September 29

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First month in Côte d’Ivoire

It seems like yesterday that I took a Brussels Airlines flight with destination Côte d’Ivoire. That was on Monday 02 September, also the first school day for a lot of children in Belgium. After the intense goodbye and the check-in procedures, the airplane took off at noon. Five hour thirty minutes later, there was a stop in Ouagadougou, to leave some passengers off and to fill the Airbus 330 with fuel. Finally we arrived in Abidjan at 17h20, 20 min before the scheduled time (!). To be honest, I was nervous about the immigration procedures and certainly about the chaos after picking up the luggage. But that was not needed. Everything went smoothly, and in the arrival hall Josué, a driver from Save, was waiting for me. Still in daylight, we drove through a hectic traffic to Résidence Eburnea, the small hotel where I would be staying the next week. What is normally a drive of about 20 min took finally 1h30, because of the rush hour between 5 and 7 pm. Although my first impression of Abidjan was hectic, with lots of people (finally the city has about 3 million inhabitants), there is also a certain charm to it, with its location around the Lagune d’Ebrié and close to the sea.
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The next days the head office of Save the Children in Côte d’Ivoire became my working place. It was about 500 m from the hotel, so I could walk to my job without worries about traffic jams or waiting lines to enter the gate… A staff of 45 persons, divided in a coordination team and a team responsible for the projects in and around Abidjan, is located there. Outside the capital, Save has 4 additional centers: in Bouaké (central), Abengourou (east), Odienné (north-west) and off course Man (west), from where I will be working. The first days I had different introduction sessions, about the different areas Save is working in, the projects, but also a security briefing, how to behave with children, some financial aspects and an in-depth discussion about the Health and Nutrition (H&N) project I would be working in. Later in the week, Kate, the director of operations, informed me that Mama, the coordinator of the H&N project, left Save because of medical reasons, and that René, the N+1, was on mission until mid October. Off course Hannah (another staff member) took over with much enthusiasm, but this shows how important it is to be flexible as a PULSE volunteer!
The welcome by the Save staff was very warm and nice. They really made me feel at home pretty fast. All have years of experience here in Côte d’Ivoire. Both Hannah and Hélène, the country director, took me out a few times during the week and the weekend. Sitting outside (with anti-mosquito spray) in the evening in this tropical environment can be magical. The food is excellent, with lots of Ivorian dishes (I will write more about that later) and also international cuisine. I also visited the zoo of Abidjan, a 40 min walk from my hotel. The state of the cages makes you a bit depressed, but the location of the garden in the middle of the city is special.
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On Monday 09 September I finally would be going to Man! And it would be with an ONUCI (UN Côte d’Ivoire) flight. They operate a network of flights that covers whole Côte d’Ivoire, accessible to UN and NGO personnel on duty. The airplanes are mostly small, and some destinations are serviced with helicopters. My plane was scheduled to leave at 8h20, but due to mechanical problems, we left only at 13h20. And just before taking off, the pilot told us that it was highly probable that we would not be able to land in Man, due to heavy rain. You understand that I was a bit nervous, because the alternative destination was Daloa, some 2 hours drive from Man. After one hour of flight in a Beech of 20 persons, with a group of soldiers from Bangladesh, we landed in…Man. Oeff! Apparently the rains stopped in time! A driver picked me up at the“airport” (please imagine a runway in the middle of the forest with soldiers at the sides and a small wooden house to keep dry in case of rain), about 16 km south of Man, and we drove to the office of Save.
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And now I am already 2 weeks in Man. There are 25 staff members here, of which 3 (Blaise, Linda and Collins) working on the Health and Nutrition project. I am the only “white” here. The integration in the team went smoothly. Probably the main adaptation is the hierarchy and the administrative burden. Amazing how many papers I have to fill in to get pencils or paper to print. For the moment I am learning about the project, and about the broader context of the organisation of health and nutrition services in Côte d’Ivoire. I went already on field trip to Guiglo, and am involved in the follow-up of the work of the partner organisations. The SIDA-CSO project wants to improve the health and nutrition services to pregnant women, mothers and their young children, covering 53 health and nutrition centers in 3 sanitary districts (Man, Bangolo and Guiglo), all located in the western area of Côte d’Ivoire. To implement the project, Save has two partners, AIBEF and ASAPSU, national NGOs, who interact with the different health centers, their staff and the volunteers. All project activities are organised via these 2 partners, and with involvement of the Ministry of Health, both at sanitary region and district level. This involvement is important to assure a long-term effect of the project. The project area is a zone with a lot of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons), where the major part of the 3000 victims of the post-election violence of 2011 were killed. UN troops are still present (ONUCI: 8000 persons), as well as the French army, via la Force Licorne (450 persons). Currently, we are also preparing a project proposal for GSK (!), which will be defended next week in the offices of GSK in Abidjan. That’s also the reason I am travelling to the capital early next week.
With the logistician of Save, we visited a number of houses and hotels close to the office. Finally, I decided to stay in a hotel during my PULSE assignment. A hotel is cheaper than a house because of the security costs (a security guard is needed 24/24) in case of living in a house. Additionally you have to buy all the furniture, because there are no furnished houses or apartments for rent here. Off course, in a hotel you have less privacy and it is a barrier for people visiting, but luckily I have a big, quiet room. The hotel is located in a small village, Gbepleu, 4 km outside Man, about 20 min walk from the office.
The third week in Man I returned to Abidjan to finalize the slides about a GSK project proposal, and to be part of the team presenting the proposal in the GSK office in Abidjan. The proposal consists mainly on building further on the basis of Save’s health and nutrition work in the western area of Côte d’Ivoire. Goal is to re-enforce the capturing and taking care of malnourished children in 3 sanitary districts, to increase the vaccine coverage among children under 5 in these districts, and to increase the availability of blood via the improvement of the blood transfusion center of Man. Although there was no clarity about the budget and the duration, the presentation went well and we could respond to all questions. Now we have to wait the next step in the procedure.
On Saturday 28 September, I went to the funeral of Claude, our cashier at Man. He worked 9 years for Save, and died last week after a sudden and short disease. As he left behind a family with 4 children, it was very emotional. With a group of 30 Save staff, we followed the ceremony in Yacouba (language of the local tribe). Luckily they gave some explanation in French. This might sound strange, but as you have at least 65 ethnic groups in Côte d’Ivoire, a lot of the people present did not speak Yacouba. After the ceremony, we went to the graveyard (think about an area with a lot of grass and trees, where a grave was freshly dug, with no sigh of other graves). Before the coffin could be entered, the family had to negotiate with a person who lay in the grave. He would not leave the grave unless the family paid him a sum of money. This is a tradition between certain “allied” tribes. After the coffin was buried and the last prayers, we returned to the place where the initial ceremony took place. There we had to wash our hands, a tradition after the visit of a graveyard. Afterwards, we left, without saying goodbye, because you don’t do this when leaving a funeral, and had a meal together with all the staff.