...in the time of cholera

20 November 2007

Today I went to see some of the cholera camps that MSF has set up around Goma. Cholera in endemic here and MSF teams normally see a few cases every year but, with an additional 45,000 or so people living in camps on the outskirts of the city, things have been much worse this year. MSF set up one cholera treatment centre between 4 of the big camps in the city and is supporting another 5 health centres in different locations around Goma and the neighbouring town of Sake. Over 1,100 people have been treated so far. Fortunately, the number of cases seems to be going down now.

It's so strange driving along the main road towards Sake. The camps on both sides of the road are a stark reminder of what is happening here and a real contrast to the hustle and bustle of Goma. It's a shock to see that some of the small shelters that people live in aren't covered with plastic sheeting, but then the driver reminds me why. Last week one of the camps here, Mugunga, was attacked. Thousands of people fled, apparently the roads were lined with people walking towards the city centre, carrying whatever they could with them. When they returned a day or so later, the sheeting that was covering their tents and providing some small protection from the wind and the rain had been stolen. The shelters look strangely naked without it. Those that still have sheeting now take it down every morning and keep it with them so that they can run at a moment's notice. A piece of sheeting, which costs about seven dollars, is their most precious possession.

Although the cholera outbreak is waning, there are still around fifteen patients in the centre I go to. Many of them are children. All of them are displaced. One woman I speak to tells me her story. Originally from Mweso (Masisi District) she came here two months ago when there was fighting in her village. She came here on foot, but the journey was slow as she had her two children and her neighbour's ten year old son with her. His parents disappeared and so now she's looking after him, or rather he's looking after her. Life is hard in the camp. During the day she goes to the fields to get bananas to sell and make some money, leaving her children in the care of the ten year old. One big branch of bananas will sell for 150 Congolese francs. A plate of maize and beans costs 600 francs. She always gets diarrheoa after eating the maize and beans. Yesterday she felt very ill, with diarrheoa, vomiting and a fever. She fainted. When she woke up she was in the cholera treatment centre.