6. The Farchana Sky

Every place has something about it that makes it unique. It is the background that provides the relief against which all is made contrast, visible, and dynamic...

It does not tell a story, but it is the timbre of the voice in which it is told; the flicker of the flame that holds us rapt for hours; the scent that ushers in a distinct memory that we’d long forgotten that we ever knew, and transports us entirely. It is not sustenance, but the flavour. Not music, but the silences that circumscribe rhythm and cadence. I have been here for three cycles now, and from morning to night, it is becoming clear that in Farchana, all stories start with the sky. It is a soft, back-lit, baby-blue hue that has been washed a thousand times over and clings onto its brilliance still.

It feels that all that springs forth from this harsh land has been carved from the sky, sitting atop a flat and dusty soil, like miniatures on a piece of softly curving sandpaper: the adobe and straw walls that demarcate the small squares of land allotted to each Sudanese refugee family, the tents constructed by myriad NGOs to house food and supplies; the wood and plastic-sheeting structures that offer sitting areas and consultation rooms for the sick, the malnourished, and those seeking mental health or perinatal care; the concrete slabs that look like a heavy strip mall in the early stages of construction that serves as the school; the water pumps at which women in brightly-coloured swaths of fabric move to and fro with large pots and buckets balanced on the heads, small children in wobbly tow; the thatch-roofed tukuls in which we sleep; the wandering donkeys and occasional chicken; the thorny brush.

This morning, the sky opened up as it has every day since I arrived; it is impossibly large, stark, and embracing. It defies us to enter into it, and we do, out of our camp, through the mango grove, over the dried up wadi (but the water still runs a few metres beneath the sand, I’m told), through the small town of several stalls, and into Farchana camp, of about 22,000 Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region.

But this is not the story for today. Today was a sad day. The sky witnessed a group of Somali bandits who yesterday attacked some MSF vehicles:

three dead, including a Somali driver, a Kenyan surgeon, and a French logistician of 27 years.

My condolences go out to their families, friends, msf team, and their communities. And when I say communities, I mean both those from whence they have grown up and onwards, but also the community in the town of Kismayo, near the hospital where the attack took place. I don’t know whether MSF will decide to stay in Somalia or evacuate the other projects, and the situation is so complex that I would not hazard a guess nor valuation. But I do have a sense as to the stability and hope that these projects bring to people. The following is an excerpt of a speech given by David Michalski, the then Head of Mission in Somalia in early 2007, when it was delivered:

Many children die from easily curable disease every day including malaria and respiratory infections. A vast majority of Somalis have no access to health care.

Of course, my description of the humanitarian condition is slanted towards the medical field. However, the situation with regards to education, water and sanitation, and other fields are equally precarious.

In 2006, we performed more than 300,000 outpatient consultations, and 10,000 inpatients were admitted in our hospitals. In general, the quality of the work is verified by high cure rates, low defaulter and death rates. To our regret, we do not have programs in the main urban centers, namely Mogadishu and Kismayo.

This has not meant that our projects are small. In the tiny town of Huddur (approximately 20,000 population), we have the largest inpatient department in southern Somalia with 250 beds full almost every night. Many come from long distances, some traveling for over a hundred miles away to receive care.

(The rest of the speech can be found at:

At that time, there were over 40 international staff and 600 national staff. They operated in 12 independent sites. I'm not sure how many there are now, but I imagine a similar number if not more. I'll look into it.

What will happen to these communities if MSF pulls out of this situation, as so many other NGOs have done in recent years owing to the precarious security situation?

Anne Frank once remarked, while observing the extent of human depravity in the second world war, that “humans are really good at heart.” While I suspect that Anne herself was good at heart, and saw the world that way, I think that she was wrong. Some are, many are not, but there is a remarkable plasticity. We know this by opening up a newspaper, by flicking on the TV, and by listening to anyone with stories to tell. Which is pretty much everyone. Humans are capable of terrible things. Experiments by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram suggest that you can take an otherwise respectful and ethically-minded person and turn them into an obedient animal, quickly capable of cruelty, cunning, degradation and torture. We can likewise fashion ourselves into caring, compassionate and generous persons, looking out for our brother, neighbour, countryman and beyond. This malleability of spirit has been co-opted by those who inspire us to use our superpowers for good. Stability borne of living wages, accountability (the rule of law), and hope for tomorrow by having our basic needs met.

This morning I walked along in our small compound, returning to my tukul after brushing my teeth, and found Bienfait, our Congolese doctor, talking on the satellite phone. He is one of those people who Anne Frank was talking about, he is good at heart. A teardrop rolled down his cheek and his eyes welled red as he told us of the news from Somalia. To my mind, his tears were for those that died, and for the suffering in Somalia that may come for many.