Mwaya Mondays- Vol. 24

Mwaya Mondays- Vol. 24, Monday 19 November, 2012

This week’s blog is entitled “Reflections From an Accidental RIPPLE Volunteer” and is written by Benedict ‘Beanie’ Warner:

“Nothing in Malawi happens quite as you expect, which is both one of the charms and one of the frustrations of travelling here. After two months of a medical elective at a mission hospital an hour south of the capital, I wanted to get under the skin of the country a bit more, and set off to the very different north – more sparsely populated, less developed, and, inevitably, poorer – where a friend of mine, Charlie, had said he was working for a charity.

One solution to the inevitable surprises in any planning here is simply not to plan. So when Charlie told me he was working on the lakeshore, I had no idea what he was doing, nor where he was staying. Instead, rising early in Lilongwe, I wandered down to the bus station, found a bus heading north on the lakeshore road, and settled back, with only a vague notion of a roadblock, some seven hours away, at which I was to disembark.

I did make one plan: to stay for a weekend, before heading off and exploring the rest of the Northern region of Malawi. As I sit in the RIPPLE Africa office of Chintheche, nearly a week later, I think I have been caught out once again.

Getting off the bus at the roadblock, I fortunately was greeted by Frank, one of the staff at RIPPLE Africa’s Mwaya Beach base; fortunately, because despite its reach across the district, for any passing travellers who have not done their research already, RIPPLE Africa is a well-kept secret, with no road-side signs to suggest its existence between the countless lake-side tourist lodges every few kilometres along the road. Instead, we walked down a sandy track, past fields of cassava plants and freshly-planted fruit trees (the significance of which I would only discover later), until, turning a corner by a clump of pineapple plants, Mwaya Beach came into view, and I was greeted by the ever-smiling kitchen staff – Geddess, Fabiana, and Martha.

I learned more about RIPPLE Africa that evening, as we settled down to dinner on the ‘deck’, overlooking the lake and the shimmering lights of the fisherman along the horizon, mimicking the night-sky above. Charlie, a friend from home, told me how he had turned in civil engineering to come out and work as the Malawi Projects manager for RIPPLE; Susie, next to him, who several years further down my own career path than me, likewise changed track to join RIPPLE as Volunteers Coordinator. Something was clearly irresistible about the place – and it was not hard to see why. Geoff and Liz, founders and enormously welcoming hosts, were in their element, surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers from all walks – and stages – of life, from early twenties to over-sixties; though the table had more seats around than ever before, they unhesitatingly welcomed another itinerant traveller into their midst, only raising their eyebrows a millimeter at the zebra outfit which Charlie had suggested I don for dinner.

And, as from the absurd to the sublime, I learnt about the ‘changu changu motos’ – the mud-brick, fuel-efficient stoves which Charlie and the environmental projects team were promoting throughout the district, reaching over 40,000 households with an incredible network of community volunteers – exciting to myself, having carried out research in the past on the role of community health volunteers. Geoff, likewise, described his passionate desire to combat the wanton deforestation of northern Malawi, through reforestation initiatives and implementing by-laws. And others around the table, each with their wealth of experience, expanded on the education projects – the RIPPLE Africa pre-schools, the new physics lab at the secondary school, the community library in Mwaya.


One of RIPPLE Africa’s fuel-efficient stoves, a ‘changu changu moto’ (fast fast fire)

Over a drink after dinner, reduced in number by the early bed-times and perhaps emboldened by the Malawian gin, I gave in to an old habit of playing devil’s advocate, challenging Geoff and Liz on the role of outsiders in helping development in this part of the world. Surely such development will be forever stifled by unfair global trade frameworks that make it impossible for Malawi to harness its own potential, both natural and human? And doesn’t such assistance create further dependency? Instead, I came away impressed at their commitment and determination not simply to relieve their consciences by throwing money at a problem, but over the long term, developing relationships locally and providing both ideas and support to follow through such ideas.

