Tears, then smiles ... (well, I hope so)

How does it feel to start an international posting with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for the first time? Jonathan writes from the airport ...

Here I am. Halfway between my home in Switzerland and my future home for the next six months in South Sudan.

I’m in the Addis Ababa airport hall, with my gaze lost on the tarmac, watching planes take off for destinations that are very often completely unknown to me. It’s here that I’m beginning what other MSF team members have done before me: to transcribe my experiences.

I don't know if my stories will be really different from others. I guess not. Will they send a different message or identify other realities of the world? Maybe, who knows? But what I'm sure of now is that writing this diary reassures me in a way, makes me feel good. And it's certainly a little selfish, but for now that's enough for me to try to keep it up throughout the next six months.

A lot of firsts

This assignment is a first for me. To tell the truth, it’s a lot of firsts, all at the same time. First time on the African continent. First humanitarian posting. First time I leaving my Swiss cocoon for so long.

Also, the first time that I made my mother and my partner cry with heartache and worry within hours of each other. It’s the first time that I have the feeling of leaving for a just, beautiful and generous cause.

But it’s also the first time that doubt has invaded me, to the point of wondering if the tears of the beings who are dearest to me will be outweighed by any smiles I can help to bring about once in my position of project finance manager in Agok. Add to that a grandmother to whom I said “see you soon”, but who risks becoming a more permanent “goodbye”, and you get a mix of questioning and guilt that is both confusing and difficult to describe, because the two feelings constantly overlap.

A certain selfishness

They say it takes a certain selfishness to help others. I think I'm starting to understand this maxim ... Among this myriad of resentments, there is still and always this excitement. This indescribable attraction that prompted me to apply for Médecins Sans Frontières, even though I was aware of the future consequences, which are now occurring.

Even when the other emotions get stronger at times, my sense of commitment returns. As if to remind myself that what whatever I accomplish there, however small, will be helping other people to access quality care and some dignity.

So many questions

The team in Agok runs a 164-bed hospital for a population about a thousand times that. Thanks to the free healthcare the hospital provides, I hope we will certainly see some smiles dawning on faces.

Currently I still have lots of questions which I don't have answers to yet. These go from the most basic, such as what my daily schedule will be like, to broader questions about how a project like this manages all the inherent challenges such as personnel management, waste management or the supply of water and food.

I am lying on some sort of lounge chair in front of the take-off runway at Addis Ababa Airport, waiting for my flight to Juba. My second stop will be longer, because once I arrive in the South Sudanese capital, the rules state that I’ll have to quarantine, for an obvious reason that the whole planet knows only too well. The rules in South Sudan mean that we have to take these understandable precautions, and all the more so as I will be joining a workforce of people who work directly in the hospital.

This new world

Once I arrive, I hope to begin finding some answers to my many questions. To get used to this new world. To touch a little more on why I came here, why I left my own environment. I’m looking ahead. I can't wait to discover this new universe, knowing that it will be complex.

But paradoxically I will also be looking forward to seeing these six months come to an end, to make my dear ones cry again, but this time with joy.

See you in Juba!


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How I became a Doctors Without Borders fieldworker (even though I’m not a doctor)