Do you ever think "Why?" Put destiny, fate, political persuasion, religious beliefs, spirituality, tribal identity aside. Life, hey, is a curious thing but just why? Approached with an open mind, clear of thoughts and pondering that three-letter quandary can lead your thought processes to all sorts of places. Try it sometime. I guess, without getting overly philosophical, for a long time I've given it too much consideration. Thinking not doing! Repeatedly reflecting on life and where I'm at - or not as the case has been. My mind bouncing around ambitions, priorities, failures, my values and potential. It all led to me taking a stand.
So why MSF?
Succinctly, MSF is a non-profit, self-governed organisation that provides independent, neutral and impartial medical and humanitarian assistance. Its emergency aid responds to people affected by conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare in over 70 countries around the world. It offers assistance to people based on need, regardless of race, religion, gender or political affiliation. That's why really.
I was introduced to MSF many years ago by chance. Without exaggeration it instantly became an aspiration. The concept, values and the organisation's ability to carry out what they say they will, on a global scale, just clicked.
But how do you go about getting into this line of work when you're non-medical? A degree in international development? A contact on the inside? Luck? Well getting here hasn't necessarily been straight forward - as if it ever is! A varying journey from construction management at uni through volunteering in Kenya, teaching, traveling, youth work, management and logistics in Tanzania. It's all dominoed into place really, with perhaps a little perseverance building my CV and even more head scratching along the way.
Now I'm on the inside, the plan is:
MSF have had a presence in the Sudanese region for over 30 years. Aiding with surgery, treating injuries resulting from civil wars, responding to epidemic outbreaks, implementing vaccination campaigns, carrying out nutritional programmes to treat malnutrition, maternal health and paediatric care. The situation and the context in South Sudan are, well, "complicated". As the newest country in the world some of its borders are still undecided and internal disputes still rage around governance, tribal representation, natural resources and the future. I'm by no means an expert, you can search elsewhere for a clearer picture on the causes as to why the rest of the world is so concerned, but briefly some important factors to highlight as to MSF's proactive and reactive response:
Internal conflict over governance is widespread and has led to large proportions of the population being caught up in this and then displaced
Tribalism is an important way of life and with it traditions – cattle raiding for example – create frequent disputes
Guns are everywhere and this has meant that internal disputes can be very violent
South Sudan has large natural oil reserves which are a valuable national resource, however, the politics around this industry has for the time being made it non-profitable in turn, halting the economy
Infrastructure such as roads, healthcare and education are underdeveloped, hugely impacting the nation's progress and causing strains in a world where modernisation is seemingly essential
Weather is seasonal and becoming less predictable so the heavy rains impact greatly on transport and migration whilst the extreme dry seasons are have a damaging affect on farming
Mayom, the project I'm to be based at for the next six months, is a primary healthcare centre providing care to a rural community with otherwise limited access to treatments. It has been running since April this year and has capacity to offer outpatient consultations, stabilisation, maternal care and vaccinations. I will be managing a support team concerned with transport, storage, maintenance, power, water supply and waste. Logistically, we get stuff done.
And so where's my head at in all of this? I'm not sure. This IS what I've wanted to do for a long time so I'm proud and privileged to be in the position I am... But I know it's going to be challenging at times due to the very nature of humanitarian work. I described recently that I'm looking forward to it all but couldn't use the word "excited". I'm aware that I will see things I've never seen before – grief, conflict, death. I'm not scared by this but, knowing I'll meet it head on, nor can I be excited. On the flip side, though I don’t know if it’ll be in equal measure, I’m certain to enjoy some positives too – birth, recovery and happiness. Seeing the light from the dark.
On that note something I feel like I want/need to explain here, given I have close friends in various parts of the world, are my views on humanitarian aid. For what it is, I think it's an entirely positive movement. I will wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to this and I know not everyone will agree but you're all more than welcome to discuss that with me at any point. I am for the people - whoever the people are. We all have the same blood and energy coursing through our bodies, we all share potential for love and hate yet everyone is put together with their own unique quirks. Somehow over the years we have become all too easily identified by imaginary geographical boundaries put in place, be it politically or imperialistically, to govern, condition or control a population. Given that this is now historically ingrained in all of us, to different extents, it means that generally the world is full competitive patriots. I do see great benefit in internationalisation but also feel that it has led to us judging and treating others differently, and too differently at that. In my head I see no human difference between somebody from South Sudan, the UK, or wherever. So when people need help, at home or away, other people should be prepared and willing to do what’s needed.
That then leads on to who is justified, who is qualified or who is acceptable to become involved – here I’m talking about mobilising large scale involvement, not your average helping-the-nextdoor-neighbour (which is of equal importance). Band about enough of those positive sounding words offering a fair, democratic, untied support and you might just get something along the lines of an organisation that is “independent, neutral, impartial” – sound familiar? Less bureaucracy, more action.
I want you to judge my opinions, please. Am I being “that guy”?
I am certainly not going with the mind-set of saving Africa (the continent) nor any of its 54 countries nor its two independent states. And I’m not for a second suggesting that humanitarian aid is solely directed at Africa either, nor indeed the “developing world”. It is absolutely based on a circumstance by circumstance basis. Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. The Syrian civil war. The Fukushima earthquake. Who am I, or we, to even suggest that some, all or any nation needs "saving”? It’s easy to bundle the whole of Africa up together but doing so is entirely inaccurate. Like any other continent it’s as diverse as it is similar. Some Southern African cities resemble Europe, many parts of Northern Africa share beliefs with the Middle East and some cultural traditions from West African are shared with the Caribbean. If there is indeed this need to rescue the whole of Africa then there's no doubt that Africans can indeed right it themselves (or at least reverse the deemed-unfamiliar traditions kicking and screaming in line with "Western" modern practices – contentious I know but, again, who determines right from wrong when it comes to tradition?!). Isn’t that what the “developed world” has already done? Those in the “developed world” can judge for themselves if diplomacy and democracy have resolved every single issue. But, being the cradle of humanity, I’d say those living on the landmass did a pretty fine job surviving generation upon generation for numerous thousands of years.
When it comes to aid, though, I see it as people helping people; not the rich wise saving the poor uneducated. I'm here as part of a moral organisation to provide the essential by managing the necessary. In terms of this intervention having a necessary lasting impact, often a criticism of humanitarian aid, MSF has a focus of developing a workforce of national staff equipped with the knowledge, skills and understanding to be of benefit to their people going forward.
So what am I looking to accomplish in all of this (… not my ranting, rather my role)? I am very realistic about my position. It's a job that needs doing. I won't be saving the world. It's work that I want to do. It’s nothing honourable nor brave, maybe a little empathetic. There is risk – though there is risk everywhere – and I’m well aware of that but in all honesty if it’s the case that communities are exposed to such risks then it is very much ok for me to be there too. I’m here just to get stuff done – not shouting orders, rather with considered teamwork. Progressive.
Now here I am... bags packed, Geneva induction done and South Sudan bound, career in check. Standing with MSF.