Striking a tone

december 22, 2008

Honeymoon is officially over. Not because reality has efficiently crushed romantic illusions about humanitarianism, mine are still somewhat intact, but simply because there’s a load of work to be done. If in the beginning, that is the initial week, I could allow myself the luxury of being the displaced newcomer, incapable of making any useful contribution simply because I was busy being confused and dehydrated, it is now time to start pulling my load. Laura, the Flying Nut, has taken off with one of the old Russian helicopters that make humanitarian aid in Darfur possible, and all the others in the expatriate team are working their hardest to keep the momentum and direction of the project. Nobody has time to baby sit a Swedish nurse, anyway.

So, game on. The following few weeks will be crucial, as they will determine the spirit in which I will work and by which people here will remember me. Other expatriates have already come, worked furiously, and left their footprints as they took off again. The local staff, creating the backbone of the project here, has adapted to the habits and mood of numerous khawadjat (”white people”, this is what the kids shout when they see us, sticking their thumbs in the air) before, and they’re already embracing me, the next one in line. It is a humbling position to be in, with lots of power to influence for good, but also to set a wrong direction or reverse progress previously made.

The nature of humanitarian work, with international staff carrying resources and know-how into needing, but not incapable, populations easily creates a relation characterised by friction, misunderstandings and expectations wrongly put. Effectively, the opposite is true as well. When such obstacles are properly dealt with and overcome, it can be a productive symbiosis. We will only rarely hear of or understand what lasting impression the local staff have of us, and I can only hope that by the end of my stay here, I will have managed to sow some self-confidence and pride into this crew of workers. In the end, the aim of our job here is to make ourselves unnecessary. Inevitably, MSF will eventually leave Serif Umra, and judgement will be passed on our effort. Did we merely impose ill-fitting solutions and standards on a setting we didn’t bother to listen to, let alone understand, or did we build something vital and independent? Time will tell. What goes for the project as a whole also goes for my own limited stay.

Whether I think it’s an optimal solution or not I’m now the supervisor of a diverse band of workers; nurses, drug dispensers, nutritionists, nurse assistants, cleaners, managers and sterilisation staff, some forty people altogether. It requires a great deal of listening before being able to strike a tone together with this foreign orchestra. Priority number one would be to engage with the pharmacy manager and the nurse supervisor, two central players. The key to a successful mission lies in creating a constructive and trustful relationships with these two. Empower them, and much will be won.

I realise I haven’t introduced the team with which I’m working here, a solid bunch of people indeed:

Mauro, our Medical Focal Point/Doctor, a pasta perfectionist.

Camilla, a.k.a. Crazy Camilla, the Midwife and social motor of the team.

Jon, always in his sunglasses, looking chill. Occasionally he acts the Logistician.

Raphael, well, obviously I must be nice speaking of the Field Coordinator, runs the business with gentle guidance, very French.

Add a Swedish nurse, the team dish-washer and rookie.

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