June 15th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

As a first foray into the world of blogging, I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has been following my stories and especially to those who have taken the time to respond.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process and am constantly surprised to find that people actually care about what I’m doing and take the time to learn a bit more about another part of the world. Who knew that a farm kid from northern Alberta could do what I’m doing and have the ability to impact not only the lives of the Congolese people who came to the MSF hospital but also those of you checking in from whichever corner of the world you find yourself living.

If you are interested in learning more about the DRC, there are 2 books that I have read and would strongly recommend.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Adam Hochschild 2006) is a well written account of the colonization of the Congo in the late 1800s. This book is read like a novel with main characters, a plot and a lot of intrigue and that is not a bad way to read about history. It touches everything from the scramble for the “dark continent” to the early days of colonial exploitation to the first ever global human rights campaign and it gave me fascinating insight into the not so distant past of the DRC.

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart (Tim Butcher 2007), starts in the present and provides a very different view of modern day Congo by retracing the route used by H.M. Stanley when he discovered the Congo River and became the first European to cross the continent of Africa on foot. It is a combination of travelogue, adventure story and historical account and the author’s trip was completed in 2004, portraying a Congo very similar to the one that I found myself living in these past 6 months. This book bridges the gap between King Leopold’s Congo and the Congo of today and is a readable way to learn about a country with an incredibly complex past and just as confusing present.

Finally, please continue to visit to get the latest on MSF, where we work and what we believe in.

Grant Assenheimer

Grant A |  Shamwana at first light

Photo: Grant A | Shamwana at first light

Time Flies

June 11th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

Time really does fly…certainly when you are having fun but also when you are working 12 hour days, 6-7 days a week! I landed in the Congo on December 8 and after an incredible 6 months, my second mission with MSF is drawing to a close. I first fly to Amsterdam for debriefings and then on to Canada where a very excited fiancée will be waiting for me at the airport.

I named my Blog “DRC…not just the Kivus” because there is so much more to the Congo than what you hear on the evening news. I have definitely learnt this first hand and hopefully my entries have also brought a greater awareness to your world as well.

In this true “post-conflict” setting, more and more organizations pull out as they lose funding or simply shift operations to the more news-worthy Kivu provinces. With a government unable or unwilling to take over, this leaves thousands in a vulnerable position as they struggle to find enough to eat, walk for days to seek medical care or drop out of school to work in the fields or to look after a sick parent. A vicious cycle and while I did not find any easy solutions over the past months, I was definitely exposed to the problem.

The DRC is rich in minerals, has huge hydro-electric potential, one of the largest rainforests in the world and a colonial past that shows what is actually possible in this vast country. However, the DRC remains one of the most undeveloped countries in the world and is one of the few that are literally moving backwards. This is a country where grandparents knew a more technological advanced era than their grandchildren. A country where national highways have been reduced to footpaths and are impassible during the rainy season. Where war and corruption have literally destroyed entire systems – transportation, post, telephone, electricity – systems that existed under the pre-independence Belgian colony and that have simply deteriorated until there is nothing left…

As I said, there are no easy solutions. I have spent the last 6 months being humbled, in total disbelief and yet full of awe. Thankful for what I get to go home to and shocked by the completeness of the poverty and the lack of potential I see in the coming years.

Some days, after repeating the rules for overtime to my drivers or counting bars of soap, I really felt like this job was just another job. Other days, I realize that this job is a wonderful combination of service and learning and that it is great to be part of an organization that is directly addressing real needs all over the world regardless of where the spotlight is currently shinning.

In the end, it is because of the work I did, the work that MSF does, that we are running a 55-bed hospital in the middle of the bush and are providing free health care to thousands or people who, without MSF, would have none at all. That is not just another job!


June 9th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

It is always a bit chaotic in the departure hall of the Lubumbashi international airport. I was waiting for the flight that would lift me away from Congolese soil and couldn’t help but to take in the scene.

