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South Sudan: A handy man in a crisis

25 Dec 2015

Logistician Eric Boon drew on a lifetime of practical knowledge gained in the Australian Outback during his six months in South Sudan. Eric reflects on his first mission with Médecins Sans Frontières, and being affectionately known as ‘Mosay’ (old man) in the world’s youngest country.

How did your experiences in rural Australia prepare you for your first Médecins Sans Frontières mission?
When my wife drove me to the airport to fly to South Sudan on my first mission as a logistician with Médecins Sans Frontières she said “I think your whole life has been building up to this moment.” And you know, she was right. My main profession has been managing a cattle station in the Gascoyne region in Western Australia. With a large herd of cattle to raise and the nearest town 80 kilometres away, you learn to be resourceful. I’ve done all sorts of other things: I was a mustering pilot, I managed a boat yard, I worked for a company that sold water pumps, I was a local councillor, and I owned a trucking business. On Christmas Eve, at the tender age of 64, I decided it was time to pack that mixed bag of skills and head into the field with Médecins Sans Frontières.

What did your role as a logistician involve?
Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in the area that now constitutes South Sudan for more than 30 years, responding to conflicts, neglected diseases and filling healthcare gaps. I worked between two rural towns – Agok and Mayom – and I can honestly say it was exactly what I hoped my Médecins Sans Frontières mission would be. As you would imagine, the role of a logistician varies immensely and draws on all your troubleshooting skills. On any given day you would find me managing patient transport and our fleet of vehicles, monitoring our energy systems, building showers and latrines, discussing the security of our compound, constructing a helipad, fixing a faulty oxygen concentrator (when I’d never set eyes on one before), renovating accommodation for our national staff… the list goes on.

"As you would imagine, the role of a logistician varies immensely and draws on all your troubleshooting skills."

Do you have a particularly memorable moment you could share?
I once made a lady amputee her first pair of crutches out of some wood I found. That was a memorable day.

What does it take to go into the field in a place like South Sudan?
You have to want to serve. You also have to put aside any prejudices you may have about the way people live. You need to think to yourself, I’ve put my hand up to come here because Médecins Sans Frontières is saving lives – and if I can get this vehicle back on the road today to transport a patient – then I’m contributing to that. You need to be resilient and understanding of what your colleagues are going through. In my last week in Mayom, the medical staff treated more than 1,500 patients, 74 per cent of whom had malaria. I am absolutely full of admiration for them. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the sheer number of patients that arrived every day. Where did they go before Médecins Sans Frontières came to Mayom? [In the first nine months of 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières treated over 151,000 South Sudanese patients for Malaria.]

Did you have many interactions with patients or locals?
Yes, I would always stop to say “Male” (mah-lay, meaning good morning) to people I met around the health centre or the village. One day in Mayom we saw that many people had congregated outside the gates of our compound. They wanted to sacrifice a bull and pray that nothing would happen to make Médecins Sans Frontières leave, as it had made such a huge difference to the area. After the ceremony, I turned to get back to work but was stopped by one of the men, who offered me a prized cut of meat because I was “so worthy of respect”. My head started to swell until he continued “...because you are so old!” 

How has the experience changed or affected your life?
It did me the world of good – mentally and physically. I feel like a man again. After a bit of a rest, I’m hoping to do another mission early next year. It altered my perspective on life and the things we value. One of my jobs was supplying gumboots and raincoats to people working outside – South Sudan’s rainy season often stretches from May to October. Over time, these gumboots became a status symbol. One day after work I was drinking a coffee spiced with ginger and watching the staff arriving for the night shift. When I asked why many of them were carrying their gumboots and trudging barefoot through the mud, the response from my crew was: “They don’t want to get them dirty”.