A Day in the Life of an MSF Technical Logistician in Afghanistan

From the start of August 2013 to mid-April 2014, I managed the technical services team for Bost Provincial Hospital in Helmand, Afghanistan. It was a fantastic, if at times somewhat exhausting, job. There were days when I spent most of my time in the office, but much of the time I was lucky enough to spend the day running all over the place with my team. For my family and friends (or anyone else who’s interested) who’d like to know just what it is I was doing over there, I figured I’d tell you about a day on the ground. It’s a bit detailed, so you may want to skim through and just look at the photos! This post was written in December 2013, but I’m publishing it with a delay:

Saturday, which is the first weekday in Afghanistan:

06:15 – Wake up, get ready for the day. This involves trying to remember who I am, where I am, and what I need to do. I face tough questions each morning: which sock should I put on first – the right or left one? Which one of my six identical MSF shirts should I wear today? Precisely what day is it today? Once I’ve had a coffee, the world becomes a bit less confusing, and I realise that I only have a few minutes left to eat and rush to the car.

Afghan coffee mugs

07:20 – Enjoy the drive to work. I usually wave to some of our neighbours who are standing outside their homes or their shops, as well as children walking to school, drivers who stop to let our car cross an intersection, traffic cops who make cars stop to let us cross said intersection, and generally anyone who stares and looks like they could use a smile and a wave to start the day. We certainly get loads of smiles and waves back.

Heading to work in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

07:45 – Morning meeting.

08:00 – Check every room of the entire hospital with one of my staff, looking for windows cracked or shattered by a nearby explosion the previous night. Note down locations and dimensions to plan repairs, arrange help from the supply team, with our carpenter, to buy glass cut to size in the bazaar.

Hospital pharmacy window shattered by a nearby explosion, Bost Hospital, Helmand

09:15 – Zip over to the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) to solve an urgent problem. In an ICU, hypothermia is a serious risk for patients – especially as the weather begins to cool, and particularly for the small bodies of children in NICU and PICU (neonatal and paediatric ICU). Newborns may be placed in incubators, but a toddler is usually kept warm on a bed fitted with a heat lamp. We didn’t have a suitably-sized bed with heat lamp for one of the little ones this morning, so I MacGyvered a fairly simple solution which satisfied the nurse in charge until we can order more medical heat lamps: First, I grabbed four wooden blocks, an extension cord, and two 1500 Watt electric space heaters from my stock. Next, a medic lifted a bed while I crawled around on the floor to place the wooden blocks under each of the bedposts, raising the underside of the mattress from 40cm to 60cm above the floor. Then I simply put the two space heaters under the bed; I placed one heater directly beneath where I expected the child’s chest/head to be, and the other heater under his legs/feet. I then plugged the heaters into the extension cord, put it under the bed, turned everything on, and the heat rose nicely up from the heaters to give a fairly uniform temperature on the mattress. Not perfect, but certainly better than nothing!

09:40 – Send a member of my team to the bazaar to buy a steel I-beam and get it cut into three pieces.

09:45 – Set up a work site in the Female Ward Burns Unit. We recently rehabilitated the female burns unit to accommodate half a dozen bedridden burns patients, but the number of people showing up has been higher than predicted, so we needed to create more space. Just as with energy, in this hospital space cannot be created; instead, it had to be converted from another type of space. Accordingly, we expropriated the nurses’ locker room next door, emptied it out, and used a blue marker to draw a lintel and doorway on the wall. On the other side of the same wall, the female burns unit was still in use, so we taped plastic sheeting up with the aim of stopping any dust coming in when we smash through the wall. We also used a lot of plastic sheeting to set up a work area on this side – as soon as the hole is opened, our guys will need a bit of space on each side to work, but we don’t want masonry dust entering the room. My staff members all wear industry-certified face masks to avoid breathing dust in, and protective glasses (when smashing things) to prevent irritation or injury from dust or masonry fragments.

Starting work on a new doorway in Bost Provincial Hospital, Helmand, Afghanistan

Now, if only our blue marker line drawing could actually cut a doorway as in a cartoon… Instead, we got out masonry drill bits to start cutting holes into the wall, cracked tiles off the wall with a hand-held chisel, fitted a chisel-bit into a hammer-drill to chip away at half-century-old mortar, and hacked and smashed at the wall with a pick-axe to remove the bricks. When you’re attacking a wall sixty centimetres thick, it takes a LOT of patience, persistence, and precision to progress!