There were a couple of bigger groups of Chinese and Indian men clustered together. Obviously workers from the mining sector and heading home after their latest rotation, they didn’t seem to speak any French and were constantly waiting for instructions from their Congolese counterparts.

There was one group of Americans that were, according to their matching hats, “On a Mission from God”. The women were all nicely dressed in bright Congolese wraps, likely given to them during a tearful farewell party after a few weeks in the country.

There was also a group of four, probably two fathers with their sons. Although I could not place them, things did not seem to be going so well. Their Congolese handler, his dirty white ball cap on lopsided and with a big gold dollar sign on the front, was making things worse by getting everyone excited and using an authority he clearly did not have.

There were also a few other humanitarian-types waiting patiently for the same flight and some African businessmen trying to look much more important and more in control than they probably were.

Travelling with MSF

While everything is relative, travelling with MSF is pretty great. I was picked up at the MSF house this morning and brought directly to the airport. I handed my passport, yellow fever card and airplane ticket to our liaison officer and he simply takes over. We scoot past the rather unofficial “pre-screening” process and I wait as he pushes his way to the front of the departure counter.

The process becomes very complicated and I enter a sort of obedient trance as I simply follow the instructions from the Liaison officer. Hold this. Fill this in. Put your bags here… and now here… and again here. He has done this countless times before and he expertly obtains the required signatures, validates my tickets, checks my bags and gets me ready for the flight. I cannot imagine doing this on my own!

While we wait, a fight breaks out near the main entrance as supporters from an arriving football team try to push past security. An airline official hand delivers my connecting ticket to Amsterdam, where I will stop by the MSF head quarters for debriefing. The liaison officer goes over to talk with a friend. My departure is announced, we shake hands and I quickly walk past the final authorities and out on to the tarmac… leaving the hectic airport and the equally chaotic Congo behind me.

Right…a medical organization!

June 5th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

When there is an emergency referral to the hospital, it always involves many people and often results in life-saving surgery. As the logistician, I normally send a car to collect the patient and then go back to my dinner. Last week, I was invited to observe one of these emergency surgeries and got to see firsthand the medical side of one such emergency.

Grant A | Surgery

Photo: Grant A | Surgery

Although our expat doctor is also a surgeon, it is sometimes easy to forget. Most of the time, he is just Dr. Auguste… a bit of a character, always smiling and a good friend and fellow teammate. On Friday night, I saw a different side of him. Not so much joking as he entered the operating room and emerged 3 hours later after extracting a still-born baby, removing a ruptured uterus and saving the life of the mother.

Grant A.  |  Dr. Auguste in action

Photo: Grant A. | Dr. Auguste in action

It’s very technical

This was the first time I had seen anything remotely like this and I was suitably impressed. He really is a surgeon and I think I’ll definitely stick to logistics!

I had always wondered why we had so many different types of forceps and now I know. Makes the stock counts seem a bit more meaningful.

The batteries ran dead on the heart rate monitor so they just turned it off and went to get new ones. No problem. NO PROBLEM!?

A uterus is much bigger than I had imagined and it amazes me that you can simply remove this organ, sew everything back up and the body just adapts. Wow.

Halfway through, the generator ran out of fuel and suddenly everything went dark. This happened right in the middle of some pretty intense cutting. Someone fumbled around a bit, found a backup light and passed it to me…and the operation continued. A few minutes later, the generator roared back to life and everything resumed, just as though this was completely normal.

“I mean honestly, does that happen often?” I had to ask.

“No, no” Dr. August responded. “…but normally they at least give us a bit of warning. It must have caught them (the guards) a bit by surprise this time.”

Sheesh! I honestly never knew. By the end of the 3 hours, Dr. Auguste’s entire upper half was soaked with sweat, we had gone through 5 packages of sutures and, among other things, I had been shown the correct way to check and clean the intestines. I was exhausted and I didn’t even do anything so I can imagine how Auguste was feeling.

The good news?

The operation was a success and she is still alive. She’s already had 2 children and while that isn’t many here in the bush it is something.

