Joanne Smyth, 34
Grew up, Ireland
Lives: Dublin, Ireland
Nominated by: Suralini Fernando
Joanne Smyth hesitates at first when I approach her for an interview. How, she wonders, can you explain your story to someone when you’re still trying to make sense of it yourself?
Joanne’s story begins in County Down, the region of Northern Ireland she calls home. While she wasn’t directly affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland, growing up in that context did get her thinking about how we create a fair society. Things like: What happens if we aren’t all given opportunities to be heard? And how do you make any progress if you forget to respect human dignity?
When she landed her first job in the humanitarian sector at age 26, these questions followed her over to DRC and then Rwanda. Like many humanitarian workers, she had no idea if she could positively affect the poverty-stricken communities she was trying to help, but she did feel there had to be the possibility of something better.
Now, nine years later, and just returned to Ireland, Joanne has learnt that she’s far tougher than she thinks, listening to someone is one of the best gifts you can give them, and her mum was right: you should always err on the side of live more. Which is why, if you’re wondering, she did in the end say yes to this interview.
Thank you, Joanne! We’re so glad you did.
You’ve spent the last nine years travelling back and forth between Ireland, Rwanda and the DRC. You’ve only recently returned to Ireland so I thought you could begin by telling me what your life is like now.
I’m living in Dublin and I’ve been home for about six months now. It’s really interesting watching myself go through that transition because I had been in DRC up until August of last year and this was me coming home for good and finishing with that nomadic life overseas.
The novelty wears off and you start to think, Have I made the right decision?
What are the transitions you see yourself going through?
First, everything is so novel. You’re just really delighted to be in the most ordinary of places. When I first moved to Dublin I was walking to work and thinking about how great it was to live so close to work, the freedom, the sunlight in the morning and the transport infrastructure. So that’s the beginning, and then the novelty wears off and you start to think, Have I made the right decision?
Sort of like an is this it? moment…
Yeah. The bad things about the overseas experience sort of fad—even those intense hard days—and I have to remind myself of those feelings. You look back and think, Wasn’t it an amazing experience. And then, Am I going to be able to adapt? Because normal life is, I suppose, in many ways very tedious and predictable by comparison.
And then you come through it a little more. Now, I’m starting to feel a little more settled. I think, Ok, this is not novel, but it’s good and it’s enjoyable. You realise that you’ve re-forged connections.
You gain an understanding about the impossibility of progress unless all parts of society feel included.
You were 26 was when you first went to the DRC. What made you decide to come back?
I suppose I felt that I needed a bit more balance in my life. That sort of work, it’s very all-consuming. Working for an NGO, there are always more needs than you can possibly meet. I thought I’d reached a point in my life where I had to try other things.
In many ways, it seems like what you’re tryng to do is create a fairer society through your humanitarian work. I wondered how that idea ties into where you grew up, in Northern Ireland?
I suppose the questions I’ve always asked myself are: What makes you start within this sort of sector and what keeps you going ?
I’ve traced a lot of the ideas and values that led me to this line of work back to the quite specific context I grew up in. I’m not saying by any stretch of the imagination that I was affected directly by the [past] conflict but there was something about living in that environment; you gain an understanding about the impossibility of progress unless all parts of society feel included. That everyone needs access to choice and respect for human dignity. It makes you think, Well, what could it be like if…..? You start to formulate these ideas because you know what it feels like to want something different, to want something better.
And then you start to look broadly at the world—to Rwanda or the DRC—and although Ireland doesn’t have the same scale of problems you start to think, Well how would it feel if you were struggling for food and were in the middle of this conflict? When you break it down to a human level it becomes a lot more straightforward.
This last year you spent in the DRC you’ve said was one of the most challenging of your career. What did you know about yourself now that you perhaps didn’t know a year or two ago?
I think I learnt that even when you’re at the end of your physical and emotional tether you can actually go further than you thought. And the other thing is the possibility of human connection and I suppose the commonalities across our societies and cultures. It’s a real gift that the DRC has given me somehow. You get a sense of perspective that I don’t know any other place can offer you.
When you break it down to a human level it becomes a lot more straightforward.
And how has it been giving your friends and family an understanding of the kind of life you had over there?
My family has always been very supportive and interested in the work I do. I talk a lot so they’re sort of subjected to me! Also, at a certain point you see that we are all the sum of our experiences and we all have different perspectives. With every group of friends that you meet, whether it’s in the context of Rwanda or Belfast or Amsterdam, you look for the commonalities within your relationships. You become a little bit more curious about where a link can be established and how you can bring this relationship to its full potential.
What do you feel like is the best advice you’ve received?
I always come back to my mum around the time when I was making the decision to go for my first overseas job to DRC. I’m terrible at decisions because there are all of these doors open in front of me and I want to go through every single one. [Laughs]
The thing that always stays with me is a phone call with my mum and she said, ‘Joanne, go for it.’ She has always erred on the side of live more and don’t hesitate to stretch yourself. What’s astounded me is that it comes from a place of such generosity because I know she is the first person who would love me to stay home. So I’m full of admiration that every time it’s come to something, she’ll look at it and she’ll weigh it up and say I need to choose the path where I’ll be able to live the most fulfilled life.
