Sunday Morning ~ Justice

Sunday Morning ~ Justice

Cikuni ca utsi koma kufumula ~ The firewood that smokes too much must be removed.

~ Chewa proverb

March 31, 2019

Hi Everyone,

I was looking for proverbs having to do with justice and this one caught my attention. I like it because it’s message relates to actively doing something to change the course of the situation. Many Malawians cook inside over an open fire. If a piece of firewood is not burning but smoking, it doesn’t help anything. It won’t cook the food and it will burn the eyes of the children. It will cause asthma and breathing problems in everyone around. The piece that won’t burn has to be removed. The piece that isn’t burning, only smoking and hurting everyone, must be plucked from the flames and thrown outside. Maybe it will be used to make a fence for the garden or to build the outhouse, but when it’s not doing the job intended, out it goes, before anyone suffers more than necessary. The early symptoms  identify the problem and before more harm comes, the faulty firewood is removed. That’s justice.

When the firewood is stacked in a bundle outside the kitchen door, it may look like the other pieces. It wouldn’t be easy to recognize it as the one that won’t burn properly. It is placed in a teepee formation along with the others. But it doesn’t take long for a woman cooking to see what isn’t working. She must be efficient with the firewood as the supply is dwindling rapidly. Her family’s life depends on it. No fire, no food. No food, no energy. No energy, no crop. No crop, and everyone dies from famine.

It’s not difficult to recognize a smoking piece of firewood. It’s clearly only causing discomfort and harm and not providing anything for it. Neither heat nor flame earn it the right to stay where it is. I imagine how a Malawian would tolerate anyone watching this and not doing something about it. They would consider them crazy, to endanger the entire village by hurting the health of the family. 

This notion swirls around my mind wondering where justice lies and how many races have waited for how many centuries to find it? What it will take before we, the privileged, see en mass what damage the smoking piece of firewood is causing and how we could stop choking if we removed it?  I feel like we’re in an episode of The Empire Strikes Back. I know there is a sequel coming but not sure which will sell the most tickets. I believe in justice and fellow humanity leaning that way, but this week it’s a chore to remind myself of that. I repeat these phrases: What goes around comes around, Karma’s a bitch, The bigger they are the harder they fall…all a lenten prayer that I live to see justice here. We’ve got the power to remove the useless piece of firewood, but a whole year and a half of breathing in toxic smoke is dangerous. 

Love to all,


Sunday Morning~ Staying afloat

Sunday Morning ~ Staying afloat

Bololo sakonda madzi. ~ The bololo insect is not affected by the water.

~ Chewa proverb

March 24, 2019

Hi Everyone,

I’ve heard from many people wondering about the fate of my friends and colleagues in Malawi where the recent cyclone has had an impact. I find it incredibly heartwarming to think that so many people are aware of this beautiful and peaceful country, and care about them. That fills me up. I’m in Maine now and only getting information second hand, but I have heard from my colleagues and friends and all of them are ok. The most devastated areas of the country are in the lowlands south of Blantyre. Blantyre, where we lived, is at 3,500 feet and got pummeled by rain, but from reports I’ve gotten, have been spared the flooding. Mozambique got the worst of it, and the most impacted parts of Malawi are on the Mozambique border. Life is so fragile there in the best of times, it’s hard to see them face more devastation and suffering. Most people (82%) are subsistence farmers and their lives depend on the one crop of maize each year. This is a crop they plant by hand, hoeing the rock-hard ground in October–– the end of the dry season–– into hills. They plant the seed corn by hand, and pray for a good season of rains, which, have a pattern to them that people have come to rely on. The rains start around the end of November and last until April. It rains almost every day, usually late afternoon or evening, and through the night. Then it is hot and sunny during the day until late afternoon when the pattern repeats itself. People settle into his rhythm and rely on it to know they and their families will eat for the coming year. They allocate one room of their houses for storage of maize to last throughout the dry season. The rains are a signal that life will go on so to have this sacred element ravage their crops and meager homes is so cruel. But there is no control over what nature throws at you, at least from the villagers point of view. They aren’t driving big cars or flying around the world on jets. Their contribution to climate change is cutting trees for fuel to cook their simple but staple meals. Over time, as refugees from neighboring wars have arrived, it has taken it’s toll on the landscape and certainly affect how the land reacts to flooding and rainfall. But they need to eat and this is all they know. When I look at what they consume and how they contribute to climate change, it is minuscule compared to our lifestyles, but impacts them much more harshly. No one has the right to pass judgement. 

