Amy's Adventures in Darfur

I started this blog when I left for Darfur in June 2006. I was working as a midwife with MSF aka "Medecins Sans Frontiers" aka "Doctors without Borders" but this blog contains my own opinions and stories- not those of MSF. It is less political than I want it to be and I have been unable to post stories about certain topics due to the fact that this is on the internet and accessible to anyone. I wish I could tell you all of the stories but since I can't, I will tell you the ones that I can...

Sunday, October 22, 2006


this is an email i just sent....

hi everyone, i think this is the biggest group email i have ever sent- but this issue is big enough that i am sending this to every person whose email address i have ever known in the hope that all of you will do the same and that eventually it will reach every email inbox in existence. many of you haven't heard from me in years, if ever, and i'm sorry for falling out of touch. i'm writing now because, as many of you know, i have just returned from spending 5 months in Darfur and i have returned to a continent that seems shamefully unaware of what is happening there right now. when i came through immigration upon returning to Canada i was asked (by two separate people) if i had been in Darfur "on vacation". i cannot believe that in this day and age, with the means of communication we have at our disposal, people can be so unaware of the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today. it wasn't until i spent the last few days at home that i realized how this could be true. i have seen such minimal news coverage on the subject that all i want to do is cry. last year there was 29X more news coverage on michael jackson and 12X more news coverage on tom cruise than there was on Darfur. i am begging you, on my knees, to educate yourselves on what is happening there right now and then, in turn, to educate others. i encourage you to google Darfur and read the many articles that have been written and apparently rarely read. the people of Darfur are suffering in ways that you and i can never fathom and it is time that we, the blessed few, were aware of it.

with gratitude, Amy

Friday, October 20, 2006


wow, i can't believe i'm really home. it still hasn't sunk in, that's for sure. the last week has ranged from fantastic to horrific as far as debriefing and re-entering the civilized world. i flew out of sudan on thursday night and spent the night on the plane talking to a man who is working for the A.U. he told me stories that made me nauseous- things he has seen happening in darfur, things he has realized about the A.U. and their presence in darfur. he said that their purpose there seems to be to stand by and watch the attacks happen, occasionally joining in on the rapes. it seems like things just can't get worse, yet they keep getting worse. the stewardess asked us what we had been doing in sudan and we told her we were in darfur. she offered to get us very drunk but i decided against it. there isn't enough alcohol in the world to help me forget the things i've seen and the stories i've heard. i arrived in geneva on friday at noon and started my debriefing. one funny part was that i was scheduled to speak to a therapist, which i had assumed would happen because i had been told by monica that with msf-spain, anyone leaving darfur or somalia had mandatory counseling. later when milena joined me in geneva for the weekend i said something like "when you were talking to the therapist..." and she said "what therapist? i didn't talk to a therapist". we decide that maybe it's because her debriefing had been so rushed. then gustavo joined us and i asked him if he had had to talk to a therapist and he said no. i say, am i the only one who had to? why? and gustavo says "because you put your feelings on the internet". ah. so the debriefing was fine, as far as official debriefing goes, but it was the unofficial debriefing that did me the most good. like i said before, it is talking to the people you were on the field with that helps the most- they are the ones that understand. and had i been given the choice of who i would want to spend time with, talking about my experience, i would have chosen milena, gustavo, aurelie (remember the french girl from my first week in darfur?) and monica. thankfully God worked it out so that i crossed paths in geneva with 3 of those 4 (i missed monica by a few hours). it RULED. milena came to spend saturday and sunday with me, and we basically just walked around, talked and ate. i was averaging 3 milkshakes a day, which is possibly why i got the disappointing news at my medical checkup that i had regained most of the weight i had lost :) on sunday night gustavo finally arrived (after missing a connecting flight that cost him another couple of flights) and we spent the night with him, then i got to hang out with him monday during the day. then on monday night i went to aurelie's for dinner and slept there. as we were about to get on the train she asks me if i have my passport with me. i say yes, why? and she tells me that we're going to france. right, france. between the indian food, the wine, the beautiful baby girl and the company, that was my best night. i could have happily done that for a week. the next day i flew to toronto on a flight that was a comedy of errors. first we sat on the runway for 2 hours while they checked a "dent in our fuselage" (not that i didn't want them to check it. no one wants a dent in their fuselage when they are flying over oceans, no matter how impatient they are to touch canadian soil). then when we were approaching toronto we were told that a plane in their airport had hit a bird, so the takeoffs and landings were all behind schedule and after sitting on the runway for two hours we didn't have enough fuel to wait so we were going to land in montreal. excellent. basically this all leads to my 7 hour and 40 minute flight becoming a more than 12 hour flight, which was fanstastic because it gave me so much extra time to sit next to the psycho beside me. the guy beside me clearly had no knowledge of airplane etiquette at all, as he spent almost the entire flight facing me and sighing deeply. this might not have been as bad as it was if his breath hadn't smelled like carcass. then there was the 4 times that he turned off my tv screen. i kid you not, he actually reached across me and turned off my screen 4 times until i hit him. my sister reminded me that you're not allowed to hit strangers, but i reminded her that you aren't allowed to turn off other people's television screens when they are trying to watch a movie either. i didn't hit him hard- he was more surprised than hurt. i finally arrive in toronto and i am exhausted and annoyed. then i go through immigration and it just gets worse. the two women that i spoke to both asked me if i had been in darfur "on vacation". all i can do is repeat "are you SERIOUS?". neither of them had any idea what is happening there. i was torn between a desire to either burst into tears or start punching holes in the walls. unless you are amish and don't have a television, there is NO excuse for not knowing what is happening there right now. they seemed a bit embarrassed by my reaction. good. i go to get my bags and i stand there and wait until the very last bag comes out and mine isn't there. everyone else has taken their bags and left and i am standing there, alone, watching to see if there are any more bags coming. as i am walking over to tell someone that my bag didn't arrive i see that my bag is in the area with the oversize bags. i sigh, pick it up and finally get a taxi.

