Hi, We hope you’re well. Suzanne and I are in western Uganda volunteering in Kayka 2, Africa’s fastest growing refugee settlement. Daily, the Congolese have been arriving from the border, fleeing conflict and Ebola, to be greeted here with peace but with the scare of cholera and little safe water and even scarier latrines.
Suzanne has been working in a small hospital, trying to help with as she said, “malaria, malaria, malaria.” The basecamp for Kayka 2 where this hospital and all United Nations organisations are located is full of hand washing stations filled with chlorinated water in hopes of preventing the spread of Ebola. Luckily there have been only 3 cases in Uganda as compared to almost 3,000 in the Congo. Constant mandatory temperature checks are a daily occurrence for all entering the hospital grounds, refugees, staff and humanitarians.
Suzanne has been in the inpatient pediatric ward mostly, and in the maternity ward, where her cell phone sized ultrasound machine has come in very handy. These classroom size wards are packed, with no privacy, and some patients lying on the ground. On Monday, she told me about a Congolese female patient who might have a sexual transmitted infection. Suzanne asked how many sexual parterres she’s had? The woman answered “none since my husband got his head cut off in the Congo.”
Yesterday, Suzanne saved a baby’s life. The fetus was breach, not coming out head first, and stuck, with only its butt “crowning.” Suzanne went in and got it, a very blue lifeless baby with it’s umbilical cord around its neck. She then used the very little resources she had, and with a nurse friend did 8 minutes of CPR on this little guy, until it finally started breathing. Today, I saw this baby breastfeeding. Suzanne is amazing. The midwifes who witness the resuscitation said “We could have saved so many babies if we knew how to do that. When can you teach us?” Suzanne said tomorrow, and did. Also today, a baby with malaria died right in front of Suzanne. They don’t do CPR on those children and it’s a few times weekly sometimes daily event. To daily deal with such heartbreak and to keep on fighting for other’s health is such an incredible trait. Like I said, Suzanne is amazing.
I’ve been training the Village Health Trainers (VHT) and school teachers so that they can teach the community and their many students. We’ve had classes on disease transmission and how to prevent it, water purification (chlorine, boiling, SODIS, filters), tippy-tap construction (hand washing devices), and how to notice when people are dehydrated and make hydrating SSS’s (sugar and salt solution). The 300 VHT’s, who are refugees themselves, are out in the settlement going door to door, teaching and checking on their fellow Congolese. They’re the first line of defence when it comes to spotting outbreaks such as cholera, which was going around a couple of weeks ago. The 2 schools that I’ve been working at have over 2,000 kids each, ages 6-12, and about 18 teachers. They have latrines, but no toilet paper and no water for washing hands or drinking. They do have a well about a 10 minute walk from school, but after a basic test, it came back positive for bacteria.
The average refugee here lives off of less than 9 liters of water per day! There’s nine zones in this 85 square kilometre camp with over 100,000 refugees. The zone I’ve been working in lives off of 5.7 liters of water per day! FIVE POINT SEVEN LITERS!! That’s after sending the women and young girls on long walks to a bore hole well where they wait for a half our to an hour in line to fill up a 20 liter jerry can, then walk back up hill in the hot sun to their tiny house to use this bacteria filled water. That’s 5.7 liters for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, brushing teeth, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes,… If there’s anybody reading this, you literally flush more than that down the toilet every time you pee. The average European uses about 200 liters of water a day, and North Americans, 350. Crazy.
We’re sleeping a little outside of the refugee settlement in a town called Kyegegwa. Compared to those we’re trying to help, we have nothing to complain about. Minor annoyances such as spotty electricity, no WiFi and at times no water for showering or flushing toilets. 1st world problems in the developing world. At night, every night, there’re a couple of services from the many small churches that keep us up with their loud music. They start around 9:00 pm and go till about 5:30 am, sometimes with a singer that can only be described as a “passionate” James Brown impersonator with asthma jacked up on 7 espressos and backed up by a voodoo band with large tribal drums. If this all night chanting from the 4 choirs or the anti-malaria pills and their side effects of vivid freaky dreams let me get some sleep, then the new born baby that lives below our room in a closet under the stairs starts crying, right along with the morning Muslim call to prayer but before the toucans start their complaining, sometimes keeps us up. On a brighter note, even though we keep our breakfast bananas outside to keep the fruit flies away, the monkeys have left us alone, and our neighbour’s pet turkey is very quiet.
As I remember from 7 years ago, Uganda is beautiful, and the people so very kind. They talk softly and walk slow, my kind of people. They’re only quick to smile. Contrarily, it takes a little longer to get the Congolese to smile, and understandably so. Possibly a family member died, a child sick with malaria, not having a latrine (only half of the 100,000 refugees do), trying to survive in a foreign land with a foreign language, and the little water that they have is contaminated with bacteria. Uganda is doing it’s best to care for the refugees. The world should be grateful and more supportive of host countries like Uganda. But in terms of health, Suzanne and I both think this is the worst refugee situation we’ve seen. I’m certain that there isn’t one single person in North America or Europe that is more disadvantaged and in need of basic rights than these Congolese refugees.
Thank you very much to those of you who have shared this story with others and contributed to our fundraiser for these neglected fellow humans. The Congolese are very happy to receive healthcare, education and life giving water, and to share the thousands of liters of safe water with their neighbours. Now even if the river, well, or rain catchment barrel is contaminated, they can be assured that there’s no bacteria in the water and drink with confidence. As always, I tell them these filters are gifts from our friends.
Thank you, friends.
It’s 2:47 a.m. in central Africa. The cacophony of music in the near distance is loud and hypnotic. It’s a full full moon tonight. No matter where we are or who we are, privileged or refugee, the moon is shining down on all of us equally. There is no them, only us.