I now tend to think more about whether I made the right decision in that situation by that person?
What are the biggest fears you’ve had to grapple with?
It’s usually the fear of the unknown. For all of the different places that I’ve lived I’m a person who is quite comfortable with routine. So it’s that idea of what am I stepping into? And also, will I succeed? And when I say succeed, I mean, will I manage ok?
I find success such an interesting concept. Has how you measure success changed over the years?
Yeah, I think as your world view opens up you begin to re-evaluate things. And of course your ideas of success are also going to be informed by the environment that you’re in. When I was growing up in Ireland all of the emphasis was on good grades at school, good education, and the more experiences I’ve accumulated, the more I’ve come to sense that the most important things are relationships and people.
I now tend to think more about whether I made the right decision in that situation by that person, rather than what the outcome was from a less emotional perspective. If that makes sense?
Yup, absolutely. Just keeping it human to human.
Having had this opportunity to make these connections in quite unexpected places, what qualities do you now most admire in people?
I suppose there are two things and they’re probably quite basic. It’s the ability to listen and an ability see the person in front of you—and then put that person first. Those are the skills that I really admire in people I meet.
I think they’re great skills but really hard to cultivate. I know I sometimes struggle. What do you think stops people from seeing the person in front of them?
I’m not going to say people, I’ll speak to my own experience! The times when I’ve been most disappointed in my own reactions it’s mostly been when I’ve been focused on how I am feeling. How is this affecting me? How am I responding to these events?
And I realised that at a certain point it’s cutting me off from almost 90% of the picture. So I’ve learnt to stop, and try to step back from that initial reaction. To say: Deal with that separately but right now look around you in this room and try to see what are the other dynamics at play that aren’t related to how you feel.
For instance, I was at one our distribution sites [in the DRC} and some members of a local rebel group arrived at the site. My reaction was to tense up. Then you’re like, Ok this is not the time to focus on how you’re feeling, broaden it out to how everyone else might be feeling. I think it helps you be more effective.
For sure, although I can imagine I would struggle to have enough awareness to broaden my focus out in that kind of a situation. My hat goes off to you.
So what are you most proud of deep down? What’s your biggest achievement?
Phwoar. I’m glad that I have this other perspective within my life and that I have been able find moments of happiness in very straightforward things. For example, I remember we were on a field trip [in the DRC] one evening and one of my colleagues brought a picnic. He had packed drinks for all of us and I had a choice of either a Heineken beer or a mango juice because he wasn’t sure which one I would like. There was a feeling of contentment that came that evening when we were sitting around storytelling; that I had been able to make a friendship to the point that somebody who had experienced a very different life to me would think of me in those small ways.
The ability to listen and see the person in front of you. Those are the skills that I really admire.
I’m thinking now that this experience over the past few years in the DRC and Rwanda might have answered some pretty big life questions but equally raised many as well. What are the big questions that challenge you at the moment about the world?
I struggle a lot with this idea of where are we going? The things that we value in society and how much we’re getting the balance right between the less tangible and quantifiable things like kindness and empathy versus image and success. All of those things that on some level we all desire but that I’m not sure will lead to a genuine feeling of contentment and happiness.
I want to be able to keep that balance of understanding. Trying to find contentment through small simple experiences, like when someone brings you a drink!
And you get the choice of a Heineken or a mango juice!
It’s interesting what you were saying about image and success vs genuine contentment. How has your sense of who you are as a woman changed because of where you’ve lived?
We could almost talk for the whole time on that one! Every time I’ve come home with a new outfit my mum has looked at me going, seriously Joanne, you need to just spend your money in a better way. So I’m still interested in shopping and all of those kinds of things but I also know that it’s further down the list of priorities. I get as much fun out of it as the next person but I know that at a certain point it doesn’t define me. What defines me is how I behave with other people and what I do. That’s much more important than what I’m wearing.
It’s so easy to forget. I feel like I need to look polished, although I am sitting here in my winter woolies!
It’s a hard one, though. I remember in the DRC thinking, Oh my god jeans and t-shirt every day. There are different sides to all of us at different times and I think it’s very liberating to be able to say on a particular day that you love being dressed up, and then, on another day that you feel quite happy in jeans. It’s the idea that there’s a place for everything in the world, but the constant bombardment and the pressure is a lot.
I agree! So if there was one thing that you could whisper into your ear ten years ago what would it be?
Live more! In every situation you can look back and say, did I make the most of those opportunities? Did I ask that person enough questions? Did I get to know them well enough, or did I hold myself back? Sometimes I have a tendency to be a bit shy, and I think if I was to say something to myself when I was younger it would be to don’t hold back. Go for it!
Things I Love
Warm, bright, days when the light catches everything.
Drinking hot coffee and reading about what’s happening in the world before the day really begins.
My favourite is Scrabble. I love the combination of finding interesting words and the element of competition.