I chose MSF because it was the only NGO I knew of in Montreal that would send volunteers overseas to do medical work. My first mission was a nutrition project in Burundi in January 2000, which I immensely enjoyed. Working at a therapeutic feeding centre (TFC) with young children who are fighting for their lives is incredibly inspiring. I was really encouraged by this work since results appeared quickly, from two weeks to a month, where children would gain weight and look healthy again. But of course life isn’t perfect and some children died. I admired the courage of the mothers (and less often, the fathers) who came with their children and stayed with them 24 hours a day throughout their entire stay at the centre.
I also experienced the war on a daily basis during this initial mission. Almost every night, I woke up to the sound of Kalashnikovs shooting, at times far in the hills, but other times quite close by. I was horrified to see people around us dying and innocent civilians being killed.
The most difficult part of this experience was our evacuation. In fact, one night, confrontations happened right by our two houses. The one I lived in with a surgeon and a nurse anaesthetist was not hit. But the other house and our vehicles were riddled with bullet holes. Fortunately, the two volunteers living in the second house were away in the capital for the weekend. We received the order from our head of mission to evacuate the site. Even though we knew we had to go, it was very hard to leave our colleagues and patients behind because they felt abandoned, and rightly so. I will never forget their faces.
In August 2000 I returned to Burundi. The town Ijenda was calmer this time, despite the on-going civil war in the country. On this mission, I was in charge, along with the sector commander, of vaccination and hygiene in the health centres. I stayed a year and a half. In September 2002, I went on a short one-month mission for a meningitis vaccination campaign. In October 2003, I took part in a mission to set up a new malaria protocol, again in Burundi. My last mission was in November 2004, as a referring nurse on a project, which will close at the end of 2005.
In all of these missions our teams were provided with drugs, basic equipment and material, such as stethoscopes, blood-pressure equipment, material for dressing, etc. Sometimes we had microscopes on site but rarely did we work with sophisticated equipment. The most important thing was the training that we gave. Indeed, this is often all that remains after we leave or close down a mission. Despite the difficult times, there were also many moments of joy. When I arrived in the mornings at the therapeutic feeding centre, little Vincent, who was only three years old (and who spent a month and a half at the TFC) would run up to me straight into my arms. One day, when I held him in my arms, he tried to lift my t-shirt to be breastfed. I realized then how important I had become to him!
To work in another country, and especially in another culture, you need an open mind and a lot of respect. You realize that you don’t know everything, including the truth. It is very important to take the time to look at the people we help, to watch them live and work and to listen to them instead of trying to change them. We are there to work with these people and not to make decisions for them. We have so much to learn from these populations – we who live in a consumer world and want everything immediately. We must always remember that we are in their country and that they do things differently; we cannot expect them to work exactly as we do and according to our own criteria. This takes a lot of humility and respect.
The populations we assist have little or no material possessions and yet they teach us so much. I am always fascinated to see how easily they smile and celebrate life in spite of their difficult living conditions. These experiences taught me to appreciate the little things in life, to value my family and my friends and to be content with what I have – which is already so much.