This blog was originally written and posted on the 25th July 2018. I am reposting it here today for the sake of keeping this blog complete.
On my second day in Bukavu my colleague suggested a swim in the lake. This heaving border town curls around the southern tip of Lake Kivu, an expanse of tranquillity that becomes the frontier with Rwanda as it stretches North. The MSF house sits on the shore in a little bubble of calm. In the mornings we listen to the fishermen sing as they work, and in the evening the sun sets beautifully behind the mountains on the opposite shore.
I stood on the MSF pontoon and squinted at the pier my colleague was pointing to. “How far is it?”, I asked. “About 15-20 minutes each way.” I reasoned with myself. I could swim that easily in a pool or in the sea. There was no reason at all why I couldn’t do it. But I had been wracked by self-doubt ever since I got on the plane to the mission. What if I wasn’t qualified enough? What if I couldn’t speak French well enough? What if I wasn’t resilient enough? What if? I dived in.
The water was perfectly cool as we struck out, and I grew used to the sensation of being in open water. My sense of self reliance grew, but so did a feeling of anxiety. The middle of a lake is no place to have a panic attack, so I turned over and floated, staring at the sky. And I realised how much this job will have to be about what I can do, rather than my own self-assessed shortcomings. After a few minutes I set off again, feeling stronger and more confident. So much that seems insurmountable to begin with needs to be reduced to the basics: what is possible, and what is not? This is particularly true in the field of global health. Sometimes it seems like that number, 800, the number of women who die every day from complications of pregnancy and birth, is insurmountable. How can we even begin to address such suffering? Until we look at what we can do: we can train midwives; we can improve the overall health of women; we can prevent unwanted pregnancies. We can raise the status of women until society values every life equally. And we can stop assuming those 800 women are somewhere else, across a border, somebody else’s problem. They are our sisters, if not by blood then by humanity.
One of the reasons that I work for MSF is because of this fundamental shared ethos. What can we do? We can’t stop wars. We can’t prevent natural disasters. We can’t eradicate poverty overnight. But we can reach people in need, we can provide good emergency care, we can improve and save lives. We can put one foot in front of the other and walk towards a common goal. And I believe that, just as I reached the opposite shore of lake Kivu, we will one day reach that goal.
NB The views expressed here are my own and not those of MSF. To find out more about MSF and their work all over the world, please visit msf.org.