Orla Fagan, the youngest of six children was born on Dublin’s northside. As a three-year old Fagan could write her own name before she was admitted to the local orthopedic hospital with a hip problem. The dodgy hip caused a severe limp and resulted in a two (plus) year stint in hospital where she had to re-learn how to walk with her ‘bad’ leg strapped up before she was unleashed on to the world again.
She was nine years old when the youngest of her brothers Donal went on his school tour to France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. Donal’s intolerance to hot weather diminished his interest in travelling, but tales of his adventures sparked Orla’s imagination and interest to see what lay in the outside world. Fagan’s two passions of writing and travelling remain to this day.
With little ambition, Fagan’s school record was well below average, barely scraping through the state exams. She ended up in a commercial college with nuns teaching shorthand and typing, how to pronounce works like theatre, film, orange and interest, how to serve tea to a boss and how to remove her gloves in a ladylike manner.
After several jobs battling with bosses, resulting in Fagan talking herself out of their employment, she eventually ended up with the national broadcaster in a typing pool. For the younger reader, this was usually a domain reserved for young women to serve the male bosses of the organisation who weren’t important enough to have a secretary.
Moving up the career ladder, she landed a job as a secretary, putting in to practice her tea serving and glove removing skills, before breaking her service on a one-year leave of absence. Working illegally as a nurse’s aid and bar tender in the United States, she returned to the broadcaster where she eventually ended up in radio. Starting with the pop music station 2FM she managed to score free tickets for every concert that came to town and every record company soiree (in the days when record companies could afford parties), before moving to the more serious Radio One as a journalist and the beginning of her real education.
When she joined Radio One she had little knowledge of anything political, barely aware of who was running the country. At the grand old age of 40, she eventually found ambition. Feeling the lack of knowledge of worldly matters, she probably worked harder than anybody else to become a sought after radio researcher.
Within a few years of working in Radio One Orla Fagan decided it was time to stop telling other people’s stories and time to create her own. Testing the water, she took three months unpaid leave from her job and went working with a small non-government organisation in Yirgalim, a small village in the south of Ethiopia. They had a radio station, used to teach children during the week and devoted to tackling some development issues at weekends. Training the radio producers was challenging because they had little access to technology, or information, or indeed ways to educate themselves. The lack of awareness of time, whether it was the length of the radio programme or the time the producers showed up for class, became some of the biggest frustrations/challenges in the three-month stint. However, despite the challenges, it did not dampen Fagan’s thirst for the work but rather stirred her interest on the possibility of change for good.
Returning back to her job in Ireland in 2000 was a bit of a culture shock. Radio programmes went out on time, there were no four-hour trips to the Hilton Hotel in Addis to get a decent burger (not that she ever ate burgers in Ireland). Life seemed mundane in comparison. In 2001 the broadcaster offered a redundancy deal to permanent staff and without thinking of the consequences Fagan took the money and walked.
One more stint back in Ethiopia followed another short stint in the Gambia in West Africa teaching kids public speaking and she came back to Ireland to nothing… It didn’t take long to realise that without formal education, nobody would employ her. For all her years in broadcasting Fagan had worked her way up the ladder – not that she got very far up the ladder! Grudgingly she signed up in 2002 for a full time diploma course with Kimmage Manor Development Studies Centre. Led by the inspiring Paddy Reilly and the great team of Patrick Marren, Eilish Dillon and Tom Campbell, the lecturers in Kimmage teach by doing. The one year spent there was truly inspiring and an education in the real sense.
The fun started after Kimmage, although it took some time before a job came along. Trying to break in to the aid ‘industry’ is difficult. The summer of 2003 was spent volunteering, raising funds for an NGO speaking about her experiences in Africa in the churches around Ireland, but never mentioning her atheist tendencies. A dab hand at public speaking Fagan raised quite a lot of funds, but didn’t see eye to eye with its chief officer, who missed out on the meaning of ‘voluntary’ when he refused to help out one weekend. Let’s just say it all ended rather acrimoniously.
Her opportunity for employment in the aid industry came along with the misfortune of others. The Indian Ocean Tsumani struck on 26 December 2004 and less than a week after it struck, Fagan found herself on a plane to Jakarta, Indonesia. Landing in Banda Aceh was an eye opener and a textbook study of all she had learned in Kimmage. The town and province was devastated by the wave and the only way it could be described was as if some angry god had tossed his toys out of the cot in temper. Communication masts were mangled like broken toys as if the Incredible Hulk had come to life, cars were thrown around like tumbleweed and the roof of one mosque was located more than one kilometer from its original location. There was mud everywhere, masses of it, inside and outside buildings – it made transport extremely difficult. The tsunami wave came in at the speed of a jet and brought with it a ship deposited in the middle of a residential street. Bloated bodies lay on the streets waiting for the amazing volunteers from the Red Cross to come along with body bags and leave them at the side of the road for collection and mass burial.
More than 250,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami. Stepping out of a car one day, lying flapping in the middle of the road was a random family photo album, the smiling faces staring up at her was a stark reminder that behind the numbers were real families whose lives were changed forever in a matter of seconds one December day.
