Science, strategy, cake: My life as an MSF project coordinator

By Charity Nyakio Kamau

I’m a project coordinator for the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Bentiu, a camp for displaced people in South Sudan. I’m also an avid baker and winner of the Great Kenyan Bake Off, season 2.

I’ve been working with MSF for a long time. I started as a lab technician in Kenya in 2006, supporting MSF’s work on crises such as HIV, tuberculosis and malnutrition. Lots of people don’t realize MSF teams include lab specialists, but they are key to ensuring patients get the right diagnoses and treatments.  

After Kenya I moved to an MSF headquarters in Amsterdam to work as a lab advisor, covering up to 12 countries at a time. Teams are often working against the clock to save lives with limited resources, so it’s vital they have someone they can reach out to for advice. If a clinical or lab team had a problem or a question, I was the person they would call.

Humanitarian work is not only about preventing death, but also about seeing the life come back into people.

But after a while in Amsterdam, I started to feel very far away from where I’d started my journey with MSF. So I decided to come home. And for me, ’home’ meant being part of a hands-on humanitarian team again.

This time, I decided to use the skills I’d developed supporting teams in a new way: by becoming a project coordinator. Project coordinators are responsible for everything from strategy to security, staffing and finance.

My first assignment was in Nigeria, where I joined the team at a hospital for children with noma – a disease that’s strongly associated with poverty and malnutrition. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, making children more vulnerable to noma, while the facial deformities caused by the disease make it difficult for children to eat, increasing rates of malnutrition.

© Peter Caton

MSF community health workers in Bentui camp for internally displaced people discuss a vaccination campaign. South Sudan, 2022.

I remember one little boy who was very sick. He needed facial surgery as part of his treatment, but he was so weak he had to stay in hospital for two weeks, being fed a special diet, before he was strong enough for the operation. During that time, the team spoke to his family about the different foods available to them. We showed them how to prepare food that would be nutritious and also soft enough for their child to eat after such extensive surgery.

His father told me how worried the family had been about their sick, withdrawn son who didn’t play like the other children.

A few months after the little boy had his surgery, his father brought him back to the hospital for a check-up. I asked how he was doing.

“He does not stop playing!” said his father. “He plays so much. What did you do to him?”

“First you said he wasn’t playing enough,” I joked. “Now you’re complaining he’s playing too much!”

Feeding people is my love language. My friends signed me up for the Great Kenyan Bake Off.

We laughed about it but it really stayed with me as an example of how humanitarian work is not only about preventing death, but also about seeing the life come back into people. Nutrition is so often an important part of that.

Feeding people is my love language. My friends signed me up for the Great Kenyan Bake Off, despite my protests. I did not think I was good enough.

© Bruno De Cock/MSF

Charity Kamau speaks at an international MSF meeting. Ireland, 2019.

I’m proud that in the competition, I made sure that all my recipes used indigenous Kenyan ingredients, prepared in modern ways. These were foods that were said to be ‘for poor people’ when I was growing up but are actually sustainable.

As a scientist, to me a recipe is similar to a standard operating procedure in the lab: it’s all about chemical reactions taking place at a precise temperature and pH. I love the science of baking but also the creativity it allows you to explore. Baking can also be therapy – it helped me through the grief of losing my sister.

As an MSF project coordinator, one of your jobs is to keep up the spirits of your team, even when circumstances are challenging. Being a baker helps a lot!

Charity’s recipe: Carrot cake with white chocolate and cream cheese frosting

A good cake will bring many smiles back after a hard week in the hospital. Although I often have to improvise the ingredients, this is one of my favourites!