Occasionally people and places of great importance pop into your mind. Earlier today I was talking about my first mission with Doctors Without Borders in north Uganda in 2005.
Prior to this mission I had spent 6 years in the RAF and 10 in the NHS and thought in my naivety that I had ‘seen it all’. Nothing I had done previously prepared me for the moment I walked into the medical centre at IDP camp Aloi.
The IDP (internally displaced persons) camps were set up by the Ugandan government to theoretically provide for security and centralised support for communities affected by conflict between the government and the Lords Resistance Army. The medical services in the area had long since been overwhelmed and Médecins Sans Frontières had become involved to provide quality care for the displaced people.
Aloi was a camp of around 50,000 people. There were 5 others in the area mostly smaller but still >20,000 each if I recall correctly.
I arrived in Lira – the base town in June ‘05 fresh from my PPD (Preparation for Primary Departure) course in the Netherlands. Everything was new and uncertain and a little bit scary. I met a seasoned and knowledgable team in Lira who would quickly become my respected friends but at this stage were unknown quantities.
I connected quickly with Steve Reid the nurse who covered the 3 camps I would be working in. Steve was at the end of his mission and I was lucky enough to get a handover period of a couple of weeks – it’s not unusual for this to be 5 mins on a compacted soil runway like some budget version of Casablanca – here are the keys – you will wonder what I have been doing for 6 months “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life”!
Steve was remarkable, he patiently explained the systems and the stories of the people. He warned me about some including a magnificently morose guy with the most ironic name ever – Jolly Joe!
When I first walked into clinic in Aloi I was met by an image that is forever burned into my mind. People everywhere, the benches were full, the floor was full. Mothers and babies everywhere. Vomiting children, feverish adults and hard working staff. It functioned well , but it took me a while to understand how. Through this period I had nothing but support and encouragement from Steve, I recall my self doubt as too wether I could do this job and I recall just as clearly Steves reassurance that it would make sense in time and to just be patient. It did make sense after a while, it turned out in the end that I needed Steve to leave the mission for me to really move on and find my way without him propping me up. I remain forever indebted to him for the kindness and support he showed me and for the guidance in those first overwhelming weeks in East Africa.
There are many stories from this mission that are worth telling and I will be incorporating some of them into a manuscript that is very slowly taking shape.