"What do you call this?" I ask Charles, our driver, in broken French, showing him the dirt-streaked tissue I have just wiped across my face.
"Poussiere" (dust), he answers, barely glancing away from the road.
July 9, 1995. I lean back into the back seat of the Land Cruiser and cough. I have been in Bukavu, Zaire, exactly two days, and my throat already feels lacerated by the dust. It is the dry season in eastern Zaire and when the occasional truck passes, the dust is so thick that visibility drops to zero. It is as if we are driving in that road, not on it. The dust contrasts sharply to the rich green hills we are driving through. Not long before, the area was carved out of the jungle, and it still lurks conspicuously around its edges.
Along with our Zairian driver, I am traveling with three members of the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia medical team. At 8:30 a.m., we are on our way to the AMDA dispensary at Kalehe refugee camp, the tent hospital for 8,000 Rwandan refugees who are the residents of Kalehe. This is my first full day in the camp and I am bewildered. Before I left Montana, someone told me to "prepare to be shocked." As we drive into the camp, I see naked and semi-naked children standing in front of small mud and twig huts covered with white plastic sheets, waving wildly, yelling "Muzungu! Muzungu!" (white people). Prepare? I think.
Six months ago, I interviewed for the AMDA internship in the International Programs office in UM's Main Hall. Africa, international relief work...I was all but on my knees begging to go. Peter Koehn, the program director, was stern. This will be reality, he said, not a National Geographic special. You will face alien situations, possibly alone. You will see poverty far beyond anything in the United States. Are you sure you want to pursue this?" he asked. I was certain. The International Programs office approved my application, and on May 28 I left for Nairobi from Seattle.
The five weeks I spent in Kenya before coming to Zaire had somewhat prepared me for the realities of the refugee camps. I worked in AMDA's regional office in Nairobi, doing cost estimates for renovating a health center in southern Kenya. During several visits to the facility, I saw members of the Maasai tribes, dressed in red with dyed red scalps and dangling, stretched-out earlobes. Yes, this was a really different part of the world.
After a brief general tour around the Kalehe camp, I follow the resident doctor, Dr. Aacharya, on his rounds. In a clinic with wards separated only by curtains, he treats patient after patient with malaria. Although he treats ailments ranging from AIDS to malnutrition, malaria is by far the most prevalent illness in the camp. Dr. Aacharya tells me people in the camp get malaria an average of four times a year. The patients lie on plain wooden beds without mattresses while the team struggles to treat them. I see women with newborns who cannot find a clean cloth to wrap their babies in. No soap has been delivered to the camp for six months.
As we leave the camp that afternoon, we see the biweekly food distribution, handled by CARE International, drawing to a close. Dr. Aacharya asks Charles to stop so I can see the ration for each person: half a cup of oil, a few tablespoons of salt, a bit of sugar and a few pounds of soy flour. This is the 1,000 calorie a day diet for each adult, Dr. Aacharya tells me--a starvation diet in America. As we drive away, children in ragged or no clothes once again wave wildly, groups of men move to the side of the road and women take time from pounding cassava to look up and smile.
M Kerri Faughnan is a senior majoring in chemistry.
back to the table of contents