Fieldset
A cleaner named Petraline

Since being in DRC I have found it difficult to avoid comparing it to its northern neighbour, the Central African Republic (CAR).

Since being in DRC I have found it difficult to avoid comparing it to its northern neighbour, the Central African Republic (CAR).

There are many similarities in terms of the problems that the populations face, but whereas most people in the developed world have some acquaintance with the problems of DRC, few seem to be aware even of the existence of CAR. 

There is no doubt that life for Central Africans is tough. The country has little in the way of infrastructure. The mobile revolution, often celebrated as having changed life for Africans, has not quite made it to CAR. There is poor coverage outside the capital, Bangui.

Few fully made roads, negligible public transport, little education and less healthcare. And no access to luxury consumer goods – though some items such as electronics may be imported in small quantities from Cameroon.

Sometimes national staff will ask international staff to buy them goods such as laptops or even just USB sticks when they go home or on holiday.

These requests, in the context, are hard to refuse, but going ahead can cause problems: perceptions of bias and unfairness, accusations of favouritism, disputes over money, it is wise not to get involved.

Sometimes, requests are simpler.

Petraline is a cleaner in one of the MSF international staff houses in Bangui.

It's a big and bizarre house, the architect was possibly inspired by MC Escher – there are staircases in strange places, some palatial sized bathrooms, others the size of a matchbox.

Petraline has her work cut out, and she does it very well. The place is spotless until the international staff get back home.

When I came to the end of my mission, I went to say goodbye to her. She asked me if I would do her a favour, and my heart sank. But it turned out, all she wanted was to send her best wishes to my family, so that they would know that in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, there is a cleaner called Petraline.