Seeing the rooftops amongst the trees

Brigitte​ is working for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Today she blogs about visiting a village in the Walikale province for the first time to assess the health situation...

I woke up before my alarm that morning. I could hear in the distance the roosters crooking so I knew I didn’t have much more time just lounging in bed. I tried to picture what kind of adventure I would embark on that day, but nothing really prepared me for the physical and mental task ahead. A couple of weeks earlier I had challenged myself to jump rope every evening in preparation, but was only successful on day 1, then MSF life took over with the late work nights and end-of-day laziness that curses me on missions. I thought to myself as I lay in bed “I’m young and have previously been an athlete so I have plenty of reserve” I was half right and half so so wrong.

That morning we were going to complete an explo mission to a small village in the forest about 2-3 hours on foot in the thick forest off one of the main axes in the Walikale province. We were visiting the village for the first time to assess the health situation as we had heard for months that the village was in need of our support. Our project is currently supporting the 3 primary axes from Walikale city center and the village’s axe branches off from one of those axes and has been riddled with constant conflict and violence over the past months. Different armed groups fighting have caused displacement of populations, malnutrition amongst children and difficulties for civilians to access health services. We were visiting the first village along that axe and potentially our only access to its vulnerable inhabitants. 

We had a team meeting with the explo team members a few days before and when we had mentioned we estimated it would take our group 3 hours, instead of the standard 2 for locals, one of the drivers laughed. It caught my attention and he looked at me and said it would more likely be over 4 hours, I told him he was being a pessimist and brushed him off. During the preparations we had to strategically pick which national staff we thought would be both valuable to the assessment and who we thought would be able to handle the physical task of reaching the destination. Little did we realize that I, the youngest team member, would be our limiting factor and that the “pessimistic” driver was more of a realistic!

My alarm finally went off at 4:45am. I enjoyed the early morning solitude while boiling my water for tea, brushing my teeth and preparing my bag. There was a slight possibility that we would have to stay overnight in case it took too long to reach our destination and we would not make it back before sundown, so then came the challenge of trying to keep the pack light, but not forget any essentials. As I was fulfilling my mental checklist of extra underwear, sunscreen and a toothbrush my explo buddies started waking. We were all anxiously preparing the night before and as we all sat down for breakfast we were making sure each had the essentials; you need any sunscreen? Want a hat? Want to tape your feet against blisters? It quickly became time for us to all pack into the cars and head off, not without a classic pre-explo selfie with my car of course! We stopped in the village before our “takeoff” point to receive the community gift of walking sticks, and I am forever grateful to them for those sticks! 

A crowd emerged pretty instantaneously after our arrival. We had organized 4 community health workers to accompany us and help carry our equipment. The word that MSF was heading into the forest travelled fast and many were in disbelief and thankful for our efforts before we even stepped off. I had really wanted a team picture but by that time about 70 people from the village were surrounding us and thought it would be virtually impossible to handle the crowd, as I would later learn. After a final security check, division of water and snacks, a mini team huddle we were off. Departure time 7:05am.

I was stubborn and decided I wanted to wear my running shoes as long as possible as I have a history of plantars fasciitis. I was warned by many national staff that I wouldn’t be able to walk more than 20 meters without proper boots, but I went for it anyways thinking that I was very able to prove them wrong… when would I learn that hardly happens? I did well at first performing spider-man like walks along slopes avoiding puddles of mud with my walking stick, but those agility skills quickly became impossible when we approached a river bed to cross… about 20 meters wide. Then came out the rubber willies from my strategically packed bag and as I put them on then came the ants crawling up my legs and giving me good luck pinches… less than appreciated! Time in running shoes, less than 20 minutes!