so my night in toronto with arin was dramatically reduced in time. instead of arriving at 5, i got out of the airport at eleven. by the time i got to her house, it was midnight and we had to stay up till after 3:30am talking to make up for lost time. the next morning she hit the alarm and missed class, which is apparently the first time she has missed a class this semester. apparently when you're in law school you stop skipping classes (i wonder if the same goes for medical school?). i would feel badly about being a bad influence on her, but really, if it ever came down to comparing who was a worse influence on who, arin would win hands down and the scarring on my liver can prove it. that day was my birthday and i spent it debriefing with msf canada, then flying home. kate, my best friend whose birthday is the day after mine, decided to share her birthday with me, so yesterday was my unofficial birthday. i haven't done much more than hibernate, nor do i have much desire to do much more than that. i'm sticking around for a party on sunday then it's off to oregon to hide in a beach house. more later...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Amy's opinions are hers alone

i think i am the only person in msf who actually supports the idea of the peacekeepers coming in (granted, i'm not really "in" msf. i started 5 months ago and in a week i will be done. i'm hardly a spokesperson for the organization). over the last few days i have had the chance to talk to a lot of different people in the organization and none of them believe that a military solution will solve anything. i might be inclined to agree with them if they were able to suggest an alternative plan, but they can't. when i ask them what the solution is and how we can stop the people of darfur from dying, they simply say "there is no solution". ok, so they think that deploying the peacekeepers will turn sudan into another iraq, but what else can be done? and if you had to pick, would you pick another iraq or another rwanda? maybe i'm too new at this to not be naive, but i think there has to be SOMETHING that can be done. i can't accept that we just have to sit back, stay out of it and try to get access to the people who are suffering. i think that someone, somewhere has to try to stop what is happening. i had this argument with one of the upper guys last night. i agree with him that we need to get access to the people, but shouldn't we be doing something to try to stop it before it happens in the first place? and if we don't have the capability to do something, shouldn't we be supporting the people who do?