The tragedy was that she came so late to the hospital and her child – at full term – was already dead when she showed up. If she would have only come sooner, we would have had a much better chance to save that life as well.

Ok… by “we” I mean Dr. Auguste. Respect. I have deep and utter respect for Dr. Auguste and those that are doing what he does. It is experiences like these that remind me just exactly what we are doing as a project and as an organization. This is what truly serves to justify our presence here and everywhere we work. We are a medical organization and we do save lives and alleviate suffering, as per the MSF mandate, each and every day.

Real Isolation?

June 2nd, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

Before coming to the DRC, I was told that the project would be in a remote and very isolated area. Visions of the rugged wind-swept landscape of northern Canada immediately came to mind. What a difference in what I find here!

My version

Ivavvik is a remote Canadian National Park in the very northeast corner of the Yukon Territory. Bordering the Artic Ocean, access is by boat or plane and less than 100 adventurers visit this park annually.

On the third day of a hiking trip through this national park, we climbed to the summit of a small mountain. The only sound was the wind whipping past our hoods. No trees, no animals, no apparent life…just barren tundra, stunted scrub and a jumble of caribou tracks left over from an annual migration that finished months before. Not even a bird. Looking out towards the horizon, there were icebergs and endless ocean for as far as we could see.

Absolutely spectacular in the amazing expanse of this nothingness. Makes you feel small and insignificant. I remember thinking that nature really doesn’t care. She’s been here for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more, regardless of what we do…

For me, that is isolation…that is remote.

In Shamwana

There really is life everywhere…

A new restaurant opened up at the far end of the market and we went out for dinner as a team a couple of nights ago. This was a first for Shamwana. The market is alive and growing. People are always coming and going. The streets are full of children, goats and chickens.

GrantA | Airstrip in the morning

Photo: GrantA | Airstrip in the morning

Brick houses are being built and yards are swept daily. Kids are going to school. Traders arrive continuously pushing their bicycles and hawking everything from dried fish to flashlights. New churches keep popping up and their drums are forever ringing through the village. The local HF ‘phony’ allows people to stay in touch.

The football pitch is being cleared and there was even an MSF vs. Kisele match last weekend. At least 300 people came out to watch and to cheer on their favorite team. The atmosphere was fantastic and when MSF scored the villagers flooded the field in celebration.

Women head out in the early morning to tend their fields…a large bowl balanced on their heads, the youngest child strapped to their backs and the rest trailing along behind.

GrantA | Out for dinner

Photo: GrantA | Out for dinner

Life is not easy…but there is life everywhere. We are at least a full day’s drive to the nearest functioning airstrip. It takes weeks for supply trucks to arrive and the roads can hardly be considered more than paths. There is no telephone, no mobiles, no postal system. I haven’t seen the news in months and our satellite internet connection is our lifeline to the outside world.

…but this is a very different definition of remoteness that I find myself living in these days!

How was your week?

May 29th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

Although it’s the middle of May and this is far from my first posting, I’m sure there are still lots of you sitting at home wondering just what exactly does a logistician with MSF actually do!? I tried giving you a rough overview of my job in the “What is Logistics?” posting on January 12th . To paint you a clearer picture, I thought that for this entry I would list the highlights from my past week.

Supply, Supply, Supply

To start, this week was full of non-standard orders. Tools for my drivers and their cars, tiles for the operating room and lab floors and training booklets for the outreach team. By the time an order actually gets sent, it has been discussed with the project coordinator, approved by Lubumbashi, cross-checked with the budget and entered into our supply management program. A lot of planning and calculating goes into each order and, in the end, this is extremely time consuming.

I also finalized my yearly international logistics order. This is a big one and is really the only time I get to place an order from our procurement department in Amsterdam this year. Everything from a new generator to spare parts for our refrigerators to solar system controllers to printer cartridges…

We also produced a list of drugs that are running low in our stock. Although this is not a long list, logistics is often remembered for the 2 drugs that ruptured and not the 500 that didn’t. Regardless, we will work with the medical team, the other projects in the area and Lubumbashi to find solutions. The key to success in this area is to be proactive as an “urgent” order for drugs from Amsterdam can take up to 9 weeks to get here!!!