Using a pick-axe to break through a 60cm-thick wall in Bost Provincial Hospital, Helmand

11:55 – Run over to the area beside our backup generators, to meet the heavy-lift crane truck that had just arrived. Several old but perhaps fixable generators and an autoclave had been sitting around outside, and needed to be relocated to a more suitable (read: out of the way) location. The crane truck lifted the largest generator onto a flatbed truck, then both vehicles circumnavigated the hospital in order to place the generator for us.

A crane lifts an old generator onto a flatbed truck at Bost Hospital

Following that, the flatbed truck – equipped with a less powerful crane – relocated the hospital gardeners’ hut as it was also blocking access for large vehicles that we may need to bring in for unforeseen work in the future.

A crane moves the gardeners shack at Bost Hospital

With the hut moved, the trucks no longer had to drive all the way around the hospital to pick up the remaining equipment, including the second generator, which we lined up neatly near the first.

Moving another generator at Bost Hospital

Next came the fascinating old Soviet generator trailer which had been sitting inconveniently at the bottom of the hospital water tower for untold years.

Relocating a Soviet-made generator trailer at Bost Hospital

Finally, we moved the “little” autoclave (it may only be the size of a large washing machine, but you wouldn’t want to try and lift it yourself!).

A crane moves an old autoclave at Bost Provincial Hospital, Afghanistan

13:25 – Eat a very late lunch. Kebabs from a nearby restaurant for me and my assistant, because our staff kitchen lunch was at 12:30 and is all gone by 13:00 most days.

14:00 – Start one of our guys scraping and sanding two big diesel tanks to prep them for new protective coats of paint. Ask our painter to coat I-beams in anti-rust paint. Send our electrician to repair the boiler in the hospital laundry, then to check all the outdoor lights around the hospital, and repair or replace as needed.

Scraping old paint off a diesel fuel storage tank
Painting steel I-beams with anti-rust paint

14:30 – Discuss with mechanic about one generator having trouble starting in the cold weather: we’ll have to use some starting spray until we come up with a longer-term solution. Place bricks under a recently-installed fuel pipe to protect it from people accidentally stepping on it. Collect the carbon steel pipes left over from our recently completed fuel system, return them to our warehouse.

Carbon steel fuel system

15:30 – Advise our plumber on the placement and installation of a handwashing sink for the new entrance to the female burns unit.

Installing a new handwashing sink in the female burns unit of Bost Provincial Hospital, Lashkar Gah

15:40 – Place old bricks around a newly-poured concrete path to the hospital waste zone in order to keep people from stepping on it, even though I know some people will take a shortcut at any cost here. Check to see which windows broken in the blast were completely repaired, and which ones were only temporarily covered for later repair.

Newly-poured concrete path to the hospital waste zone, Bost Hospital

16:00 – Wedge one I-beam into place above the doorway-to-be, on the off-chance that something could happen in the night to collapse part of the wall. We planned to finish chiselling away at the area above the new doorway in the morning, allowing us to fix the three I-beams with concrete to form a lintel. This allows us to safely remove the part of the wall which we need to use as a doorway; otherwise, the wall could collapse someday.

I-beam lintel above new doorway in Bost Provincial Hospital, Helmand, Afghanistan

The workday ends at 16:00 in wintertime here, because of the shortened daylight hours, but many of my technical team members stayed past 16:00 to finish up their work without asking for overtime. For instance, our mason put the finishing touches on some concrete work and took the time to clear the work site nicely and clean our masonry tools properly before putting everything away and going home. Once again, these guys really brightened my day with their hard-working attitude and big smiles.

Although I was exhausted by the day’s end, I was nevertheless happy with the day’s achievements, and ready to tackle another one after some much-needed sleep.

Faradje, Province Orientale, DR Congo

On January 12th, five of us flew to Faradje, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to set up and run an emergency measles vaccination campaign for the town. We spent a pleasant, if at times very tiring, two weeks in Faradje. We ate and slept at the Catholic parish, and set ourselves up to work in the office of the Danish Refugee Council, the staff of which were exceedingly kind and welcoming. In Faradje, like many towns in DR Congo, the remnants of the violent Belgian colonial past are still very visible in the perfectly straight, tree-lined streets and a number of old buildings in various states of disrepair.