tonight i leave sudan. officially. tonight at 7:30pm i fly out of khartoum and head to switzerland. i arrive friday morning at 11:30 and start my day of debriefing at 12:30. talk about efficiency :) on saturday and sunday i get to see milena, gustavo and monica, who will all be in geneva for the weekend as well. this is the part that i most look forward to. the best debriefings i have had have always been talking about my trip with people who were there. when i came back from the philippines i only wanted to talk to the cebubians about it. when i came back from afghanistan, i only wanted to talk to hil about it. i don't know what it is, but apparently it's a common enough phenomenon that msf canada sets you up with someone who has been back from the field for awhile, so you have someone to talk to when you need it. on monday morning i have my medical checkup (where they get to search my body for parasites), then on tuesday i fly to toronto. wednesday, my birthday, i spend the day debriefing with msf canada, then that evening i fly home. i arrive home on my birthday, october 18th, at 8pm, only 12 short days after leaving habillah :) i can't wait to actually get HOME. i am going to eat mcdonalds frenchfries until i vomit. literally.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006



saying goodbye


i have never before been so aware of leaving somewhere. i have come and gone from a lot of places in my life.... different cities, countries, continents.... and i have always felt something about leaving one place and arriving in another, but never quite like this. i was SO aware of leaving darfur. i felt the gravel crunching under my feet with each step that i took as i walked towards the small plane that would take me from there. i felt my feet, one after the other, leave the ground as i went up the stairs into the plane. i felt the plane taxiing down the airstrip, and then the moment that we lifted off. i didn't have many specific thoughts at the time. there was a mixture of relief that i had made it out alive and guilt that not everyone else would. the relief didn't solidify until i landed in khartoum. there was a part of me that thought i wouldn't make it out of darfur alive and it wasn't until i arrived in khartoum that i really believed that i was out. leaving was brutal.

my last day in habillah i did get hennaed (my hands and wrists) and, despite my older sisters death threats, i did get tattoed. i got a traditional tribal tattoo to remind me to always pray for them. it is a simple tattoo. the women here cut them into their cheeks or their temples. as much as i'm about solidarity, i decided to get mine on my upper arm. it is 3 one inch vertical black lines in a row. hawa did mine. my staff convinced me to get it done with no anaesthesia, the tribal way, and i am just ridiculous about having to prove that i'm hardcore so i agreed (on the video you can hear aicha say "i hope you don't cry" and i reply "i hope i don't cry either"). hawa opened a new scalpel and made three slices, then wiped away the blood and rubbed in a mixture of ashes and oil. the one thing we hadn't thought of in advance was the fact that we had gone to the whc to do it and i had to get back to the compound immediately for the start of my farewell party. i had worn the traditional african outfit my staff had made for me for the party (a particularly hideous blue and orange outfit, with a matching hat that was so small it cut off circulation to my brain all night) and i had had to take it off to get the tattoo. i couldn't put it back on without getting it all bloody. aicha says "just go like that" (in my tanktop). i say "and get myself shot by your local mullah? tempting, but no thanks". finally they wrap the outfit around me and place gauze over my shoulder and i run into the car and slide down, out of sight.

the party was nice and relaxed. having a farewell party during ramadan guarantees that it is going to be chill as everyone is starving and dehydrated and exhausted :) the one down side was that aicha had been really quiet all day and aziza, our cleaner, burst into tears any time anyone mentioned that i was leaving. i gave my staff the presents that claire had brought and most of them cried. they, in turn, filled my bag with homemade gifts for me, my mother, my sisters, my family, my friends.

