Being far from home doing in-context work while trying to find ways to gather and coexist after months of lockdowns and social distancing regulations because of the COVID 19 pandemic. How food items, drinking water, and essential medical equipment are delivered to humanitarian operations in conflict areas – Procurement with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and what guacamole has to do with it. 

Guacamole de Amor

Amounts depend on the size of produce

5 avocados

4 tomatoes (take the seeds out)

1 onion (it can be purple or white)

1 lime

½ head of garlic

Black pepper and salt (to taste)

Olive oil (to taste)

Coriander

Love

I work for MSF, but I am neither a doctor nor a health professional in the classical sense of the term. I am part of the procurement, supply, and logistics team, and when our work goes well, it is virtually invisible. We are responsible for ensuring that healthcare workers and the communities they serve have the medical equipment they need, wherever they are.

I am currently in South Sudan, where MSF has 16 active projects, making it the second-largest MSF operation in the world in terms of budget. Its operations here began in 1983 when this region was yet to become the country it is today. These projects did not all start at the same time, but were initiated one by one as independent operations during this period. Today, MSF is aware of the need to coordinate efforts between the different activities in this region, and my work there is part of these centralization attempts.

My role is to identify services and goods that can be procured in a coordinated manner. That is, could all the projects have the same source for items like rice, lentils, fuel, and cleaning items? Or the same providers for services like internet, and air, road, and river transport? If yes, what would be the most reliable sources for each of them and where would we get the most value for money? In short, I am responsible for selecting and monitoring vendors and service providers with these criteria  in mind. 

In June 2021, I went to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, with the intent to carry out strategic analyses and put this sourcing coordination plan into practice. There, I found teams that were very interested in collaborating, and they were very positive about working on coordinating and pooling resources. So, my main task there, despite challenges, is turning out rather well.

Furthermore, upon arriving, I realized that I could contribute by engaging in another, more informal  role. I was quick to notice that the social distancing regulations imposed by COVID-19 had taken a very hard toll on the teams there. This might seem obvious, as regardless of where you were in the world or what you did, you probably also felt the impact of social distancing during the pandemic. But the specific nature of MSF’s teams made this even more of a challenge.

When we are on a mission, we are all away from our families and our friends. We cannot “stay home”, because our home is not where we are. Our routine involves reporting in the morning to the office or medical facility where we have to work, spending the day there, and heading back to the accommodation we have been assigned in the evening. In addition to social distancing measures, travel in the cities in which we are located is usually very limited because of security protocols, as we are often located in areas considered as high-risk.

Thus, I felt that not only were the different teams distant, but that each individual member seemed more isolated from the whole group than they actually needed to be, even though the social distancing measures had already been relaxed. This was not apparent at first glance, and this is how it became evident to me: on my arrival to Juba, I had to spend 10 days in quarantine. When I was finally released from it, I visited the kitchen of the guest house to meet and thank the cooks who had brought (great) food to me during those days. 

There I noticed these beautiful avocados, tomatoes, onions, limes, garlic and other vegetables and fruits (later, I found out that they were sourced from Uganda, Kenya, Congo and some from South Sudan itself). So, I decided to prepare a guacamole for the team that was living in the same guest house. At the time I had not yet realized how apart people were, yet the guacamole ended up being just the thing required in  the situation, as my special recipe was almost always a catalyst for gregariousness, as it is relished by most people and brings them together. 

It was no surprise that almost everyone showed up for the guacamole. What was a surprise was the  difference in the  joy I felt in this meeting. The guacamole was good, of course, but that was not it. I soon realized, based on everyone’s  conversation and behavior, that socializing around a meal had ceased being a common, shared experience for the team. It was as simple as that: they hardly ate together at the house anymore because of the previous social distancing protocols. Despite some flexibility, such as being able to have closer contact with those who were working together or living in the same house, they had lost that habit after more than 12 months of isolation.

That was when I realized then that I could encourage more of these meetings, so that people could have more relaxing moments and greater social well-being, while away from home for so long and experiencing so many challenging situations. I took advantage of my position, which requires me to have contact with different teams, and organized a barbecue that mixed up people from different projects. 

It took some effort to get authorization from the medical coordinators, who defined the health and safety protocols, but it was worthwhile. That barbecue was a very special moment, at which many people who only knew each other through email or videoconferences could meet in person and develop close relationships for the first time. It was very touching to see how such a simple thing raised the spirit of the group and made such a difference.

This event ended up inspiring others to do the same, and social interaction started to increase, albeit with great caution and following safety protocols. As is the case everywhere, there are times when there is more openness and times when there is less, even though the case numbers are low in this country. My guacamole entered the unofficial weekly schedule of events, being served every Sunday since that day in June. It is common to receive visits from other teams, and this interaction continues in a very positive way.

Gradually, I have been able to integrate our supply chains and, on top of that, contribute to integrating our teams who are spread out across Juba and the rest of the country. I thank those who came before me and took care of the supply of beautiful avocados and fresh vegetables. When we are away from home for so long, every ingredient makes a huge difference.

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