What's it like living in the MSF project in Aweil, South Sudan?

Russ is just beginning his first posting with MSF as a deputy field administrator, helping to ensure that the project has the resources it needs to deliver life-saving care. He's recently arrived at the project in South Sudan, and shares his first impressions...

Russ Filbey
As an MSF staffer, just arrived in Aweil on my first assignment with MSF, the immediate question comes in from those I left behind in New York City: “What’s it like?” 
My first reaction to this question comes from the MSF training we had in Paris, where almost any clarifying question asked by the new recruits got the response from the MSF trainers: “It depends…” followed by a shrug, then a lively discussion. Now I find myself on the other side of the podium as my senses are filled with the sights and sounds of Aweil and searching for a phrase or two to give the general outline from which to fill in the details.
It is hard to describe the living conditions here in Aweil in a phrase or two – here are three to get started:


1) It is very harsh compared to living in NYC

We are housed in individual sleeping huts or "tukuls". This is a 10 x 10' concrete hut with metal roof, a low door (watch your head) and low overhang of roof right outside the door.  "Big" enough for a full-size bed (3" foam on a wooden platform with a mosquito net), desk (plastic square patio-like table), chair (plastic patio-like), and a roughly made cabinet. This leaves enough room to stand in the middle and get dressed.  One outlet (UK) with a surge protector (EU) and a fan.  There is a slightly elevated concrete/brick walkway between the tukuls and throughout the compound as the area off the walkways can be mud in the rains; I'm told that our tukuls do not flood.

We have an open-air common living/dining room area. This has a concrete floor with open sides and metal roof.  Prior teams have strung up Christmas lights and hung colored buckets over the light bulbs to give it a festive atmosphere.  "Couches" are concrete with 3" foam pads, tables and chairs are of the plastic patio variety.  A bottle of bug spray is always within easy reach.  

Our kitchen is a screened-in room where the cooks work. There is a separate screened wash room to drop off plates/cups.  Wash hands twice before eating, once at the common sinks with soap, and again with chlorine water before you pick up your plates/cup for meals.

There's a common shower/latrine/sink area. Showers are one temperature that runs from lukewarm to cool. Pit toilets that have their overwhelming aroma, as well as chlorine. The four sinks are large for washing up, and one has a mirror over it (the only one on the compound).  (At night, in one of the sinks there are the biggest bugs that I have ever seen...) 

The background noise has a constant diesel engine hum of the electricity generator, as well as the sound of overhead fans.  And a large crow-like bird that is always squawking. 
Yes we have Internet.  It is a very narrow pipe so e-mail and messaging works, downloading pictures is time-consuming, live-streaming or video downloads are impossible.  The service is frequently interrupted.


2)  It is really good compared to MSF field projects in other parts of South Sudan:

Because we have all of the above.  They may be missing one or two items above, and in addition, this area of the country is fairly stable.  We have the ability to move around and do the medical work unimpeded.  You are not afraid while walking from the compound to the hospital during daylight hours, or while doing your work.

3) It's luxurious compared to the living conditions of the local population who utilize the hospital.

Most have none of the above.  There is no working public infrastructure like water, sewer, electricity.
So, pick one of the three phases above.  Is it crappy, or really nice?  It depends (shrug) on who you talk to and what your experience is.
Image shows Russ, wearing his glasses and MSF jacket, standing in front of a cafe which has a thin thatched roof

Russ in Aweil. Photo: Russ Filbey / MSF.