Nurse. Africa Groups of Sweden
MS Bjerneld worked as a nurse in a camp for Nambian refuges in Angola for the Africa Groups of Sweden. She is telling us about the conditions in the camp as well as the cooperation with SWAPO. She was later the administrator in Sweden for the Medical Aid for SWAPO project. A position the interviewer had held at the beginning of the project. She was also a board member of the Africa Groups of Sweden for 5 years in the 1980s.
Bertil Högberg: Today is 13 October 2005, I am sitting in Uppsala with Magdalena Bjerneld. How and when did you become involved in the support to the liberation struggle in Southern Africa?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It started during the time when I took a course at the Sandö School. It was a one-year preparation for people who were interested in working in developing countries. After that year, I moved to Uppsala and here I met a group of people who were engaged in southern Africa. I was recruited to go to Mozambique to work with the health care system there.
Bertil Högberg: By the Africa Groups?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: So you didn't have any prior contact with the Africa Groups before your recruitment?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, I used to take part in the study circle here when I moved to Uppsala.
Bertil Högberg: In which year was this?
Magdalena Bjerneld: This was 1977. During my preparation I took a course in health care in developing countries at IMCH (International Maternal and Child Health at Uppsala University) where I am working now. During this course, I was asked if I could go to the SWAPO settlements in Angola instead. In September 1980 I went to the Kwanza Sul settlement in Angola.
Bertil Högberg: You were one of the first to go there.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes I was in the second group. SWAPO wanted a nurse working with anaesthesia because they were planning to open an operation theatre in the camp. But, the Africa Groups couldn't find anyone, and sent me instead. I am definitely not an anaesthetic nurse. I am a district nurse. It was quite interesting because there were no possibilities to have any operations in that camp at that time because the hygiene standard was very, very low. Instead I continued to try to open “under five” clinics in the camp together with some Namibian nurses. Margareta, who had been there before me, had tried, but she had no proper materials to work with. She for example didn't have any proper scales to weigh the children. The Namibian nurse didn't have any knowledge on how to use a health chart (a chart where you plot the children’s weight in order to follow their growth), but through the project we had some money so we could buy some materials.
Bertil Högberg: I remember printing those charts. You were part of a team.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes we were four. Gittan Arwén, laboratory technician and two doctors, Martin Björk and Birgitta Lång.
Bertil Högberg: How long did you stay there?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Seven months. During these months I lost eleven kilos. I remember that Dr Ndongo told me he thought it was time for me to go home, because I was so thin and I was quite sick.
Bertil Högberg: But were you not supposed to have been there for a year?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No, I was contracted for five months, but I stayed until another nurse arrived.
Bertil Högberg: The conditions were tough, can you describe them?
Magdalena Bjerneld: We didn't have much water, so I tried to store water in a bathtub. We had very little food, but we could buy some canned meat balls in Luanda. We had maize porridge for breakfast I remember. Sometimes we had some bread and we could go to Luanda every sixth week to swim in the sea and to get clean. But, then the security situation became difficult.
Bertil Högberg: But it was quite far from the border but…
Magdalena Bjerneld: UNITA was attacking in the area and we did not know what to do if something happened.
Bertil Högberg: You had no instructions?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No.
Bertil Högberg: When you arrived what was the situation in the camp for the refugees and for the children that you mostly worked with?
Magdalena Bjerneld: The situation was quite tough for them because they had only tents to live in and these tents quickly got destroyed because of the climate. They didn't have much water and during some periods there was no food. I remember that when I had ran the under five clinics for some time, I found that 40 percent of the children under five were malnourished. That is a terribly high figure and many children died. We discussed the situation with the SWAPO Women Council, because we discovered quite quickly that one of the big problems was bottle-feeding. Together with the Women Council, we had some campaigns against bottle-feeding and that was the key to better nutrition, together with the better conditions in general. We received special flour from Sweden, called SEF (Swedish Emergency Food) from which we could make special porridge that we could give to the small children who were malnourished or in the risk zone to be malnourished.