Finally, the lack of flights continues making fresh food for the expats increasingly hard to find. I actually hired a guy with a bicycle to make the 5-day round trip to Mitwaba to buy potatoes. 30 kilos of potatoes for $10 and an additional $15 for his efforts. Incredible. Mind blowing. Capitalism at work, I suppose… and now we have potatoes!!!

Expat Potatoes

Photo: GrantA: Expat Potatoes


Although the rainy season is technically over, we haven’t noticed yet as there was enough rain this week to cause the partial collapse of a latrine at the hospital. Although the pit is still intact, the upper building had to be rebuilt.

The compressor on one of my two ice-lined refrigerators, used for vaccines storage, failed Friday afternoon. Not good. An internal component of the compressor is loose and was causing a short circuit when the unit started up. It doesn’t look like we can fix it here so we installed a backup kerosene fridge and will send the entire unit to Lubumbashi (3 days by car!?) for repair.

Speaking of cold chain, I also started some trials on a new portable refrigerator that I’m testing for the procurement department back in Amsterdam. It is compact, connects to a car battery, comes with a sliding rack for easy access, has cooling and freezing modes and is meant to facilitate vaccine transport for outreach activities.

There are always lots of movements to coordinate, but this week was a bit extreme as we had to deal with 3 emergencies. Typically, someone arrives on a bicycle with a referral form from one of our health centers. I pick a car and find a driver, the hospital produces a nurse or mid-wife and off they go. All three cases this week were related to complications during birth…

We also signed the contract with the mason who will build our new Tuberculosis ward at the hospital. The plans are complete and approved, the material is already here or en route and, after months of discussions and planning, we finally broke ground this week!


Photo: GrantA: Foundations

Not Just Technical…

As the supervisor of 25 national staff, there is always my fair share of human resource issues as well. A written warning to one of the staff for trying to sneak very overweight bags on to his flight back to the project after his vacation. They just don’t seem to understand that a PLANE is not a MINIBUS!

A Director of Nursing who lost his cool, which led to a suspension without pay. A radio operator getting a raise without the knowledge of his supervisor (me) or the project coordinator! A driver in trouble with the police for apparently causing an accident.

We also had a great meeting with the community to get their support in making the 12,000 bricks we need for our upcoming construction projects. The village chief, pastors from the larger churches, our community health workers, representatives from the Ministry of Health and members from the committee in charge of managing the health services in Shamwana. All said, there were about 30 people and we left with a definite action plan. It is really wonderful to see a community truly committed to improving their situation and not just expecting handouts from NGOs!

Finally, I spent an afternoon reviewing the 2009 budget with the project coordinator and adjusting the cost centers to reflect the actual reality in the project.

…and, of course, all the little stuff. Maintenance on a printer. Receipts to sign. Fuel consumption tracking sheets to update. A termite infestation in an expat’s room. My weekly situational report. Shelves built for a storeroom. Vacation scheduled for my mechanic.

…so, how was your week?

I know that all of this may seem somewhat random, but that is what logistics is all about. I can go from deciding to cut the grass at the runway next week to reviewing driver overtime to an emergency order for ammoxicillan for a health center…all in the span of 10 minutes.

We do everything that the medics don’t do and more. In Shamwana, this “we” is a team of 25 national staff and includes drivers, guards, storekeepers, radio operators and senior assistants so I am definitely not alone. However, there isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not constantly amazed at what actually falls into my job description!

They Call Me Jesus

May 12th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

They really do. I know that I’m a tall white man with a beard and hair that is getting a bit long…but come on! In the end, I am living in a very religious corner of the world and in an area that isn’t so used to seeing Mazungos. But Jesus!?!? It’s mostly children and consistently happens every time I leave the base. Hard not to smile and my teammates really do get a kick out of it as well. It could be worse, I suppose…

In general, the children of Shamwana are really great and are genuinely thrilled to see me. As I walk through the village, I am constantly greeted by the cheerful “Halo, Halo Mazungo!!” that is shouted as the handful of children that belong to that particular parcel run out at top speed to greet me.

