In cooperation with partner organisations, Heidi Nicklin distributed warming blankets to refugees so that they could protect themselves from the cold at night. Photo: humedica.
"I’m going to miss it"
Project coordinator Heidi Nicklin reports on her time spent in Kisoro
For four-and-a-half months, Heidi was in charge of the humedica refugee project in Uganda. As a committed coordinator, she saw to it that the volunteer doctors, nurses and medical students were able to work under comparatively optimal conditions.
Before she returned to her adopted home, Scotland, she stopped by the humedica headquarters in Kaufbeuren. In an interview, she reported on the memories she will take from her time spent in the heart of Africa, the challenges she had to face there and the experience of working together with constantly changing teams of volunteers.
Dear Heidi, a few days ago you returned from Uganda. What were your thoughts and feelings when you left Kisoro?
I really liked being there, I enjoyed it a lot and I’m going to miss it. It’s a good project and a beautiful country. I really enjoyed working there – one of the best projects I’ve ever worked for.
The people were very friendly and the interaction with each other as well. At the moment, I look forward to going home but the memories I take with me are positive ones and when I close my eyes, I can still see the wonderful landscape in front of me.
What responsibilities were part of your job as a coordinator in Uganda?
My main responsibility was to organise everything in a way that the medical teams were able to work, that they had a place where to work, that the patients were there, that medication was available, in short, to make the aid system work.
Apart from that, I took care of the distribution of the so-called non-food-items (daily necessities). First, the supplies had to be purchased and then a reasonable distribution had to be coordinated in cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
What was the greatest challenge for you?
The greatest challenge for me was to align the way of working of the Ugandan Red Cross Society (URCS) with the expectations of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. For a transparent accounting it is necessary to provide the Foreign Office with clearly structured lists that document a reasonable use of the donated money.
Yet in a camp where there is mud everywhere, it can turn out to be quite difficult to make such lists. Yet I was always there and I have seen that the URCS staff work thoroughly, that they are are severe when necessary and don’t let themselves get ripped off. Still, they don’t work just as it is expected in Germany. Well, the fact that I’ve managed to make it work in spite of these differences, that was quite a challenge.
What was your workday like?
Our aim was to assist the health post in Bunagana (annotation: border town to the Democratic Republic of Congo with a high number of refugees) with medication and medical staff. Each morning, from Monday to Saturday, we left our quarters at nine and started working at half past nine. That is when the Ugandan day starts, since it is very cold in the morning.
On the market days we usually worked till five since many patients came in the afternoon. On other days, we would stop working a bit earlier. On Saturdays, our treatment hours finished at one or two in the afternoon.
On average, we managed to treat between 50 and 70 patients a day and finished our work only when all patients had had their turn. We never sent a patient home without treatment.
Among the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo there were many many children. What was your impression of how the girls and boys have coped with this extreme situation?
Children are children and when you keep them occupied they forget everything else. Children live for the moment and when you give them your attention, they always smile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to them in their language and get to know what is really going on in their little heads and hearts. They had to flee from home and suddenly found themselves in this camp situation. It would have been a good thing if there had been an extra organisation to take care of the children.
Was there a situation that will remain a special memory to you?
There are actually two of them. The first was a moment when the project was still in its beginnings. I was visiting the refugee camp Nyakabande together with my first assistant coordinator at a time when there was a huge flow of refugees.
Within two days, their number had almost doubled up to 12.000 people, everything was totally crowded and therefore the atmosphere was very tense. I found this very impressive and, though it is not a very positive memory, it will remain in my mind.
The other situation, in contrast, is totally positive. When, one day, I entered one of the treatment rooms of the health post in Nyakabande, I met a woman who had delivered her baby only 20 minutes ago and the little baby was so sweet.
Since I didn’t want to let the woman walk back to the camp so shortly after the deliverance, which is quite common in that culture, I drove her and the baby and a friend of hers back to the camp by car.
During your time as a coordinator, you worked with many different teams. What were these staff dynamics like for you?
All the volunteers who came to work with me were absolute team players and adjusted very well to the new surroundings. There weren’t any difficulties and we had a lot of fun. Apart from us humedica people, however, there were also six other persons who were staying in the guesthouse of our partner organisation, very nice volunteer doctors and medical students, who were supporting the partner hospital. Therefore we had very little time to reflect on our daily work as a team, in a relaxed atmosphere, like at dinner, for instance. This is something I missed a little bit.
On the other hand, this gave our physician, Gabriel Labitzke, the opportunity to go to the Mutolere hospital in the evening as well and help the young doctors there with the diagnosis. This seemed much more important to me than summoning any official meeting.
How did your work and living conditions in Uganda differ from those of other environments you’ve worked in (Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, the Philippines)?
In terms of the housing and living conditions, Uganda was really very, very beautiful and comfortable. I also appreciated it very much that I was never alone at any time as I had been, for example, on a mission in Pakistan. In terms of the external circumstances, working in Uganda was one of the easiest experiences, similar to Zimbabwe.
You don’t have to take any special safety measures, it was a tourist area, so there were restaurants where you could eat out on your days off. Apart from that, it was a beautiful area with a great landscape.
You grew up in Asia, worked in Germany for a long time and currently live in Scotland. Do you find it easy to adjust to new surroundings?
I don’t have any problems with getting used to new surroundings, I always adjust very quickly. I see what I like and also what I don’t like. But I’m too much of a European to stay in a non-European country for a long time. I like our European diversity.
Still,l I love getting to know other countries and learning about the life of people there. And the climate of Kisoro was absolutely pleasant, I would like this forever (laughs).
What do you look forward to most when going home?
My own kitchen, my own shower, my bed.