Suggested soundtrack: Needle in the Hay – Elliot Smith
My beard is gone.
I managed to catch up with my briefings the next day. To sum up: there’s not much HIV in Rakhine State, and its probably better to look as much like a foreign expat as possible while in transit through the area, i.e. shave off my beard. Bugger.
When offered the post, I was given a job description, which might as well have been written in Aramaic. The only words I understood were “HIV” and “Myanmar”, which was enough for me to accept the job. So to arrive in-country and be told there’s not that much HIV in Rakhine had me slightly concerned, but I’d cope. The loss of my beard, however, I must say was pretty devastating. I have a very small philtrum (the gap between my nose and upper lip), and facial hair adds very important anatomical definition to my misproportioned baby-face.
The Rohingya population, who are Muslim, are not allowed to travel across the state border, thus to prevent any misunderstanding with officials or attract any unnecessary attention, it makes sense for me to appear more like a foreigner. I hope to grow it back once settled and working in Maungdaw, where I will be based. And no-one back home will ever notice it was gone!
I can’t help but think of the shaving scene from the Royal Tennenbaums. My experience wasn’t as dramatic. What a great film.
A short flight later and I was in Sittwe, the major town of Rakhine State. Sittwe is the first place I’d ever been to that has a curfew, imposed in response to the civil unrest and violence that rocked the state last year. The beautiful landscape and bustling asian market mask the deep tensions that divide this part of Myanmar. One needs to have knowledge of the recent history of the area to appreciate the constant threat of violence that hangs over the town. I’m quite an emotionless robot usually, which has served me well in my career so far. However, its impossible not to feel something when walking past numerous piles of rubble marked with red signs to highlight where houses once stood.
A five hour boat ride and an hour car journey later took me to Maungdaw. I’ve lost count of modes of public transport used in the last week. But I’m home at last. The expat house is pretty big, but quite delapidated. There are rats. Lots of them. My room is basic, but it’ll do. There’s a living room that wouldn’t be out of place in a bacpacker hostel in Thailand, with cable tv and a decent library. Plus the rooftop bar/ pool table/terrace with epic view more than make up for any other shortcomings, and makes the 10pm state curfew bearable. Though I f***ing hate rats.
The medical team leader wants me to go to a town called Buthidaung for the week to run the HIV clinic. The only doctor there is new, and has only had a couple of weeks of HIV training. I’m to spend the next month or so supervising and training the staff, who are a mixture of local Rohingya and Rakhine staff, and Burmese national staff from other parts of Myanmar (known in MSF as “inpats”). To help me, I’ll have a PA, who is also my multilingual translator.
The clinic currently has a cohort of only 450 patients, but is recruiting 10 new patients a month. As the only free health service available in the area, its also become an ad-hoc primary health care clinic, which I think is in the process of being formalised in the next few months (I need to start paying attention in meetings) Anyway, I pack for my trip thinking this will be an easy start, maybe even boring. What if I hate it? I can’t go back to England until my beard grows back….
Joking aside, the briefings I actually received, namely by the Deputy Head of Mission in Yangon, the Emergency Medical Co-ordinator in Sittwe and the Project Co-ordinator and Medical Team Leader in Maungdaw were in truth, amazing. It is clear that they are all highly passionate about the work MSF do. Its an incredibly tough project for many reasons, and desperately needed by the population it serves. Hopefully I’ll prove this in my future entries.