by Daniela Weis (REGA Nurse)
“ The minutes and hours go by so slowly but the
weeks and months pass ever so quickly”
Funnily enough, this is a quote out of the Peace Corps cookbook in Malawi. I have just returned from my visit in Nkhoma, where I spent almost 4 weeks with Jane in the POSITIVE STEPS project. This very true sentence above pretty much sums up how I feel about my time in this rough and poor but beautiful place.
There were days at the weekend when we had cleaned ourselves and the entire house, prepared lunch and finished the washing by 10am. Well, for the rest of the day we would hear the clock ticking. On the other hand, my trip to a completely different world, compared to high-tech Switzerland, flew by in an instant. Sometimes I wasn’t able to catch up comprehending and digesting one experience before something else impressive happened.
But from the start…
…for over 2 years I had been supporting POSITIVE STEPS with the help of generous friends from Germany and Switzerland. This year, I wanted to meet people from the project in person and see all the work and effort that had been put into it, especially by Jane. Hence, I spent my vacation this year in Malawi, where I was able to work alongside Jane at the CHAM hospital in Nkhoma and take part in all the other activities the charity is involved in. Despite being a nurse myself, I learned a lot about burn injuries and treatment, surgical procedures such as skin grafts and postoperative wound care while working in the burn ward. During my stay I was lucky to also meet the president of Africa Burn Relief (ABR) Jennifer Wall (PA burn specialist) and Dr. Kevin Foster (burn surgeon), while the team was in Nkhoma performing surgery and treating burn patients for 2 weeks. It was interesting to watch procedures and help with the dressing changes as well as to interact with the mainly minor burn patients and keep an eye on their nutrition, too. I can positively say that at home I never have to worry about my patient’s calorie or protein intake. But in Malawi you need to have a broader approach to things. So Jane and I found ourselves regularly taking peanut butter, milk powder and boiled eggs into the clinic to enhance the little patient’s diet. For me it was great to pursue the continuous progress from an initially severely burned patient to their recuperation after skin grafting and at last the discharge of a healed child walking out of the department happy and smiling. For the more frustrating days when nothing worked the way it was supposed to, at least I saw and understood first hand why things are sometimes different in Africa. Being involved in the ABR project was a upsetting as well as rewarding part of my time in Malawi.
Besides the work at the hospital, I got to see the various aspects of POSITIVE STEPS and how the charity makes a difference to someone’s fate. On a Thursday Jane (Cherry), Ian (Dawe) and I picked up Florida who suffers from dwarfism and her mother from their village. Even though the girl turned 16 her mum needs to carry her in a sling on her back just like an infant. This has had a huge impact on both of their lives. Neither of them had any liberty. We took them to Lilongwe to MAP (Malawi Against Physical disability) where Florida was measured for a wheelchair. One and a half weeks later they visited us in Nkhoma to collect the new vehicle that ensured freedom. Florida was beside herself with joy and pride. It was in a positive way heart-breaking to see with how little you can change someone’s life. The gratefulness you receive is enormous.
I won’t tell you about every story of every person I met. That would clearly go beyond the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, I would like to mention that Jane and I ran into Ellen Weluzani in the street during one of our “wind-down” walks in the afternoon.
You might have read about Ellen on this blog before. She suffered from third degree burns to her feet and legs and was seen by Jane last year. Ellen had amputation of both feet in the end and needed prosthetic limbs afterwards. It was serendipity to meet her and realise that she is still happily walking with her granny for miles even though she has grown out of the artificial support. POSITIVE STEPS can now follow-up the case and arrange for new supplies. This shows the sustainability of the project.
Another happy encounter was when Fred came to visit me on burn ward one day. He is a 2nd year student nurse who sent me a personal 4-page letter to thank me for providing the money for his exam fees so he could continue his training. It was wonderful to see that despite his shyness he is eager to learn and very motivated.
I could go on like this and tell you about our visit of the disability group or the school project in Ngluwe. The devastating tour of Kamuzu Central Hospital , Lilongwe city hospital or the outing for lunch to Dedza pottery over a dirt road through very remote and basic villages where the people are blessed to have at least a well for fresh water…
…but you would still be reading tomorrow. Therefore I’ll come to an end with the note of my strongest impressions: first, it is incredible how strong and tough Malawian people are and what immense pain and sufferance they are able to endure. How they walk for miles with bare feet and logs of wood or tubs of water on their heads, most of the times having eating only one meal a day, still keeps me in awe. Unbelievably, with how little they are satisfied and content and still give you the brightest smiles.
I am very grateful for the opportunity I was given to live a few weeks in this safe third world country. I shared my professional knowledge and personal point of view which was always appreciated. In return I learned a lot about composure and simplicity in life and how much I value empathy, sympathy and a sense of responsibility. The peaceful, quiet life got me interested in cooking and baking which I enjoy more these days than before. It was a very valuable experience I wouldn’t want to miss with happy but also sad moments.
Malawi and its people creep into your heart, the image of red dry, soil and the smell of open fires in the air will stick.