Showing posts from 2007

Christmas in Paris

Christmas Eve this year was certainly a little different to the usual, being spent at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It was a wonderful evening, cold, but clear and still. Being at one of the most famous churches in the world seemed like an excellent way to see in Christmas Day. The exterior was well lit with beautiful lighting, and the interior was filled with fantastic choir singing and all the pomp and ceremony of a catholic service.

I was surprised by Elodie’s very negative reaction to her first ever church sermon which, being in French, I didn’t get a word of. Apparently plenty of sin and damnation, with a sprinkling of hell fire and repentance. Certainly no majority of time spent on love for one another, personal self sacrifice, or even world peace. Pity really.

Bob the Builder

Sawing up bits of wood and banging in nails has always been part of the male physic, and so when offered the chance to try my hand at building a shed for some friends I jumped at the opportunity. Rosie and Steve have recently moved down to Te Anau and purchased a piece of land at Patience Bay. It is a great spot with spectacular views of the lake, the Murchison and Kepler mountains and of course the snow covered Darrens. Along with cutting of weeds, planting of natives, and clearing of waterways, building a shed on the section was on the to do list. The actual design was a moving target, with about the only fixed requirement being 10 square meters to avoid a building consent.

I enjoyed surfing the web, making various sketches on the backs of envelopes, and visiting a nearby building site to sort out how to put it all together. With no power on site we only had a hand saw and hammer, along with a tape measure and level to keep us going in the right direction.

Ash turned up for a few days…

Tour de Homeland

Elodie, my french friend from Paris came to check out New Zealand for three weeks, and so a whirlwind tour of the country was in order. We did pretty well I think getting in some great sights and scenery from both the north and south islands.

The highlights included visiting Auckland Museum for some background, then Mt Ruapehu for some snow, checking out the geothermal fields of Rotorua, swimming at the beach and cycling the port hills of Christchurch, staying the night at Aspiring Hut in the Matukituki Valley, nordic skiing at the snow farm, getting extremely wind blown on the three day Kepler Track, and seeing the Darrens and Milford Sound in spectacular sunshine.

I think then that we did pretty well for the short amount of time available, and the cheap hire car certainly made a huge difference in how much we could squeeze in. It was a great learning experience for me seeing NZ more from the eyes of a tourist, dropping into information centers and figuring out how much some of the att…

Back in New Zealand

I dropped back home in the middle of September to visit friends and family. I started in Auckland with some time with my sisters Judith and Kay, and my parents Laurie and Barbara (actually dad got back from Chile a little later in the story).

London Calling

I briefly passed through London to pick up my flight back down under and was lucky to catch up with a number of friends from school and work who are based over here.

As an added bonus Nelson Mandela was in town to attend the unveiling and dedication of a stature in parliament square alongside Churchill and Roosevelt. It was a great little event with the mayor Ken Livingston and Prime Minister Gordon Brown also along for the photo opportunity. Mandela was strong in voice but very frail in body, so I was glad to have got my chance to lay eyes on a legend.

Castles and Chateaux

France is a wonderfully beautiful country with many different landscapes and a seemingly endless supply of picturesque tilled villages and grand chateaux and castles. I was very lucky to visit so many different fantastic places in a short time.

Some of my favorites included the grand bulk of Chambord with its double helix central staircase, the burial site of Leonardo De Vinci, and the ruins lit by the evening light of one of King Richard’s castles, my childhood hero, and of course the legendary San Michael perched on its rocky outcrop surrounded by the sea on all sides.

Circuit of the Continent

With a bike at my side I managed to get in some of the sights and sounds of a few of the big cities of Euorpe. First up was Munich which was surprisingly enjoyable with a wonderful pedestrian centre, and plenty of museums and things to see and do. I wished I’d allowed more time for exploring the mountains and valleys of the Barvian Alps though, which looked like an excellent playground.

It was then onto Prague with its fascinating post soviet history as well as castles, palaces, towers and of course the wonderful medieval Charles Bridge. It did however also have cobble stones on the streets, which look wonderful and lend great character to a city, but are hell to try and ride a bike on!

Finally Berlin showed just how much has changed since the famous dividing wall came down. I really expected more to remain of such an amazing and historic structure, and I guess I also expected more surviving grand WWII era architecture, but alas, in both cases the symbols of evil and repression were des…

Battlefields and Flatlands

Normandy and the famous 1944 invasions of beaches of Utah, Omaha, gold, Juno and Sword were up on my list of locations to see in Europe one day. I therefore bought myself a second hand bike, caught the train out of Paris for a little near starting point and then started exploring. It was great to see some of 'Atlantic wall' and many memorials and cemeteries, though on the whole I was slightly surprised at how little remains today of the largest invasion operations in history. The weather was the only thing that did not cooperate with my outdoor tour and I became very disappointed at the northern hemisphere 'summer'.
With the success of this first trip under my belt I jumped on a bus north to the flat lands of the Netherlands for a look at the coast, some remnant forest area and of course the capital Amsterdam. It was very amusing to turn up and be somewhat surprised to learn that cannabis is in fact still illegal, they simply have a bland eye policy which has some very…

Third World to the First World

With the finish of my extra bonus mission in Darfur it was time to return to the MSF headquarters in Paris for debriefings and other finishing up items. I landed back in time to catch the last day of the famous Paris Air Show, which provided me with the maximum culture shock - the undeveloped open desert of Sudan with its mud huts contrasting with the huge new airliners, private jets and shiny military jet fighters.

