Somedays with MSF I feel that we are really making a difference. Other days I struggle with our limitations and the changes we don’t or can’t make. And most days I fluctuate between these impressions at lightning speed. This week was no exception, except that some of these impressions were formed while sitting, like royalty, on a pink frilly mattress.
The food security situation in Chad is never superb; however, it is particularly worrisome this year. Last year’s harvests were poor, and a variety of insects ravaged the crops that did manage to grow. In this region of the world where malnutrition, meningitis and cholera each have their own season, poor harvests only add to the complexity of potential problems. During the past week MSF embarked on a broad reaching nutritional assessment in the region in order to have a general overview of the current malnutrition rates. As my job involves coordinating and supervising all the activities conducted outside of the hospital, I was temporarily transformed into a nutrition assessment supervisor during the past week to help with the survey.
Conducting a nutritional assessment involves more than just arriving in a village and screening children. Village chiefs have to not only be notified and give permission for us to screen the children of the village, but the terrain in Chad is vast, and without a proper guide one easily becomes lost in the desert for hours. In one of the regions where we intended to screen, the Chief of the Canton was our guide. While an administrative position in theory, culturally the Chiefs of Cantons are considered as royalty, particularly in extremely remote areas.
The Chief of the Canton of Affrouk, our guide, was a young man of 37 with a princely appearance, particularly with his beautiful and impressively white booboo, turban and robes. The nutritional surveyors I was with briefed me that it is tradition for the Chief to sit in the front of a vehicle, with no one else but the driver – one would never want to crowd him. When this princely chief saw the absurdity of nine people crammed into the back of the landcruiser in 45 degree heat, with all of the materials the team needed for a week in the bush, he insisted that I sit in the front with him. The team tried without effect to dissuade him of this, and eventually (and quite happily) I moved to the front.
We drove for hours through the desert in search of the villages randomly selected to be included in the nutritional survey. Sometimes more than an hour passed without seeing any signs of human life – no vehicle tracks, no villages, not even any livestock. In the three villages where we stopped to screen, we were treated as pure royalty. In one of the villages, the village chief had prepared his hut for the welcoming ceremony. Both my princely counterpart and I were provided with our own pink, frilly, satin covered mattress to sit upon. Sitting across from the Chief of the Canton, I felt a little like the paper bag princess, wearing clothes that failed to hide my lifelong inability to stay clean for longer than two minutes in a day – particularly in the desert where sand storms are a way of life.
After being served numerous rounds of tea, one of the nutritional surveyors brought forth a father carrying his tiny child – a baby of four weeks, who had been sick with diarrhea for one week, and now looked like an emaciated bird. The father sat on the edge of the pink frilly mattress, and cried while I asked questions about the baby’s illness. The father, speaking fluent French, described how days earlier he had walked four hours each way with the baby in search of help from the nearest health centre. The health centre had been closed, and he had returned home with the baby.
Once the nutritional survey was done in the village, and after a few more rounds of very sweet tea, we loaded the mother and the baby into the vehicle with us to make the very long drive back to the MSF hospital. That night, and for the following six nights, the father of the baby called me to receive an update on how his family was doing. With treatment the tiny baby progressed into a little baby, and eventually became a big enough and healthy enough baby that she was ready to go home. I had appreciated the phone calls from the father – they brought to life for me one of the reasons why we are here. They gave me motivation, and once the baby was discharged, I sadly thought that would be the end of my nightly phone call. The night after the baby and mother had been discharged, the father once again called. He called to let me know that the two had gotten home safely, and then he cried and said he didn't know he could ever thank MSF for having come to do the survey in his village because it was what had saved his child.
I don’t know what the results of the nutritional survey will bring. I find it challenging to go into a village just to do a survey without being able to promise to do anything in future. Throughout my previous four postings I have realized that facing our/my limits is part of humanitarian aid (and part of life). Hearing from that father though made me realize that we do make a difference in people lives, and I guess that is why we are here.
Image shows a mother and her son at the MSF Massakory hospital, 2012.