Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Malawi - an unforgettable experience

Last Friday, my 17 year old daughter Charis returned home from a 3 week stay in Malawi, Africa where she was doing some charitable work in the Village of St. Andrews. I knew that she would get a great deal out of the experience but I was still taken aback by the stories that she told and the passion with which she told them. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest post for my blog and she willingly obliged. 

This is her story:

Photograph by Huda Ali Al-Qabbat

With 3 insect bites, a wooden sculpture of Noah's ark and a week's worth of Malarone anti malaria tablets left to take, I arrived back in England after my first trip to Africa. A trip I hope I'll never forget.

I arrived, sleep deprived, in Johannesburg after a 10 hour flight super excited for the adventure I was about to embark on. There was only one more 2 hour flight between me and this adventure. Feeling a little worse for wear after arriving in Lilongwe, I was not going to let that get me down. Everything looked so different here. I always comment on how green England looks and how familiar and homely this is to me now. Malawi was yellow which was foreign to me before we had even arrived in St Andrews. We set off for our adventure into one of the seven poorest countries in the world.

When driving to our first destination,  I noticed how friendly everyone was. They all waved. Every single person stopped what they were doing to wave at the bus of Mazungus (white people) going past. I felt like a tourist attraction sometimes but I also waved back with a smile. The very first part of our trip was like a mini holiday staying in the Red Zebra Lodge and then Nkhota Khota Pottery Lodge near Lake Malawi. It looked like paradise.

Although I loved the first part of the trip, I won't dwell on it too long as it was not the reason I went to Malawi. I decided to go to Malawi because I really want to be a doctor. It just makes sense. I love science with a particular interest in anatomy, how the body functions mesmerises me on a daily basis. But I also care about people and want to make a difference and I feel medicine is the way I can do that. Malawi was a fantastic opportunity to get some work experience so when we got to St Andrews, the village Medic Malawi is supporting, I wanted to get as much work as possible to do with medicine. I felt it would give me a real insight to the differences between a developing world hospital and a UK hospital.

The village was a 20 minute walk from Kamuzu Academy, where we were staying. Everytime we walked down to the village the children would come bounding up to you shouting hello. They loved speaking in English and although the conversation was very basic, you could tell they were happy from the beaming smiles on their faces. The younger children would often hold your hand for the entire walk and one time, I had three children holding one of my hands at the same time! I liked how much happiness and energy all the children seemed to have and it was a great start and end to every day in the village.

In St Andrews, Medic Malawi has raised money to build a hospital, an orphanage, a nutrition centre, an eye clinic yet to be completed and a newly built girls hostel. While we were there, the Girls hostel needed to be painted and we needed to help out in the other establishments. I did my turn at painting but was much more interested in spending time in the hospital and the orphanage. Bath time was my favourite when you would have to strip, wash, dry, vaseline and dress about 10 bundles of joy. The cheeky ones would steal the vaseline and do it themselves! The job was difficult with all us helpers so I am impressed how Elizabeth, the 'mother' in the orphanage, manages to do it all by herself when we are not here to help. The older children help out as well which is nice. The babies were so happy and playful and I loved spending time with them. It reminded me of when my little brother and sister were younger. At one point I had a child asleep on my legs and another one jumping into my arms. It felt good to give these kids some attention because I know at some points, they wouldn't get any and would have to fend for themselves.

After spending a few days in the orphanage, I started working in the hospital. The first job was in the Path Lab and I was really looking forward to it. When I arrived, it was crowded full of people and it never got less crowded. I was handed gloves, apron and a face mask which warranted some very strange looks to the patients who were being tested. I was shown how to prepare slides ready to be viewed under the microscope. My other job was to fill in the records. The records were so confusing. There were about 5 different books and reading the handwriting on some of the health passports was almost impossible. Then at the same time, I had to make sure that the slides were being prepared while the doctor was taking the blood in the same, very small room. Meanwhile, the other doctor was doing urine samples while singing 'No Woman No Cry'. It was crazy and non stop for 3 hours! I loved every second of it. At lunch, the doctor apologised for not being able to talk to me much and answer many questions because it was so busy but he thanked me because I had really helped to make this hectic day not as crazy. I was starting to feel like I was making difference.