Farming practices, for example, are far from perfect in Malawi, worsened by years of fertilizer subsidies that have altered farming habits developed over generations irreversibly to become dependent on such subsidies, and draining the soil of any long-term viability. But a concern I raised was that, for a subsistence farmer feeding a family and reliant on the increasingly unpredictable rains, risking a year’s crop on a new idea was too much of a gamble to take. In some ways, I realized, RIPPLE Africa provided both the new ideas and practices needed to prevent the destruction of Malawi’s natural inheritance, and the space and resources to allow local communities to develop these ideas without having to risk entire livelihoods.

The weekend was not all cerebral debate, of course, and a large part was spent in the dominating lake, stretching out across the horizon like an ocean. Having only visited Lake Malawi before at the tourist-dense Cape Maclear, Mwaya beach was a hidden paradise, free from the clutter (and bilharzia!) that plague other beaches, with only the occasional dug-out canoe and scrapping children along the sand, backed by lush vegetation despite the lack of rain – the idyll tainted only by the rather rash decision, on awakening at 4:45am to see the sunrise on Sunday, to go skinny-dipping in the lake. Geoff, Charlie, and I charged in; the girls demurred.


A hidden paradise, up the beach from Mwaya at Lowani

Come Monday, my interest had been piqued too much, and instead of heading on my way, I joined Lindsay, a volunteer nurse from Blackpool’s intensive care unit, at a nearby rural community clinic – a million miles in every way from her old workplace – where we joined in an under-5’s clinic, weighing children and ensuring their immunisations were up to date. Afterwards, we helped out with the ante-natal clinic, and saw some of the outpatients who had turned up, as a GP would at home, but staffed bravely by a single nurse, Janet. Though this was meant to finish at midday, the patients kept coming, and we struggled on, finishing at last at 3pm. Having survived the onslaught together, Janet kindly invited us back to her house, beside the clinic, for lunch, and, providing on our part some Cokes and Fantas, we sat down to a plate of chips and fried egg – Malawi’s famous hospitality never failing to amaze and inspire. Janet, herself nearing 60, had her own tale to tell, of giving up nursing to run a shop with her husband, before being re-recruited by the Government desperate to staff the rural health posts; though she was meant to have a medical assistant with her, one was on leave, and the replacement was off sick, leaving her single-handedly managing a maternity ward alongside the other patients we had seen that day. Such pressures were not without consequence, and halfway through the clinic we had been called to see a child on the post-natal ward who was not suckling; on examination, was not breathing; and, heart-breakingly, was declared dead, with almost no investigations or interventions available in the clinic.


Lindsay makes a new friend at the Under-5’s clinic

My field for the last five years has been health, but I have always appreciated that there is far more that impacts people’s lives – and makes their lives worth living – than simply healthcare. Another project I saw during the weekend was one initiated by two Australian volunteers, Jess and ‘Polly’, with a truly sustainable goal – using human waste to grow trees. The ‘RIPPLE Crappers’ were concrete covers for relatively shallow toilets dug in the ground; the aim was to move the cover once the hole was full, and to plant a seedling in its place. Morton, RIPPLE’s manager, explained to us how approximately 80% of households in the area would have no latrine at all, preferring to use the forest nearby – a public health nightmare. But even ingenious ideas like the Crapper stumble at previously unseen hurdles; at what price to pitch them – something that people could afford, but not so little as to make them appear valueless? And what about in the less stable, sandy soil closer to the lake? Although Polly and Jess have since departed, RIPPLE will no doubt continue to pilot such ideas until finally achieving success.


