On the road: from here to Congo, with Médecins Sans Frontières

A compelling journey, with added flying cockroaches
Image of David Pilling

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“Try to avoid the caterpillar stew.” That was the less-than-comforting advice I received from one veteran of the Democratic Republic of Congo after a meeting with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Financial Times’s London offices, where we were planning coverage for our Seasonal Appeal.

For my trip to the DRC, the FT gave me the scariest first aid kit I have ever seen © David Pilling

The attractions of caterpillar stew aside, Congo was the place I had decided to visit when the FT commissioned a piece on MSF’s work in Africa.

For me, Congo — vast, vibrant and variously vandalised by leaders past and present — was the epitome of a troubled African state. That made MSF’s presence there of great interest.

So it was that at 5am on a freezing Sunday morning in October, I met Charlie Bibby, the FT’s photographer, at Heathrow airport for the flight to Kinshasa (via Istanbul).

Travelling with a photographer, a rare pleasure at the FT, makes for a different experience. It usually starts with an argument at check-in where staff say the bag — loaded down with camera equipment — is too heavy.

The journalist pleads that it is too precious to go in the hold. Charlie’s charm eventually won the day.

This time, Charlie not only had cameras for still photography — we are also going to experiment with 360-degree equipment, which captures a scene in the round and is designed to give viewers an immersive experience. (You can check out our efforts here.)

A mural in Kinshasa © David Pilling

We arrived in Kinshasa late that evening and were taken to a hotel used by MSF staff. We persuaded the kitchen to open for us and ate our first Congolese meal. It was nothing quite as exotic as caterpillar stew. The only thing on offer was chicken and chips.

Charlie was reluctant to film in Kinshasa, the sprawling, buzzy capital. It has a reputation for being quite dangerous and hostile to photographers and he was worried about losing his equipment before we had even started. 

As it turned out, Kinshasa proved quite a fun place to hang out, but we were soon on the road for the two-day drive to Mukedi where we would be documenting a typhoid epidemic.

We spent a night in Kikwit, a mud-splattered provincial capital. My room door did not close, and on entering I was “attacked” by a flying cockroach of impressive proportions. The hotel experience — tempered by lots of cold Tembo beer — inspired Charlie to pen a song, set to the tune of “Hotel California”. Here is one verse:

So I called up the garçon.
Please bring me my sheets
He said we haven’t had that luxury
here since nineteen sixty-six

You get the idea. Whingeing journalists. Still, even mollycoddled reporters adapt eventually. 

At the MSF camp in Mukedi we got used to cold bucket showers, sleeping on the floor (more attention from cockroaches) and the goat-meat stew (hair still attached for the lucky few).

Our bed in the MSF camp in Mukedi © Charlie Bibby

The spartan conditions made me all the more admiring of MSF staff for whom life in the middle of a typhoid epidemic was relatively normal.

One thing I did not get used to was death. Several patients, including one whom we were following quite closely, passed away during our four days at the camp. We heard about an MSF nurse who had stopped crying when her patients died — and decided that meant it was time to quit.

One Belgian nurse in particular, Maryse, impressed me greatly. She was not included in the final piece I wrote but she deserved to be. She worked tirelessly on the wards and remained cheerful throughout, despite the fact she had to go to bed clutching a two-way radio in case she was needed on ward in the night. (She often was.)

On one particular day, she awoke soaked in her sleeping bag after a torrential downpour, attended to a patient who died, and returned late to the camp to find that all the food had been eaten. It was a tough day, but she managed to keep positive. (The FT bought her a beer.)

Charlie and I went about our business, filming and reporting at the hospital and accompanying MSF staff to pick up a 13-year-old girl, Felly Katembo. You can read about that here.

Charlie set up the “golf ball” 360-degree camera in a variety of settings, capturing live surgery, life on the ward, children playing in the river and a church choir rehearsal. He even put the camera in the middle of a group of kids playing football. They obligingly kicked the ball around the equipment without knocking it over.

Children play football outside the MSF base in Mukedi © Charlie Bibby

The whole trip was compelling. One thing that stuck out was the willingness of ordinary Congolese to share their stories even in the midst of great suffering or anxiety. One woman tending her son — diagnosed with both malaria and meningitis — was graciousness itself.

For Charlie and me, the whole experience was emotionally gruelling. I must admit I was quite happy when we set off back to Kinshasa, although it did mean another night in the hotel in Kikwit (“Not a lovely place, Not a lovely place . . .”).

At one point, as we sped back to Kinshasa, the driver screeched to a halt to buy something from a street stall. It was evidently something he could not get back in Kinshasa. He slung a plastic bag on the seat next to me. It was full of juicy caterpillars.


All donations received before January 31, 2017, will be matched, up to £300,000, by The ELMA Relief Foundation, a private charitable foundation that supports communities affected by man-made or natural disasters.

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