Life is definitely a lot less predictable since I arrived in Congo. Until four days before leaving, I had no idea that I would be given the opportunity to go to Bukama to help with an MSF measles and malnutrition intervention. I flew out about on a plane bound for Lwena the closest airstrip. The planes we hire here are small, about 7 metres from nose to tail and capable of carrying on average 6 passengers and about 900 kg of freight. It was just over an hour’s flight to Lwena, and I had the chance to take some impressive views of the relatively flat and green forest landscape typical of the province of Katanga. The airstrip at Lwena is simply that, with no buildings to complicate matters. The plane landed and after a short taxi pulled up about a 20 metres from a waiting MSF vehicle. After unloading the boxes of medical supplies that were also destined for Bukama, we were on our way.
The road to Bukama is very tricky, we averaged about 30 km/h in a tough 4×4. You could see it in the eyes of the driver that he got a huge rush out of driving in such difficult circumstances. We arrived in Bukama about early afternoon and it was nothing like I expected. Firstly it was more populous and lively than I ever thought it would be — this is a bustling town. There are kids everywhere, in fact I have never seen such a concentration, playing football with homemade balls in the streets dry, dusty and rock laden. The main street is, throughout the day, full of people making their way in both directions. There is even a little ‘cinema’. People live in basic dwellings, huts even, but they seemed well-presented, organised homes from the little they have.
On arrival the team had quick meal and then I was off to see the two centres. The first centre, at Kabamoma, is an Ambulatory where families bring children suffering from malnutrition to be fed but then take them home with some food. The second centre called a CNT (Centre Nutritionnel Therapeutic) is where children suffering to a great extent are actually medically treated for malnutrition. In addition to the two centres MSF provides access to primary healthcare for the many who need it and will soon start a vaccination programme against measles which will benefit about 120,000 children.
When I arrived both of the Centres were in the process of being built. In the following 5 days I saw the two centres take shape. Everyday in the morning at the sites there would be a massive congregation of carpenters (the structures were made from wood and plastic sheeting) and workmen looking to be taken on as daily workers. Those who were not taken on would hang around because during the day there was so much to get done quickly and every day we looked for people to make furniture for the centres and move stock from one place to another.
The days started about 6 am for most of the team and as soon as I stepped out of the room it was time to work. There was an endless list of things to get done. As well as the nutrition centres there was a vaccination campaign to plan for and as people were suffering in our midst, there was a feeling in the team that everything needed to be done yesterday. As a result there was often a reflective feeling in the late evening when there was usually a team discussion. There were fairly forthright and passionate discussions, even with one or two differences of opinion.
Bottom line is that the team cared an awful lot about helping the people in need. On the day the Ambulatory centre opened, however, there was a marked change in the mood in the team, and even a bounce in their step. Finally, the team was getting to help the children they were there to save. It was a humbling experience for me because finally I saw a mother feeding her child a sachet of the high-protein food, hundreds of boxes of which had passed through the base. Ahhh, so that’s what it’s used for!!!!
The MSF base in Bukama was still just taking shape. We had rented a hotel which consists of 11 small rooms around what would be a courtyard if there was a fountain or even a statue in it. 3 of the rooms are not used as they were never completed and consist of brickwork with no roof. One of my jobs for the time I was there was to figure out how we could organise the base better and to find a solution for the storage of all the medical and logistical supplies the team would be receiving. I realised quickly that this was an emergency situation and the resources that I had been used to in the past simply do not exist there.
For example, we needed three shelving units to organise the pharmacy at the CNT. There is no Ikea in Bukama. Firstly I had to find the wood, which was difficult given that the priority was to build the structures needed at the two centres and it was transported from Lubumbashi (450km away). I had to gather up scrap planks. I then had to find two carpenters, which I managed to do by finding some stragglers at the site of the CNT. One of them was a young guy who carried his saw around and hung out at the site without ever doing any work. I arranged to meet them at the base at 11am where I would explain to them what I wanted them to build. I emphasised the time.