One of the three main roads in town, the Faradje-Watsa road:

Faradje - Watsa road

L’Administrateur du Territoire de Faradje has his office in an old Belgian administrative building, a facsimile of those in which many of his counterparts in other territories can be found working:

Office of the Administrateur du Territoire, Faradje

Homes in the area are newer than the colonial buildings, but the architectural style is far older, as it’s more closely matched with local needs and locally available and affordable resources for home-building.

Typical homes in Faradje

The last time I worked in DR Congo, I saw Canadian shirts all over the place, including a UBC Thunderbirds jersey in Lubutu. This time around, in a completely different part of the country and nearly two years later, it is apparently still trendy to sport Canadiana. Take, for instance, this dapper young man sporting a vintage 1993 Vancouver Canucks hockey jersey while riding his retro-style single speed bicycle around Faradje (those with a good visual memory will recall that the little crest on the corner of the jersey was worn to mark the 100-year anniversary of Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1993).

1993 Vancouver Canucks hockey jersey in Faradje

The Catholic church in Faradje, as seen from our veranda, including the police ghost, frequently seen in the area, patrolling the grounds of the church:

Catholic church in Faradje

We also went inside the church to have a quick look:

Catholic church in Faradje
Catholic church in Faradje

As for the measles vaccination campaign, which was the whole point of our visit to Faradje, we first had to set everything up. This included setting up a small generator outside the hospital to power the fridges and freezers we brought for the vaccines and ice packs. Apparently the incredibly loud noise of a generator two metres away does not in any way diminish one’s quality of sleep, evidence of which is provided by this friendly sleeping pig:

Generator setup

When I got close for a better photo, I woke him up, but the generator was no problem…

Pig in Faradje

Freezers on the left for ice packs, fridges on the right for vaccines and solvent, all correctly placed on palettes:

Cold chain setup in Faradje

Inserting frozen ice packs as an insulating layer in an ice-lined vaccine refrigerator, a step often ignored by those setting up such refrigerators:

Inserting ice packs in an ice-lined vaccine refrigerator

With the cold chain in place, and a team of community mobilisers out on the town spreading the message about the upcoming vaccination campaign, it was time to select locations for vaccination sites and get them set up. In four of the five fixed sites we set up, we built temporary shelters against the sun and rain. First, sticks were cut and holes were dug:

Digging post holes for a vaccination site, Faradje

Next, posts were pounded into the holes, cross-beams were tied to the taller posts, and orange plastic fencing was installed to control the flow of people through the vaccination sites:

Installing fencing at a vaccination site, Faradje

Completed vaccination site, minus the roof, with space for two separate vaccination teams to work:

Vaccination site without roof, Faradje

Here’s a vaccination site with tarpaulin roof attached. Children enter to either the right or left of the central dividing fence, generally based on their age (under five years on the left, five and above on the right, for instance). A child first sees a registrar who fills out a vaccination card for the child, then the child is vaccinated and receives a Vitamin A pill and sometimes a de-worming pill.

Vaccination site with roof, Faradje

The long line of people waiting four abreast was quite impressive to see on the first morning of vaccination at this vaccination site:

Long queue at a vaccination site, Faradje

Of course, every single kid who was vaccinated was a happy, smiling bundle of joy:

Child being vaccinated against measles, Faradje

After being vaccinated, each child’s finger was marked with gentian violet to show that he or she had been vaccinated:

Marking a finger as proof of vaccination

Staff for the vaccination sites, recruited locally, were identified by MSF tape around their arms. This was our youngest employee:

Youngest vaccination employee

My motorcycle driver and I were responsible for buying donuts and peanuts for the ten vaccination teams in five different sites. Each day we would buy out the entire stock of several donut sellers, who would laugh uncontrollably at the mundele (white man) with the enormous appetite for donuts.