Bertil Högberg: Provided by SIDA.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes and during a long period the school children didn't get any food at all. If they got something to eat it was only once a day.
Yes, it was not easy. I remember that the transport system didn't function so well during the rainy season. The camp commander had radio contact with the Headquarters in Luanda so that he could tell Luanda about the situation. At one time we didn't have any food at all but we heard through the radio that food was coming in big trucks. Everyone was very happy and we waited for the lorries. But when the lorries came, they were loaded with sugar and nothing else. I was very upset so I took the car and went into Luanda and had a discussion with the SWAPO leaders and their responsible person for the logistics. We had heard that SIDA or some or other donors had sent a lot of food to Luanda. The food was supposed to be in the harbour and we asked them, "Why didn't you send the food? The children are dying in the camp, why do you send only sugar?" They answered "But we thought you wanted to have sugar in your tea." When we went back the day after, we loaded our car with emergency food to the children at the hospital. After the discussion with the responsible persons, we also got the rest of the food transported to the camp. I think they didn't understand how serious the situation was and it was a lack of communication.
Bertil Högberg: How was the health standard?
Magdalena Bjerneld: We had no materials at all. SWAPO had taken over a small hospital in Kabuta. But the hospital was almost empty. We started to clean the building and we had some beds, but we didn't have any sheets in the beginning. In the best cases, we had mattresses. After some time we got some second hand materials like bandages and syringes and things like that, from Swedish hospitals, through the Bread and Fishes.
We also got some drug donations. But most of these drugs were not possible to use because they were old and they were badly labelled. We didn't know what the tins contained because the text was in the Russian language or some other language we didn’t understand. No one understood what it was. I think we got some chloroquine from the Angolan Health Care System in the neighbouring area so we could treat malaria at least. But then gradually it became better and better.
Bertil Högberg: Did you get any drugs through the medical aid programme of the Africa Groups?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, later we could start an essential drug program. We designed an essential drug kit based on the records from the Health Care System where we could see which medicines were most useful.
Bertil Högberg: What other trained personnel were there in the camp in those days?
Magdalena Bjerneld: We had Dr Ndongo. He lived at the neighbouring house close to the hospital and he was the only Namibian doctor who permanently was there. Then we had nurses. And they were very good and since they had been trained in the English system at home in Namibia. They were midwives and could take care of the deliveries. But, they needed to be updated because they had been in a war situation for a long time. Two of nurses worked with me in the under-five clinics.
Bertil Högberg: You managed to establish a working “under five” clinic?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Oh yes, several, in the biggest camp, Camp A, we had a clinic every morning and then we had under five clinics in the small camps perhaps once a week or so.
Bertil Högberg: How many people do you estimate were in the camp in those days?
Magdalena Bjerneld: At the official peak it was 20,000.
Bertil Högberg: And the actual?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I don't know. We were not allowed to draw any map or to do any counting so I don't know, probably less, but I don't know.
Bertil Högberg: But it increased all the time?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, yes.
Bertil Högberg: What were the most serious health problems? You said malnutrition was one.
Magdalena Bjerneld: And diarrhoea.
Bertil Högberg: Because of the bad water?
Magdalena Bjerneld: And the bottle-feeding, and a lot of malaria.
Bertil Högberg: They had moved the camp from an earlier site where there had been even more problems with malaria, but there was still a malaria problem in this region too?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes. And of course with the small children, they had a lot of respiratory infections and pneumonia as a result of the bad living conditions. We had TB-patients and we started the TB program.
Bertil Högberg: You had drugs for treating the TB?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes after some time. There was a special camp for TB patients.
Bertil Högberg: What was the most exciting thing with working there?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I remember that I wrote in my diary the first day, or the first week that why on earth didn't I go here earlier, because it wasn't so strange and difficult as I thought.
Bertil Högberg: What do you mean, that you waited a long time because you wanted more preparations?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes and I thought it was so difficult and so strange and one needed so much preparation.
Bertil Högberg: Okay.
