Sunday Morning ~ Go Light Your World

Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Wa njiru sagonera, mvula ndi imodzi  ~  A bad man does not live long. His rainy season is only one.

~ Malawian Proverb

February 18, 2018

Hi Everyone,

When we had the bloodsucker phenomenon here, nine people were killed in the violence. Police and government officials controlled the situation fairly quickly and the areas where the beliefs were most pervasive, calmed. If anyone was caught having anything to do with spreading the hysteria they were jailed immediately. But nine people lost their lives. They were mostly beaten to death but one was burned. I’ve never seen anyone with a gun here aside from the police at the road blocks and the guides in the game parks. They were deaths brought on by fear and misunderstanding which spread rapidly among people who were afraid for their own lives. They believed the “bloodsuckers” were out to kill them. These incidents were broadcast worldwide and it made Malawi seem like a dangerous place. That was back in October. There has been no violence since.

Yesterday, I went to Limbe, Blantyre’s sister city, to get supplies for the women’s class. I find Limbe a bit intimidating, especially on Saturday morning. It’s a center for shopping and one can find many items not available in Blantyre. I’m not sure why, but that’s the way it is, probably because of their large Indian population who excel at commerce. There have to be hundreds of stores there, small, independent, crowded shops where a tall counter a few steps in from the door separates the public from the merchandise. A heavy screen is attached to the counter and extends to the ceiling. It has a little window cut out of it and the merchants sit behind the screen to take your order. You tell them what you want and they will go back into the dark abyss to find it for you. They miraculously come back a moment later and hand you the items through the little window, then you pass them your money. They have all their inventory in their heads so can tell you instantly whether what you want is available. There are usually eight to ten people standing in the three square meters between the entrance and the counter and it’s crammed with samples of pots, plastic buckets, phone chargers, batteries, and other stuff all chained to the wall or the screen. It’s sensory overload.

I was looking for nylon twine for the women to use to make bracelets. I had gone there a few weeks ago battling the crowds and was led to one shop that had what I was looking for by a young man we found at the market. We had followed him through alleys and back roads and I could not for the life of me find that shop again. I thought there had to be another one with that twine! I went in and out of shops showing them my bracelet and asking for the same kind of twine. No, no, no. Couldn’t find any.  A young man on the street saw me going in and out of these shops empty handed and and asked what I was looking for.  I showed him the bracelet and he said to follow him. The first shop he went into had white and black twine and I bought a bunch of it. But I needed other colors, so the search continued. This young man spent the better part of an hour with me, in and out, asking in Chichewa where to go next if the shop didn’t have any. A hardware shop had some yellow and green and was selling it really cheap. I looked for landmarks to figure out how to find that place again. We’d woven in and out of sidewalk stalls where vendors were selling phone chargers, underwear, ripe avocados, plastic flip flops, underwear, tomatoes, lollipops, maize flour…on and on in the hot sun, it all looked the same to me. I knew I’d never find it again.  In one shop, out the next, I think we went to twenty or more places until we found one that had the red and gold twine I was looking for. My escort pointed behind the counter and said to me, “Look. Madam. Purple.” and there was some purple twine as well.  I laughed at how invested he was! I bought two more rolls of purple, a good color for lent. He’d watched me taking money out of my bag to pay at each place I bought something. Never once did I feel he would rob me. When I had all I needed, I handed him 400 kwacha (about 50 cents) and he thanked me and said he had to go back to work. I said, “Pitani bwino. Zikomo!”  (Go well. Thank you!)  And he laughed and trotted off to who knows where. I just do not feel unsafe here. But now I worry about my granddaughter who will go to school in the states for the first time in September. How crazy is this?

