Volunteers’ Stories: Rob and Nikki

Rob’s and Nikki’s Story

“We have learnt a great deal, and we have a newfound appreciation of the simple things in life. We value the society that we live in and the opportunities that it affords us. The education and healthcare that we can enjoy makes us truly lucky. We will always remember Mwaya — the volunteers, the staff, the patients, and the friends. It will forever be etched in our minds.”

The three months that we spent together at Mwaya Beach will remain as a very special time in our lives. As a doctor/physiotherapist couple, we came along keen to get involved in the clinics and health projects around Mwaya. We took in a healthy balance of idealism and scepticism about what we could achieve, and we felt ready to take on whatever Malawi could throw at us!

In some ways, our roles resembled what we thought they would be, and then, in other ways, they were very different. It took us a little while to find our feet and work out how we would be most useful. In the end, it was probably more of a case of the “need” finding us. Suffice to say, we ended up being inundated with work! We began to spend time in the local clinics and outreach disability services, seeing many different patients. However, it was probably the patients that we went out and saw together in their homes that really stick out as the special experiences.

Often we found out about these patients because their friend or family member tracked us down at Mwaya Beach. The first of these was Jessa, the daughter of Aggrey who is the day watchman at Mwaya. At only a little over 18 months old, she plunged her hand into some piping hot porridge and ended up with some nasty burns that were not healing with traditional African medicine (in this case, ground tree roots). With the help of her healthy, young, healing skin, we managed to get her back to full function within a few weeks. Her family was very grateful!

  • Nikki working at Mwaya Dispensary
    Nikki working at Mwaya Dispensary
  • Naomi, a 19-year-old girl who fell into a three-stone fire, sustained severe burns to her arm
    Naomi, a 19-year-old girl who fell into a three-stone fire, sustained severe burns to her arm
  • Rob syringing Agnes's ears
    Rob syringing Agnes’s ears

Another of these patients was also a burns case, but it was not quite as straightforward as the burns were more severe. This was Naomi, a 19-year-old girl who fell into a fire during a seizure and sustained very bad burns to her arm and hand. Just to complicate things a little more, she also had a one-month-old baby at the time. We saw her a couple of months after the accident when her cousin approached us to go and see her. We cycled off down roads, dirt tracks and through numerous villages to find this girl. It was quite a sight when we did get to her. Again, the African herbal medicine being used was not exactly ideal, and we feared that she might lose her arm. After a couple of months, with some assistance in the form of dressings, splinting, antibiotics, and physiotherapy (as she was developing contractures), we finally got her up to Mzuzu to get some skin grafting done. This had all just happened as we were finishing our time so we handed over to Rose, one of the nurse volunteers, and it is fingers crossed that Naomi will end up with some good results.

Little Charles was another memorable patient of ours. Charles was a nine-year-old boy who lived a short distance behind the Kachere Health Centre but had some poor management of a very bad septic arthritis in his knee. Essentially, he had been sitting on the floor of his house for two months when we met him. He had ongoing fevers while his knee got bigger and bigger. We assisted him with transport up to Nkhata Bay and then Mzuzu and back to Nkhata Bay again to get various rounds of surgery and antibiotics. We gave him intensive antibiotics and tried as much as possible to get his leg moving with some physiotherapy. It was an incredible sight to see the happiness in his face the day we had some crutches made for him and he realised that he would actually be able to move around a little again — such a simple thing for us, but a luxury for most in Malawi. When we left, Charles was heading in the right direction but still had a long road ahead.

  • Charles, a nine-year-old boy who had bad septic arthritis on his knee
    Charles, a nine-year-old boy who had bad septic arthritis on his knee
  • Nikki organised crutches for Charles after he had had surgery
    Nikki organised crutches for Charles after he had had surgery
  • Nikki gave physiotherapy to Geddess's daughter
    Nikki gave physiotherapy to Geddess’s daughter

Other highlights of our work, in particular for Nikki, included spending time with Collins and getting around on his motorbike to visit patients with all range of disabilities. Collins is one Malawian health worker who stands out because of the care and compassion that he provides for his patients. Another memorable moment for Rob was riding off on a bicycle in the dark to give a young boy some antibiotics because he had developed bad meningitis. We had various trips up and back to Chintheche, Nkhata Bay, and Mzuzu hospitals to do some general work, as well as have input into the patients that we had referred on.

Aside from the clinical work we did, our time at Mwaya was spent in a variety of other roles. We became teachers — sometimes of health topics, sometimes of anything else that was needed. We revived the Health Club which was started by some previous volunteers. The Health Club was all about teaching and discussing a range of topics with local kids — anything from First Aid to epilepsy or HIV. We also became English teachers, computer teachers, biology teachers, and whatever else happened to pop up. A real highlight was Nikki’s weekly involvement as a pre-school teacher! Nikki even turned her hand to painting, and created number puzzles for each of the local pre-schools.

  • Nikki teaching health topics at Mwaya Beach
    Nikki teaching health topics at Mwaya Beach
  • Rob giving a talk about burns to some eager students
    Rob giving a talk about burns to some eager students

We had a great time at Mwaya Beach with all the staff there — we were incredibly well looked after by Agnes, Geddess, Fabs (Fabiana) and Martha with their amazing cooking and cleaning. We had Aggrey, Frank, Lawrence, and Yona looking after us during the day and then all the night watchmen! The list goes on — they were all fabulous and loads of fun.

Then we had Geoff, Liz, Megan, and all the volunteers while we were there. To be honest, there was never a dull moment as we were constantly finding some new reason to celebrate — whether it was birthdays, or the coming and going of other volunteers. We had morning swims in the beautiful lake, followed by afternoon swims, swims to “the rock” and lots of other random swims. Mwaya is a beautiful spot, and we quite often enjoyed a lazy weekend day just hanging around. We played frisbee, touch footy, soccer, and any other number of games on the beach.

Our time in Malawi, however, was not without its frustrations. It is natural, and probably a right of passage, with any development work to come up against a range of obstacles. For us, it was the frustration with transport (the country was paralysed by a fuel shortage while we were there), a lack of medical resources and skills, and things just not working generally. One of the most disappointing things to see was perhaps the apathy with which some local healthcare workers approached their jobs. At times it seems that “caring” was optional. However, for all these different shortcomings, the challenges they posed only enriched our experience further.

In some way, we have also developed on a personal level. We have learnt a great deal, and we have a newfound appreciation of the simple things in life. We value the society that we live in and the opportunities that it affords us. The education and healthcare that we can enjoy makes us truly lucky. We will always remember Mwaya — the volunteers, the staff, the patients, and the friends. It will forever be etched in our minds.

Rob and Nikki (Volunteer Doctor and Physiotherapist, September 2011 – December 2011)

  • Nikki organised regular early morning exercises on the beach for the volunteers
    Nikki organised regular early morning exercises on the beach for the volunteers
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