China Volunteers in Africa Part 2 – Interview with Chai Xi

Bolaji Odofin – China-Africa reporting project

CHAI Xi is from Beijing, China’s capital, where she studied accounting and economics. After working for eight years in finance with various international organisations, she joined the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mission in South Sudan in July, 2013. MSF continues to render medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan amidst difficult conditions and escalating violence. 

Chai Xi has also volunteered on missions in Ethiopia, Nepal and Yemen.

Why did you volunteer?

I’m very eager to help the marginalized, people isolated and excluded from healthcare. I was attracted by MSF’s independence, neutrality and impartiality. MSF represents courage, realism and idealism and to be a field worker with the organisation is a perfect combination of my interests, talents and dreams. Field projects need HR & Finance managers, which is exactly my expertise. I am also curious about different cultures and want to experience life in other places.

What were your first impressions of the country you served in?

The first mission was located in Doro refugee camp which is along the border between South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia. I arrived in South Sudan towards the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. Field workers needed to take a small plane from Juba to the project site. When I looked down from the plane at the African continent, I felt it was different from what I had imagined and expected. There were endless green forests, but without wild animals running in the vast land.  Afterwards, when I started my work, my impression of South Sudan was of a country of both chaos and hope.

Did those impressions change? What events and incidents stood out for you?

Civil war broke out in South Sudan on Dec.15, 2013, and my impression completely changed. Many residents who lived nearby left from fear. Almost every day we had local staff leaving. My assistant resigned one month after the outbreak. To ensure his family’s safety, he had to leave the project and find a place to hide with his family. I can’t forget his anxiety and how helpless he looked when he left. It changed my impression of the country: In the past, it was a chaotic but hopeful country, but at that moment its residents were desperate and afraid.

China and Sudan

Were there any crises / near disasters / challenges your expertise contained?

For a while, after the outbreak of war, my teammates on leave couldn’t go back to the field due to the airport being closed. So I was in charge of two departments—finance and HR. Fear spread among some of my teammates, but I had no time to be afraid.  It was my responsibility to manage all three hundred workers; all I considered was how to do my work well during this period.

What would you say were the best examples of the resilience of the human spirit, both in fellow volunteers you worked with, and in the people you helped?

As the security situation deteriorated, the tension in Doro refugee camp also increased. After assessments of the security situation, our team decided to stay. We had a flight bringing supplies to the mission field the next day. The field coordinator informed us that we could take the flight to leave our mission if anyone wanted to go home. None of us left our project with the plane as we all knew that if we left, we would transfer our workload and additional pressures to the colleagues left behind. What’s more, some of our colleagues were on leave when the conflict broke out, but they asked to end their holiday early so they could return to our project and we could all face the challenges in front of us together. So when people were fleeing from South Sudan, they flew back into South Sudan to be with our team, and to provide primary health care and drinking water to thousands of refugees.

I was deeply impressed by the life of South Sudanese women. In the area I worked in, a man can marry more than one wife. It’s possible for someone from a place like Beijing to consider those women very sad, living in poor conditions, with a husband who had other wives. However, I did not think so. I saw those women live a very positive life. They were often singing and laughing aloud while dancing on the road in front of our compound. When there is a wedding, they would gather together and sing merry songs and dance from their villages to our camp, back and forth.  Once, they were so happy that I also joined them in the dance. They gave me a wooden stick. With the stick in my hands above my head, I danced with them happily. I later discovered our cook and cleaners among the dancers too! We were very happy that day. Those women’s faces were shining with their expectation of a beautiful life.

Did you ever meet any African that reminded you of someone in China?

When I had time on weekends, I liked to go to the refugee camp to play games with the children there. They only had shabby clothes and no toys, and sometimes they would carry a baby on their backs though they were only four or five years old, but they were easy to please. When I said hello to them, they would burst into big brilliant smiles. That would remind me of children in cities in China, who were always surrounded by parents and grandparents, who have a lot of toys and could go to a lot of courses to learn arts, music or other skills while they seldom smiled as happily as children here. In this way it is difficult to tell who is happier.

Would you do it all again?

Yes! I learned a lot through my experience in South Sudan. I not only gained a lot of professional experience, I grew and matured as a human being. I think I will continue with my work. My life in the field is difficult and my work load is heavy. But I love field work!

Bolaji writes under the FOCAC China-Africa reporting project administered by the University of the Witwatersrand.

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