The challenge of logistics in Chad

Charlotte Stemmer worked in the Chad emergency nutrition projects from September to November, 2010

I’m back in the UK after a three-month mission as a logistician in Chad for two emergency nutrition projects. The most common question my friends and family keep asking me is ‘...but what did you actually do out there?’

Many people presume that to work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) you need to have a medical background, and they forget about the huge support team of logisticians, engineers, administrators, finance and HR that are necessary to run successful programmes.

The easiest way to describe supply and logistics is as getting the right quality and quantity of goods to the right place in the right time. Sounds easy, but I’m sure some of the challenges of doing logistics in Chad – such as hippopotamuses blocking the road, a car stuck in a flash flood, or trying to explain what an oxygen machine is using basic Arabic and hand signals – aren’t faced by DHL when delivering a parcel from London to Manchester.

When the MSF emergency desk phoned me in August, I jumped at the chance to work with such a well-respected organisation. Despite the worrying lack of media attention, Chad has been suffering from a huge nutrition crisis. Due to climate change, the rains had been delayed and hundreds of thousands of people, who usually live off the land, were facing a hunger gap until the next harvest was ready.
In total, MSF was running 12 nutrition projects across the Sahel band of Chad, treating children with moderate and severe malnutrition. I was working on two projects in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, and Mandelia, 100 km to the south.

Here’s a look at a typical day as a log in Chad:

6 am: I wake up early as I’m accompanying the Mandelia ambulatory team this morning, and it’s a long drive to the village. I have to arrange reparation of a shelter and check on the ration distribution. Each mother gets given 14 Plumpy’Nut sachets for their sick infant plus five kg of maize, 2.5 kg of peas, and a bar of soap for the family. At the larger ambulatory sites this equals two tonnes of rations that need to be delivered by truck each morning.

10 am: I return to N’Djamena to meet my assistant at the hospital. The generator, electricity, water bladder, latrines and waste disposal all need to be functioning, and it is much easier to prevent problems with simple daily checks. I’m feeling emotional as one of the children has died. The most seriously ill kids are in the first room, and I always say hello to them and their mothers while doing my logistics tasks. The body is wrapped in a sheet and it’s down to me to find a vehicle to take the grieving family back to the village. This is the reality of working with MSF and, although some of the sickest babies will not make it, I try to keep positive by focusing on the hundreds of children that have been given a chance of survival by MSF.

2 pm: I’m off to run a water and sanitation workshop at one of the health centres where we hold the N’Djamena ambulatory clinic. It is very important to MSF that that their work is sustainable, especially for the short-term emergency projects. Today I am showing the health centre staff how to chlorinate water to make sure it is safe to drink. There is lots of laughing and joking as everyone has a chance to fill the tester from four buckets of chlorinated water, and a crowd of villagers has gathered as we wait to discover the results of how much chlorine needs to be added for safe water.

6 pm: After work I call by the MSF coordination office to show my plans for construction of a new shower block to the logistics coordinator. It is great to know that I have the support and advice of an extremely experienced coordination team. Although everyone has lots of work, there are always five minutes to spare for discussion and feedback about important topics.

8 pm: A new emergency team of 12 international staff has now arrived to tackle the cholera outbreak in N’Djamena. I call round for dinner and drinks, but then get roped into helping the cholera logisticians prepare an exploratory mission 200 kms south the following day. Due to strict security rules in Chad, my social life is limited to MSF houses and a couple of overpriced restaurants, and we have an 11pm curfew.

11 pm: Phew, I collapse into bed after another full day. Logistics is varied, rewarding, challenging and interesting... but the work never stops!