions about the bombings but certanly united that we feel something and that we want to express those feelings. In a way, awful tragedies like this bring us together and actually create a sense of community – weird though that is – especially for those of us far from home, looking for some sort of solace or explanation or just plain solidarity through social media.

As with most of us, my first thoughts on seeing the news about Paris on Saturday morning was one of sadness. Sadness not just for all those innocents who had lost their lives, but for what I knew would come next – the blaming and the I Told You So’s and the outpouring of rage against a lot of other innocent people. It is inevitable and debates have raged over this matter and will continue to rage until kingdom come.

But my next feeling is that one of hopelessness and helplessness that I also suspect many of us feel. The more you read about ISIS and their background, beliefs, stated aims and ideology, the more you realise what an impossible task it will be to defeat them. When an organisation makes Al Queda look relatively peaceful you know you have a problem.

So sadness and helplessness but as the hours and days went on, another prevailing feeling emerged which was curiositty. Who are these people? Why do we all seem to know so little about them? Where have they come from? I have started to read as much as I can cope with about ISIS and Syria, to try and at least work out what we are dealing with here. It’s diffcult as a) there seem to be hugely differing opinions (not islamic vs their entire ideology is based on the purest form of islam; they aren’t really a threat outside of the Iraq/Syria lands they currently occupy vs they are slowly and surely trying to take over the world) and b) events are moving at such a fast pace that articles written just a few weeks ago already seem hopelessly outdated.

And then another issue emerged. As more and more of my Facebook friends’ profiles suddenly turned red, white and blue, and pictures were being posted of vigils and tweets and lit-up landmarks for France, questions started to be asked about why this was happening for Paris – but it didn’t happen for Beirut. Just the day before a suicide bombing there had killed more than 40 people – innocents just like those in Paris.

Of course it isn’t just Lebanon that gets ignored – there are terrorist attacks and bombs practically every day somewhere in the world. And many other awful things happening (including here in South Africa). But the Beirut attack had been just one day previously – and most people in the (western) world had no idea it had even happened. You would have had to be living under a rock to have said the same about Paris.

So now the debate moves on – not just to what the hell we are going to do about ISIS but why we seem to care more about deaths in some countries than in others. Some have actually brought skin colour into it and said we care more about “whites” than those who are “brown”, but that is just lazy. It isn’t about skin colour – after all, we have no idea what colour most of those killed in Paris were – wasn’t one of the targeted restaurants a Cambodian one? But it certainly is about which country the attacks take place in, whether they are familiar, “Western” ones or whether they are far-off places populated by people we regard as being a little “different” from ourselves.

Of course it is always going to be more shocking when something happens somewhere that is familiar to you – both in the sense that you have actually been there (and, as a Brit, I would hazard a guess that most fellow-Brits will have visited Paris at some point in their lives; I myself have been there countless times), or have known people that have been there and seen their Facebook-posted pictures; or that it looks familiar – restaurants that you would eat in, bars that attract you, even an American rock band that (had you been twenty years younger) you might have wanted to listen to. For these reasons, when you read about something in somewhere like Paris, even if you live on the other side of the world, you feel more shocked than you would when it happens in a far-off place with a name you can’t pronounce, where the restaurants only seem to have male clients and where the food they serve would probably have too many bones in it anyway.

A lot of people’s attention has now been drawn to what happened in Beirut, as well as other attacks in Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria……which can only be a good thing. But how many of us will nod, feel a little sad, maybe update our Facebook profiles to include a Lebanese flag and then go back to obsessively watching pictures from Paris?

It’s not an easy issue and there aren’t any easy solutions but the best I can think of is this: We need to read more real stories about people in other countries, to know that actually – despite what they wear, what they eat, what language they speak – we are all humans, we all eat, we all fall in love, we all fret about things like whether we are parenting well, what we are going to do about our elderly relatives and who our children are going to end up marrying. We also all die. None of us are immortal. In the words of Evelyn Waugh, in the end we are all the same – just a handful of dust.

And the other thing is to educate the girls. The more I read about it, the more convinced I am that this is the way to change things. Only when the women have an equal say in things will the world become a more peaceful place. Yes there are mad, bad women out there just like their male counterparts – but let’s face it,a huge percentage of the worst atrocities being committed in this world are being committed by men. It’s a cold stark fact but one we can’t get away from.

So if you feel helpless, if you want to do something but you don’t know what, my suggestion is a) find stories and read them about people in far-away places (and if you are an expat, share stories about people you know) and b) donate to something like the Malala Fund.

It won’t change the world immediately, but from small acorns…..

To read more about and to donate to the Malala Fund click here.

To read more about Skateistan, another organisation helping girls with their education, in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa click here