Buying donuts for vaccination teams

As we had no vehicles in Faradje, we used the hospital ambulance for some needs, but the majority of work was done by a bunch of motorcycles we rented locally. At one point, we had over 20 motorcycles at our disposal. On the final day, we took a group photo with 16 of them:

16 of the more than 20 motorcycles used for the Faradje measles vaccination campaign

As a side project, during and after the vaccination campaign I organised to increase the size of the hospital’s healthcare waste management area, with two new pits dug: one for glass vials and ampoules, the other for the ashes of sharps boxes. We left just before the project was completed, so I had to hand over to another NGO, but we got a good start on it. Each pit was 2m long x 1m wide x 4m deep once completed:

Digging a hole for the Faradje General Hospital waste management zone

We also gave protective clothing for the man responsible for healthcare waste disposal:

Protective clothing, boots, gloves, and goggles for healthcare waste disposal

Each pit needed a reinforced cement slab as a cover. For the glass vials and ampoules pit, the slab would have a simple hole to drop the glass down into the pit, with a lid to keep rain out. For the other pit, a drum burner would be fixed in the cement so that the ashes from sharps boxes would drop directly down through a hole in the bottom of the burner, into the pit. For the cement, we had to buy gravel and sand…

Sand for concrete slab

…plus bricks for the foundation on which the slab would sit…

Bricks for concrete slab foundation

…and of course cement too! We also bought iron re-bar to reinforce the cement, and wooden planks to create the form for pouring the cement.

Cement for concrete slab

Aside from work, there were some lighter moments in Faradje, such as the First Annual Faradje Olive Pit Spitting Competition. This involved eating an olive, but keeping the pit in one’s mouth, then attempting to spit the pit into the hollow tree stump a few metres away (which can be seen in the bottom right corner of the church photo above). For the first round, each participant agreed to put $20 in the pot, and whoever first succeeded at landing the olive pit in the tree stump would get all the money in the pot. I managed it on my second try, immediately winning $40. We then decreased the buy-in to $1 for each participant, increased the number of players to eight, and kept trying for a while longer.

Olive pit spitting competition

Playing around with unused medical equipment (normally, this apparatus is used to transport people from one part of a hospital to another, or particularly in care homes, when a wheelchair or gurney is inappropriate or less convenient. In a hospital where each ward is in a building of its own, separated from the others by very uneven terrain, this patient transportation apparatus becomes more useful as a coat rack than anything else).

Playing with unused medical equipment

A bit of Monday afternoon poker with unused vaccination cards substituting for poker chips:

Poker to pass the time

We also zipped out to the river’s edge one day in Faradje to see some hippos. There were about ten of them, very cool to see! In this photo, three hippos are visible:

Three of the ten or so hippos we saw in Dungu River, Faradje

Disclaimer: The postings and views expressed on this site are mine alone, and do not represent the position or values of Médecins Sans Frontières.

En cas de panne sèche

If you happen to pick up a Land Cruiser at a remote border crossing in Côte d’Ivoire one day, well over 100km from the nearest fuel station, and you find that your colleagues on the Liberian side of the border have kindly drained all the diesel out of the two 70L 90L fuel tanks, hence explaining why they were three hours late arriving, there are a number of potential solutions to get you out of your predicament.

Liberian border crossing at Pekanhouebli

The first solution is that you were already prepared, and brought some diesel in 20L jerrycans with you to the border, attached the roof of the vehicle that transported you to the border crossing (let’s call this Land Cruiser A, and call the other one Land Cruiser B).

Metal jerrycans

If you didn’t think of this, the next best option is to syphon some fuel from one of Land Cruiser A’s fuel tanks into one of Land Cruiser B’s fuel tanks using a syphon tube. Of course, while trying this option you may realise that Toyota had you in mind when they installed anti-syphoning guards in Land Cruisers, making it virtually impossible to get the syphon tube into the fuel tank of Land Cruiser A.

Syphoning fuel

Once these first two solutions have been eliminated from your list, there is a third option available: open the drain plug on the bottom of one of Land Cruiser A’s fuel tanks and place a container underneath to catch the diesel as it slowly pours out the small hole. To do this, you should park the vehicle on level ground or, if possible, on raised tracks so there’s more ground clearance between the bottom of the fuel tank and the container you’re using to catch the diesel. This is very time-consuming, as a Land Cruiser consumes about 13L/100km, and the fuel drains out of the tank pretty slowly. You’ll also be taking fuel from the very bottom of the tank, which means you get all the mucky sediment settled on the bottom, which is not good for your vehicle. Hopefully the fuel filter in Land Cruiser B can remove most of the sediment before it gets to the engine.

Draining fuel from reservoir

The fourth and final solution available, aside from parking the vehicle and coming back later (and probably finding it missing upon your return), is to buy fuel from a friendly Italian aid worker who happens to have just opened an office 50 metres away from where you’re trying to drain fuel out of your tank, and who happens to have made a fuel run the day before to stock up on hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel, and who happens to have seen you from his office window trying the second and third solutions.

