OK so here I am again, staring at a blank Word document praying for inspiration on how to communicate my thoughts and feelings out onto this blog. I’m about to depart for my second mission with MSF – this time to the Central African Republic which has been something of a hotspot in recent months. It’s been over seven months since I returned from South Sudan and although I am champing at the bit to be off again, it wasn’t without some trepidation that I accepted a post in CAR. The last couple of months have been turbulent – posts coming up and falling through for me sometimes in a matter of days – I half expected the same to happen with this one.
But now I have a date, and a ticket, and a visa, and a wonky overstuffed overweight backpack and it really is really happening. Really. Well I’ll believe it when I’m boarding a plane anyway.
Along with the challenging context that is CAR at present – my personal Everest for this mission is going to be working in French. Four weeks ago my French level was officially “elementary” (read: abysmal). But since then I’ve been on an intensive French course in Brussels for three weeks and I am now level A2 - which I think translates to "not quite so hopeless now". My tutors there were wonderfully patient with a student whose emotions ranged wildly on an hourly basis from over-excited through to utterly despairing, and at one point on about day ten had to counsel me through an hour of protracted sobbing brought on by my total inability to conjugate verbs correctly.
However thanks to their ministrations I can now describe my project and job role, interview a patient, describe how and why to take vital signs and to assess the most common diseases that I will see - malnutrition, malaria, dehydration etc - granted slowly and with a look of pained concentration on my face but it's coming along OK.
I was also able to hang out with a few other MSF bods in Brussels who were also brushing up on their French skills at the language school. After seven months of being home it was so much fun to have a beer and swop field stories again - and two of them are headed CAR-wards with me, so having some friendly faces in a new place will be tremendously comforting.
Packing was ... interesting. I appear to have deskilled at being minimalist in the last seven months of being at home. Owing to the somewhat changeable nature of my departure date I spent a chaotic month or so of throwing stuff in and out of boxes, scribbling lists, and making piles of probably-essential, possibly-essential and just plain random stuff which my housemate and various friends and parents that I ended up camping out at tolerated with the serene countenances of ones who know that I will no longer be cluttering up their houses for very much longer.
I have bought myself some crumple-proof clothing, rediscovered the lost art of squashing 15 pairs of underwear into a single pair of trainers, joyously dusted off my flip flops, and somewhat less enthusiastically unearthed my Sheewee in readiness for use again (for those of you for which this is a new word – let’s just describe it as a plastic pocket sized piece of brilliant ergonomic design than enables ladies to wee like men. Although after a hiatus it generally takes a few awkward and usually damp attempts to get the hang of again. Comes in very handy for the inevitable unpleasant latrines or outreach trips though, once you’ve mastered it.)
I also have a buddy from South Sudan in the same project that I am going to, Zemio. Via the wonderful medium of Facebook she was able to get me a shopping list of goodies for the team, so I’m going to arrive with all my clothes smelling of chorizo, parma ham and mature cheddar, but I'm hoping the team will be so pleased to see the food they won’t much care how I smell!
And once again pre-mission, I have people asking why I’m doing this – why I would leave the comfort of my home, my familiar NHS job and all I know to go work in a desperately insecure context with few of the luxuries of the western world for months on end. For me, I don’t have a choice. This is a life I feel drawn inexorably towards and every news report I have read about wars or natural disaster since being home just confirms that. I want to be where the need is most acute and do what I can as a nurse there.
Also, one of the things that I admire most about MSF in particular and why I so love being a part of it is their position on lobbying others for action. MSF is one of the driving global forces behind demanding action on neglected diseases, access to essential medications and speaking out about ignored, marginalised and forgotten problems and developing world populations worldwide – and for me this is what it’s all about. Being there when no one else is. Caring when no one else will. And most of all raising a voice when no one else does. Because otherwise, to paraphrase Ella Wheeler Willcox, to not speak when I should join in the protest at the injustice in the world, would make a coward of who I should be.
Err... does can anyone know how to translate that into French?!