At the base 30 minutes later I was making a drawing showing exactly what I wanted when the guard called me to the gate. It was 10:20 but sure enough the carpenters were there. It was then that I realised that they just said yes to everything I said and did not really understand French nor much of what I was saying. From then on I got one of the national staff to translate instructions into Swahili. I was so relieved when I saw the first shelf unit and it was built to a good standard.
In the end, after 6 days helping out the team, it was time for me to return to my reason for living at Lubumbashi. I did not really want to leave, I had started quite a few things and it would have been so good to be able to finish them off. In addition, I was absolutely shattered when I got back. I realised that when I was on the field in Bukama, maybe because of the team ethic and dynamic, I never really stopped working. When you are with a team member you talk about work, about the project. When I had a moment to reflect, I was thinking about what I had not done and how I was going to do it. Added to that, the weekend means nothing; all the days of the week are the same. The work is all-consuming, but the bottom line is that the sense of purpose makes it all worth while.
My experience in Bukama gave me a taste for work in that type of environment. What a challenge it would be! But I did have some enthusiasm for my return to the support base. I went back a little bit more experienced, a little wiser and a lot more able to support the project than the day I arrived a week before.
Its been just about month since I arrived in Congo and I must say that every day something happens to add a bit of colour to proceedings. There is never a dull moment.
One of the projects that the base here in Lubumbashi supports has just entered an important phase. MSF has intervened in Bukama, about 450 km from Lubumbashi, due first to a cholera outbreak and then to an outbreak of measles coupled with malnutrition. Normally in Western countries measles is not known for being such a serious disease. However it is the fact that the measles outbreak coincides with malnutrition which has resulted in many people losing their lives. Over the next 2 weeks a team will aim to vaccinate about 30,000 children for measles and the aim is to vaccinate even much more people during the intervention.
There is also a programme to treat malnutrition! As a result, the base at Lubumbashi is a hive of activity as we find a way to deliver the team, food, vaccinations, medication and equipment to Bukama and surrounding regions.
Here in Lubumbashi my days have found a rhythm. My day starts at around 7am when I wake up to the sound of Marvyn Gaye “What’s going on? Brother, brother, brother“. I take a shower, throw on some clothes and savour some toast with nutella. Its so good! After breakfast, I jump into one of the MSF vehicles, the same wherever you go in the world, white with the MSF insignia on the bonnet and two doors. Another tell tale sign of an MSF vehicle is a two meter high radio antenna attached to a grill at the front. It’s about a 7 minute drive to the base and it’s a bumpy ride, with well maintained sections being the exception.
I arrive at the office for the 8am meeting with the whole team, generally about 12 of us, and everyone explains their priorities for the day. There is a fair amount of banter except on Monday mornings, which is generally a bit quiet (which is understandable). After the morning meeting five of us, the logistics team, made up of the supply Logistician, the Buyer, the Storekeeper, the Assistant Logistician and myself take a few minutes to go over what are the logistics priorities for the day. The meetings are generally focused towards making sure everything is ready for the next delivery to the projects by plane or road. There is a rigorous logistics procedure necessary to buy anything from a pen to a generator and deliver it to one of the projects in the field. It is quite a chore sometimes because I have to approve every request to buy or take something from stock. But I suppose its important to look after the pennies!!
After the morning meetings I get busy with the priorities for the day. There are a number of projects which need to be carried out both at the base and at the house. For example, at the base we are extending the storage area and redoing all the electrical installation. Already we have installed a new high frequency radio mast and after a day of trying we managed to communicate with our coordination in Kinshasa 2000km away. Yes…really satisfying!
I just mentioned that we are about to redo the electrical installation for the base. Two weeks ago something happened which forced our hand with regard to getting that started. I was in the radio room at the base working on the Outlook computer and J-F comes through from the other office and says calmly “Ike, I think there is a problem next door”. And you know what, he was right…. Three monitors in the Logistics office had massive plumes of smoke coming from the back of them and even more frightening was the series of loud banging noises. I was absolutely petrified but I think I did a good job of hiding it. We cut the generator and I stood there for about a minute clutching a fire extinguisher that I hoped I would not have to use. After investigating the incident, It turned out that another NGO we supply with electricity from our generator had caused a short circuit on their side which resulted in a power surge and ultimate chaos on our side.