Magdalena Bjerneld: But, on the other hand I was happy I had worked as a district nurse in Sweden for some years. I could quickly see when something was wrong with a child. I think I wanted to test my knowledge in another context. I recognize that kind of motive from people who want to go to developing countries today. They say they want to test if their knowledge is enough. I think it is also a challenge. One has to think through how one treats or take care of patients in certain ways. When you have so little resources, you have to plan carefully and motivate what you do in order to save resources.
Bertil Högberg: So what you are saying, it wasn't so difficult as you had expected it to be.
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was not easy, but I managed and I felt prepared. It was an experience that changed my life, definitely. When I came home to Sweden, I reflected on my reality here in a different way. For example, earlier I was engaged in the trade union, but when I came home it was impossible for me. I couldn't fight for my salary or for details. I thought it was very silly to spend time on things like that. It was not important for me at all any longer. So I got another perspective of life I think.
Bertil Högberg: Did you have any other problems? You mentioned the problem with water, with transport. Were there other difficulties that you had?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Language was a problem. I knew a little bit of Portuguese and I knew English. My Namibian colleagues had to be my translators because the refugees in general couldn't speak English. So that was a difficulty of course.
Bertil Högberg: And you needed Portuguese to interact with the Angolan society.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Did you get any training in Portuguese before you left?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, yes, two months. But it was difficult, since I didn't use it every day. I can't say I was fluent in Portuguese.
Bertil Högberg: How were the relations to the Namibians you worked with and to SWAPO?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Very good, and I think what contributed to this good relationship was the fact that we lived in the camp. We shared the difficulties with the SWAPO people and they helped us a lot with the practicalities of the daily life. So they took care of us so to say.
We had the defences close to us all the time. In the beginning it was difficult to understand why we had to have these young men around all the time, in the car and wherever we went. They said they wanted to take care of us, be present if something happened to us. After some time we became friends with these young boys and we forgot about the guns they were carrying all the time.
Bertil Högberg: Was there a big military presence in the settlement?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, I have nothing to compare with but we always had a defence outside our door where we were, outside the house. If we went within the camp by car, we had to have defence in most cases. If we went to Luanda, we had at least two defences in the car, and sometimes we also had an extra car with defences accompanying us. There were several checkpoints along the road to Luanda. But I can't say if that was normal or not.
Bertil Högberg: When you came to Luanda you had a place to stay?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Not in the beginning. In the beginning we stayed with a person working at the Swedish embassy. He had a very beautiful house where we could stay. We could wash our clothes and we could rest. Later SWAPO had an apartment in the so-called Casa Livro which we could use when we were in Luanda. To get lunch and dinner, we went to the only hotel in Luanda that was working, the Tropicana hotel.
Bertil Högberg: Where they had a restaurant.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes but I remember sometimes they didn't have water; they didn't have beer, so the only thing we could have for our lunch, was wine. We could have been driving from the camp for six hours, so in most cases we were very hungry when we arrived there. Sometimes they didn't have food but they always had dessert.
Bertil Högberg: And then you got your supplies from, was it a dollar shop or something?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, it was a dollar shop. But in the beginning they didn't have very much in that shop, but we could get some canned food like meat balls or fish, sometimes some potatoes, and sometimes bread.
Bertil Högberg: Any other memories or stories that you have particularly from this time?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Stories yes. I have never been to so many parties in my life like during these seven months. That was very strange if you think of the bad situation; but I think that was a way of surviving.
Bertil Högberg: You were invited to whatever happened in the camp?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes. During this time, the situation in Namibia was very much on the agenda in the world. I remember visits by diplomats and their attitude towards the refugees, which was an experience.
Bertil Högberg: In what way?
Magdalena Bjerneld: They were terrible.
Bertil Högberg: Arrogant?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Arrogant and they would complain after what I thought in my thinking was the best dinner I ever had. The Namibian people would try to get the best available food from the Angolans in the area. They would slaughter a lot of pigs and so on. The diplomats did not realize they were in the middle of a refugee camp where people were dying. They would start asking for girls and the Namibian nurses would get very upset. They would come to us and asked what kind of people these men were.
