First week in a one-week-old country

I’ve spent most of my first week in the MSF office in front of my computer, the same computer that I was sitting in front of a week earlier at my parent’s house near Chicago. Five flights later and the scene has changed quite a bit. The airports and planes became smaller and smaller until I buzzed into the town of Raja on a World Food Program single prop. The dirt runway is about a block from the office, which is a football field away from the hospital where we’re doing the bulk of our activities. While the planning and research that I’m doing on the computer is critical for my work, I’m looking up from it and getting away from it whenever possible, curious to get a grip on what’s going on, excited to get my hands dirty.

As a watsan (water and sanitation… guy), I’m charged with overseeing things at the hospital having to do with water quality and quantity, latrines, hygiene, vector control (mosquitos and such) and health care waste management.

The hardware side of things should be straightforward enough; install the pipes, dig the pits, build the structures, smile and cut the ribbon. With this being the bush, this isn’t the case. Supply, supply, supply is the difficulty, because of our remote location. The local market is a scene. I love it but it has nothing to sell to me for my work. Even for food it simply lacks. Pipes? Not one. Taps? Sorry, no. Cement? Maybe, who’s asking? Onions? Yes, but they’ll cost you. Onions are like gold here. Potatoes aren’t even available anymore but we have a giant stash in the kitchen. There’s no wine… it’s a genuine dearth.

The software side is where things become more complex and challenging for a watsan. Software is people- training them, building for them, or maybe even listening to them. People are complex enough, but even more so when they don’t share the same language, receive the same cultural truths, or shop at the same Whole Foods locations. How can I design latrines for people when I’ve been in their country for less than a week? Which is a coincidencce as their country was only a week old when I arrived.

As much as I’d like to think that my job is the most important (psst: it totally is), we’re a medical organization and I’m actually here to support the medical activities. Our energetic Argentinian doctor showed me around the hospital. Building by building, room by room she pointed out the inadequate number of water points, the deficiencies of the waste management system, problems with existing structures and ideas for future ones. She did all this while greeting men and groups of women and children with the energy and efortlessness of someone running for public office. “Salam aleikum. Tammam?” “Tammam” They replied with smiles. She did everything short of kissing babies, although I think she did save a baby’s life. Our last stop was the pediatric ward and just as we were wrapping up our tour, we were interuppted with a medical issue that she had to deal with right away. This is what the whole thing seemed like as it happened:

‘So, a drinking water stand here and a handwashing station over there?’ I say, squinting and adjusting my glasses with the eraser of my pencil.

Over her shoulder, as someone hands her a baby struggling to breathe, ‘Sorry, I have to hook this baby up to the oxygen machine, set up the IV, advise the national staff on the baby’s treatment plan for the coming hours, get someone to run and tell Wilson to turn the generator back on so we have power to run the machine, use a translator to communicate to the mother what we’re doing for her child.’

‘Oh no problem, so I’ll just stay right here and make a little map of the ward and draw little dots for handwashing stations and squares drinking water stands? Cool, I’ll just be here then.’

Of course all she really said before jumping to action was, ‘Sorry Emmeeeett, hold on.’ But after days at my desk working on the technical stuff, examing the stock in the warehouse and inspecting the watsan facilities around the hospital, it was very nice to get hit on the head with this very medical experience, to be reminded of what we’re actually doing here. The whole whirlwind tour with her was exactly what I needed in order to connect the proposed watsan improvements with who I’m doing it for and how it should be done. Anyhow, I still need to do more to engage the national staff- from doctors to cleaners- as well as patients on their thoughts regarding my work. Then we’ll have to work on getting the right parts out here. It’d also be cool to get some wine.

That’s all for now. Going forward I’ll try to shed some light on our work and on the situation in the rural, beautiful, and until now quiet Western Bahr el Ghazal state of the newly indpendent Republic of South Sudan. I’d appreciate any comments and questions you might have. Until next time, I’ll probably be at my computer.

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13 Responses to First week in a one-week-old country

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  2. Cher linn says:

    Hi! I’m inspired by your spirit to serve. I wonder if the South Sudan hospital you’re in now is taking in more medical laboratory staff? I wonder if I could serve there, too. Thanks!
    -cher linn

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  4. Emmett Kearney says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Diana- Your visualizations are right on the money.

    Heather- I would love to but unfortunately there’s a law/rule about taking pictures in S Sudan. Hopefully that changes soon.

