From Finance to Humanitarian

Letter from the Field – 8 Jan 04

Dear All,

A happy new year to you!! 2004, Here, we toasted ‘l’année de la paix’ The peace process is underway here, and as a team we’ve got everything crossed for the population of DRC for 2004.

I’m into the 3rd month of my first MSF mission and am starting to find my feet and my place in the team. Kitchanga is a relatively new settlement, it came into being because of the refugee camps in ‘93 and is therefore made up of many different tribes, churches, even nationalities. It has a kind of temporary feel, all the houses are mud huts or at best wood, the light after dark is from oil lamps, and there are next to no vehicles, but some more permanent looking developments are beginning to happen, even in the time I’ve been here.

Our project is dealing with the serious malnutrition affecting the region because of the many years of conflict and the displacement that it caused/continues to cause. We have two Therapeutic Feeding Centres, one here in Kitchanga and one in our other base Kabati, about 2 hours drive. Both centres house between 90-150 children at any one time, and we run 7 supplementary feeding centres in the region on a fornightly rotation. My role in the team is logistics administration. It’s a busy job with no two days ever the same. Our total workforce is 156 national staff over the two bases. It took a while to get used to all the HR issues that arise! Maternity leave is very common, the salary scale hopelessly complicated and the Congolese employment law has enough clauses to be a full time job in itself! I’m out and about a lot in the TFC here, the SFCs and in Kabati. The distances are short but the roads terrible - it’s always an adventure, fallen trees or bridges that have been washed away with the rain, but our drivers are great company and have all the local knowledge you’d need if you got stuck! With the finance and bookkeeping, paying endless daily workers and suppliers of food and building stuff, trying to follow the movements of our 8 vehicles and that’s without all the ad-hoc things that break down/need sorting /people visiting with all sorts of bizarre requests, I’m never bored!

It took a while at first to get used to the very limited communications. DRC has no postal service, limited internet (only in Goma) and no telephones, so all communication is via radio or satellite (v expensive). For security reasons all cars radio in every 30 minutes and if you’re on foot, it’s announcing your movements to the base. I’ve got used to the language now and feel like a pro!

Life in the project has a very different rhythm from home. We work mostly with the hours of daylight because all electricity comes from the Generator. It is on for about 4 hours a day in the evening and charges the laptops we use during the day (I’ve become an obsessive ‘saver’ of documents – you learn quick once you’ve lost a few!) So, usually work starts around 7.30am and never really finishes – I think it’s a hazard of living and working in the same place and with the team. Most mornings I go running with some of the football team, the views are incredible with the volcanoes in the distance silhouetted against orange skies while the sun comes up. No one here can understand why I think it’s so stunning – Europe must be far more beautiful, they think, there everyone’s got money.

The climate here is pleasant, although I’ve been warned that the rainy season is less so! It already rains a fair amount, but usually it’s a short heavy shower in the afternoon and then back to hot sunshine again. It can get very cold at night – you’d forget you were in Africa if it wasn’t for the permanent background noise through our thin wooden walls - chickens, tinny music and children either playing or crying – also, it seems that everyone in Kitchanga is ALWAYS building something, there’s 24 hour hammering from one direction or another. The supermatch (local cigs) lorry blasts up and down the high street with its familiar tune – and more and more often, herds of cattle go past. Even in the 2 months I’ve been here the number of cattle I’ve seen has gone from none to lots. It’s an encouraging indicator that people are feeling like they can settle a bit with the threat from militaries lessening.

Washing is with a big bucket of hot water every morning - it helps you to realise how much you can waste back home when it comes running out of a tap! We eat simply but well, mostly congolese food - fish from the nearby Virunga lake, some meat and lots and lots and lots of beans and cabbage although sometimes a pizza appears or some spaghetti bolognese. The cooks here make great bread and there is also cheese available. I often wonder why milk doesn’t happen here, but I guess with no fridges…?

I keep in touch with the outside world thanks to the World Service – without it would be very easy to forget that the rest of the world exists. I often wonder how we are perceived by the hoards of kids who coming running over shouting MUZUNGO (this means foreigner in Swahili) every time we walk out of the gate!! There’s no television to speak of so I guess muzungo = NGO for these kids, I wonder what they’d make of Oxford Street….

All in all, it’s a fantastic experience. The team is fantastic, both national staff and ‘les expatriés’ which makes it much more than just a job. Every day I am surprised by something - how resourceful people with so little can be, how totally corrupt and unjust people in power can be compared to in the societies I am used to, the kids that beat all the odds and make it to see another day. It’s easy to get ‘hardened’ with time by the poverty and desperation that is commonplace here. But every time I see the mamas in the feeding centre dancing and making music, or someone says a kind word to me in the street, I am reminded how amazing the Congolese people are.

I miss friends and family but the time goes by so quickly. I’ll be back in the UK and missing Kitchanga before I’ve had time to think about it! It’s really an incredible feeling to be living here and working on a project like this.

Susie XX