Another day that sticks in the memory was the day we received delivery of 6 cubic meters of sand we had ordered from a local supplier. We need lots of sand for building work we are carrying out at the base and the house. I was called to the gate to check what they had delivered. I asked the supplier where the rest of the sand was because there must have been about 2 cubic metres lying on a plastic sheet in front of me. He told me that in Congo that volume was 6 cubic meters! This was completely new territory for me so I resorted to logic to try and find a resolution. However, the whole thing hinged on the supplier admitting that we were talking about a lot less than 6 cubic metres. Unfortunately, and very frustratingly, he was not in the mood to concede this most basic of notions. In the end they reloaded their sand on their truck and we decided to buy sand from another supplier who shares the same idea of what a cubic metre is.
There is a lot here to keep me on my toes, whether it be logistical problems with planes and trucks we need to get the supplies to the projects or even issues to do with running a base itself as the above examples illustrate. But the longer that I am here in Lubumbashi the more that I have the desire to go to the projects and help the people MSF is here to help directly. There is a distinct possibility I will be going to Bukama in the next few days to help with setting up the vaccination programme. That is a really exciting possibility, so Im crossing my fingers that is going to materialise!
Be in touch again soon.
Its been a week since I arrived in Congo and its passed really quickly. I stayed 2 nights and a day in Kinshasa where I had several briefings with each department in the MSF Belgium Coordination team. Kinshasa itself is a hive of activity, very densely populated and majority of people live in relative basic conditions. Welcome to Africa !! You may have heard there was fighting in Kinshasa recently due to political dispute…..dozens of people died, havent had a confirmed number yet. The MSF-B team in Kinshasa were unable to leave the office compound for 48 hours. The same happened to over 300 children unable to leave a school in the middle of Kinshasa. Apparently they could hear the gunfire. It must have been frightening…. i only just missed it as I flew here to Lubumbashi the morning of the same day the fighting started. Things are a bit calmer there now.
Lubumbashi, 2000 km away, is a completely different proposition to Kinshasa. Its probably the closest you will get to a European type city, in Congo and most of Africa. The majority of roads are well planned out, its quite calm and there are loads of restaurants and you can buy “western” products really easily. Life is good here.
On the other, i have a job which demands a lot of responsibility and it is almost 24/7 in terms of when I could need to get things done. I finished the hand over 2 days ago, it was well done but I was still nonplused after it – the guy I took over from, Gilles, did a really good job in the 3 months he was there. I am responsible for the MSF support base at Lubumbashi.
Basically the national staff are a really good group of people, all really experienced and know their jobs really well. Im really there to coordinate and set priorities. I’ll tell you, its pushing my French skills to the max.
One thing is my boss is 2000km away in Kinshasa and the positive side is that Im absolutely free to choose what I do. At times though I’ve thought, theres no support here even if i need it so I need to find a way to make things work.
What does the base support ? It supports two different projects. The first one is based in Mitwaba about a few hundred km north east of Lubumbashi. It took a truck 19 days to get there due to the state of the roads !! So we tend to have 3 or 4 flights a week in that direction, sending medical supplies, water and sanitation equipment, motor bikes, spare parts and sometimes food. I havent been there yet but it is supposed to be a classic type MSF project. It is there to provide access to primary healthcare for the population who due to war have seen their healthcare system reduced to tatters. Saturday morning I woke up very early to take a truck full of supplies to the airport on route to Mitwaba.
The second project we support is called Pool Urgence Congo (Emergency team Congo). There have been some new outbreaks of measles in the region of Malemba at the same time as major floods. A PUC team from has just made its way to the area to decide what action MSF should take. So in cases like that the base does everything it can to get people and supplies where they need to be.
I live in quite a big comfortable house and until two days ago I shared with two other people. One of them was the guy I am replacing and he’s not coming back, now back in Brussels. The other is the coordinator of the PUC team and shes somewhere in Malemba for 10 days. So Im going to be living alone for a few days. You get used to having people around because you live and work in a team. There are visitors to the house fairly often though… people travelling to the projects or going on holiday from the projects usually stay over for a day or two.
I’ll fill you in again when I get some more inspiration.