“As we wait for the 07h00 ferry—which, at 07h30, does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon—I do a mental inventory of what I know about Bikenge. I’ve been told that, due to its remote location, its infrastructure is extremely poor: the roads are like Swiss cheese, the health centres barely function, and the local waste disposal system works only as quickly as the town’s feral dogs can eat.”
The words of Chilliwack’s Sandra Smiley paint a vivid picture of her new surroundings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It’s her job to tell the world what she sees, as the communications manager for Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medecins Sans Frontiers). The organization calls it bearing witness, or ‘témoignage’ in French.
And Smiley’s words speak volumes. Since arriving in the DRC, she has only had the chance to post two blog entries. But they are intriguing, poignant and revealing. And it’s made all the more interesting knowing that Smiley is a Chilliwack secondary school graduate.
So how did a CSS grad land herself a role with such an esteemed organization?
After graduation, Smiley headed off to study at McGill University in Montreal for her Bachelor of the Arts. She kept her job at the Chilliwack Arts Council, returning each summer to work with there.
When she finished her masters degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, she knew she wanted to work for a humanitarian organization.
MSF “not only provides healthcare to the people who need it most, but also has an impressive track record in speaking out and and making change,” she wrote in an email to The Progress, from te DRC.
While she’s currently working in the DRC, last year she worked as communication support in Guinea during the Ebola outbreak, and has traveled extensively to other countries with MSF, including Bosnia, Gambia and Guinea.
In her introduction to her blog, she explains her new role.
“My job is to make sure that you, at home behind your tablets and TVs, know what we’re seeing and doing in this part of the world and how it’s affecting our patients,” she writes.
It’s a role that seems perfectly fit for Smiley.
“In my varied career in communications, advocacy, and campaigns, I’ve interviewed officials in Minsk and people living with HIV in Maputo; peace-built in Bosnia and campaigned against fur in Britain; worked with human rights defenders in the Gambia and busted Ebola myths in Guinea.
When I’m not working in the field, I’m thinking about when I’ll next be working in the field,” she adds.
When contacted via email, Smiley took the time to explain those experiences in more detail.
“In Gambia I was interning with a human rights organization called the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies,” she said. “I did that thanks to a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (may it rest in peace). In Bosnia I was with a UK-based organization called Most Mira which runs an arts and peacebuilding festival for young people every year in Prijedor, one of the flashpoints of the Bosnian war.”
She will be working in the DRC until early 2016, and posting her thoughts on the MSF blog roll as time and inspiration allows. Along with her words come stunning photographs of her time there, including those of patients suffering from illnesses easily treated here at home, and the trials and tribulations of traveling in that country.
She is just one of several bloggers offering a glimpse into the world of overseas medicine. The group of bloggers, who are speaking on their own behalf and not MSF, includes a Belgian doctor working in Pakisan, a British logistician working in Nepal, and an Australian nurse in Afghanistan.
There are stories from medical assistants, pharmacists, project coordinators, and midwives from all over the world.
As MSF’s website states, “a key principle of our organization is speaking out about what we see – bearing witness or, ‘témoignage’. Our teams working around the world are key to this, as are our patients’ voices.”
Read more of their stories here.