Aid Working In Sudan

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Features - Interviews

anna kent aid workerLiving in a country rife with poverty, violence and disease is no holiday, but for Anna Kent, a humanitarian worker from Nottingham, it felt like home. She meets Amita Mistry for a coffee and a chat about her experiences in South Sudan with Medecins San Frontières

How did you get involved in aid work?

I'm a nurse, although at the moment I'm retraining as a mid-wife. One of the reasons I went into nursing was to do humanitarian relief work. I did a year in emergency medicine and I've worked for five years in A&E, which gave me the knowledge I needed to provide trauma related care. Back in 2005 my friend was working as a teacher for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and was living in a very rural village in Zambia for two years. I went to stay with him for a while, then went back to work in A&E in England and studied a tropical medicine course in London. I heard about aid organisations at a careers fair, and that's how I found Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF). I had wanted to do aid work before, but I wanted to find a good organisation that represented me. MSF is one of a few non-government organisations that is prepared to treat the most deprived people in the most dangerous of environments in over 70 countries of the world and so I knew it was an organisation I wanted to work for. 

How long did the interview process take?

For me it took around five months; the only delays I had were because I'm not bilingual. I can speak some languages, but just a small amount, so it took a while to find a project suitable for me. I was waiting for a project in Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan because they're English-speaking.

What was it like working with MSF?

MSF ask for a lot - if you go as a medical person, you have to have at least two years of A&E experience, a qualification in tropical medicine and work experience in a developing country. That's before they'll even give you an interview, so it's a really gruelling process.

You have an interview at the offices in London and then you get sent on an intensive week somewhere in the world. My training project was based in Germany and there was a group of about 50 potential MSF workers from all nationalities. It's part orienteering and part group work and group dynamics.

There were nurses, doctors and logisticians who all performed tasks that we had to follow. They ran an orienteering exercise in the middle of the woods and in the early hours of the morning we were called from our beds to go on a mission in small groups. At about two or three in the morning we got kidnapped by bandits who carried pretend AK47s. We didn't know that was going to happen, it was part of the training programme but it was also to see how you would react in extreme circumstances.  

How did you react?anna kent aid worker3

A few swear words flew out! It was petrifying, but we did have a lot of training if you were kidnapped. The exercise was to see whether we could put into practice all the stuff we've been learning on the course. If you can't cope with the pressure and that environment, then it's pointless, no matter how much you want to work with MSF.   

Did you have a say in which country you were assigned to?

There are always jobs available - MSF works nearly 80 countries. The job in south Sudan was the first one offered to me and it met the criteria that I was looking for. I think they were finding it hard to fill the post because it was such basic living - living in tents, no water, no electricity, washing up in a bucket of murky water with a cup. It just happens to be the lifestyle that I quite like. To me it was a bonus! We didn't create any waste and we never threw food away because there wasn't enough food for people. We didn't use lots of plastic bottles because we'd get the water from a well. Although there were horrendous things going on and environmental dangers of snakes and scorpions, the actual logistics of day-to-day living make absolute sense. It was a really positive experience.  

How long did you do it for?

Initially the project was for eight months but I extended it to over ten months. I got back in February this year (2008). 

Describe your Christmas day there...

My mum had sent me some presents and had them flown over to me. But it was at the time of the political upheaval so the presents got to Kenya but because there was no movement on the roads in Kenya, we didn't get any Christmas presents. MSF sealed a cool box and on Christmas morning we opened it and found some cheese and we hadn't had cheese in about four months so I thought it was great! We ran the hospital as normal. There was a heavy malaria outbreak at the time and we were seeing about 200 kids a day who needed malaria treatment, so we were really busy. We took some toffees as a little Christmas gift for the staff and they were pretty chuffed. We worked till sunset then went back to the compound. We sat, ate our cheese and played some games. None of us were on call that night so we enjoyed some warm wine and beer!

I was working with a Christian community called the Nuer Tribe. With our project, the idea was that we go out there and give medical training to international staff. They then learn how to teach their community. We pay them competitive. One of our senior national staff was better off than his neighbours, so he went and bought a goat for Christmas Day - to kill and have for dinner - but then he invited all of his relatives over.

Some of his relatives walked a good eight hours from another village and shared his goat and they really enjoyed their Christmas. They got up at about 8am in the morning, started playing their drums, dancing going on in the street. The whole community came out for it and just danced and enjoyed themselves. To do that in a country that had over 50 years of civil war, where people don't have enough food, is mad. That's Christmas, that's real. 

What advice would you give to people interested in aid working?

Aid work isn't about making people feel guilty; I think that everyone can play a role when it comes to charity work. Whether it's donating, giving up your time to offer hands-on help like me, or talking about it and spreading the word on poverty issues, it still shows you care. The fact that we're sat here in a pub discussing it shows that we care. Everyone in society has a role to play, and whatever they can offer will make a difference to the quality of life in developing countries. 

anna kent aid worker2

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