Darfur: Here comes the rain again

This article first appeared in The Guardian.


MSF doctor, Dean Harris

As a doctor, the chance to do something physical and outside was also a remarkable bonus.

Those readers hardy enough to have read my first diary entry from the field will be familiar with a patient whom I had transported from an outlying clinic to the hospital based in Garsila. He has died. He was suffering from liver failure following an episode of hepatitis, which he contracted from the poor hygiene in the crowded living conditions here. There has been a sharp rise in these cases across Darfur.

Many of the displaced people who are living in Garsila and the surrounding villages are not located in camps, but have been taken into local communities and homes where they have erected temporary structures.

Every day as we travel or even walk down the street people ask for plastic sheeting. This is a simple thin layer of plastic measuring 4x5 metres. Something that would not bring joy to a child at home if it were unwrapped for Christmas, but here, few things could be more precious.

The onset of the rainy season has done little to lower its value - in fact, given the dubious water-tightness of my current sleeping location, even I have begun to eye them up.

We have been planning to distribute these sheets for some time but have held back as we do not enough for all the families. A well-meaning attempt to distribute what little you have can lead to such a feeling of inequality that a riot could occur or give rise to suspicion that we are favouring one group of people. However, as the days passed, the decision was finally made that we had enough to distribute in the Garsila location.

So this is how I spent my Friday, a sacred holiday here in Islamic Sudan and similar to our weekend (but half the length). We had set up our plastic sheeting distribution to follow the regular bulk food distribution from another agency. What an incredible experience. People gathered in their hundreds across the plain in an amazing array of colour. Each carried the grain, flour and tin of oil, deemed enough to feed them for one month. Then there were smiles and appreciation as they were handed the humble piece of plastic.

As a doctor, the chance to do something physical and outside was also a remarkable bonus and I returned with a hot, tired team all eager for a drink and plate of peanut flavoured goat with rice.

While we routinely take extensive journeys across muddy soil and wadis - river beds that are dry except during the rainy season - the real excitement occurred closer to home this week. Andreas, our financial coordinator, saw a group of soldiers running down the street. In true, unflappable Austrian style he opted not to join them in flight but to investigate what they were running from...soldiers I remind you.

He found that one of the houses in the local market was on fire and returning to base, removed a fire extinguisher from one of the landcruisers, knocked down the door and promptly extinguished the flames.

We only discovered this in the evening after a humble reference was made to the unfortunate use of an extinguisher.

The wildlife that inhabits the house with us has continued to increase after the discovery of two kittens in the street. They were adopted by several of the female members of the team with delight, not only because of their cute appearance but because of their potential as rat-seeking missiles.

The call to prayer echoes out across the town and reminds me that sleep awaits. I wonder how Ernie will adjust to the arrival of the kittens. Do cats chase hedgehogs?

Dr Dean Harris is an aid worker with MSF in Garsila, Darfur.