Photo: Dieudonné Kongolo
My name is Dr. Dieudonné Kongolo, and I am a Congolese doctor and humanitarian who has been working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for almost 7 years. I was born almost 40 years ago and live in Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with my wife and four young daughters who have all inherited their mother’s beauty.
I have held a succession of positions at MSF which include attending physician, assistant medical coordinator, project coordinator, assistant head of mission, and finally team leader in Bendera where I am taking you to give you a picture of the day-to-day activities involved with our medical and humanitarian work.
Bendera is a town located 125 km from Kalemie, in the northeast part of Katanga in DRC, at the bottom of a valley towered over by imposing green mountains constantly ringed by clouds; it is one of the cities bordering on South Kivu province. It has gold mines and one of the largest hydroelectric dams owned by SNEL (Société nationale d’électricité en République démocratique du Congo), which supplies electricity to a major portion of the copper-rich province of Katanga.
For more than a month the MSF team has been getting ready to take over the medical operations begun by the MSF emergency unit in Bendera in December following a massive displacement of people arriving in waves from South Kivu since October 2009. This displacement was caused by the military operations launched by the Congolese army (FARDC) to bring peace to the area and secure it against incursions from opposing forces, namely the FDLR (Forces de Libération du Rwanda) and the Mai Mai, a group of Congolese dissidents. The number of internally displaced persons is estimated at over 13,000; these are in addition to the approximately 10,000 permanent inhabitants of Bendera.
The MSF Bendera project covers four locations: Mahila, Bendera, Musakahite and Lambokatenga. The project involves primary and emergency health care for internally displaced persons and the local population. The project supports the Mahila health centre, which has over 70 consultations per day, and the SNEL health station in Bendera, which is set up to handle surgery cases and to which emergency surgery cases are referred. It also puts on two mobile clinics, in Lambokatenga and Musakaite, where close to 130 patients are seen each time. Types of illnesses seen in the local population include malaria, respiratory infections and sexually transmitted diseases, along with cases of malnutrition, much more so among the displaced persons, who are the most frequent visitors.
Preparing for departure
At the MSF base in Lubumbashi, everyone is feverishly preparing to depart. The days are spent in briefings, analyzing statistics and refreshments, preparing orders and data-collection tools. The medical team of 2 doctors and 3 nurses meet for a medical and security briefing before going on to Bendera; a number of control protocols are reviewed, the orders finalized, and contacts with the military authorities planned.
We take a landcruiser to Luano airport in Lubumbashi and fly to Kalemie, a journey of 1,300 km. To get to Bendera from there, we have over 125 km to cover overland which can take 7 hours or 2 days depending on the condition of the road following the heavy rains that have continued to thrash the region. The road is known as njiya ya shetani in Swahili which means the Devil’s highway. Just a little more perseverance and the battle will be won!
We finally reach Bendera!
The weather is good. It did not rain very much during the night. The road looks to be not quite so bad. At 7:30 a.m. exactly, the four mobile units head out, loaded with their cargos and 11 passengers for the 7 and a half hour trip along the chaos-filled road. For dozens of minutes at a time the trip is interrupted by a series of stops to clear off the mud and size up the situation before venturing on through the muddy, swampy or slippery terrain for dozens of kilometres.
3:00 p.m.: The convoy, exhausted after numerous incidents, finally reaches Bendera! We cross through the first village, Mahila, where infants, children and old people come out of their houses or their makeshift dwellings made of thatch or plastic tarps, depending on whether they are actual residents of Bendera or have been displaced; with a glint of hope in their eyes, they cheer the arrival of the four mud-laden MSF vehicles. The youngest of them follow us for a while, running on ahead before dropping back to allow the convoy to reach its base in the neighbouring village of Bendera, just a few minutes’ drive away. Uncertain of the situation in their own villages, they cannot yet return home, and our arrival only brings them comfort.
We were also warmly welcomed by the rest of the MSF team that has been based in Bendera since December 2009. Accolades, hugs, greeting old friends and laughter are evident everywhere.
There is not a single minute to waste: after a hearty meal and a quick shower, the handover from one team to another begins; only one team will be on site for three days. The evening ends with a briefing on the day’s activities and those that are planned for the following day.
The day starts early. At 5:30 a.m. several members of the team are already up and out jogging as they attempt to keep themselves in shape physically in order to be better able to face what looks to be a heavy day ahead.
This is already the third day of activities and preparations start for the departure of our colleagues from the emergency unit that have been in Bendera and from whom we are taking over. The time has come for one team to introduce themselves to local officials and for the other to say good-bye to them. It is important to maintain contacts with the political, administrative and military authorities as Bendera is an operations zone.
The rest of the day is taken up with a visit to the sanitary facilities, a training course on sterilization and a handover among the various members of the MSF staff. It is also time to finalize the pharmacy inventory and get everything ready for the mobile clinics that will be held during the week in the villages of Musa Kaite and Lambo Katenga, which are 13 km and 21 km, respectively, from our base.
The ongoing MSF operations are well-received. Displaced persons and locals alike do not feel abandoned, but instead have faith in a better future. We get to work!
Early in the morning the MSF emergency unit, having come to the end of its stay, says their good-byes and returns to Lubumbashi; our MSF team officially takes over and continues the mission.
Okay, time to get to work! At 7:35 a.m. 2 mobile units leave the base in a convoy, headed for Musa Kaite to set up the first mobile clinic there. It should take us an hour to reach the site where dozens of patients await our arrival. One part of the new team heads toward the village. A plastic tarpaulin dispensary is set up: 101 patients—residents and displaced persons—were seen today, to their great satisfaction.
Another team stayed in Mahila at the health centre to supervise consultations, do the rounds and supervise the community relay teams who provide information to both the village of Mahila and others in the area regarding primary health care and hygiene.
At 7:00 p.m. I am called to an emergency: a woman urgently in need of a C-section. The entire team mobilizes to light the operating field which is in near total darkness —a generator, electrical cables, lights and projector are all brought quickly to the health centre base. The mother and baby are saved …