Spending seven hours squashed onto an overburdened motorbike as it sped through dense forest in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo was all in a day’s work for Edinburgh-born health promoter Izzy Scott-Moncrieff.
Izzy has been working for humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the central African country since October last year and has been involved in different programmes that aim to improve people’s health or stop them from succumbing to sickness.
Her role is essentially about altering perceptions, she says. “Getting people to think or do things in a different way that they may never have considered is incredibly challenging”, said Izzy. “Behaviour and attitude are so entrenched in culture and routine.”
Her first three months were spent in a village in the Maniema Province in the east of the country trying to combat what is known as “sleeping sickness”, a disease spread by Tetse flies that can be fatal if not treated.
She and the rest of her “flying” team of doctors and health promoters searched for remote populations by motorbike.
When in situ, they would screen people with a simple blood test and work with village chiefs and elders to explain the benefits of screening and to provide free treatment.
After studying Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, Izzy moved to London where she worked in marketing. She felt unfulfilled however and in 2015 signed up for a masters in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
It was there she was introduced to the work of the Geneva-based MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders.
On learning that the NGO needed people on their team who weren’t medically trained who could string a sentence together in French, she applied for a position and was taken on.
Now the 28-year-old is involved in a new project that focuses on the prevention and treatment of HIV in an area of DRC where the instances of the disease are ten times higher than in the rest of the country.
The town, Lulimba, is a gold mining hub and has a thriving sex work industry as a result. Izzy works closely with the women and the miners to encourage the use of condoms and highlight the importance of regular HIV screenings.
She is also working on the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, respiratory infections and sexual violence.
She says that rape is normalised and extremely common but very under-reported. Another focus is family planning in the hopes of encouraging girls to stay in school and to prevent serious health complications in pregnancy.
She works in schools encouraging boys to respect women so that hopefully they won’t hurt anyone but also so they can call out others who they see perpetuating violence.
“It’s always about asking ‘why’,” Izzy said. “We build up a bank of knowledge that can help build our understanding of the constantly changing contexts in which we work.”
Her job is mostly about communication, as well as health promotion. Working in such a volatile environment means that Izzy and her fellow MSF workers have to be accepted by the local community, the military and other armed forces for their own protection and also for those they are trying to help.
She was apprehensive before she landed in DRC, the politically unstable country that has been riven by conflict for decades.
“I know I wasn’t alone in feeling very out of my depth in the first few weeks”, she said.
She is used to seeing men on the streets with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Earlier this year things were tense with political unrest spilling down to towns and villages as government forces and rebel groups fought to gain control over valuable land. But her lasting impression of the country and its people is overwhelmingly positive: “it’s beautiful with mountains, huge lakes and forests. The teachers and community workers I have worked with have been amazing people.”
Izzy is due to leave DRC in August and spend a few months at home before travelling to Haiti, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia with MSF to conduct research into menstrual health management. “Maybe it’s time to try and find a fulfilling office job in the UK … but I don’t think so.”