Bertil Högberg: This medical aid project to SWAPO, had you become involved with that before you went out?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: In which way?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I was part of a support group here in Uppsala that consisted of nurses and doctors and medical students. We used to collect second-hand materials from Swedish hospitals. Most of the materials used to be sent to Mozambique but then the SWAPO project started.
Bertil Högberg: It means that you also went and packed these materials at the Bread and Fishes in Västerås.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, many times. It was nice because when I arrived in Kwansa Sul, I could unpack boxes I had packed myself. That was a special feeling.
Bertil Högberg: The money that was available in this medical aid project for equipment and medicine and things, in what way could you access that when you were working in the camp?
Magdalena Bjerneld: We couldn’t access the money but, we could request what we needed.
Bertil Högberg: And you were involved in that communication around the needs?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, because I was the coordinator for the project.
Bertil Högberg: In the camp?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes. I was sending reports to SWAPO and to Stockholm.
Bertil Högberg: And Västerås?
Magdalena Bjerneld: And Västerås yes.
Bertil Högberg: And when you came home, you had changed in many ways but what did you involve yourself with when you came home?
Magdalena Bjerneld: First I tried to go back to my ordinary work as a district nurse. I worked there for half a year or so, but then I became more and more engaged in the work in Stockholm, so I worked half time as a district nurse here in Uppsala and half time in Stockholm with the SWAPO project.
Bertil Högberg: That was when the administration was moved from the Bread and Fishes to Africa Groups after the office and everything had been burned down in Västerås.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes. And that was 1983 I think.
Bertil Högberg: Okay for two years then.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes. Because then I started my training to be a teacher.
Bertil Högberg: Okay. What was the job that you did with this project?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I recruited personnel. I briefed them and I had contact with them during their work in Angola. I also applied for the money, reported the money and I bought a lot of good things for the camp. Everything, from medicine to big trucks.
Bertil Högberg: The things that were not possible to collect as second-hand.
Magdalena Bjerneld: We bought more and more instead of collecting, because through UNIPAC one could buy very good things at a low price. Things more suitable for the tropical climate.
Bertil Högberg: Did you also do these emergency shipments of medicine?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: By air.
Magdalena Bjerneld: At times we did. In 1986 when the Africa Groups received an urgent telex from Sam Nujoma about a cholera outbreak. He asked for cholera medicine and intravenous solutions and a lot of other things. So I remember that Hillevi at the Africa Group office in Stockholm phoned and asked me to help with this. We started a discussion on what to do. Today I usually tell my students this story and we discuss what is possible to do in a situation like this. We found out that SWAPO requested a lot more than they needed of course. In the end, we sent about 100 litres of intravenous solutions to the camp.
Bertil Högberg: But that was during the time you were working in the office?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No it was actually later when I had started to work here at IMCH.
Bertil Högberg: We had a number of incidents like that in the years before you worked as well.
Magdalena Bjerneld: I think it is quite common. You take the opportunity to get as much as possible. But otherwise I don't remember that we sent anything so urgently. If something happened. We always tried to get medicine or materials from Luanda. We went to UNICEF for example.
Bertil Högberg: I think the medical supplies were more organized later, I mean it was more ad hoc in the beginning so they experienced dramatic needs, they didn't have reserves.
Magdalena Bjerneld: At that time one didn't do a proper needs assessment like we do today, so it was different.
Bertil Högberg: Were you involved in the planning of the hospitals? When we started the projects, one of the requests from SWAPO was that we should build more clinics that later developed into hospitals. The project was supposed to build one hospital and SIDA one, but they eventually built both and we equipped them. Were you involved in that equipment?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Oh yes but it started earlier when we bought wooden transport containers that could become houses. Two containers could be built together and used as clinics. They functioned very well for a long time. In 1988 SIDA decided to build this big hospital.
Bertil Högberg: The decision was taken already in 1981 while you were out.
