A meal fit for a king
25 October 1999
East Timor - Last night was illustrative of why the MSF experience is so meaningful and why volunteers come back for mission after mission. Our team of 16 is based in Dili, the capital of East Timor. It is a country devastated by retreating militiamen in the wake of a referendum vote that leaned strongly towards independence from Indonesia. More than three-quarters of the houses in the major towns have been burned down to the ground. Most of the population has fled to the hills and many of them are only now returning from refugee camps. Families have been separated, many hospitals and schools have been destroyed, and the people have been left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A small MSF team has been trying to re-start basic health service in the towns around Dili. Last evening, in response to a request from a local nurse, we scheduled a drop-in visit at the town of Basatete, high up in the hills. The road is narrow and very steep, so it took an hour to traverse the 20 miles. We had been expecting, at most, 15 villagers. Instead, we found the entire town of 200 waiting to greet us. The lone surviving structure was a two-room hut with a tin roof. Saskia, our doctor, sat in the chair in one room and began consultations. Judith and Heidi, our nurses, set up the boxes of medicines in the outer room. A thunderstorm broke, and the waiting room filled up with mothers and children. There were 80 who had been waiting for treatment. It was getting dark and we had to be back before curfew. As we were busying ourselves with packing up the truck to leave, the village headman came up to us and asked us if we would follow him. The village folk had set up a tent to one side. In it they had placed all the tables and chairs that they had left. The main table was covered with a clean plastic tablecloth. On it was crockery and tableware that they had carefully washed and placed in perfect table settings. They had killed their only remaining chicken to make us soup to go with the rice. A big dish in the middle held the cooked meat. They had fried plaintains and cassava and brewed a fresh pot of fine black coffee. They asked us to sit down and honor them by eating the meal. They themselves not had meat in a month. Their rice ration was a few kilos per family. And we had not seen coffee or fruit in the markets. Yet these famished people had made us a meal fit for a king. There were 200 pairs of eyes watching our every mouthful. Heidi spoke for us, thanking them deeply for their generosity in the middle of all their distress and loss. The village headman gave a short speech in return, thanking us for aiding his people, so far away from any other avenue of medical assistance. The village women came up to each of us to hold our hands and bid us goodbye. It was enough to make you weep. Back in Dili last night, it was hot and humid as usual. I was dog-tired and the roar of tanks and half-tracks kept me awake until midnight. But it bothered me not at all. In my heart and in my memory of the day, I was free from bodily discomfort - flying, soaring. Sukumar R is a 37 year old logistician from San Francisco, USA. He is currently based in East Timor and offered this report.