I just finished reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind  by William Kamkwambaand plan to watch the movie tonight. I wanted to finish the book first. It is an amazing story about a boy in Malawi who couldn’t finish school because his family didn’t have the school fees. It’s a beautiful illustration of village life in Malawi and the incredible obstacles they must overcome to get even an elementary education. It’s also a poignant reminder of how perseverance and luck direct our lives. Highly recommend it. 

I have been clearing off some shelves I haven’t touched in ages and found some journals I wrote many years ago. I’m grateful I kept journals that describe my life at different stages. It lends some perspective on how I saw things back then. I consider how that perspective has changed as life changes and responsibility grew. I found a journal I started my senior year of college. The first page says: I will be writing in this journal every day for the rest of my life~ and every page after that is blank!  I kept turning the pages looking for something, but…nothing! I’m not sure what to do with it. It seems such a waste of paper. I found another from my early time in Malawi in 1979 which had every page filled. It started when we were in training in the village of Salima and were taking daily Chichewa lessons. I started looking at it and realized the next few hours would be consumed with a walk down memory lane. I made tea and sat to read it. In training, we had four language teachers and the one who coordinated the classes was named Innocent Banda. He was an incredibly intelligent man and I remember being captivated by his philosophy of language learning and how it impacts how we get along in life. He was a poet. I’d copied a poem he’d written into my journal:

Last Night A Baby Passed Away Unseen, Unheard

In the village

where mothers have grown

to learn the signs

of the cruel hand of fate,

the coming of a child

is met with heavy hearts.

Here the mother must

impose upon herself

a retreat

fighting the unpronounceable thoughts;

to save life;

here the simple miracle of creation

is a profound mystery

never taken for granted

never accepted

at the first signs.

But when at last the work is done

and the new baby born

suffers her first breath,

the mother smiles

and the neighborhood breaks into song.

In the village

where women have grown to see

the pain of expectation

break into the agony of mourning,

nothing is there

until all is done:

so often the midwife

gone a bundle in one hand

a hoe in the other (to the graveyard)

her head bowed in painful shame

of the work undone––

the prospective mother

doubled in shame

at work undone,

that it has become natural

to hear people whisper 

the unholy news.

At such times

a woman may writhe in anguish

but never mourn,

for there is no rain in the clouds

until we see it fall

until we touch the water

that falls from them.

In the village

where women have learnt

the pain of life

men’s hearts are heavy

at the first signs

of the miracle of birth.

In the village

only that which is given

is accepted

the promise is in the hands

of the gods until the day of fulfillment.

You will not mourn then 

my friend

but wait again

for the signs.

And though the anguish

may burn your soul

stand firm

until you gaze again into the morning dew

––crystal ball of ages

your head reeling

with expectation.

Now while the agony grows

only think

that I

feel for you

the agony of those that share.

I can only share

and that way

may I make you strong.

~ Innocent Banda

So I found this in my journal, written in January of 1979 in my tiny handwriting. I even have the tilde before his name. I’m trying to remember how I came to be in possession of this poem. He must have given it to me. Was it typed? Was it written on scrap paper in his script? He was a little older than me. I was 22 and I think he was 26. I remember thinking he was one of the wisest people I’d ever met. I wonder what became of him. I wonder if he is still alive. I wonder if this was a signal diverting me, shifting my career. I wrote nothing else about him or, for that matter, what this poem meant to me or why I copied it so carefully into my journal. I was a bit breathless as I read it. It felt like a beautiful gift I’d neglected. It means more to me now than it ever could have then, young and childless. Forty years later, on this cold Sunday Maine morning in March, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to read these words today which speak to me about how to help someone suffering. I can only share, and with that comes a prayer that I can make you strong. I love the way he has captured the helpless feeling of watching someone you love struggle, knowing you can’t take the burden away, but wishing you could. Praying that the caring and sharing will make them strong enough to stay afloat until the water recedes. 

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Safe

Sunday Morning ~ Consequences

Ukatukwana ng’ona ju madzi usapiteko ~ If you insult the crocodile, do not go near the river.

~ Chewa proverb 

March 17, 2019

I was trying to find a proverb having to do with hens, since the hen party was Friday night, and I found a few, but didn’t like their message. Many of them were about women gossiping and telling lies. A few were about predators hovering above the hen house, or the hyena being blamed for killing the hens when it is really the rabbit doing the deed. None of them appealed to me. Then I saw this one about insulting the crocodile and liked it. Not sure if it relates to anything I have to say today but we’ll see what comes up. Maybe I can tie it in.

When I’m off on an adventure it’s so easy to write on Sunday. There is so much to say about the week, so many new things to talk about or some new experience that has made me think about the way I view life. But when I’m home, wading my way through the end of winter, trying to get motivated to finish half-done projects, trying to figure out how to be productive professionally in the last stage of my career, it seems mundane and a bit tedious.  