the next morning i woke up early and got out of bed for the last time. i went to my wall and put a line through the last empty square on my calendar. i poured a glass of water and went to sit in the courtyard as we waited to hear when the helicopter would arrive. it felt surreal. it didn't feel real to me, but it seemed to feel real to those i was leaving behind. aziza, who i can easily describe as pure sunshine, was subdued and withdrawn. nasra barely looked at me. joyce and josephina arrived and sat quietly across from me in the courtyard. finally word came that the helicopter was leaving el geneina, so we drove to the hospital to pick up my staff who wanted to come wave goodbye at the airstrip. leimona had to stay at the hospital with our patients so i had to say goodbye to her there. she clung to me and sobbed. finally aicha told her that i had to go or i would miss the helicopter and she let go of me, turned and walked away. on the drive to the airstrip i took in every detail of habillah that i could. every hut, every courtyard, every child, every donkey, every leaf. at the airstrip we waited. one by one my friends broke down. some of them hugged me as they cried, some of them walked away to cry in private. they begged me, one after another, not to forget them. to never forget them. to come back to them if ever i could. i told them that i prayed that i could, but that they had to be here- they had to survive this. i had managed to avoid giving a speech at the party, but i had written a letter for them and aicha read it to them and translated it. i told them that i would always love them, always remember them, always be proud of them, always think of them, always pray for them. again they cried. one of them asked me to tell you of life here- of the difficulties they face. i told her that you know. that everyone knows. i told her that i had told all of you most of what i had seen here and that many of you were actively trying to help them. i told her that we would continue to fight for them, even from halfway across the world. i pray that what i said is true- that we will all continue to fight for them until there is peace in darfur.

the helicopter arrived and i slung my bag over my shoulder. i walked towards it, stopped, turned back to look at them all. "i love you guys..... goodbye".

Saturday, October 07, 2006

almost done

what a weird feeling- in less than 3 days i will be boarding a helicopter and leaving habillah, then a day later i will be leaving darfur behind. this last week has been so awful on so many levels (i'll spare you the details). being here after getting out for awhile is so much harder than when i was here before. it's like frogs and boiling water. if you put a frog into boiling water it will jump out immediately. if you put a frog in cool water and start to raise the temperature, it will stay in it until it boils to death because it doesn't notice the change in its surroundings. when i first arrived here there was a peace agreement and things were relatively calm. i didn't know anyone here and had no emotional investment in the situation save that i wanted to help in some way. in the time that i have been here the war has started anew, villages are burning, civilians are dying, hundreds of thousands of people in dire need of aid are denied it because it is too dangerous for ngo's to try to reach them, aid workers are being killed, the paramilitary have been rearmed, the country has braced itself for a war against the u.n. troops, we have discovered that rather than being seen as neutral we will be seen as targets and i have had to face the reality that the people i have come to adore are in severe danger and there is nothing i can do to save them. these things happened gradually and we just accepted them as they occured. it was sort of surreal, really. i sort of knew that this wasn't normal, but i sort of just got used to it at the same time. it was only escaping it for two weeks that allowed me to get some perspective. i didn't want to come back- as humans our instinct is to survive. squashing that instinct and flying into a war zone where i knew i wasn't wanted by the people holding the guns was difficult to say the least. everything in me wanted to just drop off the carepackage and fly back out. i came back and things here were in turmoil. my staff, my team, the situation around us. i have been trying to get out for the last 4 days but haven't been able to due to the helicopter (i really do hate that helicopter). the soonest i can get out is saturday. and time is going forward so slowly it's almost going backwards.
being back here has made me realize that i have changed more than i realized. claire was anticipating me being a nutcase when we met up, but we had an amazing time and i was completely happy. it made me start to think that maybe i was going to escape this experience emotionally unscathed. oh was i wrong. after being here this last week i have come to fear being at home. in the last few days i have realized just how angry i have become. i have so much rage. i thought it was because i hated habillah and just wanted to get away, but i realize now that it's because i love habillah SO much that i am so angry. i love this place, i love these people and in 3 days i am going to hug them goodbye and never know whether or not they survive this. i will go home to my safe little world and i will leave them all behind. every day i will read the news and i will wonder. if/when habillah is attacked i might find out from msf, but not necessarily. and if i do hear of it, i still won't know who made it to chad alive, who died in the initial attack, who died along the way, who lost their parents or their children, who were raped, who watched their children or sisters or friends being raped, who saw their husbands shot in the back. some of my closest friends here would never run because that would mean leaving their vulnerable behind and they would rather die than desert their family. if/when, habillah is attacked i will know that they are gone.

