Humanitarian storm chasers and other stories

"Over the last four weeks we vaccinated around 9000 children against measles."

Over the last four weeks we vaccinated around 9000 children against measles, built another set of 23 latrines and showers at Danamadja refugee camp, and expanded our potable [drinking] water production to serve the recently established Kobiteye refugee camp, where ~6000 additional people settled over three days after being transported from another camp 80km away.

These activities involved daily trips out to border towns to set up vaccination posts, dozens of daily workers to dig up 4m deep x 1m wide trenches, and close coordination with partner organizations to ensure the potable water supply is safely transported and distributed at Kobiteye (2Km from Danamadja).

A vaccination post © J.J. Téllez

One of the vaccination posts 

For the vaccination we enlisted the help of MSF’s Emergency Unit in Chad. The team consists of three Chadians whose job description involves travelling on a faithful 1990-something 4x4 Land Cruiser around the country in need-finding missions and in support of existing MSF missions: emergency vaccination campaigns, nutrition crisis, settling masses of refugees/returnees, you name it.

The team spent 10 days with us and caught up quickly with our habit of nick-naming all residents and rhyming every day chores, encounters, and challenges to Ivorian rap songs. Sure enough our repertoire grew and we now have raps to 15 titles for an untitled album. Amid the work and jokes, fun facts arose and jaw dropping stories included tales of old jobs as embassy bodyguards, escapee stories from rebels in the Darfur region, asset recovery missions in the middle of the Sahara desert, and car-camping in the bush amid mosquito infestations. I felt like a young boy scout listening and aweing to incredible camp-fire story-telling.

Amid life-changing survival stories, these humanitarian storm chasers are your regular folk in and out of the office environment well except for the Back Street Boys 'I want it that way' and Beyoncé ringtones. Like my peers, they all had issues adjusting their excel spreadsheets to fit and scale to one page, frozen computers due to many files and calculations running at once, upset stomachs with another iffy fish from our vendor, late night Nutella (chocolate+hazelnut spread) binges, evening check-up calls with families, and the more often long calls with spouses explaining the prolongation of the trip and the kids’ latest misbehaviors.

Les meds et moi © J.J. Téllez

Les meds et moi

Aside from the planning and budget-revising in the weeks leading to the vaccination, eye-opening conversations stemmed from our community outreach. I recall a particular meeting with a nurse who oversees a health clinic close to the border; as we discussed the target infant population to vaccinate and compared data on the nomadic communities of Bororo peoples (a large segment of the refugee/returnee camps in the region), we understood that wages of health workers depend on the consultations and prescriptions filled.

Since the arrival of our mobile clinics with free medical services, surrounding clinics have seen fewer patients and thus, staff’s earnings have decreased significantly. While there was no reproach, it’s difficult to hear first-hand the collateral damage of our work and not be able to do much about it. At least the setting of our meeting was at a local “beer garden” (someone’s backyard) and warm beer and mosquitoes kept the evening on a good mood.

Our Malagasy doctor leaves tomorrow as his contract ends soon. His replacement, an Ivorian doctor, arrived last week for the handover process. Our Ivorian project coordinator and Burkinabé logistician are happy to speak to another expat in their native Bambara. I’m happy to add a new playlist to the music at home and potential new melodies for our untitled album of jousting raps.

On the mundane, we recently discovered that besides her unique ironing abilities, our housekeeper can bake.  In the best case scenario she’ll master the recipe in a week in time for my birthday.