Chapter Seven: Stop-over in Itipo

Luis heads back to the capital as he works to start a vaccine trial in response to the current Ebola outbreak...

I don’t know if it's age or fatigue, or both, but I have a hard time pronouncing and remembering the place names here.  

Between Itipo, Ikiko, Ikibo Ilunge, Itipo-centre ... I get mixed up.  

But in short, we are now scheduled to return to Mbandaka and able to negotiate again with the national leader of the EPI (Extended Program of Immunization) from the Ministry of Health.  

What flight will we be on today? A UN helicopter? Yes, but which one? At what time? It’s tricky to hold on to your sense of time when you are just closing your suitcase and waiting. All along knowing that everything can be cancelled at the last moment.  

Going by the news, Roberto, our logistician, tells me that the helicopter that will arrive is a MONUSCO freighter and that it does not take passengers. However, if you negotiate well, and you can "decontaminate" on the tarmac in front of them, then there is perhaps a chance.  

Hearing the noise of the helicopter, we run to the centre of the village. Right in the middle of a meeting with Maria and Pauline, I’m caught in the rush. And of course, I forget my iPad on the desk. Where I left it to charge. 

We negotiate with the Ukrainian pilots, and here we are boarding for Mbandaka. We sit on a bench where the definitions of the "no-touch policy" are suspended for the duration of the flight.  

Three quarters of the freighter are occupied by supplies destined for an Ebola treatment centre in Itipo. As soon as I land, I head to the treatment centre, and I see Cédric, our water and sanitation specialist who had made the trip with me twelve or so days ago, and Miriam, with whom I’ve already shared some Ebola experiences.  

Ten minutes: time to talk about what's going on. The situation is more than worrying. Miriam tells me that yesterday a notable person, sick with Ebola, was buried in the village, accompanied by the delirious crowd.  

It's impossible to hire anyone from the hospital because all the nurses are considered "contacts" – people who have been in contact with someone with Ebola. We come to the same conclusion. It does not smell good at all.  

The new chains of transmission are active. And they aren’t always linked. That's probably what worries me today above all.  

Returning to the helicopter, I realise about my iPad, and I call Pauline. She tells me that she will try to send it to me. I don’t know by what magic, but she manages to pass it to the Russian co-pilot Andrei, who is arriving in Mbandaka soon.  

Between two telephone interviews and waiting for the flight to Kinshasa in Mbandaka airport, the long-awaited helicopter arrives. Once on the runway, Andrei asks me my name with a big smile and hands me the iPad before running the other way and embarking the World Food Programme flight to Kinshasa. Even the most Hitchcockian scenarios could not have been better. 

Back in Kinshasa with nothing in my stomach, I break with all my principles on avoiding sugary drinks. Hugues kindly offers me a bottle of Coca-Cola ® and I drink it in a few seconds. It is more therapeutic than anything else, but it feels good.  

In the evening it’s the small Italian restaurant near the river. The rigatoni have never pleased me so much. I eat every bite with a huge grin, not saying a word. Even the background music of Ramazzotti seems nice to me, which is saying something.  

Then we will go through the Pullman to meet people and informally exchange our understandings on the evolution of the epidemic. 23h, back in my room. Second shower. I fall on my bed, and wake up, dazed, only the next day. A bed. A real bed!