soon i will be home and i will see so many of the people that i hold so dear, and i wonder how i will treat them. it could be ok- i could be so glad to be back that i am the world's greatest person to be around. or it could be awful- i could take all of the anger and frustration that i feel towards the world for not doing something here and i could take it out on those closest to me. when i came home from afghanistan i was awful- i hurt so many people that i love because i was so cold and so detached. i don't want to come home and pick fights with people that subconsciously i feel are safe to pick fights with because even if i hurt them they will still love me. if i come home and i suck, just walk away and give me time. don't feel that you have to put up with it because i'm your sister/daughter/friend and i've been through a hard experience. i want to come home and be normal, and maybe i will, but my return from afghanistan together with this last week have made me wary. i will have a lot of time to process after saturday as i will be waiting until the following thursday for my international flight. maybe it will be good for me to have time to think and reflect. or maybe i'll come home having driven myself completely insane. if any of you point out that i was insane before i even came here and can't exactly blame it on darfur, i am totally going to drop-kick you. just so you know :)

a date with Habillah

pepe before

pepe after

i'm not kidding when i say that the frogs are everywhere. this was what i found in my mug one morning.

this was written and sent the day before "almost done", which is why i refer to my "email last night" as being so dark and down. my computer connection leaves much to be desired. read "almost done" before this one if you want to keep them in chronological order. not that this blog is even close to being in chronological order. nevermind.

