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DRC: Part 2 – “I had another steep learning curve: riding pillion on a motorbike.”

Getting to the district hospital in Baya is an adventure of sorts, as Australian Dr Marina Guertin discovers.

A team of nurses and health promoters on the road to support health structures in Bili and to inform the population about the dangers of malaria. © Carl Theunis / MSF

It’s been about ten weeks since I’ve arrived in Bili and I’m finally feeling like I have found my groove. I’m finding the clinical work interesting and rewarding and I’m also getting to see first-hand how all the elements need to come together to run a hospital.

In addition to learning how to manage meningitis, tetanus and malaria in all its manifestations, I have also had another steep learning curve: riding pillion on a motorbike. Now, I’ve zipped around on scooters in Barcelona and in Vietnam, but here it’s something else!

“When you take off a motorbike helmet, it’s never like it is in the movies . . . it’s definitely wipe off the sweat from my face and readjust a headband.”

It can take us up to two hours on the back of a motorbike to get to the district hospital in Baya. Sometimes the dirt roads are nicely packed earth, but often there are giant holes or small rivers. There’s one spot that is seriously a 40-degree gradient with scree and I do my best to hold on tight!

Here are some takeaway lessons from my experience so far:

 

1. It’s never like it is in the movies

When you take off a motorbike helmet, it’s never like it is in the movies. I have never once taken off the helmet and had flowing locks of bouncing beautiful hair come tumbling down out of the helmet, looking radiant. Nope, it’s definitely wipe off the sweat from my face and re-adjust a headband so that I can pretend my hair isn’t wet with sweat.

Putting the chain back on the motorbike. © Marina Guertin / MSF

2. “Ride like a human being, not like luggage.

”This, translated, is what my driver told me this week. After we’d arrived at our destination, he launched into a mini-soliloquy as to why humans on a motorbike need to act like humans, not like me - luggage, and heavy luggage at that! After a confusing few minutes, I finally got him to say that on wet roads, I need to sit right up close to him, not further back. This means the weight is consolidated and you’re less likely to lose control or balance.

“We now support 62 structures in the health zone. That means a lot of kilometres on motorbikes to get the medications and nursing supervision out to the villages, and without the drivers, it would be impossible.”

3. It is possible to put the chain back on when you are stuck in a mini river.

Last week, we got caught in heavy rains and with no drainage ditches built in, the roads accumulate plenty of water. We lost our chain when the water flowing on the road was up to at least ten inches deep. We couldn’t get off the bike otherwise we’d lose our footing, so I did what I’d like to consider was a Cirque-de-Soleil feat of flexibility and strength (but was likely rather awkward looking), and sat on the bike, lifted up a leg so that the driver could reach the chain and put it back on. The roads were so bad and wet that the last 10km took us about an hour!

“We cross the little rivers by taking our motorbikes onto pirogues – long, narrow canoes. © Marina Guertin / MSF

4. Our drivers are amazing!

This is likely the most important lesson of all. Our drivers are super proud of their work and say that they are the ‘specialists’, which in truth they are. The project relies on getting our teams to the ‘last kilometre’, and we now support 62 structures in the health zone. That means a lot of kilometres on motorbikes to get the medications and nursing supervision out to the villages, and without the drivers, it would be impossible. In one of our staff meetings one of the drivers said, “We know we have your lives in our hands,” which in truth, they do. 

 

Dr Marina Guertin was placed in Bili for six months during 2018.