After endless briefings in New York and Brussels, it was an early morning taxi ride that brought me to the airport for my flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nine hours later, I arrived.
Kinshasa. In hindsight, a truly unpleasant city.
The city is MSF-Belgium's headquarters for all of its operations in the DRC. The international staff are housed in basic concrete homes scattered around the city, all surrounded by high walls, razor wire, and twenty-four hour guardians. Upon arrival at the chaotic airport, I am handed a detailed security memo, detailing the many prohibitions for MSF staff posted here.
At our first briefing the next morning, I am cautioned to be especially careful when walking in the streets during the rain. Despite the fact that it would be incredibly muddy, one risks one's life. It seems that in order to access the underground electric lines, people have resorted to digging up the streets. After their job is done, they cover the hole but not quite well enough. The rains come, the street collapses, and some unlucky pedestrian is electrocuted. So no walking the streets in the rain. Not that I can walk the streets when it is not raining, mind you. Small sections of Kinshasa are deemed safe for walking. Want to go anywhere else? You must be driven in MSF vehicles.
I know it is for my safety and am glad of it, but feel sorry for the local population and the MSF staff who work here. The organization has a large HIV project in town and for month after month my fellow volunteers must follow these rules. Fortunately for me it is only temporary.
My fellow MSF volunteers, each one friendlier than the next, recount to me the glories of Lubutu, my eventual destination – small town, nice local population beautiful hospital, collegial co-workers. But that is four days from now. I have to survive Kinshasa for four days.
So I make friends. We go out to dinner, play soccer, go running together, go walking in the embassy quarter, eat Italian gelato (!), and talk and talk and talk. My fellow expats are mostly 30-somethings and the majority in Kinshasa have worked with MSF before. They are physicians, nurses, logisticians, and administrators and come from a huge variety of backgrounds. They are all deeply committed to humanitarian work and their jobs with MSF.
So I survived Kinshasa.
This morning I got up at 5 a.m., got ready, and some really nice person whisked me off to the airport. Along the way we passed dozens of women balancing large colourful plastic containers on their heads. Inside each container were dozens of loaves of freshly baked French bread, vertically arranged. The women would go back to their neighborhoods to sell the loaves, making a little money on each one purchased. Enough money to live for another day in Kinshasa.