The principles of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have always appealed to me.
MSF is a non-profit organization offering independent, neutral and impartial medical and humanitarian assistance. Simply put MSF: provides care to people who need it most by working in places of conflict and emergency giving medical care to populations facing violence, epidemics, natural disasters, or displacement.
The people MSF cares for may be the people who need help the most. I’ve known for a long time I’ve wanted to volunteer with MSF. After waiting for an assignment, attending several briefings, wrestling my belongings into an overstuffed backpack, and then saying goodbye to dear friends, family, and a most supportive fiancé I am finally officially part of the MSF movement.
Agok, is in the disputed Abyei Special Administrative Area located between South Sudan - the world’s newest and perhaps poorest country, and Sudan - the country from which it gained independence in 2011.
Stepping off the plane I am enveloped in a hot cloud of the ever present dry red dust of this place. The dust blankets everything with a pungent earthy smell.
There is no airport in Agok, the landing strip is one and a half football field length of cleared flat dirt dotted with a few brave or naïve goats. The plane only lands to refuel and exchange passengers before making its way back to bigger cities.
I am whisked off by my new colleagues in the back of a Land Cruiser traveling the dirt roads past Tukuls, a mud walled hut topped with a round roof of dried grass which comes to a peak at the center. Children wave as we pass. The men and women are tall people with a physical and emotional strength that comes from living a hard life.
The MSF Hospital is a large project, providing secondary health care to many. Some may walk many hours to reach the hospital as there are little other options for care in the area. Others may wait until their somewhat stable condition deteriorates to an emergency before deciding to make the journey.
The hospital is free to patients, who bring their own bed sheets, and one care taker. In the maternity ward the caretakers are often patient’s mothers, sisters, or sister-wives. It is rare to see a husband accompany a laboring women in to the hospital, and never is the husband present during the birth.
MSF provides meals to the patient and the caretaker, showers and latrines are also available for their use.
The wards are made of platform tents or brick buildings with corrugated tin roofs. Ceiling fans turn slowly, but do little to suppress the heat which can cause fevers to spike come mid-afternoon. The mosquito-netted beds line up side by side down the length of the ward and are often fully occupied.
Staff who are not from Agok, live next door to the hospital in a fenced in compound. The nearness of the living quarters allow quick access to the hospital if there is an emergency.
This small village of Tukuls houses expatriates from France, Germany, Iraq, England, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, Kenya, Nigeria, the United States and others.
Humans are not the only ones sharing this compound, half a dozen cats, one naughty puppy, and a goat named Mr. Brandon also live here providing insect control, entertainment and companionship.
Often a flock of vultures or other large loud mouthed birds cruise the skies above. Caution must be taken if food is eaten outside as these birds have been known to swoop down and disrupt plates of spaghetti, or snatch whole apples mid bite. Meals are provided three times a day, the featured ingredients seem to be goat and rice.
Fresh produce is delivered via plane once a week with the rest of the food. A brick oven the size of an SUV produces fresh bread each day. The shared latrines are of the standing model and can take some time, skill, and thigh muscle to master.
Communal showers provide cool relief at the end of a long shift, no one seems to mind the cold temperature as often the weather here is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit at noon.
Nights, staff spend time playing cards and sharing what delectable treats people have received from home. Living close to the equator, night falls early and the stars are vividly bright. I’m told the Milky Way makes nightly appearances during the rainy season when the sky becomes even clearer without the swirling ever present dust.
For the next six months I will look forward to many things here: working side by side with colleagues from around the world, observing how access to basic medical care can change an entire region, and learning how to practice midwifery in a low resource setting.
Most of all, I look forward to being an active part of this organization and its reputable principles, and being able to call myself an 'MSF midwife'.