Even looking back on my experiences at this stage I can see that I have learnt more than I expected about the complexities of trying to help other countries deal with extreme poverty. While it is easy to see that the efforts of the last months have made a big difference to the people we helped directly, it is more difficult to pin down whether this effort was a wonderful small part of a worthwhile larger goal, or simply a small band aid on a hopeless situation.

I have yet to decide for sure whether to do another mission or not, or whether perhaps to try out another organisat…

Closing Days

Closing a mission is always said to be difficult. I was lulled into a false sense of security though with great friendly staff and beautiful surroundings, and so when the last week of the mission turned a bit pear shaped it really was an interesting life experience for me.

There were three things that in hindsight I wish could have gone better. The first resolved itself with the arrival from El Genina of Chloe to help with the HR side. Basically I misjudged the time it would require to count out 45 million diners for the 115 staff to be paid in the last days, and so Chloe was a huge help counting notes till the late into the night.

The second was more of a bolt out of the blue with four of my staff arrested by the police for stealing. Upon further investigation of the material concerned it appears to full into three categories, items that I had indeed ‘donated’ including mainly wood and plastic rubbish, items that I clearly had not given permission, and then items I had never seen befor…

Jebel Climbing

The town of Mornei where I am now living is overlooked by a wonderful little mountain, or 'jebel' as they are known here. We climbed it on Friday (our day off here being a Muslim region) but did not get great views as it was quite cloudy. I'll have to try again next week. The jebel sits to the south of the town and rises abruptly from the otherwise flat sandy landscape. To the north and west are scrubby wastelands, and on the eastern side is the dry river bed or 'wadi'. In the village kids run and play and the place looks like a large healthy village.

Of course looks can be deceiving, and this village is in fact a camp which grew from 5000 residents to 75,000 refugees (or internally displaced peoples (IDP's) as they are now known) during the major Darfur violence of 2003 and 2004. Most people therefore have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, often loosing many members of their family in the process. Armed men still wander the streets, and rapes and looti…

Hello Mornay

I flew from Bentiu to Khartoum and spent a good few days relaxing at the office, the hotel and the guesthouse, catching on up email and making a few calls home to close friends and family. I discovered a whole other side of the city with a large new shopping mall allowing fast, easy and slightly boring shopping for supplies, and a ten pin bowling alley complete with overpriced drinks.

Although finished in south Sudan I've been asked to go to a place in the far west of Sudan called Mornay to help with the closure of a mission there for the next month of so. I'm quite excited at the prospect of being able to see some more of the country and help with another whole aspect of MSF operations.

First stop for me was the capital of El Genina and a stay with the small Darfur coordination team based here. As we landed on the dirt airstrip, with various crashed aircraft left discarded along the sides of the runway, I noticed the same menacing green attack helicopters parked on the tarmac a…

Goodbye Bentiu

I waved goodbye to Bentiu from the plane, having handed over my role to the new Logistics Administrator to a Frenchman named Jacques. After five and a half months my leaving was a subdued affair, as by a quirk of timing most of the team has been changed at the same time. With the MSF friends I had worked with so much during my time at the clinic already gone, it was good at least to have still some of the 'good old crew' from ACF for a few combined farewell and birthday drinks. They will almost all be replaced with
new volunteers in the next weeks as well.

I look back with fond memories of my time and I certainly learnt a lot about Africa, about MSF, about staff management, about getting along with people from completely different backgrounds and experiences to my own. The good times I had with the expats at the compound… Elodie, Marie No, Musa… really made up for the hardships of dealing with the problems of the

The MSF program at Bentiu requires revision, and this will m…

Do I love it or hate it?

The months have rolled by, I know most of the staff here pretty well, I enjoy the company of the other expats, and landing back here from Juba did feel a little like coming home. Sometimes it feels like yesterday that I arrived, and other times it feels like I have always lived here and the rest of my life is a dream.

The good aspects are certainly pretty clear, living and working in the middle of Africa, with different sight and smells each day, the smiling locals and the fun happy kids. Hanging out with the other excellent people from both MSF and ACF. Helping to run a clinic that is helping a local population that have had years of war and disruption.

