Living MSF

January 30th, 2010 by MSF Field Blog

The moment the earthquake destroyed so many homes and lives in Haiti I, still new to the organisation, got to experience the essence of MSF. The news of the catastrophe reached us fast: communications were sent out from Head Quarters keeping us up to date on our colleagues that went missing, those that were miraculously rescued and those we lost. The shock and sadness were felt – also here in Africa. At the same time there was a wave of energy that went through the organisation: There is a catastrophe and we are there to help. We were amongst the first to be on the ground, amongst the few front liners most effective in delivering emergency aid. The emergency team -always on standby- went out straight away. Experienced MSF volunteers were pulled out of missions from all over the world and followed shortly after; a couple of hundreds volunteers to assist the local Haiti team to rebuilt their clinics and to offer support to those in most immediate need. It is hard, very hard, on the people working on the ground. At the same time the energy is felt: this is what we are all about. Delivering aid in the most extreme of circumstances is what MSF stands for, and it is this aspect of our work we all feel so very proud off!

Our life here in Zimbabwe is much different from that of our colleagues in Haiti. In Haiti volunteers sleep in tents, offices, share a shower with 20 and are faced with the most extreme of human suffering. Here in Harare we live in a comfortable house, we each have our own room, we share a shower with only three. The shops are well stocked again, in the evenings we go to one of the many restaurants or bars on offer or we play a game of tennis at the local sports club. Hence we don’t live the extremes that some of our colleagues have to live. Still, at a totally different level, the confrontation and hardship is all the same. On a daily basis we lose patients that are in our programme, every week my medical colleagues have to face little children die: malnourished, some HIV positive, some suffering from TB, pneumonia or other complications. The death rate is staggering here, and every Zimbabwean has to deal with it. The other day one of my Zimbabwean colleagues came back from leave. I asked him how his holidays had been. He said: “It was good, but I just wish I hadn’t had so many funerals to attend”. Every day staff members are off work to attend yet another funeral of an uncle, an aunt, cousins, sisters, parents… Having attended only 6 funerals in my life myself, I find it hard to imagine how one would deal with the loss of loved ones at such high frequency. Yet, the Zimbabweans are happy, are positive. There is no anger over all that happened, no bitter envy of those who live in better conditions. The resilience of the people here is impressive; a strength I much admire.

Six weeks on the ground

December 23rd, 2009 by MSF Field Blog

Six weeks on the ground. Yet, it feels like 3 months. The new impressions come in such abundance; work at the clinic, contact with the patients, life at the expat-volunteer-house. Everything is new. Still, it’s a way of life in which people have learned to adapt quickly; and so did I. Work already feels like known territory and my colleagues – so kind to welcome me so warmly – feel like long-time acquaintances.

I made new friends – when working & living together it is easy to quickly connect – but have also already had to say good bye again to some … things move so quickly … before I know it the year will have past.

I will work hard to make sure that by the end of it I will feel that I was able to make my little contribution towards a better world by helping the project here improve and grow.

And what a project it is! 4,500 patients, of whom nearly 500 children, being treated for HIV and thousands more under normal basic health care.

In 2010 we plan to take in 300 new patients every month; by December next year we expect to have close to 15,000 patients under active care,
of whom over 8,000 will be treated for HIV. 8,000 people who, without MSF, may not even have lived anymore.

The clinic is located in Epworth, a community of 500,000 at the outskirts of Harare. Poverty levels are soaring: Clean drinking water is not available. Food supplies are scarce. On top of all this, HIV infection rates are estimated to be over 20%. Local health infrastructure is virtually non-existent. People struggle to survive. It is confronting to walk around through the community and to see so many sick. This other day I was playing with a group of children; all clearly suffering from malnutrition and general poor health. I felt happy we are here to alleviate the pain somewhat, but also sad that we are not able to help all. These children, and their parents, they deserve so much better.

The Zimbabwean reality is a hard one to live: in the community of Epworth alone 60,000 people are estimated to be in need of HIV treatment. Of these we are able to help not even 10%. The overall objective of the MSF program is for us to phase out and for the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health to take over. And of course for the Zimbabwean health authorities to be able to provide care to all who are in need of it. However, attaining this objective remains a distant dream for now: In the current situation funding is so limited that the health budget available per Zimbabwean for the whole of 2010 would hardly be sufficient to cover HIV treatment for a single day.

But despite the suffering we have many happy moments here as well – we sing and dance and celebrate the life we have. I will write about these moments in my future blogs… Till then! And..happy holidays to all!


“be the change you wish to see”

November 13th, 2009 by MSF Field Blog

In Africa. After 3.5 months of holidays, re-grounding in Holland, spending time with family & friends and a thorough MSF pre-departure preparation, I am in Africa. Swapping the Russian snow for African hot sunny days. And swapping work in construction and start-up of a Liquified Natural Gas plant for keeping the operations running of an HIV/AIDS project. I miss Russia, I have to admit, but I am excited to finally be here in Zimbabwe, and to make my own personal contribution towards a better world. I feel satisfied with the contributions I was able to make so far, both in my professional and in my personal life. However, I feel strongly, that at least for a little while, I need to live and feel the impact of what I do -even if only small- on a daily basis. I hope I will find in this work & life what I am looking for…

The project I will be working on is an HIV/AIDS project located in Epworth, a suburb at the outskirts of Harare. I will work with the logistics team to keep the operations running: Basically it will be our task to ensure the medics can do their work. This means buildings need to be available and operated, water & power needs to be supplied reliably (!), communications need to work, waste needs to be treated, transport needs to be available and medicine need to be in stock at all times. Quite a job. But I am ready for the challenge and I am sure there will be lots of support!

Home for the coming year will be Harare, app. a 20min drive from the project site. We live in the house with seven: the expat team and one little boy, Leon. Five nationalities and a full mix of cultural and professional backgrounds. The house is great. The people are great. In the very short time I have been here my team-mates have made me feel very much at home already!

Hence so far so very good! However, I have not been at the HIV/AIDS clinic yet and I don’t know whether it will feel hopeful -so many people now living a healthy life who without the support of MSF would not have  lived anymore- or sad -the project has reached its maximum capacity and people at times have to be turned away at the gate. Surely it will be a mixture. And surely I will write about this duality in our work in future blogs.

Thank you for reading this far. I really appreciate your interest in what my teammates and I try to do out here in Harare :-) Fenna