(Note: This is an expanded version of the story that appeared in the May 14, 2012 issue of Canadian Business magazine.)
A self-described “farm boy” from Barrhead, Alta., in 2008 chemical engineer Grant Assenheimer traveled to Bangladesh to serve as a logistician for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a medical humanitarian organization. Subsequently he completed four more assignments in locations as exotic as the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last summer he returned from Chad, where he coordinated MSF’s field operations and tackled a nutrition crisis and cholera outbreak. He spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Matthew McClearn.
Hometown: Barrhead, Alta.
Years spent at Doctors without Borders: 3.5
Postings during that period: 5 (Bangladesh, DRC, Philippines, DRC, Chad)
Number of staff Assenheimer supervised in Chad: 110
What led you to MSF?
I was working 15-18 hours a day with General Electric at a water treatment plant in the oilsands in Fort McMurray. And I remember thinking: there must be a better target for my energy. Also, 10 years ago I read a book called Another Day In Paradise. It’s short stories on humanitarian workers working abroad; I could see myself doing that. Initially my wife and I planned to go abroad together. She had finished her Masters degree, and I’d been three years in my job. She found this job description from MSF and I applied. The first three projects I went on my own. My wife was able to join for the last two, so we did six months in Congo and nine months in Chad together.
Did your agricultural upbringing come in handy?
My parents instilled a strong work ethic and the ability to put in long hours for many days. You go hard when you can and rest when it rains…and this is very applicable to MSF. Sometimes the work isn’t so glorious (shoveling shit) or fun (feeding steers at -40 degrees) or interesting (picking rocks), but this develops a certain humility. I’m not afraid of, or above, doing pretty much anything.
In early roles you were a logistician. What did that involve?
Basically everything medics don’t do. Medics are way too busy saving lives. They can’t be worried about the light that doesn’t work, or the drugs that aren’t there. That’s where the logistician comes in. It’s a huge part of the actual operation: about 40% of MSF’s staff are non-medical.
How diverse are the tasks?
I remember watching a surgery and the power went out midway through. The lights were killed, and there’s a patient wide-open on the table. I asked: “Does this happen often?” And their answer was, “Sometimes. But they’ll fire the generator up again after they put some fuel in. It will only take a couple of minutes.” And that’s when it hits you: This is life and death. You need to set up a system so that this doesn’t happen again. On the other hand, you can be dealing with some car part that doesn’t work or digging a pit for a new latrine. You’re constantly facing new problems to solve.
Tell me the story about hiring the “water mamas.”
Shamwana is a tiny village in the middle of southern Congo. We provided the only health care to this population. There’s no running water, no power, there’s not really a road. So every Monday morning we’d hire 10 people to haul the water we needed from the local hand pump to the different spots in the hospital, office and living quarters. Hundreds of women would line up for this chance to work for us for a week and get paid 20 cents for every 20-litre jug hauled a kilometre from the local well to our hospital. They’d all have babies on their backs and they’re desperate for work. And you had the power to grant it. You’d pick a number in your head, say 35, you’d count to the 35th person and give them a token, and they’d cheer like they’d won the lottery. It was intense. Afterward I’d just go sit down for five minutes.
What’s the weirdest problem you encountered?
That happened in the Congo. In the dry season, lots of insects will come looking for water. The cook saw a big huge line of biting red ants coming toward our latrine, a couple of inches thick. You could see it swirling back down across the compound and out the fence. Apparently once they nest it’s hard to do anything about it. Anyway, the cook called the guards. They immediately went and got charcoal from our barbecue and spread them out into a barrier. So when the ants hit the barrier, they had to turn to go another direction. And they kept doing this for an hour until the ants decided they’d have to go somewhere else. It’s moments like those when you lean on your local staff. The guards are from that community; they’ve dealt with ants before.
How did you graduate to become a project coordinator?
I’d done two projects as a logistician. The work is challenging, but you don’t get to decide much. You can comment on the how, but you can’t say much about the what. The role of project coordinator is a step up. You become responsible for the project and you have decision-making power. You can influence the programming. You can work with the medics to make things better.
Describe the biggest challenge you encountered in that job.
The last two months of my project in Chad were the most intense during my time with MSF. We were in Am Timan, a provincial capital of one of the larger districts. We had the regular program, which involved supporting a hospital. We had a measles outbreak—which spreads quickly, especially in a semi-urban area like where we were based—so we jumped into action, hiring another 100 staff and renting 25 vehicles. Then, two weeks into that, we received our first cholera case. Cholera is one of these things you can’t mess around with. People lose huge amounts of water and become severely dehydrated, and it also spreads really quickly: it can kill within 12 hours. So we had to immediately jump into a response. I was pretty much at the limit of my capacity already.
How did you handle those crunch times?
For me it was about being organized. If I have too many things floating around in my head, I can’t get to sleep at night. But if I at least have the priorities for tomorrow written down somewhere, I’m able to go back to my hut and shut it off. I’m also teaching myself to play guitar. Even after an exhausting day, I’d sit down and try to learn one chord. I’d focus on that for 10-15 minutes. That was the only time in the day I wouldn’t think about work. And that was enough.
What have the MSF assignments taught you?
In Canada when people die you have a pretty good explanation and you understand why. In these places it’s different. You’d meet a woman with seven children, and one is sick. And she chooses to not go to hospital, because she’d have to walk two days, she’d be leaving the other six kids at home fending for themselves, and for her that’s not acceptable. Working with MSF taught me not just to value life, but to be realistic. We’re lucky to have amazing systems in Canada. We have a view that we should put off death as long as possible. But it’s not necessarily the best thing. I’ve reflected a lot on that.
In Chad I noticed the things I found exciting at the start had become less so. Suddenly I wasn’t so interested in meeting my national staff, and I couldn’t really be bothered to learn the language. That was a wake-up call.
I am currrently working as an engineer for a mid-sized water and waterwater treatment company called Filterboxx. It’s a good fit that builds on my previous employement with GE Water and the project management and HR skills developed through MSF. While I look foward to returning to the field at some point with MSF, my priorities are here at home for now.