20 October 2005
MSF volunteer, Karin Moorhouse nourishes a wounded child, during Angola’s civil war. In her recently published book “No One Can Stop the Rain,” Karin writes touchingly about the infant, whose mother was run over by a military vehicle.
There are few among us who have not pondered the notion of doing some humanitarian work at some stage in our lives, but fewer still who have acted on the impulse. While many people think of giving something back to society, and many more volunteer locally or give to charity, few have actually embraced a mid-career challenge in a war-zone.
Wei Cheng, a paediatric surgeon, and his wife Karin Moorhouse, a senior marketing executive for Nestlé Canada, left their comfortable lives to do just that. From his laboratory at Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, where he is now conducting medical research, Cheng, 47, cites the couple’s growing realization of the need to do something more meaningful with their lives.
"We are often asked what possessed us to uproot everything and join Médecins Sans Frontières. In fact it was as university students in the early ‘80s that Karin and I first talked about making a more constructive contribution to humanity at some point in our lives. However like many people, we quickly became engrossed in our careers, and never seemed to find time to do more meaningful than pull out a chequebook for charity. We never thought it would take us 20 years to take the plunge, or that we would actually realize it together."
Karin continues: "Our intentions never waned, until one day we realised that two decades had already slipped by, without having lived true to our promise. So after much debate, we surprised everyone and resigned." Together they joined Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and were assigned to war-torn Angola; a country embroiled in a bitter conflict that had lasted almost thirty years. The couple travelled to Kuito, the remnants of a provincial capital, at the heart of the country, with the unenviable reputation of being the world’s most heavily mined city.
That a surgeon should join MSF is expected, but for Moorhouse, a VP of Marketing, the link is less evident. Yet as Moorhouse explains, MSF needs volunteers with a broad range of professional expertise to facilitate their field operations. "In Canada, about 50 per cent of MSF volunteers are non-medical. They include logisticians, water and sanitation specialists, nutritionists, administrators, and financial controllers. Of course MSF always needs doctors and nurses, but many others might think they don’t have the skills necessary to contribute. However many of the talents we typically put to work in a business or not-for-profit organization can make a real difference in an humanitarian effort." Moorhouse, 43, volunteered as a financial administrator, where she applied her extensive managerial experience to the demands of the project.
Médecins Sans Frontières has evolved to become the largest independently-funded medical relief organization. It remains a volunteer organization and relies on ordinary citizens to commit time from their lives to its relief operations. In 2003, Cheng also volunteered during his vacation for a short emergency mission to war-torn Liberia.
In carrying out humanitarian assistance, MSF volunteers also act as witnesses, speaking out about the plight of the populations for whom they work. Called temoinage or bearing witness, this philosophy is central to MSF, It is in this spirit that Karin and Wei tell their story today: stories of ordinary Angolans who endured the misery of life in a war zone. The couple’s experiences have been captured in their recently published book, "No One Can Stop the Rain". The title is a tribute to the people of Angola, and the belief that peace would eventually prevail, even as the conflict raged for more than three decades. The book chronicles the couple’s work with civilians - victims of landmines and war, the malnourished and the displaced.
They write sensitively about children like three-year-old Veronica, who was seriously injured when her young brother innocently picked up a discarded hand-grenade. He was killed instantly. They also mourn the senseless killing of Manuel Vitangui, their nurse-colleague, who was ambushed while collecting wounded. Each patient remembered by name; each story startlingly real. The couple’s meticulous documentation of day to day life is an amazing testament to human solidarity, but it also looks at why two career professionals from divergent cultural backgrounds (Cheng is from Beijing, while his wife is Australian), left their comfortable lives and professional engagements, to volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières.
"It is our hope that in reading this book, one could believe that the flickering light of humanity we witness almost daily in this world of conflict and tragedy, is not about to be extinguished, but rather can be given new energy through the efforts of ordinary people, like you and I," says Cheng. "It’s human nature to talk about things we will do 'one day'", adds Moorhouse. "This book also helps people realize that volunteering for a humanitarian organization can be done at many different stages in life. And the rewards are tremendous. The sheer resilience of ordinary Angolans, and their ability to endure in terrible circumstances touched us to the core. Our experience was both inspiring and humbling."
"No One Can Stop the Rain", by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng is published by Insomniac Press, Toronto. The couple is donating the proceeds of their book royalties to Médecins Sans Frontières.