Disclaimer: The postings and views expressed on this site are mine alone, and do not represent the position or values of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Yet another Annual Update: my year 2011 in 67 photos

Dear family, friends, and those who fit into both (or other) categories, this is that once-yearly mass email I send out and post to my blog to bore you with the details of 365 days of my life. It’s safe for work, except that you might fall asleep face first on your keyboard while reading it, thus creating a small commotion in your office.

The short version:

And now for the extended version, with a sprinkling of photos, some of which I’ve put within sentences (how clever).

When 2011 started off, I was nearing the end of a super fun three week holiday in Vancouver. Technically speaking, when 2011 started off I was on a dance floor surrounded by green lasers

Laser green goblin

…and booming bass, doing my best to jump up and down and side to side in what I hoped might be mistaken for dancing, while wearing a Buzz Lightyear costume with glowsticks lighting my flightpath at the wingtips.

Buzz Lightyear

All good things come to an end, however, and by January 2nd I was sitting back comfortably in a Vancouver International Airport departure lounge. The fact that I can show a little piece of plastic to a company and they then let me sit in a chair, in the middle of the sky, speeding over the land and sea at sometimes over 900 km/h, still amazes me. Two days of travelling took me back to work in Juba, South Sudan, where I had two months remaining on my contract. On January 9th I was lucky enough to witness the referendum on secession that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s newest country six months later.

Biggest polling station in South Sudan's referendum on independence in Juba, South Sudan

I also witnessed the delivery of, and first flight of, South Sudan’s first air force

South Sudan Air Force Mi-28 transport helicopter, Juba

…went hiking up Jebel Kujur to take a Sunday mid-morning nap…

Taking a nap atop Jebel Kujur, Juba

…and got a guided tour of the Physical Rehabilitation Reference Centre run jointly by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the South Sudan Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare:

Touring the PRRC in Juba, South Sudan
Artificial foot at the PRRC in Juba, South Sudan

In my final week in South Sudan, I just barely managed to make it to see Juba’s best kept Engrish secret, the manure cure shop:

Thong Ping Salon, Juba, South Sudan

After leaving South Sudan, I spent the last week of February visiting friends in the UK. Within hours of landing at Heathrow, I was in real doctor’s scrubs in London, complete with anti-bacterial silver oxide thread participating in the Imperial College med school’s time-honoured, purely academic activity known as the Circle Line Pub Crawl with my friend Aidan and his fellow future doctors.

Circle Line Pub Crawl with Imperial College medical students

I also visited my friend Jackie in Cambridge, where we went to a show and the next day I took a long walk along the River Cam…

Narrowboats and rowing clubs on the River Cam in Cambridge, England

…and then Fraser and Kate in Abergavenny, where Fraser and I went mountain biking

Fraser above Abergavenny, Wales

and also saw my friends Katie and Louise in Oxford before hopping on a plane to return to Vancouver at the beginning of March. While waiting for my plane, I saw the mythical Airbus A380 roll by, the largest passenger aircraft in the world:

Qantas Airbus A380 at Heathrow Airport

I spent the next three months waiting in Vancouver to go somewhere new and unknown. I filled my time sleeping with no alarm, going to physiotherapy for my knee, building a couple of custom single speed bicycles (one for my sister, one for me)…

Custom single speed freewheel bicycle for Lisa
BumbleBike custom single speed freewheel bicycle for me

…checking the forecast for days when I could comfortably take my motorcycle out on the town (there were very few of these days in what was apparently Vancouver’s wettest and coldest spring in the last half century)…

Honda CM400T motorcycle

…and watching the Vancouver Canucks make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since I was 10 years old. The city came alive like nothing I’ve seen (I was in London for the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics, living 5 minutes from one of the 2012 Olympic sites, so I missed out on all that craziness), with free taxi rides, SkyTrain antics, downtown street parties, and all kinds of awesome all around.