Magdalena Bjerneld: But it was not built until...
Bertil Högberg: It took three years or something.
Magdalena Bjerneld: I was involved in the designing of the inside of the hospital. I remember, we discussed it in the project group because the layout of the hospital was not adapted to rural Africa, it was more for Europe. All the furniture we had sent from here came from Dagens Nyheter.
Bertil Högberg: Okay that's right, it was also what equipped the whole Solidarity House. It worked all the years until last year when they got new furniture in the Solidarity House.
What, can you say now looking back at the work we did around this medical aid project? You have been working with issues about refugees for many years. What mistakes did we make? Have you reflected on that?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Well, we should have done more assessments about the situation before we sent a lot of materials. But on the other hand, it was probably not possible to do that. All information about the camp was very sensitive since the war was still going on. I thing if we had requested for more information from SWAPO, they probably wouldn’t have allowed us to come. So what could we do? Other mistakes, I think we did the best we could.
Bertil Högberg: Were there other teams also from other countries working there?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, one East German doctor. He was there for some time but I don't remember for how long.
Bertil Högberg: How was it to work with him?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was also very special. He had his own agenda I think. I don't remember where he worked but he didn't work with us. He worked somewhere else in the camp. And there were the four East German teachers. They lived and worked in one of the other camps. They had the instruction not to have contact with us. We tried and we tried, but they were very reluctant and that was very strange.
Bertil Högberg: This medical aid project to SWAPO, how do you look at that if you look back on the materials side, not the personnel side of it? Was it a good way of working?
Magdalena Bjerneld: At that time I think but today we wouldn't do it like that. Today we wouldn't send second-hand materials for example. But at that time…
Bertil Högberg: Not even if you don't have any money to buy new things?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No because the transport is terribly expensive, I don't think it is worth it in the long run. And the materials are quite cheap nowadays and better. So it would be better use of the money to buy new materials from UNIPAC. Perhaps we’d try to buy things closer to the area but I think we tried that and it wasn't possible. In Luanda we tried to buy plastic buckets for water collection but they didn't exist. But after some years I know it was possible.
Bertil Högberg: This project, the medical aid project was a project that was run by AGIS, the Africa Groups of Sweden together with the Bread and Fishes. AGIS were doing the campaign around support of SWAPO and the ANC but recruitment of personnel that was by the branch that was called ARO, the Africa group Recruitment organisation. Technically two separate organizations. So this project was somewhere in between. How did you feel around that when you worked in the office? Was that a problem?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No I don't think so.
Bertil Högberg: When we started this medical aid project it was done in a way that it was a co-financing program that we collected 20 % of the money. It was one of the reasons for starting it because some people that didn't want to give money straight to SWAPO but wanted to know what it was spent on. Where you also involved in the campaigning to raise funds? At a later stage, SIDA offered hundred percent funding so maybe that had changed already when you took over.
Magdalena Bjerneld: I don't remember anything like that.
Bertil Högberg: Did you feel any interest in the organization about the project? Because in the beginning when we were raising funds, it was also a way of telling people about what was going on which in a way we lost, when SIDA started to pay a hundred percent of it. Was there still an interest within the organization for what we were doing?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes I think so. Parallel to the job as program officer for the project I worked with information. I think I was employed half a year just for going around in Swedish schools and whatever meetings to talk about Southern Africa. There were many, many schools that asked me to come. I travelled around the whole of Sweden and gave hundreds of presentations about the situation in Southern Africa and especially in this refugee camp. Very few people in Sweden had had such an experience at that time.
Bertil Högberg: And you produced a slide show as well I think.
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was a training material I produced together with my sister.
Bertil Högberg: You also became a member of the Africa Group of Sweden board. Was this at the same time when you were working in the office or was it later?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I think it was just before.
Bertil Högberg: Before?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, before I went to Angola actually I was deputy for some time and then when I came home and I was a member of the Board for several years.
