Like the ominous arrival of winter in the fifth series on game of thrones; the rainy seasons has come. Much like the extremes of heat it is pretty difficult to describe the resulting effects that have to be experienced to be believed.
During a brief shower in the afternoon our open-air waiting room was emptied of patients as they huddle with the doctors and nurses under the tented triage area and outpatient tent. I rushed around with a broom doing damage control with the encroaching puddles. It is easy to look heroic when you have waterproof boots and a change of dry clothes to hand. Most our employees live in the flimsy tents provided by the UN. The spectre of the winds and rains have been hovering over them for weeks now; uncertain that when the rains came how their homes and few remaining possessions would survive the elements.
But the skies clear briefly and we are reassured, until around 7 that evening. When the heavens properly opened. At least my night-shift doctor was happy to be at work because his tent was currently flat. So I rushed around once more trying to close as many of the tent doors as possible in the classic camping night-time emergency look of t-shit, surf boardies and hiking boots, before retreating to the relative dryness of our tent. Falling asleep it was pleasantly cool for the first time, but the normal relaxation sensation of being dry as a storm blows and thunders outside was absent, filled in with emphatic anxiety for the 20,000 people living around us, waiting to see how much unkindness the sky gods would be directing at them.
In the morning I came to appreciate one of the other new local humanitarian phrases that I had heard but not fully appreciated- “black cotton sand.” This is the ground that when it gets wet turns into a complete and utter quagmire. Swallowing up flip flops, sticking to the bottom of boots making them quadruple in weight, entrapping vehicle tyres and generally making any sort of movement at all a massive pain. So, obliviously, the morning jog is cancelled indefinitely.
Instead, I assess the hospital. Ward one and the Emergency room are unscathed, pharmacy and ward two mildly wet, outpatients wet and triage/registration area completely flooded. I see, Helen, the cleaning lady who is so friendly we have a conversation every time we meet despite me only speaking 5 words of her language, she is valiantly trying to begin the cleaning process single handedly. After a brief ex-pat meeting to counter the catastrophe I return, source some brooms and get to work. Slowly the day workers drift in, wading through mud, often after drying and cleaning their own tents. And everyone just gets to work. Cleaners, registration clerks, watchmen and translators were all chipping in, floors swept, sandbags moved and tents secured. I direct a brief ward round whilst planning to reposition registration and triage and re routing the daily attendances who are luckily fewer in number than normal.
But, this crisis within a crisis is not a health one (well, until the malaria really gets going) and the water and sanitation team are organsing tractors to replace the immovable trucks to get water into the camp, the community team try and see if any vulnerable people are stuck and assess the damage and the logistic team communicate with the UN to see where the people who loss their tents can sleep.
It is great to see the dynamic reaction although we all feel slightly powerless as cannot provide the one thing people need; somewhere dry to sleep. It is someone slower as almost all the Sundanese are off for Eid, which starts tomorrow. Which is understandable as this is the biggest holiday in the Islamic calender, but does not particularly help as most the staff for the agencies in charge of the camp are Sudanese.
The pattern is familiar by now; A disaster, an inspiring reaction which should be entirely unnecessary and an inadequate official response. But, by the next afternoon the sun has come out again, the mud hardens and life returns to it’s normal level of dysfunction. The lingering concern is that this is only one day of rain kicking off a season which is meant to last for the next four months. It makes an atheist understand the levels of religiosity here; God only knows how they will get through it.