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House call to... Chad: The Good Name of MSF

Day 6 in Chad.

It had to happen sooner or later in my experiences in Africa, but the MSF car did not show up to pick me up from the airport, but it was no big problem.

Another friendly NGO worker who knew everyone in MSF was more than happy to lend me her phone. I tried as nonchalantly as possible to dig around in my bag for my list of key phone numbers. Bags of Haribo candy for my team and reports I had read on the plane got in the way of my hands. I was hoping everything would not spill over from my bag onto the dusty dirt nighttime ground. I placed the phone call and our Logistics Coordinator (my former colleague in the Central African Republic) picked up the phone on the other side of Chad and a car came to pick me up in minutes. I gave a bag of candy to the super kind woman, which she seemed to genuinely appreciate. We met a few days later at dinner and she explained the same thing had happened to her in Congo. As my girlfriend says, "the kindness of strangers" once again prevailed. I also thought how great it was to be able to instantly walk into a country where people know who you are and are willing to help. The good name of MSF in Chad.

At the immigration desk at the N'Djamena International Airport (N'Djamena, the capital of Chad), the officer asked me lots of questions. He instantly knew MSF. He asked how long I would be here, after a long line of visitors from all over the world preceded my interaction with him, speaking to him in their terrible or absent French. I apologetically said "seulement quatre mois" (only 4 months). He grunted, smiled with approval and wished me the best of luck. I felt I also had his blessings. It was an auspicious start.

In the airports on the way here, I was a little worried as I was carrying a portable ultrasound. I've brought portable ultrasounds to Africa twice before -- always it's gone OK, but you never know. It was no problem in Toronto after I gave them the security screening staff the heads-up. The security agent in Paris who checked my bags and the French immigration officials all seemed to have their eyes light up when I said I was working for MSF and the ultrasound was for medical care in the field. In N'Djamena, the customs staff pulled me aside when the X-ray scanning machine noticed the ultrasound. I explained I worked for MSF and motioned the shape of a pregnant woman's abdomen and how the ultrasound would check the situation of babies inside mammas. To my delight, and with some bravado and a sweeping of the hand by the customs officials, they shooed me to the exit with all my bags intact, and said, "He works for MSF, let him go." I felt like I had some instant special status and respect. This of course, was not at all because of me per se. Generations of MSF'ers have struggled alongside the Chadians for the past 31 years we have been here. I silently thanked my predecessors. Their hard work and dedication has built the good name of MSF.

The past few days have been filled with briefings, briefings and more briefings. I have mostly sat with my medical coordinator, a Spanish nurse with many years of field experience, in her office. We sat together facing her computer and took breaks for black coffee and water. At other times I read reports, met the other key coordination staff in the capital and adjusted to the heat and dust.

I am here as a medical team leader. It's a transition for me from being a medical doctor (my position on my last three MSF missions). My job this time will be to coordinate the medical team and manage the medical program, in our big and bustling project in Am Timan.
Where is Am Timan, you ask?

  • Chad -- the country. Bordered by Sudan to the east and Cameroon to the west. Libya is to the north and Central African Republic is to the south
  • Salamat region -- Located in the far east of the country, bordering Sudan to the east and Central African Republic to the south.
  • Barh Azoum -- one of three districts in the Salamat region. This is the region where MSF works. We've chosen to work here for several reasons: high malnutrition, great medical needs for women and children and a good partnership with the local authorities.
  • Am Timan -- a town of about 60,000-80,000 people depending on the time of year and who you ask. This is where MSF is based. This is where our project team lives and bases our work out of.

The good name of MSF has been built here over years and the basis of that has been our quality medical care, proximity to the population in need, and ability to help when crisis strikes. I hope my time here, and our ongoing operations, will build upon this solid foundation.

Farewell for now from the house-call... to Chad.

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