OK! Magazine and other essentials: Packing for a posting with Doctors Without Borders

As she begins her third assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Sarah shares her tips and comes up against some surprises...

Sarah with her baggy trousers, sandals and Cards Against Humanity

I was prepared this time.

I’d done an MSF assignment before, so, when I got an email that Monday proposing three months in one of our African projects, leaving as soon as possible, I knew, after I said “ooh yes please,” what to expect. 

How it starts

I opened a file and labelled it. And blocked myself out of all commitments for two or three days, starting on Wednesday.

And, true to form, no sooner had I finished my Weetabix on Wednesday morning than the pinging started. 

The last time I did this I was an MSF novice and had packed a compass, map, whistle, smart clothes for an evening out, several textbooks and a satellite phone. This time I knew better.

Every email I opened had dozens of attachments; detailed job description, situation reports, lists of contacts, contract, insurance, what to do in every conceivable eventuality (except actual conception, obvs - I’m 63, yes, that’s all, I know, it must be the dissipated life I’ve led), medical check, visa, travel arrangements and so on.

Within a couple of weeks of getting the email, I was sitting on a plane. The last time I did this I was an MSF novice and had packed a compass, map, whistle, smart clothes for an evening out, several textbooks and a satellite phone.

This time I knew better.

Packing like a pro

I’d be joining a band of international staff who would have been living together in a small compound for weeks on end, eating the same food every day.

So, this time my bag was filled with OK magazine, cheese, salami, wine, tea, spices, Marmite, hair conditioner, nail clippers, head torch, Cards against Humanity (curiously popular amongst humanitarian workers the world over), and the textbooks – this time in electronic form, to make way for the wine.

There wasn’t a lot of room left over for clothes, so I decided on what I told my daughter would be a “capsule wardrobe”.

When she’d finished laughing, she said: “You mean you’re just going to wear those baggy blue trousers with your seaside sandals every single day, don’t you?”

“Er, yes.”

A town called Wanke

The refugee camp where I’m living and working is just down the road from a village called Wanke. This made my day when I found out, as it’s a slightly rude word in British English, and it’s always good to get some light relief when you’re working in a serious setting.

My very adolescent sniggering at the sign didn’t go unnoticed by some of my male colleagues, leading to an early practical challenge to my cross-cultural, cross-generational, cross-gender, cross-linguistic communication skills.

Risk assessment 101

The refugee camp and attendant MSF health service have been here for a few years. Our compound is equipped with overhead showers, a hammock and even intermittent wi-fi.

This morning I attended one of our routine security briefings on threats, risks, mitigating factors and contingency planning.

I’ve been applying the same approach to the plumbing here.

I decided that the water cutting out halfway through a shower, just after you’ve soaped yourself all over is a threat.

The risk of this happening is low but not unknown, and when it does happen the impact is high, especially if there isn’t anyone you can call to bring an emergency bucket of water (contingency plan).

I could mitigate this threat by either only soaping one bit of me at a time, or by not showering at all.


N.B. For operational reasons, we are occasionally unable to specify exactly where our teams are working