Fieldset
Being part of MSF: Living across cultures
This autumn, Sarah left her familiar job as a family doctor in the UK, and moved to an MSF project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She blogs about the challenges of living across cultures...
 
MSF workers come from all over the world, and the challenge of living together in a smallish compound is every bit as interesting as the work we're doing at the hospital.

 

A wall with an MSF sign and barbed wire hides the compound
Photo: Sarah Wookey / MSF
 
Among the international staff, the francophones are instantly recognisable. Despite being subject to the same luggage restrictions as the rest of us, they manage to appear effortlessly elegant in matching scarves and earrings.  All the effort that I'd put into packing a bottle opener had clearly been used by them to coordinate their accessories. 
 
I'm put to shame by my colleagues' linguistic skills. My contribution is rusty French but it's not at all unusual to have a conversation, as I did yesterday, with a Hungarian, a German, an Italian and a Frenchwoman all speaking perfect English. The local doctors are nearly all fluent in four or five languages.
 

Of all the team here, I have the greatest ratio of size of laptop to ability to use it

Even when we're all speaking the same language cultural misunderstandings can arise - I was being rude about Johanna, our New Zealand midwife, in the way that Brits are when they like someone.
 

Jacob from Kenya was most indignant on Jo's behalf: "Why do you say bad things about her? I thought you were friends!"

The more I tried to explain that insulting someone loudly and publicly is, for someone from Britain or New Zealand, a way of expressing affection, the more ridiculous it sounded. And anyway, Jo had just made the caustic and quite unnecessary observation that of all the team here, I have the greatest ratio of size of laptop to ability to use it.

When all else fails there's always GoogleTranslate to fall back on, so long as the internet is working. Care is needed in interpretation, however; I was a little surprised to be asked to arrange an urgent interhospital transfer for a patient with "pain and functional impotence of member". A bit of linguistic detective work clarified the problem - a severe injury to his leg.
 
A baby sits in a bright yellow plastic wash basin
The part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in which we are working doesn't receive many visitors; it's not at all unusual for a toddler to howl in horror at the sight of a muzungu, or white person. Photo: Sarah Wookey / MSF
 
 
The brightly printed fabric is teal in colour, with a maroon leaf pattern and a large image of a saint in the middle, holding a bunch of lillies
Religion is taken very seriously here and many of the local people wear clothes made from fabrics decorated with religious artwork. There are churches of many different denominations in the town and there's a huge Catholic church opposite our compound, where a great deal of enthusiastic singing takes place. For several hours at a time. Sometimes starting at 6am...