A doctor, an engineer and an accountant walked into a bar. Well, into a sly grog tent decked out with a table and a few old chairs. What more would you expect in an African refugee camp? The three Australians reminisced about their shared schooldays. They swapped stories from home: wives, children, weather events and political shenanigans. Then they get down to tin tacks.

“I reckon I’ve saved a hundred lives since we arrived,” said the doctor. “It’s hard yakka, and there are too many hard decisions to make. Who gets medicine and who misses out, who’s put in isolation and who’s left in the ward even though they’re probably infectious. Life’s a gamble here, but we’re doing our bit.”

“Good on you. You’re a champ,” said the accountant. “Have you managed to get much sleep?”

“A snatch here, a snatch there. Really don’t have time to scratch myself, let alone get eight hours sleep in a stretch.”

“Just as well you can’t scratch yourself. Who knows what infections you could pick up from your patients if you broke your skin. I’ve assiduously refrained from scratching this nasty rash all week,” said the engineer, presenting an arm for inspection. “What do you think it is, doc?”

“Nothing to worry about,” he replied. “I’ll be interested in your case when you’re running a high fever, exhibiting severe respiratory symptoms or having a heart attack. Not before. Now tell us what you’ve achieved since you landed in this hellhole.”

“I reckon I’ve kept a few hundred people out of your hospital just by digging new latrines and installing taps in this section of the camp. After twenty years’ experience as a civil engineer, working on hugely challenging projects, clawing my way up the employment tree, here I’m a glorified plumber. Now that’s hard yakka. Satisfying though, seeing what a difference I’ve made so soon. These people need a bit of hope in their lives, but I need a lot more hardware to fix other sections of the camp, to make more of a difference.”

“That’s why we came here, to make a difference. And to be more than a cog in some giant machine we don’t understand,” said the accountant.

“That’s deep,” said the doctor. “You must’ve had a good look at the camp’s books by now. Have you found anything interesting?” He was being polite and inclusive, and certainly didn’t expect to find the accountant’s answer interesting. His friend had been a bit of a rebel at school, a good sportsman, and his exam results could have led to any profession, so why he chose accountancy had always been a mystery.

A messenger from the hospital burst into the tent. “Doctor, please come. Three nurses very sick. Fever. Every breath hard work. Very scary,” he said.

The doctor looked at his companions in alarm. “Three nurses down. I could do with a hand,” he said. They swilled the dregs of their drinking session and hurried off with him. This would be their first stint as orderlies; they were tired as dogs but willing as horses.

“I’ll have to use the last doses of antibiotic,” said the doctor. “I can’t run a hospital without nurses. They have to get well, and soon.”

His orderlies attended to the other patients while he looked after the nurses and worried about his own health. What would all these poor people do without him? Infection control was his main concern, with equipment as well as medicine in short supply. All for the want of cold hard cash.

Once the nurses were breathing normally, the three friends had a brief rest.

“You asked if I’d found anything interesting in the books,” said the accountant. “What I’ve found is a hole, a wormhole that I’ve managed to squeeze through. Hard yakka, you might say, even though I’ve been sitting on my backside, cogitating and calculating. Digging deep, cutting away a bloody mess of trickery and obfuscation, I’ve discovered a huge pool of donations sitting in a hidden account, no doubt waiting for some bastard to steal the lot. Lots of people care about these refugees, individuals and groups, small companies and big businesses, in many countries. They’ve been much more generous than the basic accounts show.”

“Can you get access to those funds?” asked the engineer, shaken from near torpor by this revelation.

“That’s the good news. I’m meeting with the camp committee tomorrow to decide how to divvy the money up. More medicines certainly, more hospital beds and more equipment for infection control. More taps and pipes and valves, and I’m hoping you can design a simple sewage digester.”

“Well, look who’s the real champ here!” said the doctor, slapping the accountant on the back with brotherly affection and admiration.

“Hear, hear!” said the engineer, grinning like the proverbial pig in mud.

By Debbie Rudder from Australia



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