Trip to Vindza

18 March 2008

The other day we left our small, remote village of Kindamba for the three-hour trip to an even smaller and more remote village called Vindza. MSF has been supporting a health centre there for the last few years.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. I rode alongside ace driver Jean-Baptiste in the pickup truck, behind a Land Cruiser packed with MSF national staff. The road to Vindza is pretty choppy, and soon nurses Edwige and Clévie were launching their breakfast manioc out the side of the vehicle.

Through the back window I glimpsed the displeased faces of their fellow passengers as we lurched over the lush, rolling hills. I felt relieved to be riding in the pickup.

Driver Jean-Baptiste (or J.B.) is a friendly guy who doesn’t talk much. He can look at a 45-degree wall of mud crisscrossed with deep tire trenches and immediately see the path that will take him to the top.

When the car ahead of us hesitated at the base of such a hill, J.B. radioed quick instructions to the less experienced Antoine – "gauche, gauche, gauche."

In Vindza, crowds of people had arrived at the health centre for MSF day, mostly women and young children. Our staff quickly deployed to weigh babies, give inoculations, and pass out a therapeutic food called BP5, which to me tastes like little blocks of sweetened sawdust. But for malnourished kids it’s just the thing.

One of our jobs was to begin transferring the health centre back to the government, and to make an official donation of supplies that would see them through to May. First on the agenda was getting all our paperwork signed and stamped.

I was impressed by the local government official’s complicated signature. First he executes a long, dramatic squiggle, more than enough to satisfy most people. Next come some tiny, precise hieroglyphics along one of the arms of the squiggle. Then some more hieroglyphics, in a different style, near the bottom. He rounds it off with three carefully-spaced horizontal lines. Take that, con men and fraudsters.

Around here, people also like official stamps, and everyone was carrying two or three to apply over their signatures, in different colors. I’m not sure, but I think it was a bit competitive. I wondered if our blurry little MSF stamp was letting down the side.

The signature pages looked elaborate and important when everyone was finally done. At a glance, you might think we had just signed a sweeping peace treaty in Darfur or cancelled the foreign debts of every country in Africa.

After finishing with the drug donations we drank fresh palm wine and ate kola nuts and spicy peppers with the community health committee. The local government official explained to the assembled masses that MSF was leaving, and they seemed to take it in stride. In theory, it means that things are returning to normal. An emergency aid organization shouldn't run your public health services indefinitely.

With business taken care of, I sat down with the guys from the health committee for some man talk about hunting. It turns out that you need to go all the way to Brazzaville to get a permit if you want to shoot at elephant or rhinoceros.

But there are plenty of gazelle. Set fire to a few acres of dry grassland and you’re more than likely to flush one out. Recently someone saw a lion take down a sheep, over by the river. Big game thinned out over the last few years, but things have been getting better since the war ended.