It has been a full week, full of activity and emotions. Monday, I met with my ten fourth year students in Lilongwe and put some closure to my time with them last term. I had been feeling unsettled about the way we left each other after their postnatal exam. I never had a chance to give them feedback of any kind. I let them know I would be in Lilongwe, where they are attending classes on high risk maternity care. They all gathered during a break from their classes to meet with me and it was very appreciated on both sides. I saw a What’s App message they were sending around that said, “Madam is here! Meet in the old lecture hall!”  (Side note: I am going to miss being called Madam. I really like it.) They’ll all be going off to different clinical sites next term so I won’t be seeing them again. I gave them my feedback, returned an assignment, and we went outside to take a photo together, sharing well wishes and good lucks for the future. I felt much better. We finished up at the Peace Corps office and George and I drove back to Blantyre.

Tuesday was the capping ceremony for the first year students. Don’t ask me why they do this during the week on a day full of classes that need to be cancelled.  Monday they had a rehearsal so those classes were also cancelled. Don’t ask me why. Well, no one goes out in the evenings because there is no way to get around and it is dangerous walking, so I get that, but I would have been willing to give up a Sunday afternoon. Anyway, it was to start at 1:30 on Tuesday and I had to wear a cap, something I don’t think I’ve worn since my own capping in 1976 (which was on a Sunday afternoon). I remember parents and family being invited when I got capped. It’s a solemn ceremony, honoring Florence Nightingale, and I was very emotional at this one on Tuesday. All I remember of mine was that my father was dour and controlling and my brother took a nice photo of me which he enlarged and framed and gave me for Christmas the following year. That was nice. I think my favorite teacher gave a little speech. Anyway, at 1:30 on Tuesday a few of my colleagues and I were the only ones in the hall. The same was true at 2:00. And at 2:30. I looked at the program, glad I had nothing scheduled later in the day. It was not going to be over at 4. About 2:40 someone started the music on a laptop attached to a PA system and students carrying unlit candles came dancing in. Literally dancing. I’m not sure how many students total there are but close to two hundred, so that took awhile. Then the faculty had to go outside and dance in. Literally, dance in. I asked, “Hey, why didn’t we get a rehearsal?” worried I wouldn’t pick up on the steps, but they were pretty simple. By the time I got to the center aisle I had it down pat. There were speeches and the story of the history of the nursing cap was told by my dean, Ursula, and then she started the candle lighting ceremony to the song, Go Light Your World,  by Christopher Rice. She walked down the center aisle lighting the first candle at each row and the flame got passed from student to student. I wasn’t familiar with this song but these are the lyrics:

There is a candle in every soul

Some brightly burning, some dark and cold

There is a Spirit who brings fire

Ignites a candle and makes His home

Carry your candle, run to the darkness

Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn

Hold out your candle for all to see it

Take your candle, and go light your world

Take your candle, and go light your world

Frustrated brother, see how he’s tried to

Light his own candle some other way

See now your sister, she’s been robbed and lied to

Still holds a candle without a flame

Carry your candle, run to the darkness

Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn

Hold out your candle for all to see it

Take your candle, and go light your world

Take your candle, and go light your world

We are a family whose hearts are blazing

So let’s raise our candles and light up the sky

Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus

Make us a beacon in darkest times

Carry your candle, run to the darkness

Seek out the helpless, deceived and poor

Hold out your candle for all to see it

Take your candle, and go light your world

I was sobbing, not just because I’m a sucker for ceremony, but I see how hard it is for these students, most of them only eating once a day because all their money has gone to pay for their school fees. And I wondered how long it would be before the system knocks the idealism out of their eyes. No parents were there. No one but faculty, the vice principal of the nursing school, and the speakers, one a new graduate and one an older nurse who’s worked for the Department of Health for decades. It was hard to hear them since the PA system was rigged to the laptop so the music blared but there was no microphone for them to use. But everyone was quiet and respectful. After the speeches the capping commenced. There were ten chairs at the front of the auditorium and ten students rose and filed to the seats. Behind them ten faculty members stood and the students handed their caps to us and we pinned them to their heads. The boys wear epaulets not caps but those were pinned on as well. It was sweet.  Then there were more speeches and prayers and finally we all danced out, faculty first.

