Life is definitely a lot less predictable since I arrived in Congo. Until four days before leaving, I had no idea that I would be given the opportunity to go to Bukama to help with an MSF measles and malnutrition intervention. I flew out about on a plane bound for Lwena the closest airstrip. The planes we hire here are small, about 7 metres from nose to tail and capable of carrying on average 6 passengers and about 900 kg of freight. It was just over an hour’s flight to Lwena, and I had the chance to take some impressive views of the relatively flat and green forest landscape typical of the province of Katanga. The airstrip at Lwena is simply that, with no buildings to complicate matters. The plane landed and after a short taxi pulled up about a 20 metres from a waiting MSF vehicle. After unloading the boxes of medical supplies that were also destined for Bukama, we were on our way.
The road to Bukama is very tricky, we averaged about 30 km/h in a tough 4x4. You could see it in the eyes of the driver that he got a huge rush out of driving in such difficult circumstances. We arrived in Bukama about early afternoon and it was nothing like I expected. Firstly it was more populous and lively than I ever thought it would be — this is a bustling town. There are kids everywhere, in fact I have never seen such a concentration, playing football with homemade balls in the streets dry, dusty and rock laden. The main street is, throughout the day, full of people making their way in both directions. There is even a little 'cinema'. People live in basic dwellings, huts even, but they seemed well-presented, organised homes from the little they have.
On arrival the team had quick meal and then I was off to see the two centres. The first centre, at Kabamoma, is an Ambulatory where families bring children suffering from malnutrition to be fed but then take them home with some food. The second centre called a CNT (Centre Nutritionnel Therapeutic) is where children suffering to a great extent are actually medically treated for malnutrition. In addition to the two centres MSF provides access to primary healthcare for the many who need it and will soon start a vaccination programme against measles which will benefit about 120,000 children.
When I arrived both of the Centres were in the process of being built. In the following 5 days I saw the two centres take shape. Everyday in the morning at the sites there would be a massive congregation of carpenters (the structures were made from wood and plastic sheeting) and workmen looking to be taken on as daily workers. Those who were not taken on would hang around because during the day there was so much to get done quickly and every day we looked for people to make furniture for the centres and move stock from one place to another.
The days started about 6 am for most of the team and as soon as I stepped out of the room it was time to work. There was an endless list of things to get done. As well as the nutrition centres there was a vaccination campaign to plan for and as people were suffering in our midst, there was a feeling in the team that everything needed to be done yesterday. As a result there was often a reflective feeling in the late evening when there was usually a team discussion. There were fairly forthright and passionate discussions, even with one or two differences of opinion.
Bottom line is that the team cared an awful lot about helping the people in need. On the day the Ambulatory centre opened, however, there was a marked change in the mood in the team, and even a bounce in their step. Finally, the team was getting to help the children they were there to save. It was a humbling experience for me because finally I saw a mother feeding her child a sachet of the high-protein food, hundreds of boxes of which had passed through the base. Ahhh, so that’s what it’s used for!!!!
The MSF base in Bukama was still just taking shape. We had rented a hotel which consists of 11 small rooms around what would be a courtyard if there was a fountain or even a statue in it. 3 of the rooms are not used as they were never completed and consist of brickwork with no roof. One of my jobs for the time I was there was to figure out how we could organise the base better and to find a solution for the storage of all the medical and logistical supplies the team would be receiving. I realised quickly that this was an emergency situation and the resources that I had been used to in the past simply do not exist there.
For example, we needed three shelving units to organise the pharmacy at the CNT. There is no Ikea in Bukama. Firstly I had to find the wood, which was difficult given that the priority was to build the structures needed at the two centres and it was transported from Lubumbashi (450km away). I had to gather up scrap planks. I then had to find two carpenters, which I managed to do by finding some stragglers at the site of the CNT. One of them was a young guy who carried his saw around and hung out at the site without ever doing any work. I arranged to meet them at the base at 11am where I would explain to them what I wanted them to build. I emphasised the time.
At the base 30 minutes later I was making a drawing showing exactly what I wanted when the guard called me to the gate. It was 10:20 but sure enough the carpenters were there. It was then that I realised that they just said yes to everything I said and did not really understand French nor much of what I was saying. From then on I got one of the national staff to translate instructions into Swahili. I was so relieved when I saw the first shelf unit and it was built to a good standard.
In the end, after 6 days helping out the team, it was time for me to return to my reason for living at Lubumbashi. I did not really want to leave, I had started quite a few things and it would have been so good to be able to finish them off. In addition, I was absolutely shattered when I got back. I realised that when I was on the field in Bukama, maybe because of the team ethic and dynamic, I never really stopped working. When you are with a team member you talk about work, about the project. When I had a moment to reflect, I was thinking about what I had not done and how I was going to do it. Added to that, the weekend means nothing; all the days of the week are the same. The work is all-consuming, but the bottom line is that the sense of purpose makes it all worth while.
My experience in Bukama gave me a taste for work in that type of environment. What a challenge it would be! But I did have some enthusiasm for my return to the support base. I went back a little bit more experienced, a little wiser and a lot more able to support the project than the day I arrived a week before.