Rob is a public health registrar working with the Manson Unit, the specialist MSF team dedicated to improving care for our patients. One of the projects he's involved with is an electronic medical records system, which has the potential to improve treatment and save lives.
I’ve come to Chad in central Africa for my first MSF mission. Last time I visited the continent I was a student, bungee jumping and rafting at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and scuba diving in Lake Malawi. This time there’s work to do, evaluating whether a piece of tech originally developed for the Ebola crisis is ready for use in other settings. So we’ve come to an MSF-run malnutrition centre in Bokoro, on the edge of the Sahara desert, to test it out.
The alarm goes off at 5.55 am. I spend ten minutes wrestling competing urges to inertia and action until the thread that binds body to sleep snaps and the day is underway.
I can’t stand up in my tent so I’ve developed a routine. Unzip mosquito net. Change/put on pants. Apply sun cream to arms, head and feet, followed by my new aftershave, 50% DEET. There are no mozzies yet, but it helps keep the flies at bay. Put on trousers and an on off-white MSF t-shirt of a random size. Some days it fits, some days it doesn’t. Shove a Malarone and a vitamin pill in my back pocket. I put the hardback novel I’m reading under my left arm and bend into the morning light, shuffling into my flip flops. Toilets are water-flushed here, with a pail from a large plastic drum, so not at all unpleasant. Then I walk round the side of the loos and sit on the hardback under a tree to meditate for 10 minutes, listening to the birds overhead and twitching my flanks, horse-like, at the flies.
Breakfast is a sociable, freeze-dried, long-life affair: Nescafé, the sort of cereal I would turn my nose up at home, powdered milk from a big metal drum. I’m your stereotypical artisanal coffee, middle-class muesli and organic milk man at home. Here, I eat what’s going and… nothing bad happens. Hmm.
The first meeting of the day is at 6.50 am, more than a hundred expat and national staff stood in a huge circle, struggling to hear as security and other news compete with donkeys, cockerels and trucks on the road outside the compound. Then you shake as many hands as you possibly can before people disperse - “Salut, ça va? Ça va. Ça va?” - and launch into the day. By lunchtime, six hours later, you usually feel like you’ve done a day’s work. At home, I’m part-time, finishing early so I can go and play music. So, here, I've done a day’s work by the 1 o’clock pause.
I'm straight to sleep, my brain powering down in the middle of half-formed thoughts about the day.
By now, my feet are filthy, I’ve drunk two litres of water without needing the loo and I’m a bit dishevelled. I sink gratefully into a plastic garden chair to eat salad, rice, a few veggies and a small piece of fried meat. The food is quite good - much, much better than I expected – and after a brief rest it’s back into the fray until we run out of steam between 7 and 8pm. Dinner is what was for lunch, left to stew all afternoon in the African heat, so I swap rice and meat for white bread, chat for an hour, call the missus on WhatsApp via a 2G data connection, pour a bucket of water over my head in the showers and reverse the morning routine. If it’s early, I read for 10 minutes. If it’s late (i.e. past 10pm), it’s straight to sleep, my brain powering down in the middle of half-formed thoughts about the day.
This has been my life, our life for the last month, six days a week. Now I get to go home, to friends and family, to a studio full of instruments I love playing, to the freedom to go where I want, when I want, to the smell of fresh rain on pavements and walks in the park and everywhere, greenery, growing, life springing from each and every crack, cosseted by our benign climate. Others carry on, doing tough, unsung labour in near 50-degree heat, cogs in the MSF machine. They have my total respect.