I read George’s blog and it is so full of new experiences, new sights, new relationships, it makes me homesick for a place I’ve never been. He has settled into his rhythm and is thriving. At the hen party Friday night a few people asked me about him. They were wondering why I didn’t go with him, or if we were even still together. One woman who hadn’t read my blog in awhile said, “I read about you saying goodbye and was sad thinking the relationship was over.”  I had two immediate thoughts: 1. Oh, that’s so sweet that she was so invested in our lives that she was sad thinking we’d broken up. And 2. Why hasn’t she read any of my other blogs? She should know we’re still together!

Anyway, we are still together. He said some family members had also wondered. Otherwise why would he go off for a year without me? Why didn’t I want to go? Clearly none of these people have lived with George when he is working at something that he cares deeply about. It consumes him entirely. It was different (and sometimes stressful) when I had an equally challenging job and was consumed by it as well. Not having a job in Myanmar meant I would have time to explore and be available to be supportive, and I could have spent a year thus occupied. But I missed my house, my grandchildren, my children (funny the order this is coming out in), my friends, and wanted to work on the project in Malawi. It didn’t make sense for me to spend the year being a kept woman. That’s what it would have felt like. Which, oddly, is something I always fantasized about being. I’d imagine what luxury to not have to work, let someone else take care of the finances and the housing, etc. It seemed 50’sish to me and in some little backwater segment of my brain, was attractive.  But the reality of that would have been me being often resentful for not getting the attention I felt I deserved, and not being supportive but distracting to George. As that thought played out, the dreamy fantasy turned into a harsh one. So it made more sense to me (and now him as well) for me to return to my home and sort out the next stage of life. We talk twice a day, the time change being eleven and a half hours (not sure why the half), so when I’m waking up he’s having supper, and vice versa. There is a good bit of, “Wait, what day is it for you?” but so far it’s working. We’ll meet in Maui next month for a little R&R, and when he’s finished in the late fall, I’ll go to Myanmar and we’ll have another expedition, maybe through India. It’s fun to dream about.

This all brings me back around to my house and the strong (strange?) love affair I have with it. Hosting all the women Friday filled me with satisfaction and a contentment I get every time people gather here. I love when the house is filled with conversation and laughter. The dreaded home maintenance isn’t daunting at the moment. Maybe it’s because the days are brighter but it’s still cold as ice outside and I’m finding excuses to stay in. Some things need attending to but I love taking care of my place. It satisfies me to the core. The rotting thresholds on the greenhouse doors give me some angst. I’m asked if I want aluminum thresholds or a plastic door jam? Horrors! No! I reply. I only wanted to use natural materials when we built the place. “But it doesn’t rot”, he says with a tantalizing tone. “Never have to replace it.” (the same lilt). Hmm. Tempting. Then I do the math. Am I really going to be replacing this when I’m 90? Or I could be more diligent and be better at preventive medicine. Aluminum, maybe. Plastic? No. Can’t do it. Copper gutters for the front, but what if the snow falls off again next year and rips them off? Hmm, more decisions. I’m reminded of the decisions that had to be made hourly when we were building this place. Stuff you’d never imagined had to be decided upon. Do you want that door swinging this way or that way? Where do you want to be able to turn off this light? Where should the brackets go? Do you want to see them or not?  All of these minute decisions, so tiresome at the time, make my home feel like a favorite pair of slippers, custom made for my feet. Knowing the house from inside out has made this place so much more than just a shelter.There may be one day when I choose to leave it, but the thought of being forced for a reason beyond my control: financial collapse, safety, violence, war…it’s unthinkable.

As I sat yesterday clearing out my sewing room, I felt the whole house shudder and thought the furnace had blown up. Or maybe it was an earthquake. Maybe that’s why the ceiling is cracking in my bedroom? Maybe the fireplaces are sinking? I froze and waited, wondering if I should run out. Well, good thing I didn’t because a million pounds of snow and ice fell off the roof onto the front yard. If anyone had been under it they would surely have been killed. I shuddered. How much warning was there before that dropped? What if I’d been standing on the front step saying goodbye to someone, or playing with the grandkids? Oh, the scenarios that play out in my head. Someone could have been innocently killed. We blithely go about our business where we feel protected and safe. Like our place of worship, for instance. It may be boring sometimes, the music may not be as uplifting or angelic as we wish, maybe the message isn’t all that inspiring from one week to the next. Or maybe it is. Maybe that’s where we find the holy spirit in us and leave feeling fortified for the week. We aren’t thinking as we enter, “Hmm, maybe I’ll get shot in here today.” Just like we don’t approach our house and think, “Hmm, maybe I’ll die from the snow falling off the roof.” There are some places where we should feel safe. Always. It’s survival to stay away from a crocodile inhabited riverbank, but church? Home? Safe. For some anyway.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Forgiveness

Sunday Morning ~ Forgiveness

Apemba, lumo lili ku mutu.  ~ He shows respect when the razor is already at his head.

