The road to Kashuga has become one I am all too familiar with. I now know the cracks in the road, the bridges that are missing a log and where our tyre once fell through. I know as we are coming up to the parts with pot holes that are so big you can hardly call them potholes anymore, as instead, they have established themselves as a significant feature in the road-scape, rather like an in-law outstaying their welcome in your own home.
I can’t stay sleepy on this road for too long. Although one cup of coffee isn’t usually enough for me to wake up and become functional on any ordinary morning, one cup of coffee and a road trip to Kashuga generally is. In the front of the vehicle it’s better, in the back it’s worse.
"I’m listening but I can’t reply,” the logistics coordinator rattled from the back bench of the Land Cruiser the other day as I tried to discuss medical stock and tent structure for the mobile malaria clinics. “It’s like trying to have a conversation while being beaten up from all angles. My kidneys hurt.’’
That was the last he spoke until we arrived.
Indeed the roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, like in my assignment in Central African Republic last year, take some getting used to. As a project coordinator, I don’t usually have to travel much once I am settled at a base, but in this assignment, as I am responsible for the emergency team and our operations are short and in different places, I am travelling daily.
Each morning, by about 07:45, my body is already aching for a tiny stretch of flat tarmac. I know that’s wishful thinking and not going to happen. I thank my lucky stars that this particular intervention which we are about to start is only an hour from the base where we are living. In a project I was working in last year, going to one of the health centres involved a nine hour round trip.
Children on the roadside. Photo: Emily Gilbert / MSF
Secretly though, it’s something I enjoy. Being greeted at the side of the road by group after group of children, mothers, fathers, old men and women and even authorities with a big, ‘’Bonjour MSF,’’ is enough to stir anyone out of their early morning haze. People genuinely happy to see us and genuinely grateful for the work that we do.
I take time to wave back to as many people as I can, with the window open and as big a smile as I can muster at the time of day when the sun itself has only just got up. As trivial as it sounds, this is actually an important part of our work – gaining acceptance.
Building relationships with people in the community, taking time to say hello, waving back at salutations and smiling as we go past, all help us to ensure we are wanted and therefore accepted in any given place. This, combined with us providing good quality health care and welcoming every person into our health structures, regardless of where they are from and who they are, is one of the ways we continue to function in such difficult environments where armed groups are roaming and security incidents occur often daily.
Sometimes, apart from that quick cup of coffee before I jump in the car, there’s not much that differentiates my fantasy world when I am tucked up under my mosquito net, from the one that drifts past me in the early morning as I am thrown between the glove compartment and the side door. One haze tends to flow into the other almost seamlessly.
The thatched roofs simmer against a backdrop of dew and droopy banana leaves. The first time I saw this, I thought it was on fire, but when I peered inside one of the doorways, I realised it was just smoke from the boiling pot inside the crusted mud house. It looks almost magical as it creeps between the tightly bound hay, and reminds me of the lakes in the winter Alps that steam into the stark yellow afternoon rays.
As I move my gaze upwards, I see the mist from the houses rising to join the crown of clouds encircling the peaks in the distance, crawling up the forested side slopes, sometimes allowing the summit to emerge into the blue tones of the sky. I could be in Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings.
The view from the car. Photo: Emily Gilbert / MSF
Often it’s not even clear where the mountains end and the sky begins. Blue upon blue of knobbly outlines, curving across the horizon, fading layer by layer until all you can see is a blur of blue, grey and white cloud-like forms that could be stable or floating, depending on the angle at which you squint your eyes.
Children with machetes dance in the puddles, waving the sharp edges at us or at their younger brothers and sisters as we pass. Play-fighting with the blade so close it would be enough to have anyone call the Social Services if this were at home. But here children seem to know basic dangers.
Children seem to know how to use knives and they know what it means to do manual labour from a very young age. Toddlers waddle barefoot along the lava rock-covered roadside with huge stacks of firewood on their heads or carrying containers full of a decent few litres of water; a baby sibling or two slung across their back for good measure.
The other day I saw a young boy who couldn’t have been much older than eight years old, carrying an entire calf around his shoulders.
"Is that cow dead?" I asked the driver in disbelief, unsure how exactly the boy would manage if the beast was to make any kind of movement.
"No, it’s alive," he giggled.
The women with children tied to them are my favourite. Despite the load on their backs and heads (often a baby combined with kilos of other baggage), they continue walking while waving to us along the way.
I watched a mother in the health centre the other day, as she prepared her baby on her back before starting the walk back home. It was impressive to see her with such ease, manipulate the three pockets of pagne (traditional material) and blanket to secure the gargling being onto her.
I observed as first, after flinging the infant around her waist, the mother bumped it up to her upper back before flipping a small red cotton tea-towel sized layer under his backside. Of course they can’t just pop to Tesco here to pick up a packet of Pampers, so this, I assumed, was the layer acting as the nappy. With a sick baby to carry, this must get pretty messy at times.
The next layer in the mother’s carrying pack was a pagne – a battered piece of material but with a pattern of blue and green swirls inter-twined with orange flowers – something I would happily pick up at the local market and turn into a skirt. This layer served to secure the baby to her. With a quick swish of the arm and a tug on the corner of the cotton for adjustment, the material was comfortably around the baby, encompassing his whole body, and hers, before she tied it into a knot on her front.
Then finally came the blanket. I couldn’t imagine walking for even 10 minutes, let alone hours, with a blanket this thick around me. It was the same as the blanket I have in my bed at night, which is thick enough to warm me through the midnight mountain temperatures. She threw the blanket around her bundle, the final seal before setting off. The package on her back was now an impressive size, like a sack, only with two eyes, a nose and a drooling mouth poking through the top.
I know when we’ve nearly arrived in Kashuga as I see my favourite tree coming closer and closer towards us from in the distance. Most of the road until this point is cracked dirt combined with lush but not very varied green leaves and grass. There are a few flowers sprinkled at irregular intervals, oranges and yellows brightening the otherwise dull brown canvas of mud, but apart from that it’s all very similar.
Photo: Emily Gilbert / MSF
At this point in the journey, however, what starts as a spec of red blotches on the horizon, turns gradually into an explosion of red thread; fireworks sprouting from the skinny arms. They remind me of the sky on the night of the 5th of November in the UK. If the road from Mweso to Kashuga were to have a famous landmark, this tree would be it.
Then not too long after my tree, we arrive.
It’s a special sight, rolling up into Kashuga, the half-dome structures of the displaced persons camp lining the roads and layering off into the mountain side. I’ve not seen houses built like this before and they remind me of the acres of greenhouses that can be found in the south of Spain, filled to the brim with tomatoes and fluorescent lighting.
Houses in the camp for displaced people. Photo: Emily Gilbert / MSF.
There’s no roof as such on these homes, just one long curve serving as a top and two side-walls at the same time. It’s covered with layer upon layer of dried leaves, much like the hair-cut of the brown dog in the Magic Roundabout
. Some of them could do with a good comb-through to straighten out their matted parts, but others fall almost perfectly.
At the back of each house, bamboo trellis forms the rear wall, stuffed with fractured clumps of crumbling mud and crunched up leaves. I wonder how families keep warm at night in there and whether particles of earth and dried grass are enough to keep out the crisp air of this altitude. Today it’s cold and the rain hasn’t stopped all day, yet these houses continue to stand.
We pull up into the grassy opening we’ve been granted to run our mobile malaria clinics on, ready to set up camp for the next couple of weeks at least.
"Bonjour MSF!" we arrive to cheers.
I get out of the land cruiser and start eagerly shaking hands coming at me of all different sizes.
Another day at the office begins…