It’s five o’clock in the morning. It’s quiet, so very quiet. I lie still. Eyes still closed trying to remember where I am. The cold fresh air strikes my face softly, waking me up slowly, like the soft whisper of my mother’s voice when I was still young, telling me that it was time to get up and to go to school. I have the feeling that this moment in time will last forever. I’m okay with it and let the soft morning breeze play its gentle play. Suddenly the silence breaks with the all-too familiar sound of a rooster, who has definitely a very wrong concept of time. He should know that is too early to get up, but it is too late now to fall back to sleep, so I slowly open my eyes.
I always sleep with my window open and always enjoy intensely the evening skies and the subtle sounds of the village of Marungu falling asleep.
Marungu is a small village high up in the mountains of the Hauts Plateaux in South Kivu, in the east of Congo, at an altitude of 2,900 metres. It is a very isolated village made up of a couple of dozen traditional houses, built out of bamboo and cow dung mixed with clay, most of them with a roof of grass.
I look around my 3m x 3m room. To the left, on a shelf, too many pieces of paper with reminders of what to do today, as if I could forget... In front, next to the door, some more shelves with my personal food stock.
Eating habits here don’t vary much beyond the traditional rice and beans, chicken, goat, salted and smoked fish, and corn dough, called bugali. I need, once in a while, something different. Once a month I buy some other stuff down in the valley, in a town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika called Uvira. I realise that I need to buy some more cheese and some sandwiches, having finished my last one week ago.
I decide to get up slowly. It is still a little dark and cold. The rainy season started a couple of weeks ago, and the temperature dropped in the night to five degrees Celsius. My babula, a small traditional charcoal stove, is cold and stands sad and forgotten in the corner. I will ask the guard to revive it as fast as possible. Life here is much more comfortable with a warm one.
I put my Italian ‘mocca’ on the revived hot babula in patient anticipation of a very good coffee and walk outside the gate to listen to the sounds of Marungu waking up. I can already see the smoke coming out through the grass roofs. The local population starts the morning by building a wood fire inside the chimneyless houses. Some more roosters follow the example of the one in our compound and don’t seem to accept no for an answer. The awakening of a brand new day in paradise.
Paradise. I call it paradise for different reasons. First of all because it resembles most people’s image of how paradise should look: serene, peaceful. Peaceful, however, is far from the truth. Here, high up in my mountains, is the hideout of multiple military factions in disharmony with the Congolese authorities and each other. There are frequently armed encounters between them and the Congolese army, resulting in whole villages fleeing to look for a safe haven, leaving everything behind that they have learned to cherish and to protect.
The area is about 50 x 70 km². Because of its isolation, and because of insecurity and difficult access, the health system is very weak or non-existent. People have to walk for hours and even days to reach a health centre to look for healthcare. Arriving at the health centre, they have to pay money for their medical care, a commodity they often don’t have. Even in the worst cases they often stay at home because they can’t afford to get medical care. Or they will make the sometimes-long walk towards the MSF structures, where they know they can get free medical care. At present, MSF supports six health centres in this area.
For me it is very obvious why Médecins Sans Frontières has decided to help this population in distress. As a field coordinator, I have no doubt whatsoever why I am here. We need to help these people. Help them to build up a good health system with good access and free quality care. Help the displaced population and provide them with shelter and the basic materials to survive, next to medical care, of course – and medical care I mean in the broadest sense of the word. All our efforts, including sensitisation of the population, are focused on detecting the victims of sexual violence before 72 hours have elapsed – the limit for being able to start medical preventive measures for HIV and pregnancies, for example. Adequate psychological care and follow-up of these victims, as well as those people who have been displaced from their homes by fighting – are of course important daily tasks of our teams.
Except for near our base in Marungu, there are no roads here in the Hauts Plateaux. We have to walk for hours, crossing even higher mountains, to reach the population. Our second base, Kihuha, is a 10-hour walk away. My team is divided between these two bases, which is a real challenge to manage.
It is six o’clock and it is light. People start moving around, some with loads of goats following them. Women go down to the water sources to get water for the day, the older ones carrying 20 litres and the children carrying five or 10.
Looking at these women, I remember a conversation with one of them. She came to the health centre in the village one night. She had been raped the night before and came to get help at night to avoid stigmatisation and condemnation by her husband, family and the rest of the community. She had been raped by four men in one night in the absence of her husband. It took all of her courage to seek help. We rushed to the health centre with a specialised sexual violence nurse and our psychologist in order to treat her in the best way we could. She told us that she needed our help, but the saddest part was that she didn’t really believe that we could help her, because, as she said: “Why, why? ...tomorrow will be the same.”
No, I don’t need external motivation to work for MSF. I have lived here for more than one year now. I listen, I see and I do the best I can to help these people in need, with healthcare they never had before the arrival of MSF, here in their own “paradise”.
This blog post first appeared (in Spanish) at 20minutos.es