Bertil Högberg: Anything that you remember from those years?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was a very valuable school for me for the future. I must say that was where I learned how to hold a meeting, and how to write proper minutes. Nowadays I get very irritated if I go to a meeting that is not run properly. So yes, it was very good and I also learnt a lot about how to run an organization and what is important. I remember all the hours spent on problems with the personnel out in the field and how to solve them. I remember I was the vice-chairman for some time In 1983, Eva Tånneryd and I we went to Africa to do what could have been called a needs assessment. We travelled around in Angola, Zambia and Tanzania.
Bertil Högberg: That is the trip that I was supposed to have done but I was not allowed into Angola.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Aha okay.
Bertil Högberg: You replaced me and then the doors opened. No, the two of us were supposed to have gone, but then Eva took my place.
Magdalena Bjerneld: But anyhow I remember a nice story when we arrived in the ANC headquarters in Lusaka. I remember the ANC people who met us at the entrance they said "Oh welcome, welcome." We said, "We are coming from the Africa Groups." “Yes, yes” they said and then they looked over our heads. Eva is quite short and I was a young girl and they looked over our heads and asked, "Where is the delegation?" "Well we are the delegation." we replied. It was totally silent for some seconds and they stared, and then they burst out into laughter and they laughed and laughed and laughed because they couldn't imagine that we were the delegation. I remember that so clearly. But then we had a very nice conversation. We experienced the same attitude towards us in all places we visited.
Bertil Högberg: So that means that you went back to the camp some two years after you had left.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: What difference did you se there?
Magdalena Bjerneld: There was a big difference because the living conditions were much better. They had food and they had more water. I remember they had sheets in the beds in the hospital, things like that. The people worked there, for much longer periods of time, at least for a year.
Bertil Högberg: For our staff yes. The new hospital was that built?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes perhaps they had started but it was not finished. I have some slides from that time when the hospital was built.
Bertil Högberg: Okay. But that was one of the intentions that you should plan for the future of the project, the new application to SIDA.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes and then also we discussed with SWAPO and ANC about support for the centres in Zambia.
Bertil Högberg: Did you go to Nyango in Zambia?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: What was the difference between Nyango settlement in Zambia and the one in Kwanza Sul?
Magdalena Bjerneld: The conditions were much better in Nyango as I remember.
Bertil Högberg: In what way?
Magdalena Bjerneld: They had a proper hospital I remember.
Bertil Högberg: And the living conditions?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes I remember we stayed overnight in a traditional house. I was there just for 24 hours or so, but I remember the impression was that the situation was much better. That camp was smaller than the one in Kwanza Sul and it was closer to the ordinary villages so they could buy food and other things.
Bertil Högberg: Was the medical aid program extended toward Nyango or not?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No, I remember we discussed it at some stage but we never sent anything I think.
Bertil Högberg: I don't remember.
Magdalena Bjerneld: I think they could manage.
Bertil Högberg: And do you remember how long you were on the AGIS Board?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I think five years.
Bertil Högberg: Do you remember any special discussions around this time?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I remember one thing, a funny story. We had got the message from SIDA that we had received one million Swedish crowns for the project but when I got it in writing, it said seven million. I phoned to the Sida programme officer. I said to her "Thank you very much for the money." "Oh you are welcome." She was a person that was very pedantic and very, very careful with tables and figures and everything and she wanted to have perfect reports on everything. Then I said, “we applied for one million and we got seven”. It was a total silence in the telephone and I almost heard her fainting.
Bertil Högberg: Ja that project received several injections for about one million or more.
Magdalena Bjerneld: I don't remember the figures, but I think we applied for at least one million each time. I have all the applications somewhere.
Bertil Högberg: Did you keep copies of everything?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: I have here this report that we wrote when everything finished. It says that we collected materials worth 350 000 US dollars and the cash spend was 1.8 million US dollars of which SIDA contributed 1.4.
Magdalena Bjerneld: But that is in total?
Bertil Högberg: In total. So I think it was around ten million Swedish Kronor.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Ten million Swedish Crowns was a lot of money at that time.