i realize, as i start to write this, that by sending this email i am likely to start hearing the word "bipolar" being whispered as i pass clusters of people at family functions and social gatherings for years to come. thankfully i'm ok with that. it's just that today was SUCH a fantastic day. it was like i had a little date with habillah and we totally fell in love. i know, i know, my email last night was so dark and down and now i'm writing about this wonderful day i had. so i need medication. so what?
my day started early. really early. way before 4am, which i know because it's Ramadan. what does Ramadan have to do with anything? let me tell you.... Ramadan is the month where Muslims fast all day. this means that our staff don't eat or drink anything all day long, in this horrific heat, and then when night falls they get to eat and drink again. one way that they manage not to die is to eat their meals throughout the night. this is accomplished by eating their first meal at dusk, then snacking throughout the night (napping in between) and then rising really really early to make their last meal before 5am. i know how early they get up because they make very sure that everyone knows how early they get up. they accomplish this by walking through the village beating metal on metal at around 4am to wake up the women so they can cook their last meal of the night. they do this for at least an hour. most nights i lay in bed thinking that they are lucky i'm just too damn lazy to get up and get my slingshot out, because i'm a pretty good shot. last night i was already awake by then so i just debated going out to join them. i haven't slept much in the last three nights. three nights ago i was called to an emergency haemorrhage and for the last two nights i have lain awake, unable to fall asleep. they were those nights where you lie on your stomach for a few minutes and then you're not comfortable. you turn on to your right side for a few minutes and then you're not comfortable. you turn on to your back for a few minutes and then you're not comfortable. you turn on to your right side for a few minutes and then you're not comfortable. you turn on to... you get the picture. it's basically a never-ending quest for a comfortable position and a part of the bedsheet that isn't hot and sweaty. so yeah, i was awake for at least an hour before i heard the banging. this is actually good because on the nights when it wakes me up it sounds, through my earplugs, like gunshots that are right outside my window, which sends surges of adrenaline though me that keep me awake for another couple of hours. i far prefer being awake already. but i digress....
so i start my day by picking "a" up at the whc. we are going to go to the market to buy supplies for my farewell party tomorrow. we wander in to the market and it is like i am seeing habillah for the first time. i have never been in the market on a "market" day as we are always busiest on those days. i walk in and it's like the africa that i imagined as a child. the sights, the sounds, the smells. and i repeat... the smells. we get dropped off in the meat section of the market and the smell assaults my nostrils. i have to buy a goat or a sheep to serve at my party and "a" wants a friend of hers who is a butcher to pick out a good sheep for us. i trail behind her and stare at everything on the tables with a mixture of awe and disgust. one man is selling skin, another is selling lungs, another is selling stomachs, one man has rows and rows of intestines drying in the sun. at one point i turn around and almost trip over the recently removed head of a cow. i recoil in horror and everyone around me laughs. i think "a" told them that i'm vegetarian because then they laughed again, louder this time. as we walk away i say to her "do you think they would let me have that? i'm thinking of some really good pranks right now". she rolls her eyes and ignores me. it's probably for the best. we wander through the market buying all of the ingredients for the food that people traditionally eat during Ramadan. most of it is drinks, thin porridges and soups. i had thought that maybe i would be off the hook for the sheep but apparently they still eat meat. we stop at one stall and as aicha is talking to the owner i hear a frantic bleating sound. i look around the corner and see that a horse is pinning a tiny, baby goat in the corner with its huge head. i don't know if it was planning to eat the goat or not, but the goat sure as hell thought it was going to- it was terrified. i grab the owners sleeve and yank him to see and he chases the horse away and lifts the kid by the scruff of the neck. to my surprise, and delight, he deposits the baby goat in my arms. i hold him close to my chest and after awhile he calms down and nuzzles his head under my neck and i can feel his heartbeat slow down. at this point i am wondering how i am going to fit him in my luggage because i totally plan to take him home with me. the stall owner tells me that the mother had left the baby there and i now have visions in my head of bottle feeding it, taking it for walks, letting it sleep in my bed..... "a" tells me that the mother will come back for it and i can't take it home to canada- ever the voice of reason :) i reluctantly