Now What?

As soon as they get to the footpath, they stop suddenly, not always sure what to do.

The older ones try out the few lines of French that they’ve learned at school and the customary “Bonjour…ça va? Comment t’appel tu?” is stammered out…without waiting for a response and usually without the ability to really understand what I would answer anyway.

The younger ones shyly approach and stretch out a hand to shake mine or touch my legs…immediately racing back to their parcel with huge smiles on their faces, bragging to their parents and siblings that they actually touched the Mazungo!

The brave ones follow behind me for a bit and then slyly reach out to take my hand or to grab a finger. Before I know it, I have tiny black hands in mine as two very proud kids, extremely happy with their newfound acquaintance, are leading me through town!

Pictures of me

The first day I first arrived, there was a cute little kid who had an empty matchbox that he was using as his make-believe camera. It was clear that I wasn’t the first Mazungo here in Shamwana because he knew exactly what to do. He would put the matchbox to his eyes to snap a picture of me. CLICK…and it would be done. He would then open the matchbox and pull out a scrap of advertising from an old magazine, proudly showing me the picture he had just taken!

Donnez-moi une Photo!

Pictures are really fun. They love it and the moment you take the camera out, the children come flocking. Genuine excitement. Digital cameras are great because you can immediately share your picture with them…and that is thanks enough here in Shamwana.

Before you know it, the entire family has materialized for their chance to be in the picture. The little ones are shoved to the front. Babies are swung into view…the snot sometimes wiped from their nose and sometimes not. Smiles are always hard but, with a little encouragement, they come out and are wonderful. Bright white teeth shining out from their black faces.

The children of Shamwana really do brighten my day and I also walk away from such encounters with a big smile on my face!

G Assenheimer | Children of Shamwana

Photo: G Assenheimer | Children of Shamwana

Road Trip

April 30th, 2009 by MSF Field Blog

This past weekend, I went on a 3-day trip to the field with my senior log assistant and project coordinator. Our destination was Manono, the nearest ‘cité’ to Shamwana and a short 6-hour, 170 km drive away. Our main goal was to explore local purchase opportunities and the ability to use the twice weekly flights from Manono to Goma as a way to get expats out of the project.

So good to get out of the base and it was great to see another corner of the DRC. It also gave me lots to think about and I’ve shared some of these thoughts over the next couple of entries.

Ministry of Health

We started with a short side trip to visit the doctor in charge of the Ministry of Health side of operations in 4 of the 6 health centers we are supporting. This is as high as it gets without going to Lubumbashi so that was interesting. Got a few documents signed, discussed the incentive to be given to the new “Directeur de Nursing” recently posted to Shamwana and picked up a few motorcycle parts that we had lent them during their last visit.

Getting there was fun. A 5-hour driver, crossed a wide river by row boat and then it was a 2 km walk to get to his office. The office is on the same grounds as a large 50-bed Ministry of Health referral hospital and is in the center of a large village. Access by boat is the best option as there are no bridges and it is at least a 2-day drive to the nearest barge.

Before MSF opened in the area, all serious cases from the health centers we support were referred to this hospital. That’s pretty crazy. 5 hours by car or at least 2 days by bicycle meant that most people just wouldn’t bother. In the end, this is the main reason for opening our hospital here in Shamwana.

The most shocking part was the total lack of drugs in this hospital. There weren’t many patients either but, without medicine, why bother coming?! Our small health centers are better stocked then this 50-bed hospital! Is this what will happen in our region when we close our project? We can build the buildings, train the staff and implement as many protocols as we want but who is going to buy the drugs or pay the staff once we’re gone? Definitely showed me that the Congolese government is not ready to take over just yet.

