This year’s Christmas in parts of Africa was far cry from the traditional tidings of peace and joy. While Europe and the US were celebrating Joseph Kony’s Lord's Resistance Army was dishing out mayhem to villagers in north-east Congo. His men killed some 400 people, 45 of them at a church service, according to the Catholic NGO Caritas, which supplies food and drugs to both rebels and innocent civilians. Besides the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has another war going on not far from Kony’s attacks, Zimbabwe is descending deeper into famine and cholera; Somalia’s president resigned, arousing fears of worse anarchy, while its pirates were still plundering ships in the Indian Ocean; and Darfur continued to bleed.
Yet Africa is not an unmitigated disaster area. In her wonderfully perceptive and warm-hearted book, Heart of Darfur, New Zealand nurse Lisa French Blaker records her nine-month stint with Medecins sans Frontieres in Darfur. At last we see the human face of the NGO world: having to live and work with all kinds of characters; being caught in a sandstorm, shivering during air raids, carrying out operations without proper light, medicines or surgical equipment. Or just having to summon up the courage to tell people: No, I’m sorry we can’t help, or we don’t have this or that, knowing full well that they may die or have to walk home many miles empty-handed.
Their staff also burn out, physically and psychologically, and need to be sent off to Khartoum to eat, swim and read novels to recuperate — or they have to be sent away and replaced altogether.
We also see the heroic patience, long-suffering, fearless courage, cheerfulness and, most of all, the deeply-ingrained sense of hospitality in the midst of almost complete penury, where death is never far away because of starvation or an enemy air raid. Lisa had a heart for the people she suffered with.
A man was brought to the makeshift hospital, his legs shot up in an attack. He had no money, no home and no land — just camels. And his attackers had stolen all his camels. Sudanese men never show their emotions, but this man wept over his camels — they were everything he owned. “You will go away and leave this place”, he told her, “and forget us. Everyone does.”
One of her most trying moments came when a 14-year girl was brought in with a botched abortion. The baby was four months early but alive. The girl’s mother and grandmother turned their backs on the tiny creature. With shame in her heart, her hand on its head, and whispering the Lord’s Prayer for forgiveness — the first time for many months — Lisa watched the baby die.
It is the hospitality of these battered people which she remembers most vividly. Whether they were homeless and living on the run, or a local leader on a throne of old gunny sacks, they shared what they had. “We were welcomed,” she recalls, “with offers of tea or food and when people had neither they offered us water in old, battered bowls. They weren’t asking for sympathy or trying to win favours. Their tradition and their pride required them to share, regardless of what they had. And they did so with grace.”
In much of Africa, hotels, where they exist, are for tourists or other people without friends or acquaintances. Anyone else will be put up by a family. They will be offered the best room or hut and every need cared for. And as the sun goes down, if he is a man he will have the company and pleasant conversation of the head of the household and his grown sons, before he retires for the night.
Constantly Lisa was approached by concerned elders who told her that the world is not safe for an unmarried woman — and they knew just the man to keep her safe. On a visit to an Oomda, the most senior man in the district, three tea cups arrived on a silver-coloured tray, even before they’d had time to mention the purpose of their visit. Before anything else, the leader thanked her for going to Darfur, and her parents for allowing her to travel so far from home on her own.
She had just told him it had taken her 23 hours to come from her home by plane. The leader and his companion had sad eyes; they were war-weary, hungry and their shoes had holes, but their dignity and their gratitude for the little she and her team could for them sustained her. This was what grieved her most — the empty warehouses and resigned faces of the suffering people who put all their trust in them. And the fact that “at home” all this “meant nothing to friends, neighbours and colleagues who closed their ears to the war.”
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.