Ever notice that human rights lawyers are almost never characters in romantic comedies? If there does happen to be a human rights lawyer character, he is portrayed as a stuffy old stick-in-the-mud like Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary. (There’s also the guy that Ricky Gervais is supposed to get Tea Leoni to break up with in Ghost Town, which probably also proves that you really only even have a human rights lawyer as a character because there was a Brit involved.) But the reality is that I would never be able to do this work if I didn’t have a sense of humor. The subject matter may be serious, but the fact is that bizarre and funny things happen all the time to us human rights lawyers. Here are just a couple of examples:
1. The “Did I Accidentally Stumble Into a Comedy Sketch?” Moment. During an interview on Sierra Leonean television, the chair I was sitting in started to fall apart. It didn’t crash to the ground or anything, but all the parts (legs, arms, seat) just started to shift slowly towards the left. I had to increasingly lean the other way to keep from sliding to the ground. You try answering questions about women’s rights when you’re sitting on Fun House furniture.
2. The “Did I Just Hear That?” Moment, a.k.a. the “What Is this, Monty Python?” Moment. Last year, during an interview with a government official about conditions on a refugee camp, the guy suddenly stops the discussion and just randomly throws out, “So … does anyone here speak … NORWEGIAN?” After the interview, I also learned that this guy was “the number 3 film idol in Ghana.” Apparently, being #3 on the Ghanaian film scene doesn’t make you a big enough star to quit your day job.
I’ve learned to look for and relish the humor in every situation. My penchant for absurdity has brought me a lot of joy. Here are a few photos from various countries in West Africa.
|Caution: Grown Ups!|
|El Sabor del Perú|
3. The “I Can’t Believe I Brought My Breast Pump to a Prison” Moment. I was once visiting a prison in Peru to observe the conditions of detention. During the first part of the visit, we had been given refreshment in the form of very, VERY large glasses of Inca Kola. We’re talking Big Gulp, Trenta sized beverages.
Never had Inca Kola before? It is a shocking electric yellow color. Supposedly, it is flavored with lemon verbena but to me it tastes like super-syrupy, bubblegum flavored cream soda. The Inca Kola in my very large glass on this late spring day was also very warm. But Inka Kola is a national icon and, since it would have been rude and ungracious not to accept it, I managed to do the right thing and drink it all. Which meant, of course, that I soon had to go to the bathroom. Since this was a men’s prison, this created a pretty big problem. Luckily, there was a private bathroom that I could use at the checkpoint to the high-security part of the prison. When I came out of the bathroom, the guard was going through my briefcase.
Now, I spent a cumulative total of about 40 months of my life breastfeeding my 3 kids and I had this small, battery-operated breast pump for when I traveled. When I came out of the bathroom, I discovered that the guard had taken the breast pump apart. He had all the pieces laid out and, one by one, was carefully holding them up to the light to examine them. He was obviously trying to figure out exactly what kind of weapon this strange object was. Could it be a bomb? Let’s just say he had never even heard of breast pump and it took some time to explain. Once he understood, the guard dropped the piece he was holding like it was a hot potato. He even started blowing on his fingers. The security check came to a speedy conclusion and we went on with our visit. By the time we came back out, though, the guard was laughing about it. Perhaps, like me, he is still telling that story and laughing about it to this very day.