Next, I went to the government clinic, not helped by Medic Malawi. I was expecting them to have to turn people away and not have enough medicines to cure people. To my surprise, this didn't seem to be the case. I was shown a freezer full of vaccinations and every worker I asked seemed to believe they had enough to cure all the patients they had. Nobody was turned away. I was taken to where they test for Malaria. The room was very big but there were wooden planks everywhere so only a tiny portion of it could be used. They were doing the Rapid Diagnosis Test here and approximately tested 300 people a day. Thankfully, of these 300 people, usually less than 10% are positive. The test was simple, clean the finger with an alcohol wipe and dab dry with a cotton swab. Then prick the finger and squeeze to get a pool of blood. Then use a little plastic stick to get the blood onto the RDT. Then add PH buffer and wait. If negative, you get one red line at the bottom of the device. If positive you get the red line and a black line further up. Depending on the darkness of the black line depends on how severe the malaria is. So in this room which looked like a building site, I started testing people for malaria from little babies right up to full grown adults. It made me realise how we take clean sterile rooms for granted when we get injections or blood tests. That is not important here as they don't have enough money. They have to compromise. While I was testing, the tests kept coming back negative, negative and negative. I was starting to look up thinking malaria is not having as big of an effect as it used to do. Until my last test. A young girl was at the back of the queue on her mothers lap. She was laughing and smiling so I kept pulling silly faces at her which made her laugh more. It came to her turn so I started the test. She didn't even cry when I pricked her finger she was that good. I continued laughing with her thinking this girl with so much energy couldn't possibly have malaria. Then the test came back positive. I was so upset looking at her smiling face knowing she has a disease which could kill her. It was severe as well. She would get antimalarial drugs but it still affected me. How many more children are like her? What if they aren't so lucky and can't get treatment? I still can remember this little girl's face and I hope she is okay but I will never know.

After the testing, I went to the antenatal clinic. There were no ultrasound scanners and no pain relief for mothers in labour. The examination room looked like it could be the set for Saw VIII. But the mothers didn't seem to care. I was taught how to tell how old the baby was just by feeling as this clinic didn't even have a tape measure to tell the age. We also felt where the head was and listened to the heart beat using a tube device thing (I have no idea what it was, it kind of looked like a bugle). By the end of the session, I was pretty adept at guessing the age and finding the heart and head. I really enjoyed it but don't think midwifery is something I will end up specialising in.

The last day in the village was spent in the hospital shadowing a doctor. For the doctor, it was a pretty slow day and not much happened, for me it was enlightening. The hospital was dark unlike British hospitals and dust got everywhere. Again, it just shows that they have to prioritise when money is limited. We started off with the ward rounds at Paediatrics. The mothers were sitting in the cots holding their ill children close to them. Nobody was laughing or joking anymore. One patient in particular affected me. The baby was barely moving and his eyes were rolling back. The mother kept on patting his cheek to keep him awake. I could see in her face how hurt she was. The boy had malaria. While watching the doctor do his examinations, I just had a song lyric from Les Mis going through my head. It was the part where Fantine is telling Valjean about her child. She sings:

 I never did no wrong
My daughter's close to dying
If there's a God above
He'd let me die instead

Every mother in this room gave me this impression. I was ready to burst into tears. Thankfully, the ward round had ended and we started going around elsewhere. The rest of the wards were pretty uneventful, which is good I suppose, but one girl did have to have an emergency lumbar puncture. From my medical knowledge from House MD, usually, lumbar punctures use massive needles and are very painful. This looked more like a tube and caused the fluid to go squirting across the room. As awesome as that was, I felt sorry for the young girl who was convulsing while the procedure was happening. The fluid went to be analysed so I will never know what was wrong with the girl and if she will recover. After viewing some outpatients, I left the hospital and was ready to say goodbye to St Andrews.

Everyday when I walked back to the village, a young girl called Chisomo would walk me back with her friend Faith. For some reason, Chisomo took a liking to me and would always come look for me and insist I hold both of her hands. My relationship with Chisomo showed how important us visiting is for these people and how much they take out of it. I bought Chisomo and Faith lollipops for being such good guides (yes I got lost) and for being such good company. They taught me lots of words in Chichewa (Sebato is shoe!) and I looked forward to seeing them every day. We had great game of volleyball at the orphanage which was the perfect way to say goodbye. I'm going to miss them and all the other lovely people I have met. Chifundu in the pharmacy, Boyson and Florence at the orphanage, Peter in the lab. I'll never forget them.

Faith and Chisomo
I felt  a bit teary heading out of Malawi. We headed to Zambia to a game park to have another little bit of holiday before heading back home. All in all, I loved Malawi and will keep this experience with me. As for the game park, it was great fun and seeing a Pride of Lions almost catch an impala 2 feet away from us was terrifying. I'll leave you now with a picture form the Safari. My camera on my phone has no zoom so yes, that Leopard was that close to me.

Our heartfelt gratitude to everyone that contributed to the fundraising for Medic Malawi last summer and to those who helped towards the cost of sending Charis out there for this life changing experience.


  1. Sounds like you had an incredible experience Charis. We're so proud of you xxx

    1. And it all started with the murdering of Meatloaf songs!


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