Suddenly around one of the many twists of the muddy path, we arrive in a forest, which solely consists of bamboo. So much that I can’t believe my eyes! And so large! Now I know where the brothers Grimm got their imagination when writing their fairy tales. ("Maybe they were here?”, I ask myself) It is magic; there is no other word for it.
The muddy path goes steeply downwards, becoming more and more slippery. Like thick black mud turned into ice. I slide from bamboo to bamboo and praise the strength of these fast growing, tall, wonders of nature.
A couple of hours further on, we enter a valley with grass taller than me. I have no idea where exactly I am anymore. The heavy rain, which seems to drop ten times larger than it should, doesn’t help. I imagine that I can hear the sound of my socks sliding around in the murky water in my shoes. I imagine how awful the smell will be when I take them off.
Finally, Lubumba, a small village in the Itombwe Forest, and our final destination!
As if my wishes are being heard, the rain stops almost at the moment we enter the village. We make camp around the health centre. On one side our sleeping tents and on the other, the consultation tents. I decide to sleep in a hut specially prepared for me (the preparation being that they moved the cows out of it....)
The evening falls fast. My colleagues and I sit in my hut around the babula drying our clothes and eating our famous rice and beans, prompting dreams of better food and “haute cuisine” in a 5 star restaurant, slowly munching a shrimp cocktail while sipping on a glass of Beaujolais at a perfect temperature.
I slide into my sleeping bag and before my head hits my pillow of dry clothes, I go out like a candle in a tropical rain storm.
In the middle of the night I wake suddenly. Are the flees waking me up at this horrible hour or is it something else? I know. My mind is busy with flashes of a very good friend of mine, Philippe Havet. He was my head of mission last year. When he was in the Hauts Plateaux in October 2010, he was struck by malaria typhoid. I had to medevac (medical evacuation) him fast by helicopter to the hospital in Bukavu. He was a man with a huge heart and always ready to go where there are people in need. His sense of humour was contagious and all the staff here, with no exceptions, loved him very much. It makes me indescribable sad, as I realise once again, that he is not there anymore. He was killed in Mogadishu while working for MSF not long ago. I’m missing you “mon petit grand” (my little big one), I think out loud. Rest in peace my brother!
I realize that my work for MSF is not without danger. MSF works a lot in conflict areas and there is always a risk, no matter how strict the security rules. More and more I notice a decline in respect for humanitarian workers - it is as if our field of operation is getting smaller. In October last year, two of my colleagues, Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut, were abducted in Kenya and are still not released today. “Courage” you two! Where is this humanitarian world going to? More and more we are unable to do our job. Something needs to be done and fast. Not for me, or MSF for that matter, but for the beneficiaries, the people in need. They suffer the most!
In the morning, I step outside my “Lubumba Hotel” carefully avoiding hitting my head again by bending almost halfway to the floor. To the right, on some bamboo fence, rubber boots are steaming in the early morning sun. A large crowd already sits, waiting at the edge of our small, improvised compound. They have come from far. One of them, a woman, was brought last night on a stretcher carried by two men after walking for two days, just like us. Their faces look tired, but happy: MSF is there! Finally!
The Itombwe Forest is a region which is totally forgotten by other NGO’s (Non Governmental Organisation). The health system collapsed a long time ago, if it ever existed. We have work to do..... A lot of work!
In 4 days we conduct 1,100 consultations. We work hard and are satisfied, much like the people themselves. We even assist with the birth of a beautiful little baby girl. The faces of these people will forever be engraved in my memory, their smiles, their feelings of relief, the hope in their eyes, burning with the question, when MSF would come back again?
It will be the last time for me here. It is time for someone else to take over. Someone with a fresh vision and new ideas of how MSF can best assist these people. Soon I will continue to another mission: Yemen. A different environment with different challenges and I am more than ready........
This post was first published in Spanish at 20minutos.es