My life as a flying mechanic in South Sudan

Alexandra Schuster works as a “flying mechanic” in South Sudan, travelling across the country to provide the urgent technical support that can keep a remote medical project running. In this blog, she shares her thoughts on her first ever mission with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

 An MSF land cruiser and quad bike in South Sudan

At night, when you finally lie down in the tent under the mosquito net and try to fall asleep - listening to the crickets and frogs - you know that you are in the middle of nature.

Suddenly, the constant background noise of the generator stops.

Urgently you turn on the flashlight, shake out your shoes (so that there are no scorpions or other animals hidden there) and quickly head to the generator room.

If it was only about the light, then it would not be so dramatic, but in this case, the hospital and all its equipment are connected to this single power source. If the generator stops, even the operating theatre is without electricity.

The logistics team

I support projects in South Sudan as a “flying mechanic”. Although I feel the real burden of responsibility in any one project lies with the “logs”. "Logs" is MSF-speak for "logisticians" - the people who look after the practical, non-medical aspects of a project.

Most of our work takes place in remote areas... as a logistics team, we have to ensure that medical staff and materials are able to reach people safely."

Logs organise the everyday operation of their project. The responsibilities include technology, computers, security, electricity, accommodation, water, cargo and transport. They are also responsible for "releasing runways". That means to judge whether the ground is stable enough after a rainfall to receive cargo or passenger planes.

There are also "daily workers" who cut grass with machetes, dig holes, paint walls or do other important maintainence work.

Black cotton soil

It is currently rainy season in South Sudan. We now have what’s known as “black cotton soil” – a thick, sticky mud that makes it incredibly difficult to move from A to B.

Most of our work takes place in remote areas where MSF is the only organisation able to provide medical care to people. That's why, as a logistics team, we have to ensure that medical staff and materials are able to reach people safely.


An MSF vehicle navigates the thick mud
An MSF vehicle navigates the thick mud

We have boats, tractors and even all-terrain vehicles to help – a pure off-road driving experience! However, what sounds, at first, like a lot of fun, is actually no fun at all.

After hours of jerking and bumping, more than just your back hurts. And, if you have to turn back to base again because you come to is a river that is not traversable, it can be depressing. Although all the friendly, smiling faces of local people, who more than treasure our work here, compensate for these hardships.

A struggle for survival

The resources that we have here are often very limited. Things could be so easy but, unfortunately, they are not.

Often every day is a struggle for survival for people.

It is a coincidence where we are born, and everyone has the right to medical care – all people are equal and so should be treated equally!"

Hardly anyone has electricity in their homes, so after sunset, there are no light sources. Inflation is perceptible weekly, while poverty drives high levels of crime. One can imagine that in a country going through a civil war the threshold for violence is extremely low.


Alexandra and her predecessor Norris
Alexandra and her predecessor Norris

At our headquarters, in the capital Juba, hardly any of my South Sudanese colleagues live with his or her family. Instead, their families mostly live in refugee camps scattered across Uganda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or other neighbouring countries – where there are often schools, hospitals and more security.

Most of my colleagues will have grown up in these places and have only returned to South Sudan for the job with MSF. Nobody knows when the country will stabilise again.

There are many things we cannot change or improve, but we can still try to understand why much is the way it is.

The ongoing refugee debate in Europe seems so hypocritical to me when I think that last year Uganda received about as many refugees as all European countries combined.

Hospitality takes on another meaning in this context, and on that front, we could learn a lot from the African states.

Where we are born is a coincidence, and everyone has the right to medical care – all people are equal and so should be treated equally!