hand him to the stall owner with strict instructions to protect him from the horse. we continue on our way and reach the section of the market where you can buy fruit and vegetables. rainy season was good this year and there are suddenly many new food items on the market, stacked in neat piles in the sand. mangoes, watermelons, guavas, cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges, lemons. they are beautiful and colourful compared to a market that only contained onions and garlic for the last few months. a's mother is there in the market and she hands me a bag of lemons from the tree in her yard. i came home tonight and squeezed them to make fresh lemonade. my next wildlife encounter is when we are driving back to the hospital and i see something on the side of the road that makes me yell to mohammed "stop!!!". he stops the car and i jump out. "that goat JUST had that baby!" i tell him and "a", who fail to find it nearly as cool as i do. there, in the shade beneath the tree, is a tiny, slimy, bloody little goat. it's mother stood over it, with her bag of water and placenta still hanging out of her. i squat and watch this brand new little goat attempt to struggle to its feet as its mother starts to lick it clean. it keeps making it onto all four legs before toppling awkwardly over again. mama goat continues licking him, even as he burrows under her in search of a nipple. it was such a beautiful moment to witness. i know, i know, i'm such a midwife. i drop "a" off at the hospital and i head home. on the way home i stop to play with the small gang of munchkins who follow me for a certain number of huts before heading home. i start to pick them up, one by one, turn them upside down and tickle them. they giggle and squirm but keep coming back for more. as i walk home i look around me and notice that the yards are full of tall, green plants poking over the fences. not being able to leave habillah to plant has led the people to plant in every available space within habillah. each little yard is growing sorghum, corn, okra. when i finally arrive home our courtyard contains 5 beautiful little black bodies, enjoying a watermelon. nasra, our cook, has brought her 4 year old son, salah, and her 2 year old daughter, salheah to work. aziza, our cleaner, has her 3 year old son, anas, her 1 year old son, hassan, and a young girl, maybe 6, who straps hassan to her back every couple of hours and brings him to aziza at work so she can breastfeed him. the children are sitting around a pile of watermelon, half of them with no clothes on. they are grinning ear to ear as they devour it and drench themselves in sticky watermelon juice. to add to the mess i introduce them to popsicles. one of my recent packages had plastic containers for popsicles and i had made orange tang popsicles in the freezer. i take them outside and run them under the lukewarm water to free them. the children are unsure of them, but take them anyways. they put them to their mouths and squeal as they realize how cold they are. keep in mind that these are children who don't have refrigerators in their huts. they LOVED them. between the watermelon and the popsicles, they were all lost causes and had to be put under the tap and rinsed off. the boy who brings us the water arrives and his donkey, for once, lets me pet him. i stand there for about 10 minutes rubbing his head and his soft ears. for lunch nasra has fried some catfish that one of our staff has caught in the wadi. this is a new treat- i've never seen fish here before. i'm pretty sure it has about six thousand parasites in it so i don't eat it. after lunch "a" and i head back to the market to pick up the sheep that the butcher has found for us. i am horrified and traumatized to see him pick herbie up, toss him into the back of our car, hogtie him and close the door. yes, herbie. that's his name now. i spend the entire ride home apologizing to him from the front seat, then i get him a big bowl of cool water once we get back to the compound. i have told him that i don't want to eat him, nor do i want anyone else to eat him, but it's a cultural thing and i just hope he can understand that. he's pretty quiet so it's hard to guess what he's thinking. pepe, the sheep for andi's party, had A LOT to say and he said it so loudly and so often that the team was ready to kill him ourselves. now it's nighttime and the ground is alive. lately night has equalled frogs. frogs as tiny as the tip of my finger, all the way up to frogs the size of the palm of my hand. they are everywhere. i love frogs so i walk very slowly to avoid ever stepping on one and i spend much of my time catching them in our house and releasing them outside. i love all wildlife that isn't spiders or insects. at home i never get to hold baby goats or catch frogs or rub donkeys ears or pet camels. and yes, apparently i have become a 7 year old boy.
tomorrow is my last day in habillah. i am getting up early to get hennaed, possibly tattoed (more on that later), possibly corn-rowed again (haven't made up my mind yet, leaning towards no), and then it's party time. the goodbyes have already started. today aicha and aziza already cried. it's not going to be easy to leave them.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My Staff

