Her BHAG – In Action

Faculty Focus

Not many of us set BHAG’s (“Big Hairy Audacious Goals”) and even fewer of us act on those that we do set, but Cindy Gilbert, former and founding Director of the MA in Sustainable Design program has done both.  

Back in January, Cindy announced that she was leaving her post as Director to pursue her next BHAG — to realize her dream of working as a field logistician for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).  Now, she is settled in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a town called Baraka (pop: ~100,000) that sits on the shore of Lake Tanganyika (2nd deepest lake in the world!).  As she reports, it has been a very challenging and rewarding experience so far. I’ll let her take it from here. The text below from an email update she sent recently.

What are you doing in the Congo?! What’s the job?

I think most of you know that I have a 9 month contract with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres – MSF). I am finally realizing a 20-year goal to work with MSF. I’m so lucky to have a supportive husband 🙂

Specifically, I am the hospital facilities manager for Baraka Hospital and a temporary hospital (basically a camp with many large tents that are converted into hospital rooms) that runs for 6 months of the year during peak malaria season called “Cent Lits” (100 beds). This basically means I spend all of my working hours in the hospital or at the 100 Lits site. I see things I cannot even begin to describe, because I am working in all of the wards of the hospital, from surgery to neonatal ICU to maternity to malnutrition to HIV, as well as dealing with waste of all kinds. I am amazed at how quickly I have adapted to seeing and smelling and hearing horrific things (not that I will ever get to the point it doesn’t bother me or impact me), it’s just that I know these things happen now and I have to accept them as part of my job. On the flip side, I also get to witness the most special and beautiful moments because I am in a hospital – where someone recovers, were a baby moves out of ICU, were a new mama gets a celebration in the community with music and food when she leaves the hospital.

As for the day to day, I am responsible for oversight and management of anything logistics-related for these structures which includes water, energy, construction, repairs/maintenance, supplies, etc. For example, if a roof is leaking, I am responsible to order the supplies and find someone to fix it; if latrines are full, I hire people to empty them (if we’re lucky, with a pump; if we are unlucky, by hand); if the power goes down, I get the backup generator going and find someone to repair the primary generator. In a nutshell, I have some big long term projects to do (i.e., oversee the construction of a new HIV/TB building) at the same time I need to put out daily fires (i.e., fix drainage canals, roofs, lighting, build and repair things that break, etc.). It is super challenging for me because it is never very predictable, everything needs to be done in french (hiring and working with numerous contractors, daily workers and staff, negotiating contracts, material costs, delivery schedules, etc.), and people come to me constantly with new problems. I am really starting to love the job though, as I get to know staff and work with contractors more regularly, and to understand the bigger picture. I am starting to learn how all the paperwork and procedures work. I am improving my french. However, it is far from easy and I am utterly exhausted every night. Everyone tells me, “Be patient with yourself; it’ll take about 3 months to know what the heck is going on!” Every day I tell myself, “pole, pole” which is “slowly, slowly” in Swahili 🙂

What’s the weather like?

Very consistent! It is hot, dry/dusty and humid everyday. Lows of 25C and highs of 35C with about 70% humidity. It’s still the dry season. Soon the rains will come and the temps will be the same but it will rain several inches a day. I hope that it holds off for a while while we prepare the malarial camp because the rains bring mosquitoes which bring malaria.

What is it like where I live?

I live (sleep, eat) in a secure compound for expats (non-national staff). It has a shared 1-story building (that has a kitchen, eating area, shared bathrooms (2 toilets and 3 showers), a few bedrooms for visitors, and a “safe room” (which set up to house 15 people for a week or more during crisis situation (it is bullet proof, has satellite connection, solar power connection, battery backups, food and medical supplies, spare mattresses, water, radios, etc.). Also in the compound are 8 individual “tukuls” (which are like yurts made of concrete) where most of the long term staff stay (like me, >6 month contracts), and an outdoor eating/courtyard area plus a covered outdoor seating area. Everything is built from locally made mud bricks, concrete and has thatched or corrugated metal roofing. The compound also has a parking area for all of our MSF vehicles as well as guard area, some admin offices, and a mechanic and maintenance area. The compound is surrounded by a ~20′ concrete wall (about 3′ thick) topped with razor wire and a huge steel gate/entrance. We have 24 hr (unarmed) guards at the compound and at the hospitals and clinics where we work. We are required to have hand-held VHF radios and local cellphones on and with us at all times for safety and security purposes.