Bertil Högberg: It was a lot of money. But you said something that there was very much focus within the Africa Group on South Africa. You were one on the Board now and had this Namibia experience. How was Namibia handled within the Africa Groups in the 80's?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I remember it was a little bit of a side issue, something extra. The most important and flashest thing to do was to work with South Africa. Namibia was something extra but a good way to get publicity when we could present the volunteers coming back and tell about the situation for refugees. The general public was very interested.
Bertil Högberg: Did we have any visits from any of the Namibians working in the refugee settlements to Sweden in those years?
Magdalena Bjerneld: When we had a seminar in Stockholm some years later, I remember that one of the girls who I worked together with, Ndeleni came. At that time she was a student in a nursing school in Finland and she came over for the Namibia day. That is in March, isn't it?
Bertil Högberg: No in August.
Magdalena Bjerneld: No but there was something in March.
Bertil Högberg: We also had a seminar focusing on the medical situation for the refugees, were you involved in the planning of that?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I was part of it in some way. I remember Dr Ndongo was here.
Bertil Högberg: Yes because that was in 1982. But were there other people also? Did we also invite other people from the settlements?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It could have been, what was his name? The one who became the Minister of Health later, Niki Yambo.
Bertil Högberg: Niki Yambo, yes he was there but he was based in Finland at that time, so he came from there. Magdalena Bjerneld: But no one else I think. I remember that in 1986 I went to a conference in Vienna. It was a UN conference about the future of Namibia held in the Imperial Palace. I went there as a representative for the Africa Group in Sweden. Someone decided that I had to go to this meeting that I didn't know anything about. I thought it was an NGO meeting. They had a welcome desk at the airport and then I got suspicious, what was this they sent me to? Then they sent us by taxi to the Hilton Hotel and I felt that something was going on which I didn't understand. The next morning I was looking for the address and I couldn't find it. In the end I finally saw the flag of the UN. I realized it was in this palace. I remember the feeling because I came in jeans and a rucksack and was prepared to go to an NGO meeting and suddenly I was in a huge conference where, Arafat and the big guys were. It was for three days.
During that time there was a rumour that there was a fence around Kwanza Sul camp and people who were not following the politics, they were sent to prison that was located in this camp. In Germany they said that they had a big mass media attention on this. A journalist interviewed me during that meeting and he asked me about the conditions in Kwanza Sul and he was very disappointed because I couldn't confirm any of the rumours. I remember that Pohamba came and thanked me for this. Nujoma and the other leaders of SWAPO were also there.
Bertil Högberg: That was the start of this whole big detainee issue that became an even bigger issue later. But these camps were probably more south in Angola, never in Kwanza Sul. Were you involved in any Nordic cooperation on Namibia?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Only this collaboration with the Finnish Solidarity movement through the recruitment.
Bertil Högberg: Yes one of the doctors in our team very often came from Finland. So there were quite a few Finnish doctors. And why was this cooperation with the Finns? Why did they go via the Africa Groups and not directly?
Magdalena Bjerneld: They didn't have an organization for that.
Bertil Högberg: And no money I think from the Finnish government. Do you remember any conflicts around this medical support, were there any disagreements between SWAPO and the Africa Groups and the Bread and Fishes on how they should be run and what should be included and not included?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I remember in the beginning they were disappointed since I was not an anaesthetic nurse. But after some months they saw that I had a great impact on the health situation in the camp, so they changed. They wanted to have a nutritionist replacing me. I said “Why? You need a nutritionist when you don't have any food? You need some more general nurse like a district or public health nurse like myself”. But Lotta, the replacement that came was an anaesthetic nurse. But she had gone through the course here at the IMCH, so she knew the basics how to run a health program. She worked with the Under Five Clinics for some time. Mrs Indongo, got very interested in nutrition. So after some time, she went to London and she is now a nutritionist I think. Dr Indongo got further training in public health. (Both interviewed in this series. Editors note)
Maybe I am exaggerating my contribution but perhaps it was the start of looking at things in a different perspective. You can't solve malnutrition with operations.