G.Assenheimer | Ministry of Health hospital

Photo: G.Assenheimer | Ministry of Health hospital


Ghost Town

Before the war, Manono was a pretty happening place. Post office, electricity, trade schools, running water. Big tree-lined boulevards with promenades and nice shops on either side. There was even a section of town with paved streets and huge European houses.

Mining was the mainstay of the economy and, under the Pro-Western government of Mobutu, a handful of foreign companies were busy pulling as many minerals out of the region as fast as they could. With the outbreak of war, all of these companies pulled out and none have returned. Hundreds of individuals now comb the tailings piles in hopes of finding something they can sell in what is now termed “artesian mining”…but there hasn’t been steady work in the mines here for quite a while.


When people ask how was Manono, I tell them that it used to be a nice place. There are rusted out cars sitting on blocks in a few of the yards. Beautiful European-style houses are vacant and overgrown. Stores lining the boulevards are boarded up and there really isn’t so much traffic anymore. While there is a lively market, there isn’t really much in terms of shopping and prices are high because everything is either flown in or comes hundreds of kilometers by truck.

G.Assenheimer | House in ruins

Photo: G.Assenheimer | House in ruins

The hydro-electric plant that supplied power to the entire region was build by the Belgians in the 1960s. It survived Independence and stayed operations throughout Mobutu’s regime when so many of the other services were neglected. It wasn’t until 1998 when troops, advancing in their successful coup to overthrow Mobutu, stole the transformers and took them back to Rwanada.

5 years of war followed and the plant is now far from functional. Transmission lines were stolen and sold for their copper. The water channels feeding the power station developed leaks and flooded the buildings. Tin sheets found new homes. Instead of providing power for tens of thousands, the locals now use this relic as a good place to fish.

G.Assenheimer | DRC mines

Photo: G.Assenheimer | DRC mines

I’m still not sure how I feel about the gross exploitation of natural resources in this area. It is true that not much (or any!) of the profits stayed in the DRC. It is also fairly unlikely that there were Congolese living in the fancy European-style houses. But there was work and that has to count for something. Without the mines, there are so few options for employment. There is no electricity. No roads or bridges will get fixed.


Following the war, Manono was a hub for NGO activity. A number of organizations started projects and a large MONUC base was opened. Now, as funding to aid agencies continues to be diverted to the Kivus, one by one these NGOs are closing shop and employment opportunities spiral downwards.

In effect, the population is living on the edge. Medical services are extremely limited and food security is low. Rumors of malnutrition are circulating. Roads exist but are barely passable. School teachers are paid $30 US a month. True, there is no longer war in Katanaga…but the population is not out of it just yet.

From my perspective, the trip was a success. The project coordinator caught her flight to Goma and will cross into Rwanda to catch an international flight to Nairobi for a training course. Sound complicated? THAT path is currently the easiest way to get out of the country from Shamwana!!

I was also able to buy simple things like fresh eggs, tomatoes, oranges, garlic and onions, eggplant, papayas, bicycle repair parts, scribblers, engine oil, a few raincoats, and some plastic sheeting. Most of this stuff isn’t available in Shamwana…and, if it is, it is way more expensive. We haven’t had a plane land in Shamwana for over 3 months so it was nice to have some fresh vegetables for the weekend!


Saving Lives 

On the way back, we spent the night at a health center that was outside of MSFs ‘radius’ of support. In late 2008, the NGO that had been supporting this heath center (and many others) suddenly lost its funding and abruptly pulled out of Katanga.

Blamed on the global economic crisis, this departure suddenly left 21 health centers across two regions without adequate medical supplies. The health center where we stayed was no different. They had nothing…and what little was there was expired. No antibiotics. No drugs for simple malaria treatment. Not even a thermometer.