    Misha- Great, thanks for the enthusiasm! Hang in there and hopefully you’ll be writing from the field one day.

    Ana! What’s up?! Great, thanks for reading. I hope you’re enjoying yourself back at home. Do you miss Luingu yet??

    Richard- Thanks for the question about adapting goals in the face of the field challenges. Well, how can I sum up without writing a report. The short answer is no (and yes I’m aware that it wasn’t a yes/no question). The installations and improvements needed at the hospital, outlined in my job description and in a report from our expert watsan who visited a few months ago, will happen. I suppose what’s changed is my conception of how they’ll happen. Before I came here I had no idea! Now I’m finding supplies, getting to know the contractors as well as all of the ins and outs of the hospital.

    Encarna- Thanks so much for your comment and support!

    Manu, ahhhhh, my friend, \8/\8/ indeed. Thanks for the kind words buddy. Enjoy the time before you finish and head home!

    Bob- Thanks for your support, I appreciate it! Yes, smiling and enjoying the challenge for sure!

    Anne- Thanks for reading and posting your comment!

    Take care!

  5. Anne Tran says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog & I commend you for all your hard work not only in the Republic of South Sudan but as well as in Thai-Burma border. Please keep blogging & keep us posted about all your new experiences & adventures in ROSS. I will include you in my prayers Emmett, may God continue to keep you safe, give you the strength & courage to keep doing such a phenomenal job. Take care always, I look forward to your next blog.

  6. Bob Wojcik says:

    Great article. Probably wondering what you got yourself into all with a big smile on your face. You got to love a good challenge. I commend you for your courage an at the same time envy you because I’d love to be there to help. Long time donor to MSF but would really like to get my hands dirty too.

  7. Manu says:

    As I have the pleasure to be the first on posting a comment, I will say to anyone reading this blog, that Emmett is the coolest guy ever and that you will enjoy a lot everything he is going to write here.

    Emmett, my friend, I wish you all the best in your work and in your life. I know you will be amazing doing that job and I hope that MSF will give us the opportunity to work together.

    Take care! Big hug!

    \8/\8/ forever!!!!


  8. encarna ortega says:

    I´m a housewife, and sometimes I think of what can I do to feel better . When children grow up , there is plenty of time..
    I thank you MSF, the effort you maketo improve the lifes of these people . I envy you all. I wish I could help you , you can count me in..
    Good luck and God bless you!!

  9. Richard Cuminale says:

    I appreciate the energy you share in writing about your assignment, as well as the sobering example of the child that shows the medical needs of the people. Given your lack of resources and the high demands of your situation, how have you adapted your expectations of success? In other words, how have your goals changed since you hit the ground, and what, now, does success look like for your assignment?

  10. Ana says:

    Well done Emmett!
    It´s a pleasure to read you from my comfortable sofa at home while resting for the second mission. It´s remind me why I want to go back to the field!
    Take care and keep us informed! ;-)
    Big hug!

    Ana (Zambia)

  11. Misha says:

    Hi Emmett,

    I am a third year medical student and let me just say, while the situation is absolutely different, the sentiment is shared: I cannot wait to be out practicing, working with patients and communities, doing what I know I will love. My fellow med school friends and I have just recently taken Step 1 of the board exams, and after spending 14+ hrs/day at a computer, listening to lectures, going over notecards, and answering question after question about some ambiguous 43-year-old female presenting with… you wonder two things: Is this a pressure sore forming on my ass? and Is this even worth it? I hate to admit it, but there have been many times that I’ve looked at the lives of my friends and was jealous – they are getting married, excited about the opportunities their occupations give them, having more than an hour of free time at any given moment…and I’m sitting there, wondering if an imaginary forty-something woman may need her gallbladder removed.
    So blah blah blah, here’s the point: I appreciate hearing about the ups, the downs, the emotion, and events that are happening in and shaping the lives of those who are out there working to give opportunity to those who have had the unfortunate chance of being born in a place lacking it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel all down and emo about my life all the time. But in those moments, it is very reassuring and inspires me to keep on trucking (who says that? anyway…), knowing all the stress and sacrifice will not be in vain.

    Happy Tuesday,


    PS Sorry about the rambling – I’m about 3 years behind on sleep. :-P

  12. Heather says:

    Is it possible to post some pics?
    Enjoyed your post,

  13. diana says:

    Nice to hear from you! I have worked in isolated locations, and understand abit of what its like….Meanwhile, I am visualizing taps, concrete, flowing clean water and facilities for proper waste disposal.