Morning Exercise by Julia Macdonald

I left my US job ten months ago to work with Doctors without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers, first in Ethiopia on the border of South Sudan, then in Nord Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The pieces I am submitting for consideration are my attempts to capture those magical, fleeting moments which ran through my days like water from cupped hands.

The first hints of pink streak the sky just before 6am. I roll out of bed, literally roll out from under the mosquito net, out of this silly short bed. The mattress is too long to recess in the wooden trundle-like frame, so its end slants up and then sticks out over the foot end. I sleep in reverse, with my feet pressed against the squeaky headboard and my head hanging from the upslope tail end, mosquito netting draped like a veil across my head. Every night I think about dragging the mattress to the ground so I can sleep flat, but every night I opt to stay under the mosquito net in this the sway-backed bed instead.

By 6:10, the ground undarkens and I’m headed to the basketball court. We currently have a heightened security situation, so we are relegated to the little concrete square at an abandoned school next to the MSF compound. Mule (“Mulay”) and I have run together since I moved to Kule (“Kulay”) from Terkidi. Annika has rejoined us now that a foot wound has healed, and Seble has started showing up, albeit grumpily. This morning, I am thrilled to see Chankoath with basketball shorts and running shoes joining for the first time! We are five! 

We start with a jog, each choosing her/his own pace. Running at the edge and taking sharp corners squeezes in more distance per lap than rounding the corners. Mule and I often pair up, passing Annika and Seble every so often. Today, Chankoath jogs and stops, jogs and walks. We give high fives and cheer each other on. Sometimes we run in silence, sometimes we talk. Today, we talk about:

–updates about community discord;

–the election (delayed once, will it be delayed again?);

–the sun rays through the clouds, the mountains, green land, grass tukules;

–the sight of twenty people walking in shoulder deep water towards Nguenyyiel (another camp. Adults carry babies on their heads and children wade up to their shoulders. Why are they walking in the water? I ask the exercising group. Usually there is a road there, I am answered. That is a bizarre reason to be wading. Why are they going? We speculate: rations, violence, family… This is weird. I make a note to mention it to staff.)

After jogging enough laps, Mule and I sprint several times around (“Faster, go faster!”) to finish. Moaning about how each of us is trying to kill the other, the five of us stagger to the middle of the court. I lead animal-themed calisthenics: the Bear crawl (walking on all fours, straight arms and legs) and Monkey variations (imagine a squatting cartwheel, legs balanced overhead), froggers, squats and jumping squats, then onto arms and abs: pushups, planks, boat pose, various ab exercises. We take turns counting reps in various languages: Nuer, Amharic, German, English.  After beating back the tall grass to scare away snakes, we stand at the edge of the court and jump on and off the concrete slab, frontwards and backwards.  

“Pick a number between 10 and 20! [groan…3?] OK, one-three, 13 burpees, Seble you count, Amharic, go!” With moans, everyone jumps and drops. Changkoath agrees to count aloud our figure eights (lower abdominals, done with legs hanging off the slab), but, within seconds, he forgets. It is the first silence of the morning. Three cranes fly overhead. There are no clouds. We lie on our backs on this filthy, sharp concrete, silently moving our feet back and forth. I start laughing, then he starts, and soon, we are all howling while waving our legs around above the grass. Children in nearby tukules watch. 

By 7:00, sweat drips from our noses and chins, shirts soaked through and filthy. “Good workout!” We slap hands like a team after a game.  Seble pouts and grumbles, Annika needs coffee, and Changkoath moans that he is sweating like a river. Yet, everyone agrees to meet just inside the gate tomorrow morning again. This small team of enthusiastic (if grumpy) morning exercisers has given me a little group of friends. I am grateful for these smiles, for jokes and laughter. On the days when I feel my spirits flag, Mule’s encouragement to “go, go, go” fills my sails. I think about my colleagues, the “in-pats”, these brave Ethiopians who have left their homes in bigger cities to live and work here in Kule – sometimes for years. They were here before I came and will remain long after I leave, serving this community with kindness and steadfast care. They are what makes me most proud to be a part of MSF.

The past couple days have seen a small disagreement between families escalate into a larger community-wide conflict. The first indication of trouble was the appearance of a man with a bleeding head wound at our lunch table. The guards quickly whisked him away to the ER. Since then, we have learned more details about the situation and have seen more people in our clinics.

Yesterday afternoon held a bit of excitement as a rather large group of men with spears opted to seek refuge (without invitation) in the MSF compound. I saw Mule next to a wall and made my way through the staff crowd to him. “Now we will use our training…” he said, and flipped into a monkey pose. We laughed to imagine our calisthenics frightening off the men! After some negotiation with MSF staff, the men vacated, but song and sound throughout the afternoon portends ongoing violence. 

Last night, my neighbor Annika and I were up at 1AM, awakened by a crowd singing and marching towards a fight. The PC texted a 2am situation update and that “the compound was secure.” At the breakfast table, Alastair remarked in his dry British accent “It’s an odd battle strategy, really. One would think to surprise an opponent by sneaking up on him rather than announce your approach with song.” His panther-like “sneaking up” body language had us in hysterics.

Tonight, I delivered a baby en caul, hand first, and returned to my room to read that a dear patient at home died. Life and death. We also transferred a man with a penetrating spear wound (reference above current community situation) and likely splenic lac off for surgery. It has been a day. And now, time to fold my long body onto my short bed. 5:50 will come early and we have laps to run…

BIO: Julia McDonald (She/They) is a queer artist, writer, and physician from central Maine, currently working in east Africa.

Photo Credit

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