An Inspiring Car Journey
The regional EmOC Programme has projects in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast and is being funded by the EC and Irish Aid. The four-day conference provided an opportunity for IRC field staff, along with Ivorian Ministry of Health officials, local Health Centre staff and community representatives to receive technical training, exchange best practices, and discuss challenges and experiences in implementing EmOC programmes.
They say that it is often the ‘meetings outside of the meetings’ that are the most worthwhile and certainly with all those long hours confined either in a vehicle or a hotel, I had an enforced, but invaluable, opportunity to get to know my colleagues a lot better. Travelling back from Yamassoukro to Abidjan, I was joined by two female staff from the IRC Liberia program. As the reproductive health managers for Nimba and Lofa counties they facilitate EmOC community awareness trainings, help mobilise communities to set up group funding schemes so that local women can receive emergency treatment, support local health centre staff and help them access the equipment and drugs they need to run the centres.
During our long car journey, one of the ladies casually mentioned that it had been several years since she had last been in the Ivory Coast. She went on to tell us that she herself had been a refugee in Ivory Coast, as well as in Guinea. Hearing this, my other colleague said that she too had been a refugee, having only just arrived back in Liberia after many years being passed from one African country to another. Following the 2005 elections in Liberia she had finally decided to stop waiting for the UNHCR to repatriate her or arrange for her to go to a third country, and to find her own way home. Travelling by herself, (her husband having died), she had only recently arrived back in Liberia, where she was reunited with her family, and is now building a home for not just for herself but for six additional children that she has taken under her wing. In fact both these women are grandmothers and both have tragic tales to tell of the children and other close loved ones they have lost in one or other of the many violent conflicts that have plagued the region for decades.
I listened amazed as they chatted away comparing their fascinating stories, all the while rummaging in their bags and pulling out a stream of documents and certificates - the precious paper trail they had always kept with them when, as refugees, they needed to be able to prove who they were, a vital part of keeping a sense of self in often terribly dehumanising conditions. Beneath their colourful African dresses, their constant smiles, their laughter and energy, was a courage, strength and resilience tempered by the experiences they had endured. These women had come to know the IRC when refugees themselves, either working with the organisation or benefiting from its programmes. It makes their contribution now, and that of many other similar national staff, totally invaluable. Who better than they, who have experienced the plight of the refugee firsthand, to relate to, and personally understand the needs of the local communities, IDPs and refugees that the IRC’s programmes support?
It was an inspiring car journey…
Jo Deverson is the IRC's West Africa Regional Programme Manager, based in London