Living the extremes

By Aimee Andaya Hilger

WATCHING the news about the massive rape cases in Congo made me angry but I was more worried about my friend. I haven’t seen her for a long time. I’ve seen her growing up and met her a couple of times when she was reviewing for her nursing licensure exams. Thanks to Facebook, we were able to connect even if she’s a million miles away from me.

My adventurous friend was a field worker nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known to many as Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization present in nearly 70 countries. My friend was assigned in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

(Photo Courtesy: JI Nacanaynay)

Jay Ai Nacanaynay, the little girl I used to play with when I was still living with their family way back in college, fulfilled my dream to go and immerse in any place in Africa.

Before MSF, her nursing career started in Benghazi, Libya but when the war escalated, she went home and tried to look for a better place. Luck led her to Montreal Canada. She studied French so she’ll be able to understand her colleagues and her patients well. Her short stint in Libya taught her that language barrier could make matters worse. She said a patient in Libya who had Necrotizing Fascitis, a rare bacterial skin infection that kills the body’s soft tissues, liked her even if they didn’t understand each other. Other nurses avoided her but this young Filipina nurse did her duty even if she smelled awful. Her colleagues laughed at her when she misunderstood them. So, learning the language is a big deal if you’re working abroad.

As soon as she completed her language course, she chose not to work in Canada. Being a health worker in Congo didn’t make her bank account fat but it showed her different walks of life.

When I chatted with her about the rape cases, I asked her many questions so I could visualize her situation. She said living in a part of Congo was the total opposite of the life and leisure she had before. Their project is in a small province with little villages. They don’t have electricity so the office and the staff house just use generators. They are the ones providing electricity to the hospital. By 6 p.m., the streets are dark and they use flashlights to walk their way to the staff house. Some houses are lit up using petrol lamps. Others, (if they can afford) use solar panels to get electricity. They have a pit privy toilet or what we call the squatting toilet. No hot shower, not bathtubs but only a big pail and plastic cups for shower. Aside from the stocks they get once in every two weeks, they eat the same variety of food that they can find in the village. They were given allowances and salary but not as much as what she can get if she works in hospitals in other countries. Why?

She said she took the risk to work in extreme condition with a different setting to learn new culture and to fulfill her humanitarian dream. She actually labeled it as “living the extremes” because to her, it is the extreme.

She saw many children having severe malaria and were sent to the hospital almost dying and needing blood transfusion but they can’t provide them blood because it wasn’t available. They have roughly around 6-8 units of blood available every day in the whole hospital because it is difficult to find blood donors due to remoteness of the area, high cases of STDs and blood-borne diseases in the area. There is also a high rate of malnutrition for children 5 years and below because food is limited.

Thanks to people like her, many Congolese children recovered after a month. That gave her fulfillment. For her, nursing is not all about wearing white uniform, scrub suit or injections and medications. It is also about immersing oneself to another people’s life by just being there for them even if you fall short to treat them.

She said, “It’s your presence that gives them comfort and assurance that there is still a glimpse of hope and a few dust of luck. Being able to live in an extreme living condition and seeing people walk barefoot or sleep on the ground or carry I don’t know how many kilograms of wood on their back just to earn a living, humbled me. I am happy and humbled because I get to see children in the streets happily playing with plastic bottles or a piece of wood as toys and see the contentment all over their face and that made me realize that it’s the little things, simple things that matter. I have learned that it’s not the luxury that life offers me or the good food that I eat on the table, or a comfortable room and toilet that I have at home that would make me happy. This experience has taught me that life offers endless possibilities and a lot complexities but it all depends as to how I will turn things out to make my life livable and happy.”

When I asked her about her next move, she said she still sees herself working more projects with MSF. It won’t be a lifelong career but she would want to do humanitarian works in the next coming years.

For now, she’s back in the Philippines, spending time with her family and friend before heading to another adventure. This brave young Ilongga is looking forward for another humbling life experience.

With that, I’m excited to see more of her photos. Her lens captured different emotions of Congolese women and children. I saw poverty, innocence, simplicity, and genuine smiles. Women like her are for me the silent modern heroes of the world.