I know how movie stars feel. Okay, wait, let me rephrase that since I still have roommates and we all share the same shower. I know what it feels like when people I don’t know want to take a picture with me. A billion Indians on the planet, and I’m the only one in Nukus. My colleagues from Kenya have it worse. I don’t mind the kids who call out to me with the few English phrases they know (apparently the same as in rural Africa – “Hello, how are you? What is your name?”), but when I walk past people who stare at me, then snicker and laugh, it just conjures up repressed feelings from high school.
My high school reunion is this summer, but I’ll miss it. Two decades have gone by since I decided I was going to save the world. It took me that long to realize my mistaken career choice. I went on my first mission with MSF for mostly selfish reasons – wanting to change the world, wanting the world to change me. It took a year to fully understand that the needs in the field are beyond one person’s good intentions. I came on this second mission because I truly believed I could be useful.
I’ve spent the last 3 months trying to help doctors, nurses and managers use the data we collect to monitor the program more closely; identify problems quicker, see how well we’re doing, plan for the future. If they don’t use the data my team spends so much time meticulously collecting, cleaning, and analyzing, I may not be so useful after all. But again, it’s not really about me.
I’m the supervisor of a team of three, three very dedicated young women who have been doing this job for years before I came along. Most of MSF are national staff, people who are from the country in which MSF works. Some national staff become expatriates themselves and continue working for MSF in other countries. I’m always impressed by the mix of people sitting around the lunch tables.
Lunch is one big family meal. We have a dining room here in the office, and at 1pm, our cooks call out “Lunch!” and everyone comes running. It’s nice to see everyone together, once a day. Sometimes announcements are made and a translator has to stand up and translate for the seven of us who don’t speak Russian. Seven of us, out of nearly 70. All MSF missions have national staff who vastly outnumber expats – it’s how MSF works.
I find it curious that our national staff may not know the international reputation of MSF. To them working for MSF is a job – a chance to work for an international organization that often has higher employee standards than other opportunities in the country. But many may not know about refugee camps, or therapeutic feeding centers, or measles vaccine campaigns that MSF runs. Somehow I want to inspire them, to add another layer of pride to their work. Or maybe that’s just what I need.
I arrived in February, but MSF-USA still managed to send a Christmas gift to the field for me. In addition to the t-shirt, calendar, CD and other goodies, there were stacks of holiday cards from individual donors – people who give money to MSF so we can keep doing what we’re doing. I keep these on my desk as easy access on those days when I’m feeling useless. My favorite one says, “You’ve inspired me to do all I can to help others and to never accept the world as it is. To change it. Thank you so much.”
Perhaps I haven’t changed much in 20 years.