Wednesday was an odd pairing of Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday and there were a million things going on. Staff from both SEED and Peace Corps were here to do site visits and we all had individual meetings with them. I was madly trying to get my final exam written as it was due to be reviewed for vetting on Thursday. I wanted to go to church at 5:30 p.m. and there was a Mountain Club meeting at seven. I’d arranged to meet a friend there to exchange some vegetables from her garden for some gnocchi I’d made for her. George had conflicting meetings and a dinner with colleagues so we just decided to meet up later at home. It was pouring rain. I had very low expectations for Valentine’s Day, but that morning George handed me a gorgeous carved wooden box. In it was poetry he had written on hearts sticking up out of three colorful carved animals. It’s beautiful. The gift I am making for him is not finished and I did not think that would be a problem, fully expecting him to forget about Valentine’s Day. I figured he’d just feel bad if I gave him something. He’s always tricking me. In the meantime, I’d gotten an email from the hospital director telling me to arrange a meeting with the head of the obstetrics department regarding our model ward idea. I asked Ursula when she’d be available so I could send him some options for times to meet. I was thinking like, next week sometime. She said, “How about tomorrow morning?”  I said, “Really? You think we can do it that soon?” She said, she’d be around tomorrow, so give it a try. This just cracks me up. I thought this would be something we had to plan weeks or months into the future, but I sent him a text asking if we could meet with him after morning report on Thursday. I didn’t hear anything back. Not surprised. I figured I’d follow up on Thursday and go over to his office and try to find a secretary or something with an appointment book. I left campus at five p.m. to go to church. I had the car planning to go to the cathedral since it was on the way to the meeting at seven. It’s about a half a mile from campus and took me a half hour to get there. The traffic was ridiculous. I don’t notice it ordinarily since I walk everywhere around town, but the rain and the darkness required a vehicle. The masses here go on and on so I was planning to leave after communion, jump in the car and head to the mountain club meeting. I parked in a spot where I had an easy exit route, making sure I turned around so I could just pull out in drive. It’s hard to see in the rain and I didn’t want to have to back up and turn around after dark. I walked in just as mass was starting. There had to be three thousand people in this church. Not one empty seat and the church is enormous. After communion I ducked out with fifteen minutes to spare before the next event. It would be slow driving because of the rain, but the venue wasn’t that far away and I thought I’d get there in time. I walked into the parking area to find my car completely blocked in by fifty other vehicles. I mean I couldn’t have driven two inches. I had no idea how they all fit themselves in there! It looked like my kid’s toy box after throwing all the matchbox cars in! I didn’t even get that upset as there was nothing to do but wait. It’s not like there was any other option. I sat in the car and wrote exam questions. I’d considered going back into the church but got wet enough going to the car in the first place. It took another half hour before people started coming out and another fifteen minutes after that before I could move, which, I thought, was rather quick. And not one fender bender. Miraculous.

