John Tomlinson journeyed to Somalia to volunteer for the Save the Children fund during the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia in the 1980s. Now, he plans to raise money for the charity and hopes to raise awareness along with it, through his memoir Noises After Dark. We chat to the Nottingham author about his experiences at the time, what it was like to write about them in retrospect, and how he still managed to inject an uplifting sense of humour and heart into his storytelling…
What inspired you to volunteer for the Save the Children fund during the 1980s Ethiopian humanitarian crisis in the first place?
I went to Liverpool Medical School, which also has a Tropical School of Medicine, and I had also worked at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Jamaica in the past. So, I had already developed an interest in this area of medicine. The real impact was when I saw the scenes on the TV from the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. There was a report by Michael Buerk, a BBC reporter. The shocking and tragic scenes of the biblical famine in Ethiopia were like nothing that we had ever seen before. The scenes gripped us all, as a nation. On a personal note, the report haunted me for days after.
On Saturday 13 July 1985, I sat with my friends to watch the Live Aid concert. This was a concert like no other, having been pulled together by Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rats front man, and Midge Ure, lead vocalist for Ultravox. At that time, I was still a junior doctor going through training, but the Live Aid experience had a great influence on me. I decided that I could do more than just donate and, as a doctor, I could actually volunteer and contribute in some way. So, I volunteered with Save the Children Fund who were very active in East Africa at that time.
The project and my post in Somalia were partly funded through Live Aid money. So, when I had written the book, I contacted Bob Geldof to enquire if he would consider writing a foreword for the book and, after reading the book, he very kindly agreed to do this.
Your post was intended to rebuild, and run, a small sustainable hospital, and the enormity of the task became clear once you arrived there. How did this shape your own medical career once you returned to the UK?
The key issue for the hospital in Somalia was that it had to be sustainable, and be handed over to the local government to run in the longer term. This largely meant that we could not introduce anything that they could not afford once we left the project. As you can imagine this was not easy and created a number of dilemmas. You had to constantly prioritise your budget, and always think about what was most needed. Things such as treatment and prescribing guidelines were essential, but in the UK issues such as these were in their infancy at that time.
One day, while in Somalia, I had what I call my ‘blanket and plastic sheet’ moment. When I used to teach health care students I would always tell them that when I left medical school I did not anticipate that at one point in my life the most important thing I would do to ‘save lives’ would be to distribute blankets and plastic sheets to thousands of the most needy under armed guard.
Shelter, clean water, regular food, hygiene and waste disposal are taken for granted by most of the population in western countries. The whole experience in Somalia had a profound impact on me, and made me realise that health is not merely about health care. So when I returned to the UK I changed my career from being a GP and retrained as a consultant in public health medicine. I was able to bring back home the skills and knowledge I developed in Africa, which were very applicable to my new role in the UK.
What was it like to write about your own experiences in retrospect in Noises After Dark, many years later? Was it difficult due to the nature of the memories, or did you find they came back to you easily?
In terms of writing the book I had a number of very useful resources. I had kept diaries, and my mother had also kept every single letter that I had ever written, during my time in Africa. I also had many photo albums, and often I had taken a photo not for the picture but because it reminded me of a story.
Of course, some of the stories were quite emotional, and the writing made me reflect on many things that happened during my time in Somalia. When you are living constantly in a certain situation, for example civil unrest, I think your tolerance and sense for what is acceptable becomes altered and normalised. This can lead you to feel immune to things like the level of danger for example.
My story may be from a number of years ago, but the messages are still current for today’s world
You were inspired by the local characters, many of whom you describe as local unsung heroes. What was it like to witness their relentlessness first hand, despite all the adversity around them?
When you go out to contribute in some way to a humanitarian crisis you quickly realise that there are already many local people who are doing their best to help their communities despite all the local circumstances. It would be impossible to do your job without them. There is however a major difference. As a foreign volunteer, to a degree, you can take certain risks and get away with your decisions. Ultimately, at some point, you can leave and go home. The local staff cannot, and they have to constantly balance their own safety with that of their community. You have to admire them. They do not usually get the full credit they deserve and they truly are local unsung heroes. This is why I have dedicated my book to people like that.
A lot of books on similar issues are quite serious in tone, and even though there are dark themes in Noises After Dark, you still manage to bring a sense of humour and heart to the storytelling. As a writer, how do you strike this balance and this tone?
Respect and sensitivity is key. If you handle even the most difficult of situations with respect and sensitivity you can address them in real life or on paper. Importantly, wherever you go in the world funny things happen, even in the most harrowing of circumstances. As a health care worker you can see some terrible things. I feel that keeping your sense of humour helps you get through the day and overcome what could be otherwise overwhelming emotional circumstances. I guess that is just how I am. It is how I have related to my patients and work over the years, and I wanted to bring this aspect to my writing in the book.
In the process of releasing the book, the majority of the profits are going to Save the Children. How important is it to you that the book raises not only awareness, but also raises funds to help the cause?
I wanted to tell my story, something which family, friends, and work colleagues have encouraged me to do for years. While doing so, it made me reflect on the work with the Save the Children fund. They gave me a life changing experience. They were also an excellent organisation to work for, and really looked after their staff when it was needed. I also believe that during my time with them the money was wisely allocated. My story may be from a number of years ago, but the messages are still current for today’s world. Organisations like Save the Children fund are very much needed in the world today. They continue to do excellent work around the world, and at home in the UK. So I decided to donate the profits from the book to them.
John Tomlinson’s memoir Noises After Dark is out now
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