Back from Kasai: "in the heart of the void". A photographer’s testimony
Alexis Huguet, is a freelance photographer who has been living in Africa for the past three years. After a few years in Cameroon, he is about to settle in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where he works on various assignments for NGOs and media, applying his skills and knowledge in photography and video.
Today he tells us about his second mission for ALIMA, which took him to the Kasai region in DRC. While some insecurity remains due to pockets of active armed militias, as displaced populations try to resettle, the medical needs are enormous. ALIMA supports two hospitals in Kamuesha and West Kalonda, and has opened nine health centers in Kamuesha, to provide primary and secondary health care and to fight against malnutrition.
“Arriving in Kasai, and particularly when we reach Tshikapa, I begin to sense what it means to start over from scratch. For everybody.
Because here, everyone has a terrible story to tell; they all had to hide in the forest, they all lost a loved one, even the nursing staff. There was nothing left, and little by little people are coming back to find their villages almost entirely burnt down, and brush has invaded what remained. Not far into our journey, we come across ghost villages. It’s still too dangerous. The area is not totally secure. Nobody wants to stop there. Behind the vehicle’s window, the area’s chief medical officer looks on with immense sadness.
There are no words to describe this feeling. It’s ineffable. Yet showing this emotion is the purpose and meaning of my work, and my duty as a photographer for ALIMA.
Assignments are scheduled back-to-back; I have to constantly assess what I see, to decide on what I must share and what I cannot show. When I'm in the field, my energy is high and the days are intense.
But in the evening, when it's time to look back on the work, it's hard not to hit a low point.
I’m going through my shots, I’m typing my notes and I rediscover those pictures taken a few hours ago; they show a condition called desquamation, or the peeling off of pieces of skin, in children. It hits you in the guts ... And I realize it is unbearable to look at. I cannot show it to you, so I tell you about it.
With the new day, it starts all over again. I have to earn the trust of staff and patients so that they understand the purpose of my work, accept my presence and eventually stop noticing the camera pointing at them. Only then does the real discussion begin, and I can get to the core of their testimony. There is so much to do, to see, to tell…it's so frustrating!
It’s frustrating to hear the patients waiting in the next room at the paediatric ward say they are sad that I’m not among them. Because they too have something to tell.
You meet people, you live among them, you discover each other and then you have to leave. This time I needed another kind of ending, on my own terms. That’s when the pictures became therapeutic; they helped me part with people and get back on the road. On my last day, as I distribute the photos that I miraculously managed to print, an incredible emotion fills the room; and this time it’s positive. I stammer in the local language, Tshiluba: Tuasakidila Tuasakidila Mama! Thank you, thank you...
At the health centres, a sense of humanity is recreated little by little within a place cut off from the world. It’s inspiring to see NGOs like ALIMA settle in the heart of this void to be with the people. By providing medical assistance and maternal care, and fighting against childhood malnutrition, they help those who have inevitably become the most vulnerable.
ALIMA is giving a chance at survival to those who have already survived so much.”
ALIMA (The Alliance for International Medical Action) is a humanitarian medical organization that works hand-in-hand with a network of local medical NGOs to provide quality health care to the most vulnerable people during emergencies and chronic crises. Based in Dakar, Senegal, ALIMA has treated more than 3 million patients in 12 countries since its creation in 2009, and launched 10 research projects focusing on malnutrition, malaria and the Ebola virus.
In DRC, ALIMA has been active since 2011, with a focus on emergency outbreak response. This includes multiple outbreaks of cholera, measles and Ebola. Between 2013 and 2017 in the former Katanga province, ALIMA had in place an Emergency Intervention team, known as RUSH, which supported the epidemiological surveillance, investigation and response to possible outbreaks. Our teams now focus on the Kasai region, in Upper Lomami province, where local populations, who have been affected by ongoing conflict, benefit from free medical and nutrition care.
Since July 2018, ALIMA has treated nearly 295 children for severe acute malnutrition, performed some 1,606 outpatient consultations, and treated more than 4,568 children for malaria.
These activities are made possible thanks to generous financing from the European Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), The Innocent Foundation in Kamuesha and by the Consortium with Action Against Hunger (ACF) in the West Kalonda health zone.
Photos: Alexis Huguet/ ALIMA