What are the people like?

The locals are very happy, generous and economically poor people. They are quick to smile and say hello. Kids and adults say “good morning” all day and night to me (and other expats) because they want to use their limited English when they see us. It is really sweet.

Locals tend to really love MSF’s presence here because we represent quality health care and some economic stability for the region. Because MSF has been working in this town for 15 years (started the Baraka Hospital), we really have a positive presence here and it feels very safe despite being in a region where armed conflict is normal. People look out for MSF as a whole and MSF employees (wearing a MSF t-shirt -our uniform- is a great way to feel safe here) and we have good communication channels with all factions in the region.

The MSF local staff and contractors that I work with at the hospital are kind, smart and highly skilled. They are also incredibly patient with my poor French. Everyone speaks Swahili as their first language and French as a 2nd, 3rd or 4th language (after other African languages). Some can speak a bit of English but it’s quite rare. It is remarkable what the Congolese can do with so little money and resources. Locals are really innovative and creative. It is shocking to see the amount of heavy stuff people are able to carry on their heads and bicycles!

I also work with between 10-15 expats (non-Congolese people) at any given time. Everyone has been warm and welcoming. We can house up to 15 expats at the compound. Generally, we have about 10 regular expats living and working full time in Baraka and then we have “flying” staff that come from other projects in the region to help us out (for example, we have a flying WATSAN (water and sanitation) expert who comes to visit us at the hospital for a few weeks at time to ensure proper functioning of water systems, etc), and sometimes we have visitors from the capital or trainers visiting to teach a workshop at the hospital, for example. Currently, I am the only native English speaker! Everyone else speaks English as a 2nd or 3rd language (some not at all). Currently, we have expats from Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Haiti, Tanzania, Italy, Canada, Cameroon, Mexico, and Morocco.

What is the food like?

We are really lucky to have great cooks (whom we call “mamas”) and fresh local food here. [Note: in general, saying “mama”or “papa” to a woman or man is a sign of respect in Swahili (at least in the Congo). For example, saying “Jambo, mama” (hello, mama!) to an older woman in the market elicits a huge smile and a warm “asante sana” (thank you very much!)).] The mamas make us all sorts of foods but mostly beans, rice, pasta, local meat (goat, fish), “fufu” (local maca flour dough balls) and whatever local fruits and veggies they have. Lots of bananas, avocados, plantains, taro, etc.

We do breakfast on our own but the mamas cook us a big lunch for us served at 1p everyday (we all return to the compound to eat together) and they leave dinner for us at 5p to eat whenever we want in the evening (everyone eats when they can depending on their work), except on Sundays when we cook for ourselves. Some of us expats get together to cook a big meal on Sunday afternoon (our 1 day off) and as a tradition we all eat dinner together on Sundays. Those who don’t cook clean up. Last weekend, we made a huge Haitian meal. It’s a great way to learn about recipes from around the world!

The mamas also clean the compound and do our laundry (what a luxury!). The crazy thing is that they literally iron EVERYTHING (even underwear!). When I first arrived, I thought this is nuts because I don’t even iron my own clothes and I have nothing that requires ironing (t-shirts and quick dry pants don’t fall into the “must iron”category!) but I quickly learned that it is required to iron your clothes to kill bot fly eggs. When clothes are hung out to dry, bot flies lay eggs on the clothes which will then turn into larvae and burrow into your skin when you wear your clothes, unless you iron first. So, I am now okay with the mamas ironing our clothes (!!), and I thank them for doing so every time I catch them in the act 🙂


Do you have a BHAG?  If it involves changing your perspective, changing your designs, and changing the world, we invite you to explore MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program!  Sign up for our next informational webinar to learn more.

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]