The first hour or so went smoothly. I was in the middle of the pack nicely flanked by my two outreach nurse colleagues and feeling like a million bucks. I was in my usual bubbly mood and asking questions about the local flora and fauna, admiring the beauty of the surroundings and just feeling like I was very able to conquer this quest. We stopped for a water break, Tobias, our logistician, asked confidently if we had reached halfway and once we learnt we had only gone about 2-3kms that’s when my slight panic settled in… this was going to be slightly more difficult than us expats expected. The community health worker from our destination village met us at that first rest stop, she had travelled that morning from home and was headed back quickly to prepare for our arrival. As quickly as she arrived she quickly left. And we continued on our way.

I couldn’t admire the beauty anymore as I had to concentrate on my feet, following Roger, who was in front of me, to the exact step. It was impossible to walk more than 10 meters without having to hop over a large tree trunk blocking the path, conquer huge stretches of sinking mud, dodge low-laying bamboo branches or cross river beds. By the second hour I was very thankful for the regular security checks because then I could take a little breather and drink some water. We had brought satellite phones to call the drivers regularly and tell them that everything was alright, but we neglected to remember that these phones needed to point towards the satellite in order to work. Finding a patch of open sky in the thick Congolese forest is a struggle, but Elisa, our security responsible, always managed. Sometimes we had to climb to the highest elevation (we even contemplated Tobias climbing a tree one time, but luckily, it wasn’t necessary) or point them exactly at a 1 meter by 1 meter open space between leaves but we were always successful. 

During the third hour the heat and humidity starting to sink in. This coincided with the increased speed needed to complete the first leg of the hike in time, otherwise we would have to turn around and go home without reaching our destination. At this point I was in full concentration mode and no longer my bubbly self, rather, I was giving myself inspirational messages to keep going. Roger was also super supportive and keeping an eye on me, but the distance between us was getting bigger and bigger and the pack was clearly being separated. I felt a blister starting to grow on my left big toe and my pants stick to my legs due to the sweat, I had already had my boot get stuck in the mud and needed Patrick to save me. I could not physically go any faster than I already was. I could not close the gap. This was also where the trek got more hilly and steep.

At 11am I was in pure sugar-low cranky phase and we had mixed opinions about how much longer it would take us to reach our destination. One team member said we still had 3 kms, another said it was just ahead, Elisa made the decision to plow ahead and pick up the speed once again. Within 20 minutes I saw the roofs of stray houses and I was elated! We made it!! I survived! Then the amount of houses didn’t seem to quite add up. Patrick, who was behind me, told me we had reached part 1 of the village, and that the rest of the village was a few meters away. The few people who were in their homes looked at us with open curious eyes, children smiling and waving. Gave me the little boost I needed to continue the next few meters. Another 20 minutes later that boost started to fade when I asked Patrick what he meant by a few meters, when he told me 800, it became very clear to me that we had very different definitions of distance, incline and time. 

The trek between the two village sections was no longer in the protection of the forest leaves, but the full sun and on solid dirt packed ground. Every step was a reminder of the blisters forming and my tired legs but when the first few members of the team entered into our destination village those thoughts quickly disappeared. They had been waiting for us. Men, women and children approached us while chanting, with open arms to take our bags and join us on our walk to the health post. Our community health worker was showered and changed into a beautiful local dress and had a smile of pride that we had finally made it to the village. Women had empty jerry cans they were using as drums, men were coming to shake our hands and thank us for our presence, kids were laughing and waving calling out “Muzungu” the Swahili word for white person. I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I had tears in my eyes and as a few escaped and fell down my cheek I knew why we had come all this way and how much it meant to this community. My blisters, achy legs and thirsty mouth were insignificant. Life is not very easy as a medical humanitarian, but moments like those are to cherish and make all the rest worthwhile. 

It was 11:45 by the time we made it to the health post. Our 3 hour hike took over 4 hours; with water breaks, security contact stops and slow paced walking speed. But we made it! No one was injured, everyone was revved up and ready for the assessment ahead, after all, we only had an hour on the ground before we had to face the 4 hour trek back to the cars…

A group picture of our team and some locals in front of the health post