I have now been here in the capital of this very small country snuggled next to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, for more than a week. I have not yet acclimatized to this heat, which is reaching into the 40s Celsius during the days, and the summer has yet to start.
I am working in a project with Medecins Sans Frontieres for malnourished children between the ages of six months and five years old.
MSF is in the process of building a therapeutic feeding centre, which is like an intensive care unit for severely malnourished children.
In the process of waiting for the centre to be built, we are currently in the community health centres training the staff who run ambulatory feeding programs for children that are malnourished.
Ambulatory programs involve clients visiting the centre once a week, being weighed, having the circumference of their middle upper arm (this is a measure of muscle wasting) taken, and being given therapeutic food rations.
The centres are pretty incredible. Most of the people who work there (and the centres are usually just a space outside with a canopy over top, and a scale hanging from a post) are volunteers. They volunteer because they know it is important work that needs to be done, and someone needs to do it.
The work they do in the stifling heat is definitely not easy. It is both amazing and inspiring, especially when you look at where these people are living.
Djibouti has a slum area consisting of almost 200,000 people who are refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
They have come here to escape the violence at home and usually to try and find work (almost impossible) to be able to take a boat over to Yemen to find more work and a better life in Saudi Arabia (but the mortality rate on the boat ride to Yemen is atrocious!).
To get to Djibouti, people need to walk for about five days through the most barren desert, often with temperatures scorching into the 50s, with little, if any, water or food.
It is difficult to imagine how bad a life must be to be willing to face that to escape.
Today I was doing the training for some of the staff who will work in the feeding centre. To break the ice, we asked if anyone had a story. A man stood up and he told this story of his uncle:
His uncle was in Somalia, and approached a roadblock run by one of the many rebel armies.
The soldier asked for money, and the uncle said no.
The soldier asked again, and the uncle, feeling brave, once again said no
The soldier stated that the last driver who had said no was resting under a tree nearby and directed the uncle to go speak with him. The uncle went over to the tree and found a man sitting, with his head on his lap. The man returned to the checkpoint, the soldier asked what the uncle had learned and the uncle stated that the man had told him to pay the money, so he did.
And everyone laughed. It is so commonplace here, that you can laugh and not be horrified. Or, maybe because it is so horrifying, the only way to live is to laugh.
The young man continued with another story:
The same uncle went into a restaurant in Somalia and ate. Once he got the bill he realized that he did not have enough Somali dollars to pay the bill – so he asked how many bullets the meal was, and he proceeded to pay in bullets.
The young man stated that, for rebels, bullets are practically the official currency, and different bullets are worth different quantities.
This is the reality.
On the other side, there is beauty.
You see children playing soccer in the streets at night.
You see mothers who really care about the health of their children.
You have people coming to the centre who say that they were treated by Medecins Sans Frontieres in Ethiopia, or Somalia, or wherever they might be from, and that organization saved their lives.
And hearing that, I know that even if I can make one life better while I am here, it was worth the journey.
Tricia Newport is a nurse who lives in Whitehorse. This is the first of
a series of articles about her
experiences in Africa.