7. Pit Latrines and Politics

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I’ve never been in a country while a coup d’etat is happening. This afternoon, while at the staff compound, our team hushes while listening carefully to BBC Africa. Every now and again there’s a brief gap in the Africa-cup soccer tournament, and they talk about Chad’s predicament. These moments have a palpable sense of immediacy, and I find myself more than a bit nervous, albeit despite the facts on the ground, it still feels somewhat abstract. There are no signs of imminent danger for us, as Farchana is a dusty town far from the big cities, but we’re on the main road, and who knows what the next few days will bring.

But the mood in the camp this morning was not set by this event. Which is, in itself, kind of remarkable. Children still play everywhere, water is collected, and the line-up at the Health Centre is long. Looking around the camp, one does not have any sense of political stuff going down. My first meeting this morning was with the team of Community Health Workers (CHWs). My role here is to supervise mental health as well as community health. Which I’m very happy about, as the two go hand-in-hand, but I’ll write more on this later.

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The camp is split up into about 27 “blocks,” and twenty Sudanese refugees, hired and paid by MSF, are responsible for their designated areas, comprising between 600 and 2000 persons. Really, who better to ask to understand life on the ground? the only reason that “grass-roots” is a metaphor is because it’s the dry season.

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We sit on mats on the floor, shoes off, and I asked people to sit in a circle rather than in rows facing front. It is odd at first, because the women were sitting on one side and now we’re all side-by-side, but it flies well enough. Some men insist that they will not sit near the women.  After introductions (translated from French to Masalit), I ask what the main concerns are for them, their families, and their block inhabitants. This is what was discussed (in the order raised, in case you’re wondering):

1) Some of the pit latrines are full in a number of the blocks, and in block K, they’re all full; they have to walk to another block.  SECADEV (a Christian aid and development outfit) handles this, and they’re behind in digging new pits. It is a massive health problem, really. Pit latrines may have done more to decrease morbidity and mortality than anything else… more than vaccinations, more than economic reform, more than food distribution improvements. Simple hygiene goes a long, long way.  The lack of pit latrines, such an easy and cost-efficient means of decreasing morbidity (sickness and suffering) is incredibly frustrating to me.

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2) “We need another Mobile Zero.” The pick-up trucks are numbered “mobile 1” to “mobile 50”.  There are not fifty trucks, but the numbers just happened this way for no fathomable reason.  Someone decided to call the donkey-drawn carts (that transport the non-ambulatory patients to and from the Health Center) “mobile zero.” Initially, it’s kind of amusing in an eighteenth-century way, but I quickly realize how crucial these carts are. I’m told that if a patient waits too long for the cart, they may miss the day-time clinic hours and will have to wait for the emergency clinic. This latter clinic, which MSF runs 24 hours, is farther from the camp, and, if need be, the MSF trucks are used for transport. Either way, people want another cart, and they want it to run on Sundays, too.

3) For several reasons, people in the camp are not taking prescribed medications once diagnosed with malaria, and they are dying because of it (though statistics from our health centre don’t show this). They say that people don’t take meds because of side-effects, which they know are clearly better than death, but are not initially viewed as troublesome as a trip to the “marabou,” a traditional healer. Competing explanatory models of illness sometimes conflict, and I heard the story of one marabou announcing that people die even if they take the anti-malarials, so what is the use? I do not know if this view is prevalent, but the conversation this morning indicated that it wasn’t uncommon. My initial impression is that people take the medications, experience side effects, and stop them, deciding to see a marabou instead. I’ve got no truck with the marabous (in fact, I’m looking forward to organizing a meeting with some of them), but there is a big problem with taking drugs sporadically. It goes like this: antibiotics kill off malaria parasites, which are all a bit different. The most susceptible get knocked-off first, and the most resistant take a full course of the meds to be wiped out. But if you stop the course early, you eradicate all but the hardiest strains, and then those multiply and spread. It’s bad for the individual, and bad for the population. The CHWs want another education campaign around malaria, it’s symptoms and treatment.

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4) Violence. Every day, about 50-100 women leave the camp, most often in groups, to search for wood and animal feed. It takes about three hours for the return trip, and it’s relatively common for women to be intercepted by groups of bandits (usually men with guns), and have their things stolen or worse. Emotional, physical, and sexual violence are experienced by many (about 10%, by my general polling of the CHW’s), with rape and other forms of brutality affecting 2-3%. Having men with the women leave the camp together makes it safer, but collecting wood and feed “is women’s work,” and men will generally not do it. I’m not sure if I went red in the face, but I felt an impulse of rage when I heard this. Could it be the case that men would rather their wives and daughters were beaten and raped rather than suffer the indignation of taking a morning walk together to collect necessities?!?” On further inquiry, I was told that men suffer beatings (their teeth are broken, for example) if they stand up to groups of bandits. This morning’s story was of a local Chadian woman who stole a large bundle of straw from a Sudanese woman walking back to the camp, insulting her all the while. Later in the week, the Chadian woman was seen wandering through the refugee market-place (that operates on Mondays and Thursdays). The local police were called and some sort of questioning was undertaken, but with no evidence, her denials were enough. No good solutions to the problems of violence were discussed. As I listened, I recognized that most were quite pleased that the numbers of those affected were “so low.” It is of course outrageous that multiple beatings and rapes a day is considered an improvement. The next person waits to speak…

5) In the last two distributions (by SECADEV) there has been no soap. Basic hygiene, the backbone of medical health, is not being attended to, and people are rightly upset. I have been in Abéché and N’Djamena recently, and there was LOTS of soap in the markets… and nobody spoke of supply chain problems. This will have to be looked into.

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So, this is what was discussed over an hour and a half. Basic needs: safety, hygiene, medical care.

For the past few days I have tried to just take things in, asking as many questions as I can. There’s a lot going on. My plan is to try and get a fix on who does what and what they say about it. It is going to take a while, and it is for this reason that I’ve stalled on writing about mental health, which I will do soon. On first pass, so far, the concerns are very pragmatic.

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