This is an old message we just received...if you're wondering why it's being posted after we said you had to request it, we deleted the part of the story that is personal.

it's funny but, in spite of the fact that things are so tense and the country is on the brink of war again, i am loving it here lately. i think the only reason that i am able to find joy here is the fact that every day i fall more in love with my staff. i honestly think i have the best staff on the planet. they are amazing- each and every one of them. i can say this because the two from khartoum (my "problem children") are leaving soon and the ones who are staying are all tied for being my favourites :)
aicha is indescribable. she is our counsellor, the supervisor of the Women's Health Centre and a translator. she is in her early thirties and is the mother of 6 boys (she would have 7 but her first son died). she is, in so many ways, my hero. she is the representative of the masalite women of habillah, which is a bit like being the mayor of the women. she taught herself fluent english and was hired by the ngo's as a translator in her late teens. she didn't know what to do with her paycheque so she gave it to her father. he used it to buy her land, to build her tukuls and to buy her housing supplies. she is now quite wealthy by habillah standards as she owns 2 plots of land in the village, farming land outside of the village and a cow. her wealth would be far greater except that she is also the "social services" of habillah. as a single mother she financially supports her own children, as well as her mother, a handicapped brother, her sister and her sister's children, her niece and her niece's baby, a young girl who was raped and impregnated and whose family was killed in the fighting (and her baby), and anyone/everyone else who comes to her for help (and everyone who needs help comes to her). she never turns anyone down, even if it means handing over her last bill. when habillah was first overrun by diplaced people who were running from their villages, she took 6 families into her compound (actually, she came home to find six families sitting in her yard and she went "uh, ok" and let them all stay :) she also, along with 5 other people who were working for ngo's and therefore had money, bought huge sacks of food and they provided all of the new arrivals with meals until the ngo's could get themselves organized to deal with it. she is strong, she is brilliant, she is compassionate, she is generous to a fault. she is a devout Muslim and if she was the face of Islam that the world saw, people would have a very different opinion of Muslims.
leimona is my 19 year old timid little mouse of a village midwife. her aunt paid for her education and leimona now financially supports her entire family. when i first arrived she reminded me of a nervous ferret. she was incapable of doing deliveries so she had been relegated to helping with the prenatals (basically just taking the patients vitals, as she can't read or write). no one would let her do deliveries as she was so nervous that she nearly dropped the baby in the one birth that they had allowed her to do. i had enough staff capable of covering the birth shifts that i didn't care if she couldn't do deliveries. she is a fantastic worker and i was happy to let her just help with the prenatals during the day. that all changed when the new budget took my two khartoum midwives away, leaving me to find 3 women to do the birth shifts. two of my nurse assistants (hawa and mariam) are able to do deliveries unsupervised now, but i needed a third. i had the choice of training leimona or firing her and getting another, more competent midwife. i love her to death and there was no way i wanted to get rid of her- she's my hardest-working employee and has a heart of gold. my khartoum midwives were convinced that she could never be trained and told me i should never let her do deliveries. gustavo told me that there is no one who can't be trained and he encouraged me to put in the time and effort. so, in the last month i have gone on a "leimona training" onslaught. i started by making her be present at every delivery, and once she was used to them, i started to make her do deliveries under my supervision. she has completely come into her own and she gets more self-confident every day. the other night i had her do a vacuum extraction and she pulled it off perfectly. i also got her to help me train the new girl (we are training another girl to help with the prenatals and take leimona's old position) and she has proved to be a gentle, patient teacher. the more she trains houda, the more she realizes that she knows far more than she ever gave herself credit for. every time i look at her i feel a swelling in my chest- i am so proud of her that i could cry.
mariam is my nurse assistant. she is the picture of quiet dignity. she is the one in the picture i sent- the close-up of my face cheek-to-cheek with a beautiful woman, both of us with cornrows in our hair. she is the mother and grandmother of many. she is grace, beauty and silent strength. when i have staff meetings, trying to deal with the latest problems (that always arise from and swirl around my khartoum midwives) and create team unity, she is the first to apologize and ask for forgiveness. i love that she does that because she has never done a single thing to offend anyone and owes apologies to no one. it is her humility that leads her to apologize for any offense that may have been taken by any of her actions. no matter how much anyone else has wronged her, she is always ready to hug them, kiss their cheeks and renew vows of friendship. her work ethic is amazing- she never stops working (she and leimona) even when we have no patients and the rest of the staff are lying on the mats outside, being lazy and unmotivated. when she was in agony with a tooth infection that had caused half of her face to swell up, i had to order her home to take painkillers and get some rest. she didn't even tell me that she was in pain- i noticed that she was hiding her face and when i yanked down her scarf i found that she looked like a lopsided chipmunk. we sent her to el geneina for a couple of days to go to a dentist and managed to misplace her for over two weeks. she returned yesterday without any of us expecting her and she beamed as we all screamed and ran to hug her. she got off the helicopter and immediately showed up at the hospital to work. i suggested that maybe she should head home for the day to see her family as they had been asking us about her whereabouts for days and i had finally admitted to my staff that i thought we might have lost her.
hawa is my other nurse assistant. she is our plump, dramatic, jolly character. she speaks some english and manages to make me howl most of the time. she is the one who told me i "look like dying person" when i lost all the weight (note: to those who were concerned about my emaciated state, i am fine now. carmenza made me start drinking spoonfuls of cooking oil and i have gained some of the weight back. gustavo told me today that when i was sick i looked like (picture him sucking in his cheeks) and now i look like (picture him puffing his cheeks out). i warned him not to make me kick his ass in front of his girlfriend). when i first arrived and wasn't used to things yet, i was sitting with my staff when someone handed me a glass of tea. i didn't yet know that they drink it when it's boiling, so i took it and dropped it instantly when it burned my fingers. hawa says to me "you hands like new baby!". i tell her that in my country we are firm believers in oven mitts so i am quite uncallused and unashamed of that fact. hawa is the one who throws me over her shoulder when she thinks i am misbehaving, and has given me two "warnings" (when the staff get in trouble they are given 3 written warnings before they are dismissed) for annoying her. i told her that if she gives me one more warning i get to go home. any time that i stay still for too long, she braids my hair or pulls my head into her lap to stroke it. she is always laughing about something and is SO fun to be around.
and that is my staff. i could describe the rest of the staff that we have here in msf and each description would be just as amazing. each one of the people who work with us is fantastic in their own way. they are kind, noble, loving, funny and truly good. i was thinking the other day that we must have completely lucked out when we were hiring, because we ended up with the 70 best people in habillah working with us. then it occured to me that these people are representatives of habillah, and darfur. there is no way that we could have managed to hire the finest 70 people here- what we did was hire people who represent how beautiful most people here are. these people are darfur. they are the reason that we need to fight to save this place.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

some of my favourite children

Monday, October 02, 2006