The bad aspects are also pretty clear… living and working in the middle of Africa really. The dirt, and the rubbish, and the heat, and the flat landscape in every direction. The sometimes extremely hostile and unfriendly relations with staff, or the problems of motivation and direction with people with little initiative. Wondering if th…

Juba Meningitis

I was only back in Bentiu for a couple of weeks when out of the blue I was asked to get back on the plane to a job in the capital of south Sudan, the sleepy little town of Juba. I was told that I would act as a logistics person for the emergency vaccination campaign taking place in town. I arrived last of the team though though and so drew the short straw of being more of the administration person, trying to keep track of the 12 sites, 400 local staff and 7,000,000 diners in cash. Kind of like herding cats really.

It was extremely interesting to see a mass vaccination campaign in action with long lines of people, screaming children, and the piles of materials stockpiled in the days beforehand quickly diminish. Our target population was 150,000 but the turnout in the last days dropped off a lot and I think we ‘only’ did a bit over 100,000.

Also in Juba right now is a cholera outbreak which MSF Spain are looking after with a treatment centre just down the road from the MSF France office h…

Impostor in Paradise

Saving the world is meant to be hard work, and like the saying goes 'Work hard, play hard'. Somehow then an impostor like me in the humanitarian aid field in dusty hot Sudan ended up with over a week on the beach in the paradise of Zanzibar. The contrast between the two places was certainly quite something.

I spent a lot of time in the clear warm turquoise waters of the Indian ocean with several dives and lots of snorkeling. Elodie (expat doctor from Bentiu also on holiday) and I were able to experience the thrill together of cruising alongside a large turtle in about 12m of water which was amazing. It was wonderful to be able to spend so many hours swimming, relaxing and simply floating the day away.

People really make or break any part of life and so I count myself extremely lucky to have met so many great people in such a short time. The four Norwegian teachers also on break from work in Africa were wonderful friends for the first week, and then Trinity, Jim and Roger were gr…


At the three month point of a mission with MSF one gets a weeks leave to the nearest 'relaxing' country which translated to the Sudan situation seems to mean 'Zanzibar' to most volunteers. So here I am, in the warm and humid weather of the famous spice islands, surrounded by amazing clear turquoise water, and about to head out of the quaint little stone town and heard north to the beaches.

I look forward to getting in some diving, though it has been a while since I did any so I hope I remember how it all goes, and hope to meet up with Elodie, the doctor from Bentiu and her boyfriend if I can for some company. If not then there should be a few other people I hope around - if not then more time in the water I suppose.

Vultures Online

Looks like vultures are being featured by some little mag in the states...

I helped a little in March last year and it was a great laugh to have Susan the reporter around while my UK friend Richard and I were catching vulture chicks.

(PS Another update from April 2008:

Acronyms Dictionary

The humanitarian world is full of acronyms. At first they are bewildering, but soon they just become part of the everyday language here and you forget you are speaking another whole language…
MSFF – Medians san Frontiers France, doctors without boarders french section, the organisation I am working for currently. Fiercely independent, providing emergency medicine, usually in difficult conditions.
MSFH – MSF Holland, and I guess there is a MSFB around as Belgium have a mission here as well in Sudan.
NGO’s – non governmental organizations… random bunches of tree hugging lefty do gooders who are not affiliated directly with national governments or the UN.
ACF – Action Contra Famine, action against hunger, another French outfit which concentrates on food distribution, water and sanitation (see watsan). Friendly fun group in Bentiu, come complete with alcohol, but don’t swap F100 (see below) with them.
Watsan – water and sanitation, a general term for an area taken for granted in the developed …

Kids playing with matches

Another fire broke out in the Rubkona market that leveled one area of shacks and shops. The watchmen here at the compound alerted me again and I took a series of photos as the wall of flame marched from the tire shops on the right with thick bellowing smoke, to the left, with gain stores catching fire and some fuel drum explosions.

The fire was quite a way from us here and it was ironic to have people in the street carry on their normal business… women and girls gracefully carrying building materials on their heads, young boys riding the donkeys which carry water from the river (swamp) to the town to sell.

A wide road area where the buses leave from seems to have formed a firebreak and stopped the fire from continuing its destructive march. In the evening the area affected was still smoldering, but by the morning shops areas had been recleared and reconstruction of the simple wooden shacks already underway again.

The fire is rumored to have been started by kids playing with matches - cle…

Christmas 2006 and New Year 2007

Christmas in little Bentiu turned out to be a relatively quiet affair. We, the expats of MSF and ACF that had not somehow weaseled some leave or holiday to a more favorable location, gathered at the MSF compound on Christmas eve for a wonderful dinner cooked by the field coordinator Marieno. At midnight we proceeded to the stadium area in the main town but the open air church service was cold and boring, not the wonderful african drumming that we had been hoping for.

Christmas day started for me with the arrival of the water tanker from Heglig at 9am as per usual but with Gordon, the local Nuer staff member who normally takes care of this watsan exercise being off on holiday. I laughed away to myself as I sleepily found the workshop key and figured out the water pump and assorted tanks and piping.

The rest of the day was spent mostly across at the clinic, with a midday meal put on for both staff and patients, consisting of two unlucky sheep who spent their last night tethered beside the…