Early Thursday morning I was planning my day, figuring out how I would finish exam writing in time to get to a hardware store to buy varnish for the paper beads the women were making on Friday. As I was ironing my blouse, my phone signaled I had a text. It was Dr Bonongwe, the head of obstetrics, saying he would meet with us after morning report at 8:30. It was 7:39. Oh shit. I quickly texted Ursula and Elizabeth, praying they were available, and said I was on my way to campus. (I was actually brushing my teeth) I got dressed and ran to the office where I  met up with my colleagues and we “knocked heads”, as they say, to organize how we would approach this. I was blown away by the fact that we were actually having the meeting a mere 20 hours after I requested it, sure it was so he could say “No” to our idea.  We walked together over to his office and sat to wait (no surprise). I had a class at ten where the students were taking their mid-term exam. I figured if we had to wait a half hour I’d be fine. I didn’t expect him to spend more than a few minutes with us. He arrived about 8:45 (not bad!) and we gathered in a conference room with the three matrons of the maternity ward. We did the proper greetings and Ursula asked me to give an overview of our proposal, which I did as succinctly as possible. He had already spoken with the hospital director without us and had a lot of concerns, many of which were valid. He had no trouble expressing them, believe me. I have watched this guy rip residents a new ass hole during rounds so knew he wasn’t a shrinking violet. As he was spouting off one concern after another–––“You can’t have a country within a country!”–––and asking questions without waiting for an answer–––“And what are you going to do if there is a complication? And what will you do during school breaks? Huh? Just disappear?”–––I was having a hard time staying quiet. I wanted to answer the questions as he asked them. But Ursula quietly wrote them all down in her little notebook and when he was spent (after like twenty minutes) and she could speak, she said, “Thank you very much Dr Head of Department for raising these concerns.” and one by one she went down the list to intelligently address them. It was really a sight to see. She is amazing. I kept looking a the clock worried about my class. I didn’t want to miss any of this and it was going on way longer than I expected already. I kept wondering how people have this much time in their day to just sit down for an unexpected hour long meeting? But that’s how they do it. Without giving a word for word account of it, which went on way longer than an hour, he blurts out with, “I think this is a good idea. I think you need to do something to have more of a presence here. I just don’t want you to do it in the middle of my ward. Take ward 1A. Set up your own practice over there. We can figure out how to collaborate for complications.” I held my breath. We all did. I looked at Ursula and Elizabeth. Did he just say what I thought he said? We get a whole ward to ourselves? This was so far above and beyond anything we ever hoped to ask for I wasn’t sure I heard it right.  One of the matrons asked about the grant I submitted. I had the floor, scared to wake up from this really good dream I was having of GETTING OUR OWN WARD!!!!! I said the money I was going for would be to fund the planning meetings we’d all need to get everyone’s input about how this would work. There has to be buy-in from all parties and we know there are valid concerns we need to address. If there is money left over we can put it toward renovations needed or equipment, and by this time it was after ten and I had to leave. I apologized but said I had to go give an exam and whispered to Elizabeth, “Nail down a date for the first planning meeting. Try to get March 1st.”  Then skipped, SKIPPED! back to campus. I felt like I did the day of my divorce, sitting in court saying to myself, wait, did I just get everything I think I got?

I was fifteen minutes late for class, thinking what poor form that was since the students were nervous about the exam. I’d have to give them extra time. Turns out they were all sitting out on the grass because the maids were cleaning the classroom. So it wasn’t until 12:30 when all the exams were passed in that I could run over to Ursula’s office where we were high fiving and reality checking and saying can you believe this?? This is going to be so much better than having a corner with six beds. We can really make this a fantastic model. Yes, we will need a little more money because we have to create a delivery suite, but that’s all doable. We’ll have the postnatal beds right there! There is already a nurses station! It’s got windows! And the paint isn’t that bad! It’s a much bigger space than what we asked for. I am ecstatic. Ursula said, “You have to stay for six years.”  I laughed. ‘Then we both got serious and said, “Oh, wow. Now we have to do it.”  Ok. Ok. One step at a time. I had been losing hope, but I’m going to take this as 2018 being a year of good things to come.

And…our abstract got accepted to present this at the International Confederation of Nurses in Advance Practice meeting in Rotterdam at the end of August!  Woohoo!

On Friday the women were learning to make beads from strips of old calendars. They sat on their mats and worked and chatted. I had told them to decide on a name for their group and they voted to call it “Tiyamike Women’s Group”. Tiyamike translates to “We are grateful”.  Towela, from the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe came to see the class. I was so happy she came to see what they were doing. She spoke to them in Chichewa and told them they need to work together and plan for how to succeed as a small business. She asked them if they felt like this had been worthwhile and they all agreed it had. She bought some earrings and a bracelet and we put the money in an envelope and labeled it with the group’s name. Our first sale.

In this week of sadness and tragedy, of utter irresponsibility of our government, I’m bolstered by the activism, the goodness of so many, and positive momentum and pray this madness sees only one rainy season.

Love to all,


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