Doctor in DRC: A ‘Muzungu’s’ first impression of Walikale

Reem is a doctor from Tunisia. She’s just at the start of a new assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières  / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Here she blogs about her first weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the patients who have already moved her with their stories and fortitude…

So, here I am in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). To be more precise, I’m in the town of Walikale in North Kivu. I’ve begun a nine-month posting with MSF during which I’ll hold the position of Doctor Supervisor.

The day I received the email proposing the assignment, a feeling of happiness mixed with fear came over me. This is the posting I wanted, I expected, but each departure and each assignment comes with its share of sacrifice. We give up our comforts and our daily routines. We separate ourselves from family and friends hoping that nothing happens to them during our absence. We know we will miss a lot of moments with them, and we are afraid of not finding them the same as before when we come back. Because, somehow, each of us will evolve in a different world. 
It feels like putting your life in parentheses when you throw your heart and soul into an MSF mission. But, despite all these thoughts, I replied to my manager with a big ‘Yes’. I studied medicine exactly for this reason: to be where I’m needed most and to work with MSF. 
Who said childhood dreams don’t come true? You just have to fight and work hard to achieve them. When you're a child that you know exactly who you are and what you want from life! 
So, I pack my bags, giving up dresses, skirts and heels, and hope beyond hope I’m up for the challenge.

A plane lands on the road near Kilambo, to supply Walikale Hospital and four health centres supported by MSF in this remote region of North Kivu.

Photo: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu

I don’t know what I expected before coming here. I feel like I expected everything and nothing all at once. I've only been here for a month and yet it's as if I've lived here far longer, while being acutely aware that everything is new. Many feelings get mixed and I try not to analyse them. I just live them, fully.
Working in the hospital, being in direct contact with patients, makes me realise the daily struggle for the Congolese in this region. And, on the medical side, a lot needs to be improved. Here in North-Kivu, the health situation is precarious. Many die because of malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea. 
It's troubling to know that a country so rich in natural resources, resources like gold, diamond and cobalt, is in such a critical health situation. The forests of the Congo basin make up the second largest tropical forest in the world, and the world’s second largest ‘lung’ after the Amazon.  Every morning I see these beautiful mountains, this greenery, these tropical fruits. And then I see my patients malnourished in the hospital…
The resources at the hospital are very limited. MSF is here to help and strengthen the structures of the hospital. We are present in many parts of the country, so we can’t guarantee everything. What is also hard to accept is knowing that the nearest structure that can provide better care for certain illnesses is a six-hour drive and a 75-minute flight with an overnight stop in between. The distance is only 228 kilometres, but the conditions of the roads here are so bad that it’s just not possible to send patients all that way by road. 

Mum Sifa gives a bath to Mado, her eight-day-old daughter, in Walikale hospital.

Photo: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu

Also, it’s not only the lack of means, there is also the lack of knowledge from the parents who often don’t come to our clinics soon enough. Here, the use of traditional medicine is common. When a child has a fever, their parents might take them to a doctor, but if they have convulsions it’s because a spirit wants to communicate through their body! Scraping – putting your fingers into the throat of the child when they have a sore throat, or because they don’t want to eat, wards off evil spirits – and gastric lavage [cleaning] with strange products are also common.
But what impresses me is the kindness and politeness of the Congolese. DRC has experienced countless armed conflicts, many of which are still raging, and the people of DRC have and still suffer enormously. But even so, they are hopeful of a better future for their children. 
Just today I spoke with a parent and asked if she had other children. She told me she had another boy and a girl, who died a few years ago. I asked her how she died and her answer was: "Armed men attacked our village. She was in my arms. I should have died that day but the bullet hit her head instead." She answered me in her delicate Congolese, flooring me.
Congo, I already have you in my blood! You fascinate me, break my heart and make me laugh every day.
Note: 'Muzungu' means white person