Polly with his crappers

Tuesday came, and still I was at Mwaya Beach and RIPPLE Africa; a running joke began, thanks to my announced arrival on the blackboard by the kitchen: ‘Beanie: 9th -> ?’. Dan, deputy manager at Mwaya, took me for a rather ominously-named ‘induction’ – a tour of several RIPPLE Africa-supported projects. The morning was heavily education-focussed – principally because all the schools finished at around lunchtime. Mwaya Primary, with over 1000 pupils served by only 13 teachers, was a typical example of the herculean efforts of some Malawians to haul their country up the international ladders. The headmaster spoke with passion about the two, interlinked key problems – an enrollment that was too large for their capacity, and staffing levels that were unable to cope with the enrollment. He pointed to a wooden structure of poles supporting thatched roof, beside the brick school buildings, where two more classes were being taught for want of classroom space. Relief came in the form of volunteer teachers, recruited both locally and internationally, provided by RIPPLE Africa; and excellence was recognised by sponsorship for the best pupils to go on to secondary school – again from RIPPLE Africa. Next door was Mwaya’s library, something unique in my experience thus far; ably staffed by Mr Longwe and his two assistants, who had only lost one book in the last six years, and threatened to cycle to the UK to find me if I failed to return any I borrowed!


Mr Longwe, Japhet, and Barton, guardians of Mwaya’s library

Dan and I hopped on our bikes again, and promptly dived off the familiar sandy track towards the main road, and followed a branching track through the bushes and scrub, under the scorching sun. Soon, we came across Matete pre-school, where a crowd of yelling children greeted us with self-introductions, chanting of month and weekday names, and some quite surprising hip-swinging dances.


Pre-school bopping

The tour continued apace, and we found ourselves at Kapanda Secondary School, another government school receiving support, in the form of buildings and volunteer teachers, from RIPPLE Africa. As I visited these projects, familiar faces from beach-side dinners began to take on a new shape: Marilyn sternly warning her class ‘I will write these notes up once, and when I have finished, I will start wiping them off to make room for problems, so you had better have finished copying them!’ – and thus achiveing twice as much in a lesson as before; Joan, bravely asking her students what topic to cover next, being prompted to teach them about ‘teenage sexuality’, to be saved (although apparently not as relieved as I would have been!) by the break-time bell.


Joan and her inquisitive teenagers

I, too, was about ready for a break, but not before being introduced to Andrew Manda from Kapanda, the gardner at the Secondary School who showed me the demonstration plots beyond the football pitch, where students – most of whom ‘won’t go on to become doctors or lawyers’ – could learn how to inter-crop, mixing different varieties of crops to increase the nutrients in the soil, or could compare the effects of planting with and without fertiliser, or under the shade of a tree, or with ridges. Eloquent and insightful, his enthusiasm was infectious, and provided a real opportunity for long-term change, through the graduates of the school.

That afternoon was less hectic, visiting the nearby Mwaya Dispensary (a health outpost smaller still than the health centre at Kachere I had visited with Lindsay) and RIPPLE Africa’s tree nursery, where buds of orange plants were being stuck onto lemon seedlings, while branches of ‘improved mangoes’ were grafted onto local varieties – techniques both surprisingly advanced and yet deceptively simple, and well beyond anything with which I was familiar, trapped in what now seemed my very narrow universe of medicine. Returning to the beach in the evening, we settled down to dinner again (after the customary dip in the lake) for the volunteers and staff alike to recount their days adventures and experiences – each reveleaing so much more than I had managed to scrape in my whirlwind tour that day.

And now another day has rolled around, and I awake again in ‘Chalet 5’, shared with Charlie and Susie, to the morning yells of the fishermen and the first light of dawn. Today’s plan is to visit the rural hospital at Chintheche, one step up from the two health centres I have visited already, one step down from the district hospital at Nkhata Bay – or, its equivalent further south, Nkhoma Hospital where I am meant to be on elective. None of this had I expected, and I certainly had not planned any of it, but the company has been so convivial, the food so tasty, the projects so inspiring, and the lake so alluring, that it is not difficult to put off my return by another day or two – to offer to write a blog, perhaps, to make some show at justifying my continued stay – and, perhaps, despite the vagaries of life of Malawi, to plan to return one day, once qualified, to volunteer with RIPPLE Africa.”

Beanie is a final year medical student at the University of Dundee, spending a three month elective at Nkhoma Mission Hospital in the South-Central region of Malawi.

Don’t forget to check back next week for the next instalment of Mwaya Mondays!

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