A New Beginning With MSF


IMG_2441Once again, I am back in the humanitarian world.  This time I have joined Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) as the epidemiologist for Malawi. 

This is my professional blog where I write about my work and life living in various developing countries  while trying to make a difference improving the lives of those who need my expertise.

My newest role is as the epidemiologist focusing on operational Research/Monitoring and Evaluation in HIV/TB.  This means I will be doing research in improving how the health system operates for those with HIV/TB as well as ensure that the tools that collect health data (IT systems mostly) are effective and provide us with the information health providers need to make improvements to the system.

This will be an interesting and challenging role.  It is the next phase in my life and the next adventure…


Collecting Health Information in South Sudan

Check out another article of mine called “Collecting Health Information in South Sudan” on the HealthNet TPO website.

Team Building Workshop at HNTPO–South Sudan

Check out my article about the team building workshop held in Wau, South Sudan on the HealthNet TPO website.

HMIS Human Capacity Assessment: Final Report and Action Plan

With my assessment completed, I present my final report and action plan on the first stage of improving human capacity for the health management information system in Western Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan.


How (Wau) South Sudan is like Burning Man…


It may seem odd to think that the festival in the desert has anything in common with a “post-conflict” country but when you think in some superficial and non –superficial terms, the similarities become obvious.

Wau is a walking and biking city

Burning Man is designed for the pedestrian.  The streets are flat and travelling around on a bike or by foot is easy and provides the greatest freedom of movement.  Here in Wau, an endless stream of pedestrians line the streets with only a small row of trucks, rickshaws, land rovers and donkeys to get in their way.  During the day, there are people everywhere moving either by foot or by bike.  I was told that the South Sudanese are walking people.  After reading about the Lost Boys and their long walk across South Sudan, I can believe it.

The roads are unpaved and dusty

Burning Man is a city carved out of the desert.  Streets are etched into the playa each year ensuring flat compacted sand roads are available to the citizens of Black Rock.  In Wau, the city has also been carved from the hard sand but the roads are much less flat but equally, if not more, dusty.  Large rocks protrude from the road and become more and more exposed as people tread over the ground.  The road twists and becomes bumpy as damage from last year’s rainy season shifts the roads into undrivable shapes. 

Blisteringly hot during the day

Burning Man can get mighty toasty during the day but it doesn’t compare to the psychotic relentless heat of South Sudan.  With the only a slight breeze that regularly makes its way through the city, Wau feels like having a barbeque in the low setting of a hair drier all the time.  Chronic mild dehydration is a part of every expat’s life here.  Piss Clear is not an option.

But unlike Burning Man which becomes very cold at night, the heat of the African sun get cooked into the ground and concrete of the buildings which makes the night not much cooler than the day.

Society functions on little money

Burning Man is a gift economy.  Money has no value in the general mainstream exchange during the event.  South Sudan is clearly a more typical economy with consumers and retailers but in a society where there is such intense poverty, many people live their lives without coming into contact with currency and yet the manage to survive.   Under these terms, people share food, share sleeping spaces, live communally and gift to friends and family when generosity becomes available – much like at Burning Man..

Unilateral gift giving occurs at Burning Man when one person gifts something without expectation of anything in return. Small scale unilateral gift giving occurs in South Sudan as well with people giving to help others survive but also in larger gift in the form of aid and donor money moving to the people to improve their lives.  In some way,  donor money is a gift  – I only hope the South Sudanese people see it as that as well.

Janky construction is everywhere

Burning Man can have some, err, unique construction.  Many structures and art pieces have had to make due with janky construction after damage from the initial transport to the playa or from the insane windstorms.  I swear that some theme camps are held together by only  a few pieces of duct tape.

Wau also has some less desirable construction work.  With no standards in place and little enforcement to ensure safe structure stability, along with little access to good quality building materials, the city’s infrastructure aren’t always designed and constructed properly.  But, just like in Burning Man, it somehow seems to work out and function properly.

My camera keeps breaking

I cannot go through a year at Burning Man without the camera lens getting jammed with playa dust.  It seems like a minimum indicator of success in order to have a fun Burn.  In South Sudan. especially in the driest of the dry season, my camera is on the verge of heading to the pearly lens gate.   Electronics here cannot seem to handle the heat and the dust.

[UPDATE] My camera is dead.  Gonzo. Lens is jammed.  R.I.P two time Burning Man attended camera. You served me well.

Esplanade = Tarmac Road

Burning Man’s inner road is called the Esplanade.  Many theme camps, with great big art structures or sound stages line this road.  It is the main strip for many Burners to travel on to get from one place to another. 

Though not curved, the Tarmac Road here in Wau serves a similar function to the Esplanade.  It is the main street which people drive in and out of to get from one side of the city to the other.  Being the only road made of asphalt in the city, it is favoured for travel for its smoothness and convenience.  Many main establishments also run off the Tarmac Road.

Unexpected things happen for unexpected reasons

Burning Man is a event of spontaneity.  Though many theme camps come prepared with a premise and a plan of action, almost always the plans divert to weird and wonderful directions as the population of Burners modify the purpose of the event or art piece to fit a common, underlying intention.  These changes are subtle, unexpected and often wonderful.

Wau has its own share of expected events.  The culture exists in two worlds – a wartime, low technology, low access legacy which residually lingers within the hearts of the people and a updated world with cellular networks, internet and bustling supply chain desperate to build an economy and modernize.  The gap between these two worlds creates unexpected events such as delays in receiving shipments, random reduction of essential goods such as cooking fuel, miscommunication between people as the networks don’t always function well and other jolts that slow productivity down.  NGO workers in low capacity setting are used to this random spurts and often laugh it off even if we don’t always understand why they are happening.  We see these missteps as growing pains for a new fragile state and are not surprised when the outcome of our interventions goes awry.  Wau is building up with the same speed as the initial annual build of Burning Man but without the exodus at the end.

People are kind

It goes without saying that the people in South Sudan are kind and compassionate.  Through everything terrible that they have experienced, through all the displacement, loss, death and struggle that they have gone and still go through, I feel a wonderful sense of optimism and caring that I didn’t expect from people who are all going through a type of societal post-traumatic stress disorder.

At Burning Man, everybody is awesome all the time.  Kindness is almost an understatement.


For me, my transition between South Sudan and Burning Man will be a smooth one. I can’t wait for my next adventure in Black Rock and breathe in the playa dust just to remember fondly the warmth and dust of South Sudan.

How is your city like Burning Man?

South Sudan’s Rolex


In Wau, you can buy a Rolex.  It is smooth, and classy and not what you expect.

You probably think that the Rolex must be fake.  Must be cheap garbage but it is real and delicious and you can even make one yourself.

How do you make a Rolex? Take two eggs, scramble them and cook it into a flat omelet. Layer the flat omelet onto a chapatti and  roll the two together.  Now you have a ROLL-EGGS (Rolex), get it?  HILARIOUS! (see picture above) 

A few pictures of South Sudan in March 2012

Here are some photos from March.  March has been an interesting month even though I haven’t done as much as would have liked or taken enough photos.



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