From the Desert

Being met at the airstrip by four dashing man (only one of whom had shaved) definitely set the tone for the last week. My first impressions are marked by noon highs and nighttime shivers - winter is coming fast and so are the challenges.

Being met at the airstrip by four dashing man (only one of whom had shaved) definitely set the tone for the last week. My first impressions are marked by noon highs and nighttime shivers - winter is coming fast and so are the challenges.

Serif Umra is small town along the northwest border of Darfur. Arabic is the language spoken by all. All men are dressed in the traditional garb of Kurta and headgear and the woman with a piece of material that is wrapped as in a combination of sari and head scarf. It's very dry now and incredibly dusty. I had to don the headgear myself after one whistling sandstorm. It was quite a striking moment. I was standing in the Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Centre (ATFC) tent trying to communicate with sign language till my Arabic evolves, when around the corner a mass of camels emerge. It is market day – Tuesday – for the entire region. A pick up speeds by, and then another and another and then the sand catches the wind.

We drove through the market and it's incredible – it captures many facets of the life of the people, we see the eating habits by the food on sale: chilli (!!!!!!!!!!), meat, watermelons, the area where everyone sits on carpets and eats together, the meeting of old mates with the customary greeting that takes about 2 minutes (a lot of shaking hands and Salaam maleikum, maeliekusalaam, mashalla, herumderullah, tamam? = ok/good? Tamam! =ok/good!), the clothes and colourful materials, and of course the camels. The donkeys and horses park alongside in a spot of shade in relief for being valued only as transportation means not wealth, food and travel means as the camel does.

We popped into the local 'pub' for cold drinks and I was offered the most delicious baklava. We are constantly offered food and here it is very impolite to refuse. I really enjoy eating here, we all sit around a massive tray with many plates of food on it and everyone uses their fingers and digs in together, followed by tea – sweetest tea ever!!! I’m going to come out of here a diabetic.

But the sweetest offer came one night about 11pm. Our neighbour called upon us to say a man has been referred with urine retention by the primary health care centre in the neighbouring town about 30km away and is sitting in his house can we please see him. So we trot off in the full moon night and see the 90-year-old blind man with urine retention. On completion of our consultation, we are about to leave when our friendly neighbour asks us to please have tea. We try our best to politely refuse since it is midnight. He asks us then to please just greet his family – no problem. We turn the corner and we are taken aback by the 30 family members sitting on carpets outside watching an Egyptian soap Opera on TV!! So we shake everyone’s hands and of course we sat down and had tea. And so far it has in a week here become already the norm, eating and teaing with everyone.

I am of course terribly impressed by the groundwork laid by the team of three in three months, and what seems to be the gathering of the puzzle pieces. However what lies ahead on my plate seems to be trying to put these pieces together in the ''best'' place and finding some glue to keep it that way. The level of knowledge and facilities are very basic. The inpatient department needs a lot of work and mostly I see training the staff as priority. But when habits are engrained I will have to be patient and deliberate and polite. Baby steps: first organise a bit, enlist some structure, reinforce the basics, and then refine the workings of the hospital. There are more than 20 cases of malaria every week since everyone is now out harvesting, and mostly respiratory infections.

The team is made up of the outgoing Russian medical field coordinator- one of the funniest guys I have ever met, with endless stories that always begin ''one day''. He has fortified MSF’s reputation here by his disarming way and jokes that know no boundaries from the sick patient to the Governor. Also a first mission nurse and an endearing Italian first mission too. These three have done a lot and are a pure pleasure to sit around, tea and eat camel hamburgers with. The new field coordinator, German, seems nice, verdict not out yet. No mosquitoes. Me, taking it slow, breathing it all in, trying not to step on anyone's toes. The living conditions are luxurious compared to Bor, where I was before: brick house in a kind of classic Arabic architecture, square and patterned walls, electricity at night by generator, bucket shower by the full moon. All charming. I'm charmed.