I’ve been back on the field almost a month now, and filled with energy and idealism, I’ve started to really sink my teeth into the project and the work of a PC. But I have to admit, it’s been a steep learning curve ! For several reasons, I feel way out of my comfort zone, while in other areas, I thought I’d be struggling and it’s actually what’s become my “strengths”.
Since I’ve been back, it feels like time starts escaping the moment I open my eyes in the morning. I can’t quite explain it, but it’s a mix of not forgetting to bring back the satellite phone back to where we can hear it, trying to make my daily visit to the clinic, say hi to all the staff (and desperately try to learn all their names), talking to people, “networking” … then I push “send/receive” and the space-time continuum switches to another speed. Between the reports I have to make and those I have to read, I’m soon reminded of the limited amount of time by my stomach begging to be fed, or mosquitoes attacking “en masse” and forcing me to seek cover away from any light source (and you may not realise a computer screen is an important one). The only antidote I’ve found against this is a white board - that’s not so white anymore - because it’s not a real one, and erasing can become an issue. And so it goes that time flies (up, up and away) and a lot of lovely reporting awaits!
One of the reasons I decided to do this work was to meet interesting people, be inspired by them, share stories, perhaps even wisdom. But people are not always fun to have around. They tend to need a lot of things and not be very patient about these “needs”. They have all these emotions that need to be looked after, thus creating emotions in yourself. Managing your own emotions is challenging enough in this context, but as PC it’s sometimes part of your job to facilitate this in others as well, and sometimes the line between personal and professional gets blurry … people are so complicated!
I have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for gossip, which I’m quite ashamed of. But I can say that over here, it’s a sort of local sport. With each one of these rumours comes a potential security implication, so I’ve spent so far a great deal of time and energy trying to understand the rumour mill, and trying to avoid getting sucked into it. In a place where the roads are flooded during the rainy season, where there are stories of having to bike, swim, rent pirogues and dodge dangerous hippos, I am absolutely amazed at the speed at which rumours travel! There are no telephones outside of Birao, only a few radio posts here and there, and a handful of satellite phones, but there must be some sort of special mechanism in place - maybe smoke signals or carrier pigeons? – because I still don’t understand how my team in Birao can learn about what we are going through in Gordil within hours, when I haven’t been able to get satellite phone reception and it’s a couple of days of travel away ! And why always on Sundays, when I’m inevitably comfortably in bed or having a shower ?
MSF’s reputation precedes it and some of the reasons why I work here are the same as why communities are keen on having us around. The fact that we are mostly self-financed by generous individuals at home – as opposed to institutional donors – gives us a level of independence, freedom really, that very few humanitarian actors have. We have our own plane, we can mobilize resources quickly to respond to emergencies with drugs and personnel. We will speak out when we witness situations we feel are unacceptable and violations of human rights. The t-shirt I wear to work, now somewhat yellow and not so white, still bears a lot of weight and attracts “great expectations” both from those who wear it and those who welcome it. However, expectations can get out of hand, and what I’ve often witnessed here is more a sense of entitlement regarding NGOs in general, and sometimes us as well. “No good deed goes unpunished” either, because the minute you meet expectations, or by some chance go beyond them (like an extremely lucky woman we were able to transfer by plane to Birao for a c-section, and in extremis saved them both), then it’s perceived as the new norm. Managing expectations: learn to love it!
Most MSFers I know joined for mostly very noble reasons: a desire to make a positive difference, to help their fellow human beings, and a feeling of outrage regarding the inherent injustice of this World. What is equally true, however, is that most of us are, in one way or another, adrenaline junkies. We like a different kind of adventure though, one that can take the shape of a vaccination campaign, an emergency response to a natural disaster or anything that involve helping a lot of people, in short period of time, in tricky situations … in our current security context though, we do not even go on the road, everything is done by remote control (a first for MSF). The adrenaline factor is low, although things can get quite tense, and sometimes, with an unshakeable feeling of guilt, I wish for a bit more action, a reason to go on the road and see what’s out there. Guilty as charged!
It took me a while to understand this one, but now, it’s perhaps my biggest victory. There’s so many languages (French, Arabic, Sango) and dialects here (Goula, Rouga, Kara, etc.), that I’m afraid to learn a few words, and then using it on the wrong person : it would be the worst insult to great a Goula with a Rounga expression ! I stick to French and my 10 words of Arabic with Muslims (the majority here), and it is going well. But then I realised it wasn’t the language that mattered, but a key French word that I heard everywhere : Vraiment (Truly, in English). Trying to explain it’s meaning is pointless: what matters is that it’s the password, the key to reaching people at their core. You must use it with parsimony, but it will make your point. After trying to nicely make a drunken man stop following me in the market in Bangui, I paused, looked at him in the eyes and said “Vraiment!” He couldn’t argue anymore, he knew it was time to leave. After a nice talk with our landlord, a wise old man, a thank you followed by it and he beamed; he knew I truly appreciated him. I’ve yet to try it negotiating at the market, but it worked trying to get to the bottom of rumours with some key people, and allowed us to take the conversation to the next level. It can show disappointment or pride, happiness or sadness, it really is a sign you’re not just another expat.
Coming from Canada, an ex-colony, and Quebec, an ex-French colony, protocol has never been high on the agenda. One would think that with independence, citizens would want to put these habits into the past. But in this ex-French colony, protocol is everywhere. You have to be careful to shake the most senior’s person’s hand first, and a top bureaucrat beats out a top elder. A speech is always expected, whether at a town meeting, an expat’s going-away party, or any sort of official occasion. Each speech must start with thanking people – every single one of them – with their title, and according to rank: it is exhausting! But perhaps the most embarrassing part, as a humanitarian, is that foreigners fall at the top of the hierarchy, beating almost everyone else in line: you get the best chair and eat before the others. I once took a walk to the Mayor’s in Gordil, where about 30 people were anxiously awaiting security news from the next village, and although I would have been happy to sit in the back and get a translation from the MSF staff accompanying me, the Mayor took me inside his house, offered me tea, and spoke to me privately before everyone. And refusing would have been an insult ! There’s no way around protocol in CAR, no matter where I go, but at least now I know, never to leave home without a speech in the back of my head.
At the end of the day, I close my computer, take a shower with my gas lantern, under the stars, not so much cleaned but cleansed by the water. We sit around dinner, talk about the day while trying to talk about something else than work … the lost art of conversation. I find I never have trouble falling asleep over here, even though the bed is not so comfortable. And before I know it, the roosters, people getting water at the well, chopping wood, the sounds of Birao wake me up and it starts all over again.