Enter me, stage right
14 February 2009 Comments
It has been three weeks since I arrived in Zimbabwe for the cholera emergency, and I find the country even more fascinating as each day passes. The country is both beautiful and depressing at the same time. Gorgeous buildings built at the turn of the last century left unmaintained and falling into ruins, suburban mansions contrasted by high density townships with no or little running water except the sewage flowing through the streets, huge tracts of what used to be productive farmland now in disarray and being reclaimed by bush. This is a country that is most definitely not what it used to be.
When I arrived, most of the conversation evolved around the outbreak in Kadoma, a town about two hours away from Harare. One of our mobile assessment teams came to the town and found a cholera treatment centre completely overwhelmed by patients. This prompted an rapid reaction of both supplies and personnel to aid the clinic.
A German nurse, who was there during the peak of the outbreak, described it to me, "It was horrible. The Cholera Treatment Centre was so full it had patients lined up outside with their drips just hanging on the fence... There were people just lying on the floor, on the road, in a footbath, even in the wheelbarrows they arrived in ... Many were lying in their own vomit and diarrhea. It. Was. Just. Horrible."
The MSF team helped put up a few tents, including on the road in front of the clinic, but it was quickly obvious that a bigger centre was needed, and so the search for a better location began. For a short while, a Cholera Treatment Centre, or CTC in MSF parlance, was set up in a commandeered school, but it could not be used for long. Information was then received about a football field near the area heaviest hit by the epidemic. The team assessed the situation, and the Congolese water and sanitation officer announced, "Drop me here, and pick me up in an hour. Just leave me a notebook and a pen."
An hour later, the team picked him up. The Mobile Team Coordinator told me, "He is a maestro. In that hour he planned out a textbook CTC, literally: It is exactly as depicted in the MSF Cholera Guidelines. He did a really amazing good job."
A few days later, the CTC was complete, and started to receive its first patients, and the previous centre stopped admitting new patients. Things became more orderly, with much better infection control, with a proper one way system for admitted patients. The numbers plateaued, and the team scaled down to return to their original duties.
Enter me, stage right.
I arrived in Zimbabwe a couple of days after getting the phone call, and went straight to Zimbabwe. I did not pass London or Amsterdam for briefings. I did not pass Go, and most definitely did not collect 200 pounds. All I knew was that I was to be a logistician doing something, somewhere for the emergency. During most of my briefings in Harare, I was led to believe that I will be posted to Kadoma, but then somebody found out that I have some administration experience, and so I became logistician-admininistrator ("log admin") for the Harare project, after a short stint in Kadoma to help with supplies.
I arrived in Kadoma about a week after the peak — a few days after I arrived in-country. The team there were awesome. There was the acting Project Coordinator, a 68-year old American nurse with 13 grandsons, who was jokingly referred to as the Ebola Queen, or simply "Gogo" — Grandmother in Shona, one of the main local languages; a gruff Sri Lankan doctor "Sekuru" — Grandfather; the aforementioned German nurse; and the expatriated Essex boy who was the all-round log.
The CTC in Kadoma is one that is run by three partners: MSF, Kadoma City Health, and a faith-based NGO called Celebration, with supplies in the warehouse from all groups, as well as a beautiful water system set up by the Spanish Red Cross. I had a couple of storekeepers, and a few people from Celebration who worked at the dispensary in the old CTC. I enjoyed working with most of them, although I fear that they worry about the fate of my eternal soul ... Maybe it was because I played some Iron Maiden to them when asked what kind of music I like. I left the music playing, as I had do do something else, and kept it on until they asked me to turn it off. At this point, the track that
was playing was "The Number of the Beast". Oops.
I am now working in Harare, where the project is running three CTCs and a bucket chlorination campaign. I am in charge of human resources and finance/administration for the whole project, as well as logistics for one of the CTCs. Last week I conducted interviews to recruit an administration assistant, to avoid getting bogged down, and thankfully found a really good candidate. The interview process lasted half a day, during which I found it hard to hide my glee whenever a cocky candidate's face dropped after we mentioned an Excel test, seconds after boasting about how great they were at it. The best interview story has to be about the one whose phone rang in the middle of the interview. He hung up immediately, and apologised profusely for the interruption. Then his phone rang again, and he told the caller that he was in an interview. The caller apparently refused to believe him, at which point he handed over the phone to me, and asked me to explain to his mother that he really was in an interview, and not just avoiding a maternal conversation ...
There are some more stories I would like to tell, but they will have to wait until I've caught up with the admin backlog ... Till then, stay safe.