Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories by Tricia Newport. The was written while the author was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the first time it has been published.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
It is two days before Christmas and I have just returned to the remote Congolese village of DingiIa after a five-day vaccination campaign.
Over the last eight months, many people from northern Congolese villages have been displaced due to rebel army attacks. The result is that there is a higher density of people now living in a small area, without access to fields or food – and this is an ideal equation for a measles outbreak. MSF decided to take the preventative step of trying to vaccinate every person between the ages of six months and 15 years of age within the health district. It may seem an easy task – but when the health district in more than 100 kilometres in radius, and the road infrastructure has been completely decimated by years of civil war, the task suddenly becomes daunting.
During the last five days we took many dirt bikes, loaded down with local nurses, huge coolers filled with ice packs and vaccines, and all of the supplies one needs for a vaccination campaign, out onto the small paths of the jungle in an effort to vaccinate the local population, as well as displaced people, against measles.
It was without doubt rustic living and extremely humbling.
Many years of living in my wall tent in the Yukon have better prepared me for this job than my time in nursing school – and
through it all the luxuries of wall tent life become more and more clear.
The journey was slightly epic, amazingly beautiful, and as always I met fascinating people with incredible stories.
The road was just barely passable by dirt bike, and we often had to get off to push the bikes over, under or through various obstacles. Along the way we encountered people who were bicycling great distances, sometimes more than 500 kilometres, in order to get to where they had to go.
There was the medical student who had just finished his placement at a health centre, and he now had to get back to his school to continue his studies – he was loaded down with burlap and canvas bags, and he said that the 500-kilometre journey would take him about 10 days.
There was the man on a rickety bike, with his three-year-old son strapped to the back.
The man stated he did not have any money, and so he preferred to bike 80 kilometres to the hospital where MSF provides free pediatric care than to go to the local health centre where he would have to pay for the consultation and the medication.
Then there were the people that had been displaced from their villages due to LRA attacks, but are now returning the hundreds of kilometres to their villages, by foot, because they would like to be home for the holidays.
Last Christmas, in what is now known as the Christmas massacres, several groups of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) viciously attacked villages, killing and mutilating hundreds, while also kidnapping children to become soldiers or sex slaves.
Although the LRA attacks have slightly diminished in the past few months, certain villages have recently received letters stating that “the LRA will be ‘celebrating’ the Christmas season with the village.”
The LRA has also publicly advertised that they will be repeating the Christmas massacres this year – but many people are still returning to their villages because they are tired of being displaced, and tired of living in fear. So the Christmas season here is more filled with a sense of anxiety about the potential impending doom, than with a sense of joy.
Without doubt, Christmas morning will see the churches filled with dancing and music – but the prayers will most likely be something different than the prayers of those happening in churches in other parts of the world.
The village I am in is quite safe, as it is protected to the North (which is where the LRA would have to come from) by a very large river filled with hippos and crocodiles. We have strict rules about staying close to the base over Christmas, but during the days afterwards – if no urgencies arise – we will head back out for some more days of vaccination.
For right now, we will join with the local people in praying and hoping that no further atrocities come with the holiday season.
Tricia Newport is a nurse
who lives in Whitehorse.