Celebrating a Vancouver Canucks win on Granville Street

Into these three months, I also somehow squeezed a trip to Kelowna

Kelowna, BC

…a couple of quick visits to Bowen Island

Bowen Island, BC

…a two night trip to Ottawa to get a visa for Côte d’Ivoire and see my friends Alex and Luke…

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

…and a motorcycle ride to Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring Island, BC

With the Canucks comfortably ahead in the final series against the Bruins, I left town to start my next job. Having spent a year and a half with Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin), in the UK, DR Congo, and South Sudan, I’d decided to try on a different pair of shoes: Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, aka MSF). They decided to send me to Côte d’Ivoire, but first, I flew to Germany (with a few hours spent hanging out in Amsterdam to see my friend Pieter-Henk) for the MSF PPD, a 10 day group introduction to the organisation for new staff. I can’t spoil any secrets by talking about it online, except to say that it was really fun, and I met and befriended some very cool people.

MSF PPD, Bonn, June 2011

During the PPD, I even woke up one morning at 4am to watch Game 7 of the playoffs streaming online, then had a productive day in Germany not torching police cars on camera.

By the morning of June 19th I was back up in the skies.

Flying to Côte d'Ivoire

By supper time that day I was eating supper (how appropriate) with my new colleagues in Abidjan, the biggest city and former capital of Côte d’Ivoire (Abidjan was also the name of the local watering hole in Buea, Cameroon, where my friends and I used to eat barbecued meat with a beer in the evenings after a good day’s work back in 2007).

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

The next day I arrived in Daloa, where I spent the next three and a half months working my butt off. Work was hard, but I gradually trained my staff to do a lot of the work I was doing myself, which greatly increased the number of hours I spent sleeping. It also let me get out of the office a bit more, including a day trip across the border into Liberia to help bring some medical goods into Côte d’Ivoire.

Welcome to Liberia (Pékanhouébli border crossing)

In Daloa, I saw our medical stock grow from taking up the space of a small bedroom with a few shelves…

First medical storeroom in Daloa

…to taking over my bedroom as an overflow area.

My bedroom, the overflow storage space in Daloa

At the end of July I organised to move our office out of the house and into a dedicated office space, where we had a new warehouse space in which I had custom shelves built…

Building shelves in the new warehouse space

…and another room of boxes stacked on pallets. What a difference a couple of months makes!

Medical goods on pallets

We also helped the Ministry of Health run a measles vaccination campaign for over 15,000 children and later on collected the dozens of sharps boxes from remote health centres.

Sharps boxes for safe disposal of vaccination needles

I also helped improve the water and sanitation standards of health centres around Daloa by donating soap and other supplies, and making these hand washing buckets for patients and staff:

Hand washing stations for health centres around Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

We also spent a fair bit of energy rehabilitating a couple of health centres that had been looted and badly damaged by armed groups during the conflict.

Smashed glass on the floor of a looted health centre near Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

They needed doors repaired, smashed locks and windows replaced, electricity and lighting restored, furniture built and donated, grounds cleared and cleaned, and much more.

New door for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire
New door handle and lock for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire
New electrical panels for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

One health centre had a puddle the size of a lake right out front, the perfect breeding place for mosquitoes, so I organised to have it fixed:

The lake outside Zoukpangbeu health centre, Côte d'Ivoire
The lake is gone outside Zoukpangbeu health centre, Côte d'Ivoire

My logistician, Moussa, did a great job of supervising all this work.

Moussa, my logistician

Two months into my time in Daloa, a few friends and I managed to see a huge wild elephant nearby.

The elephant outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

By the end of September I was pretty tired out, so I decided to take a week’s vacation next door in Ghana. I had to fly out of Abidjan, so on the way from Daloa to Abidjan I visited the biggest church in the world in Yamoussoukro:

Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix, Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire

In Ghana, I became perhaps a bit too familiar with Ghanaian buses for such a short stay…

Bus broken down near Mole National Park, Ghana

…and had two different vehicles break down from radiator leaks, but the trip was really fun, and I got to see a whole bunch more elephants while I was there.

Elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana

I also saw lots of sideways lightning, which I’ve only seen in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Horizontal lightning in Mole National Park, Ghana

Back in Côte d’Ivoire, within two days of my return to Daloa, I was asked to move to Tabou to replace the logistician who was leaving a bit earlier than planned. I was a bit surprised, and quite moved, when two of my staff broke down in tears when I announced the news to them. Tears of joy, perhaps, to finally be rid of their boss? The next weekend I arrived in Tabou, a very small town on the Atlantic coast, just a few kilometres from the Liberian border, overlooking the Gulf of Guinea.

Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

I spent the next two months in Tabou, squeezing in three short trips north as far as a town called Para, with some beautiful stretches of road…

The road from Tabou to Para, Côte d'Ivoire

…and some short stretches of road almost as bad as the one we travelled from Buea to Mamfe, Cameroon, or the not-really-roads outside Kindu, DR Congo.

Rough spot of road en route to Para, Côte d'Ivoire
Rough spot of road en route to Para, Côte d'Ivoire

The last few weeks in Tabou were really focussed on closing down the project, which at its peak had over 40 national staff running 20 mobile clinics, plus support to 12 health centres (of which the farthest was 6 hours away), and running an intensive therapeutic feeding centre plus an ambulatory therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children. Closing the project involved a LOT of paperwork (I might have drowned if it weren’t for the wonders of mail merging), but also some fun stuff like big donations of drugs and supplies to health centres and the Ministry of Health.

Paracetamol to be donated to health centres near Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

Our office/warehouse space went from being completely packed with medicine…

The MSF office and warehouse space, full to capacity

…to completely empty!

The MSF office and warehouse space, totally empty after many donations

Other big jobs in closing the project in Tabou included donating all sorts of furniture and office supplies to another NGO working in the health sector, which involved lots of trips back and forth from our office to theirs…

Donating a vaccine fridge to a medical NGO in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

…and uninstalling our radio and comms equipment, like the VHF antenna bolted to the top of a 15 metre pole. The VHF antenna is on the left, not the huge mobile phone tower in the background!

The VHF antenna (on the left) in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire
Removing the VHF antenna in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

I also got to burn all the unimportant paperwork in our big fire pit, fun!

Burning unimportant documents in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

Having closed the project, and with the December 11th parliamentary elections having passed without any violence, our team returned to the MSF coordination office in Abidjan. Eating extra oily omelets with my colleagues on the way to Abidjan was, as usual, good times:

Evening omelet time in Gagnoa, Côte d'Ivoire

I spent the next few days in Abidjan, finishing up some final reports and burning more unimportant paperwork…

Burning unimportant documents in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

…then took a three day road trip to the Liberian border to import a Land Cruiser into Côte d’Ivoire as the Liberia mission was also closing.

Bringing a Land Cruiser from Liberia to Côte d'Ivoire

My last few days in Abidjan were spent helping the Financial Coordinator with some actually important paperwork (sadly, this did not involve any fire).

Important paperwork

Then, on December 22nd/23rd an Air France jet kindly carried me to Paris for a coffee with Thomas, a friend and all-round amazing guy on break from his job in Afghanistan. Having finished coffee and a croissant, I high-tailed it back to the airport just in time for my flight to Toronto and eventually Vancouver. I landed about three hours before a DJ show downtown, for which I’d bought a ticket online a month earlier. Knowing that several friends would be there, I showed up downtown to surprise them. And, with the 6 month beard that was weighing down my chin, they were definitely surprised.

DJ show in Vancouver, BC

The next day, Christmas Eve, I went to Studio D Hair Salon

Studio D Hair Salon, Vancouver, BC

…and had my beard bleached white, morphing into a very odd-looking Santa Claus for the next couple of days, long enough to show it off to my grandma in Nova Scotia on her first ever Skype video call…

Santa beard
Grandma's first Skype video conversation

…and to the extended family at our annual Boxing Day party.

My cousin's kid testing whether my Santa beard is real

With that over, I removed all my white Santa hair in time to avoid scaring the surgeon who’ll be slicing my knee open in the future. On December 29th we met, we talked, and we settled on fixing my knee once I return from wherever I go next, if it’s about 5-6 months from now (oh, how I love waiting lists).

On December 30th a huge group of friends descended on the King’s Head in Kits to say goodbye to the place…

Closing party for the King's Head pub, Vancouver
Closing party for the King's Head pub, Vancouver

…which then shut its doors on New Year’s Day. Apparently it’s going to become a Wing’s. The following night, a potluck of culinary delights…

Preparing a veggie roast for New Year's Eve potluck
Mike's bacon coated turkeys for New Year's Eve potluck

…followed by another crazy New Year’s Eve party with friends…

New Year's Eve party in Vancouver

…helped shut 2011 down, and open 2012 up, a year bound to be filled with 24 extra hours of adventure, and boy am I looking forward to it!

If you got through this entire summary, I’m impressed; if you take the time to send me an update on your life, whether it be short or long, I will be even more impressed, and promise to read it too (I’ll even reply!).

Cheers, beers, and bicycle gears,