Goal, the non-government organisation (NGO) for whom Fagan was working, closed their operations within three months and she returned to Ireland, landing a job a few months later with a church-based Irish NGO Trócaire. Despite her atheistic tendencies, her abysmal bank balance did not allow her turn down the job offer. Based in Jakarta, Fagan worked as a regional communications officer, travelling to the other tsunami affected areas in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Always feeling privileged to be invited in to people’s homes and hear their stories it provided insights that a tourist would never experience.
If a person could ignore the Catholic Church’s teachings on the rights of women or indeed the fact that there are no women involved in decision-making processes within the church, Trócaire is not a bad organisation at all. They work to empower local NGOs rather than impose a Western perspective on local issues. When you hear the rhetoric on women’s empowerment though, you just have to wonder how much they would like to see equality….but that’s another argument for another day.
After the first anniversary of the tsunami, Orla was sent off to East Africa to report on human rights issues in Zimbabwe, the drought affecting Kenya and Somalia and the struggle facing people in Malawi struggling with HIV/AIDS. She then headed west across the continent to see what the oil industry was up to along the Delta in Nigeria and to report on the post-war efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. There she heard tales from women that were so horrendous, Trócaire could never use them for advocacy or fundraising purposes. Despite Trócaire’s wishes it proved impossible to disguise the horrors of war and sanitise the stories to be palatable for an Irish audience.
Her next trip involved reporting on human rights and land issues in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil travelling through the countries hearing stories from ordinary people and seeing how they lived their lives. Some struggled against the might of the large commercial Brazilian farmers, treated like slaves, living in shacks and forced to spend their meager salary on food sold by the landowners. Children in Peru couldn’t attend school because they didn’t have a birth certificate or the indigenous in Bolivia who lived thousands of metres above sea level and struggled to make anything, other than potatoes grow on their land. In Haiti, women described bloodcurdling experiences of rape and tales of men’s impunity were chilling. Trócaire supported women’s organisations and lawyers in Haiti to help bring justice for the crimes committed.
On the road
Sometimes Trócaire’s expectations were totally unrealistic, expecting her to move from continent to continent without any time off. When working and travelling, there were no days off, so 30 days on the road would translate into 30 working days, without a break. As Fagan headed back towards Asia and the first anniversary of the Pakistan earthquake, she moved to India, back to Pakistan and finally once again to Indonesia. It was exciting, exhilarating and exhausting at times. It was a dream job. Normally when people travel, the only local people they get to interact with are those in the tourist industry and Fagan never underestimated the privilege of meeting real people in their homes and in their community.
If there was a draw back with the job then it was not being able to share her experiences at the end of each day. Each local NGO would be nominated to drive Fagan to their projects and once evening came, she would be dropped back to some miserable hotel in the middle of nowhere. In Liberia as she turned over in the bed one evening she eyeballed a mouse sitting on the bedside locker. She was reported by an NGO is Sierra Leone because she said she expressed a desire to be eligible to be the pope and the locals nearly had a fit that a mere woman, with breasts and a vagina would ever think herself good enough to take up a position that was a god given right to men.
South America would have been up there on the list of places visited. With no opportunity to brush up on her Spanish, translators were provided and having local knowledge and someone to dine with in the evenings, made the whole experience so much more interesting. The job, however enjoyable, was unsustainable. Flight schedules were so tight she often missed them, visas were often difficult and she carried two passports. She once found herself at the airport in Lahore, Pakistan with nowhere to stay and no backup to call when she hadn’t picked up the airline ticket in Islamabad. Carrying all her belongings with her all the time was challenging and when a taxi man ran off with her luggage in Bangkok it made her realise just what an itinerant life she was leading. She cursed the taxi driver and wondered if he ever found a woman big enough to fill her knickers.
When the job with Trócaire finished she signed up for a Masters’ degree in Public Advocacy and Activism, which was to start the following September in the Huston School of Film and Digital Media in Galway. However a phone call one day in May from Sierra Leone and she was back in Freetown as a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) shortly after. Unlike junior professional officers (JPOs), UNVs are often older, more experienced people who decide to do their bit for humanity.
As a UNV, Fagan trained potential women politicians in governance and public speaking. She also took it upon herself to train the women radio journalists to challenge the status quo of the political system. When she moved to Galway in the west of Ireland and began the post-graduate course the following year, there was only one option for her thesis – women’s access to politics in Ireland. Considering the Irish Government funded the UNV position but had fewer women politicians in Ireland than Sierra Leone, it made sense to research why Irish people live in a skewed democracy.
The day the class graduated, Fagan found herself in Kabul (or Kaboom as the expats preferred to call it) and missed the opportunity to dress up in a fancy gown and pick up the piece of paper she worked so hard to attain. There were tears into a bottle of champagne on graduation day such was her disappointment at not attending the ceremony.
After Afghanistan, she found herself in Baghdad (Baggers) working with UNICEF before a job with OCHA again, this time in Somalia and then on to the Philippines where there were more storms, earthquakes and conflict than in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia put together.
During the travels Fagan kept track of events by writing emails home to friends and family. This blog is about the travels, the people, the adventures, the countries she visited and lived in. Some of the stories go back to the early 2000s – other stories are more recent. Enjoy reading them.