It is late into the evening on Friday 12 June. I had a long day, but I can’t sleep… the same thought keeps coming back into my head.
Today at around 3pm, a few of my colleagues and I were asked to represent MSF and pass on our sympathy to the family of our deceased colleague Mingre Bia, also known as Joel.
MSF has been working in Chad to combat outbreaks of deadly diseases like measles and cholera, as well as malnutrition in children. For years, Joel had been part of the guard team at our headquarters, from where all these responses are coordinated.
Now we were on our way to meet his family and share our memories of our respected co-worker
Joel died a few weeks ago, in a peculiar way.
At around 6pm, as he was cycling to the office for a nightshift, he started to feel very unwell. He was helped by passers-by in N’djamena town. He told them to rush him to his workplace.
In a bad way
Whilst in the car on the way to Joel’s family home, my mind drifted to the painful circumstances of his death.
That day, I was at the office, trying to catch up with my work after a day where constant calls to more urgent tasks meant that I only managed to write two lines on my computer.
After work hours, I usually have a bit more time: my colleagues are gone, and I can lock up and catch up with my daily tasks.
Then I received a call from the duty radio operator, informing me that one of the guards had arrived, but was unable to work. It was not the first time that we have had to replace a team member at the 11th hour, so calmly I asked the radio operator a few questions.
It was then that I decided that we needed not only a substitute guard but also the urgent opinion of the medical coordinator.
The doctor took one look at Joel and could see he was in a bad way. He was rushed to the closest hospital. He died the next morning.
We were shocked. Joel had arrived at work seriously ill.
Why did he choose to come to his workplace in this critical condition? Why didn’t he just stay home or head straight to the hospital?
Why, once he was at the hospital, had he refused to let his family be informed?
I couldn’t understand.
Off the main road
Now we were on our way to meet his family and share our memories of our respected co-worker.
While I was so deeply entrenched in my thoughts, going back to that fateful day, I realised that the trip was taking forever. We crossed the city of N’Djamena and were now heading to the outer suburbs.
Thirty minutes after we left, we were still bouncing in our uncomfortable Land Cruiser. The asphalt was now replaced by a succession of dirt avenues that seemed to have been built around several holes.
These avenues were designed in such a maze that I realised it probably requires years of living in the area to master the roads. Kids and adults were waving at us all and smiling. A reminder that happiness is not necessarily found only in concrete buildings and large, uncluttered avenues.
To my amazement, Bashar, who was driving, told me with his usual sense of humor “this is where most of your staff live, Maene”.
Bashar is the only colleague who uses my bantu (traditional) name. The others usually use “David”, or worse, “LogCo” – the short version of my job title: “logistics coordinator”.
A quick look at the car’s odometer indicated 17 kilometres. God… how far were we from our destination?
I was shocked. Joel was pedalling all this distance every day, always arriving at his shift with a smile…
I asked my colleague Moussa, “How was Joel coming to the office?”
“With his bicycle.”
“A bike?” I said. “When was he leaving his house?”
Moussa explained, “2pm, if he was working the evening shift.”
I worked it out: that would be 4am if he had a morning shift. It would have taken him around three hours to ride his bike to work, each way, every weekday.
That dedication made a deep impression on me. Joel was pedalling all this distance every day, always arriving at his shift with a smile… I still remember how diligent he was, jumping to open the gate and close it as vehicles were coming and going, helping to maintain security for the whole team.
But 20 kilometres to go and to come back, every day! I looked out of the window, the dirt road was rapidly giving a way to a succession of muddy paths.
“It would be very difficult to drive here during the rainy season”, I said to Bashar, who was trying to navigate our way through numerous puddles.
“Yeah,” he said, “even those with vehicles just park them during rainy season. They either use clandos (motorbike taxis) or they just walk… but of course you need boots.”
Holy cow... I understood now why our staff so often needed to be issued with rain boots.
Then I felt that “eureka” sensation that preceded enlightenment in my obscure mind. I realised that I finally had all the answers to my questions about Joel.
Joel left his house at 2pm that day and felt sick just before 6pm. By that stage, he was about 18 km from his house. How could he possibly go back home?
It was literally impossible. He could not tell the passerby who was rescuing him to bring him all the way back here.
I felt like the ground was moving under me
The shorter way to get help was to head to his workplace. God! Joel just wanted help. Nothing else. And of course, even if his family had got word he was ill, none of them would have made it all the way to the hospital before the evening curfew (introduced in Chad to stop the spread of COVID-19).
Joel did not know he was dying and did not want to worry his family until the morning. How simple was the truth.
Then I realised a sadder truth: I worked with Joel all this time, I was the head of his department, and I did not know who he was.
The motorbike that was leading us through the maze stopped. We were in front of a congregation of mud houses, without windows.
A tukul (a hut often used for gatherings) at the center of the courtyard had been set up with chairs. This signaled the location prepared by the family to receive us.
Joel’s family were gathered there, waiting for us, the delegation of the international organisation for which he had worked for years.
Here, I looked at all the expectation we should have raised, with our uncomfortable Land Cruiser that looked like the incarnation of wealth in this environment.
I thought again about the condolences, well wishes, and donations, that we were bringing to the family… and I felt like the ground was moving under me.