Doctor Grant

We pulled up at 5:30 pm and I was immediately called inside to see a 2-year-old girl with a severe case of malaria. For me, this is one of the hardest parts about working with MSF. Patients and health centers and hospitals are all pretty new for me but I manage ok. It is when I walk into a clinic or hospital as a white expat wearing my MSF T-shirt and it is assumed that I am a doctor that it gets a bit uncomfortable! Hard to explain to a mother with her sick daughter in her arms that I’m (just) the logistician and not actually able to do anything to help…

I am not a doctor. But part of my job as a logistician is to make sure that every car leaves the base with a fully stocked emergency medical kit for cases just like this one. I opened the kit and asked the Ministry of Health nurse if I had what he needed. I did. He was so grateful and, within an hour, an injection had been given, a drip had been setup and the child’s fever was going down.

“Saving Lives and Alleviating Suffering”

She made it through the night but still needed a blood transfusion…so at 6:00 am the next morning we loaded her into our land cruiser and transferred her to the MSF hospital in Shamwana. Both parents were asked to come along in hopes that one of them would be a compatible blood donor for their child….

She got the blood transfusion and she lived.

Malaria is the number 1 killer of children under 5 in Africa….but at least this was one less case for the statisticians!

The incredible part of this whole situation was that there was a Ministry of Health nurse at the health center and he actually knew what to do. Physically, there was a health center. There were patients. The only thing that was missing was the medicine! It is so painful to know that everything else is in place, but without NGOs providing drugs the whole system falls apart!

G.Assenheimer | Saving Lives

Photo: G.Assenheimer | Saving Lives

Supply Lines

April 26th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer

After work last night, I enjoyed a beer, some Pringles and few hours of cards with our team. Small comforts after a long day! So easy to forget that this beer only arrives in Shamwana after a 5-day trip on the back of a bicycle!

No one has a car…if you have money here in Shamwana, you buy a bicycle. These aren’t your normal bikes, either. Heavy duty. You can weld them. They can carry 100 kilos. Not so comfortable but their real value is in the amount of cargo that can be strapped to them.

We’ve given a bicycle to each health center to support patient referrals.

They are using bicycles to transport the bricks that we need for my upcoming construction projects. From the river to the hospital. All 6000 of them…8 at a time.

Its ‘only’ 5-7 days by bicycle to Lubumbashi from Shamwana.


Bikes travel for days as the basic supply lines between villages

Bikes travel for days as the basic supply lines between villages

Water Mamas

April 26th, 2009 by Grant Assenheimer


My Monday mornings are always a bit stressful.  It is my job to literally wade out into a crowd of local Congolese women and select 10 of them to be our water haulers – our Water Mamas – for the week. 


Inside the compound, we officially start each day with a morning meeting at 8:00 am.  The crowd outside the gate is already gathering by then.  If you were one of these women, you would be there early to stake out your spot.  Likely, you have a baby strapped to your back and have your two oldest daughters waiting in different parts of the line to increase your chances.  This is the only real opportunity you’ll have to earn any money this week so it is a big deal.  Everyone is talking, there is some pushing and an argument breaks out beside you as someone tries to force her way into the line.  A mixture of excitement, hope and desperation can be felt in the air.


Immediately after the morning meeting, it’s time.  Trailing behind my Assistant Log, I head outside the compound and am greeted by over 300 people like you.  Some try to grab the numbers out of my hand.  Others tug on my sleeves, hoping to attract my attention and increase their chances.  But most just wait patiently.  Hoping that maybe this week I might pick them.  Not the favorite part of my job, that’s for sure.


Monday Morning Selection


Directions are shouted in Kiluba and the women from last week grudgingly leave their spot in the line, hopes of being selected again now gone.  I make a relatively futile attempt to kick out the students and pregnant women and to arrange everyone into a couple of lines.  Then, with a number already picked in my head, I start counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…33, 34, 35!  If you’re picked, you get a piece of paper with a number on it and I continue counting as you run down the center of the two lines, cheering like you just won the lottery!


You’ll immediately get your yellow, 20-liter jug and head to the hand pump to start pumping.  20 cents per jug and you’ll probably haul around 75 throughout the week.  Facilitating everything from hand washing stations to wash water for the operating theater to expat showers.


…all of this so you have the chance to be one of the lucky ladies who can transport water for MSF for that week.  Congratulations!