Bertil Högberg: But when you discussed these new faces of the medical aid project, were there any disagreements on what to supply? Were any discussions going on here in Sweden on should we really send these things or not?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I don't remember it as a big conflict.
Bertil Högberg: You don't remember the conflict around it, that the toilets in the hospital, whether they should be pit latrines or water? We questioned that they should have water latrines when they didn't have water. But it was maybe before your time. That was a big, big debate that went on for more than a year. I thought you were involved in that as well. At a local level you were part of the Uppsala Africa Group and you mentioned the medical group that you had here. Were you involved in any other of the activities of the group also?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I was part of the singing group. We were singing in the streets here almost every Saturday and collecting money for Southern Africa.
Bertil Högberg: So you went out on the streets?
Magdalena Bjerneld: In meetings also, we gave concerts, wherever. At that time, there were many arrangements where we had collections for Southern Africa.
Bertil Högberg: How many were you in that song group or choir?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Around 15.
Bertil Högberg: And what type of songs did you sing?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was songs from Southern Africa, especially songs from the liberation movements.
Bertil Högberg: Things connected to the liberation in one way or another. Were you also part of it when they made the record?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No that was earlier.
Bertil Högberg: That was before. It existed for was it 25 years before it closed until, was it 1994 or 1995, and then it collapsed like so many other solidarity things. Any special memories from this time?
Magdalena Bjerneld: It was a good way to get in contact with all the ordinary people. Anyone could approach us in the street and start to discuss and ask us questions. They didn't have to go to a meeting or a concert or something like that. And I think we collected a lot of money.
Bertil Högberg: Have you ever been to Namibia?
Magdalena Bjerneld: No I am still waiting for an invitation. I have asked the Africa groups several times if they don't have any project that they want to be evaluated. It would be fantastic to meet these people again.
Bertil Högberg: Now there are many of them that have strong and very positive memories of all of you that worked there. I interviewed Mary and Mangala also, Ndongo in this series.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Ndileni she worked very close to me in the Under Five Clinic. She must be a nurse somewhere today. I remember they baptised a girl after me in the camp.
Bertil Högberg: Did they?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes, the nurses came running to our house and asked for assistance with a delivery. Birgitta was occupied somewhere in another part of the camp. I am not a midwife, so I didn't know anything about what to do and I crossed my fingers "No I don't know what to do!” I said. "Please come, please come" They said. They laughed at me because the Namibian nurses they all could deliver babies. Then at last the baby came and they baptized it to Magdalena.
Bertil Högberg: Talking about names, were you also given a combat name?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: And what was your name?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Tulweni.
Bertil Högberg: Tulweni, meaning?
Magdalena Bjerneld: We shall fight.
Bertil Högberg: You are now back at this institute where you trained and prepared yourself for the time you spent in the camp. What are you doing here? You've been there for quite a long time.
Magdalena Bjerneld: Yes next year it will be twenty years.
Bertil Högberg: And you have been doing what?
Magdalena Bjerneld: I started as a consultant to SIDA's Health Division. The first years I worked with the SIDA’s Health Program to Angola. I developed training materials for the Health Care Sector. I recruited personnel and I trained and prepared them for Angola. I also worked with purchases of all material for the Health Sector. And that went on six, seven years. Then, I became more and more involved in the teaching. During the time when I was going around in schools and other meetings, talking about Southern Africa and especially about Kwanza Sul, I realized that teaching was my field. I took the university teachers degree.
Bertil Högberg: And what kind of courses do you have here?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Today I have a centre for public health in humanitarian assistance and I am giving short courses or modules within different masters program within the university on public health and in management. I am also writing on a PhD.
Bertil Högberg: Writing on?
Magdalena Bjerneld: Motives and challenges for eastern aid workers in humanitarian assistance.
Bertil Högberg: So really that short period you spent in the refugee settlements in Angola, had really changed your whole career!
Magdalena Bjerneld: Absolutely, together with all the work at home with the Africa Groups of Sweden.
Bertil Högberg: Okay thank you.