Medic in Mogadishu

An interview with Bruna Dessena

· Lived Experience,Interview

While working for a medical support company in Mogadishu, Somalia was frequently in the news because of all the bombs that were going off amidst clashes between Al-Shabab and the Somalian armed forces. Not a place for those of a nervous disposition or who are easily offended. I say this because, from the time you land, you are assaulted by smells, sights and sounds that are unforgettable, to say the least. When you receive your ticket to fly on the notorious Mogadishu Express, you get just a ticket, not a seat number. You can be forgiven for becoming suddenly disoriented when, as the gates open, there is an urgent mass exodus through one door, as if the Somalian Civil War were right behind you. If that were not enough to frighten you, we then board the plane at the back via a small, one-person ladder. All the Fatimas and Aishas bustle for a position, much like in a rugby scrum, and they usually have four-and-a-half kids in tow who are already used to this dance.

Finally, you find yourself seated but then you notice it – a fly! Yes, in all my years of travelling, not a single aeroplane had flies clocking up voyager miles on the same flight as me. But I am comforted by a small, wrapped slice of sponge cake provided by the airline staff.

When you arrive, the war begins. Not the war outside the green zone where Al-Shabab is fighting the Somalis, but the war of getting through customs and obtaining your precious luggage. First, you are herded into a room. Tradition dictates that your luggage is kicked down a concrete slope into this room, and a few airport workers fetch the disheveled luggage and place it in three neat rows. Then all hell breaks loose as everyone yells and shouts and tries to make eye contact with the luggage officials to pass them their luggage. But the pièce de résistance is when the main luggage official – an old man dressed in an even older army uniform and wielding a stick – sharply whacks any passenger who dares to lean over to try and grab their luggage. No one is safe – not men, women nor children! Anywhere else in the world, assaulting passengers in this way would result in a hearing and a dismissal. In Mogadishu, this is just another day at the airport. 

While in Mogadishu, I worked at the military camp located inside the green zone (safe zone) next to the airport, as well as another site in the city centre that fell outside the green zone. To get to the city site, we had to don full protective gear – helmet and bulletproof vests – and travel in hot, armoured vehicles in a security convoy. The reality of war is so very different to the reality of working in somewhere like Hillbrow. People are so desperate that they are paid less than $20USD to let off a grenade in a marketplace. They do this not because they are terrorists, but because they are desperate for money. The face of the enemy is impossible to profile.

The day they stormed the UN offices situated less than 50 metres from our compound, was unforgettable; the explosion was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was followed by gunfire, which continued for over an hour as the brave Somali soldiers kept the terrorists away from the building. The shrapnel that flew over our compound wall made it all very real. The Somali soldiers are like nothing you’d expect as far as soldiers are concerned. They don’t have camouflage outfits, voice-activated radios, infra-red glasses, or fancy backpacks. Instead, they are dressed in long, flowing robes, wear flip flops, and chew a lot of Khat  to keep them awake. They can sleep on the ground with no mat, and despite their appearance, are as tough as can be. We huddled in the corridor with our helmets and bulletproof vests awaiting our private security to give us instructions, but being in a compound you are a sitting duck. One cannot but marvel at the age of cellphones, as exactly 11 minutes after the explosion, the first news broke through the major online news outlets and we had regular updates on what was happening on the other side of our wall. That is the life of a medic in Mogadishu. 

This excerpt was taken with permission from Tales from my Stethoscope by Bruna Dessena, available from

Check out our interview with her below!


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Q: There are few paramedics who write, when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer as well?

A: I am an avid book reader especially reading biographies and realized I too have great stories to tell.   

Q: What was your first manuscript and what was the inspiration behind it?

A: My first manuscript was my book on dealing with Child abuse. Having worked in a major city and witnessing how unprepared the medical fraternity is in dealing with this and especially dealing with disclosure I felt  I needed to do research and churn out a book. I later went onto do my Masters on this subject and again showed how unprepared and untrained the medical fraternity is in this field. I also spent 17 years as a volunteer  preparing children who were going to testify in a court room on these cases.

Q: How many books have you published since then and what are they?

A: I have published two books. The first is called “Every parent’s nightmare”, and it deals with any adult who has to deal with disclosure form a child who has been abused, the law and various aspects of the multi-faceted problem. The second book is called “Tales from my stethoscope” and is basically a collection of the best, funniest and most incredible stories I have encountered on the road  as a paramedic.  

Q: Have you a favourite?

A: The second one as it contains a lot of humor.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration, information or ideas for your books?

A: I’m sure like all medics at a dinner table or around a braai (South African word for Barbecue) people ask us “what’s the most amazing call you went to?”, so I decided let me put these stories on paper before dementia sets in and I forget these gems.

Q: What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how do you balance writing with full time paramedicine?

A: I have been very fortunate that I have spent many years working ex pat work on Gold Mines, oil rigs and survey vessels and there is often a lot of time available which allows me to sit down and write.

Q: What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating your books?

A: Don’t laugh! I learnt that one does not write the same way you speak!

Q: On average how long does it take you to write a book?

A: It took me about a year to write  the first book as there was a lot of research involved and the second book was about ten months.   

Q: Do you hear from your readers much and if so, what kinds of things do they say?

A: When I give lectures and encounter students who have read my books I get feedback . They love the book and often say they will also write a book when they have tons of years behind them.

Q: What do you like to do when you're not writing or caring for people? 

A: I am an avid gardener and my hobby is Pewter.

Q: What is the strangest place you have worked as a paramedic?

A: Not so much strangest as opposed to roughest , was the North Sea! I have never encountered a sea so cold, so rough, so angry and inhospitable! It was fascinating to me when I looked out mu porthole these birds of some kind just sitting in the rough waves just bobbing along with no care in the world while huge waves crashed down on the bow, sleet pelted the ship and the constant motion and rocking of the ship continued! I have renewed respect to the helicopter pilots who used to land on the ship in that weather. 

Q: If you could have dinner with two people who would they be?

A: Dr Dennis Mukwege, winner of the Nobel peace prize. This amazing world renowned gynecologist who has become a specialist in treating survivors of wartime sexual violence and  Nelson Mandela. 

Q: As a parting piece of advice for any budding paramedic writers out there, what do you think makes a good story?

A: Stay away from the guts and gore! Not everything we do is related to gust and gore, we often deliver babies and that a beautiful thing!

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