~ Chewa proverb

March 10, 2019

Respect and forgiveness have been on my mind. Hearing story after story of abuse in the church, hidden, denied, bribed away is so disturbing. Figuring out how to take responsibility, pay the price, and be granted forgiveness? It’s on my mind. We always told our kids that when you make a mistake, you admit it, pay the price, and move on, and sometimes the price is high. I hadn’t forgiven my father for lots of things, strong in the belief that forgiveness needed to be asked for. He came as close as he was capable of in a letter I got in the mail the day he died. It wasn’t a plea for forgiveness, more of an admission he’d done some things wrong. It had been written in shaky handwriting two days prior and mailed the same day. It was in my mailbox when I got home from work, having left early after receiving the call that he’d ridden his bike to the library and dropped dead. I wonder if he knew.

It’s hard to make sense of all that is being revealed now. I don’t want it to be true, but I know it is. It’s like finding skeletons in the family closet, thinking you’d grown up normal. It’s creepy. We had a friend, Dave, who was ordained a priest shortly after I graduated from college. He was one of the priests who married us; I think we were his first wedding. He was a good friend, we skied together during his seminary years, a whole group of us who were Catholic and active. We sailed to the Boston Harbor Islands for weekend camping trips. We drank too much, flirted, laughed, and talked politics. It was the 70’s.

We were a big gang of friends. I got introduced to this diverse group when I was in nursing school. I met my friend Sheila on our first day of classes at Boston College. She was my connection to the group. Neither of us were eighteen years old yet, which was the drinking age at the time. We wanted to get into the Rathskeller, the on-campus bar that had an oldies night on Thursdays with great dancing and hilarity. We were underaged but somehow managed to get in; I think she used her sister’s ID. I forget that detail. I was only a few weeks away from being legal, so maybe they just let me in. That’s how things rolled back then. Some regulations were loose. The group of friends was large. There were Community Boating people who all came from families with eight or nine children, (six at the very least) so there were lots of them. There were Catholic youth group people, there were Boston College friends, all meeting up on various weeknights in various venues for dancing when the drinks were half price or the regatta had ended, often with the Robinson boys victorious. The seminarians were across the street from Boston College and they came to the Rathskeller on Thursdays, too. It was fun. We laughed a lot. We went to weekend parties in various parts of the city, sometimes we’d go to mass together. I recall that everyone was Catholic, though there may have been a few agnostics or others in the group. It didn’t seem an issue. Despite all the raucousness, there was an undercurrent of spirituality. There were weekend spiritual retreats, I can’t remember where, that were uplifting, meaningful, and enriching. We were college kids and good citizens. I learned a lot from those retreats. I made good friends from there, had a short term boyfriend, and still think of the ways some speakers inspired me. It definitely carved a channel into my path in life. 

I remember when I became disillusioned. Cardinal Medeiros came to speak. It was a big deal, the ring and all. We all kissed it, though I suppose we could have refused. No razor to our heads or anything. He was an awe-inspiring creature, grew up poor in the Azores, and I always thought a very good and holy man. But during the question and answer period, someone asked him if there would ever be any female priests? Good question. Feminism was becoming mainstream, there was talk of equality and talents that women had to offer; talents which were being scorched by ovens in kitchens and chemical cleansers in bathrooms. I think I could have dealt with it if he had just said, “No. Not in our lifetime. Things change too slowly in the church.” or something like that. But in his thick Portuguese accent he said, “I love women. My mother was a woman. But there will never be a woman priest.” And that, incredulously, was the end of his answer! Again, I could accept the reality of the negative response. But that this highly educated man, who had risen to the highest rank next to pope, responded to a room full of college students in such a stupid infantile way? What the fuck? That was the last retreat I went to. And the last time I went to church for a year. Everything seemed ridiculous. I loved my friends who believed deeply and were considering making a life in the priesthood. I loved and respected them. But suddenly all the rules and rituals seemed tainted and cruel and a put-down to women. I was a sophomore in college. Perfect timing. There was a lot of establishment-rejecting going on then and I slid into it easily. 

Boston College is a Jesuit school where philosophy and theology were required core subjects. My philosophy professor was a bisexual Jewish guy from New York; he kicked the shit out of my dogmatic regurgitated beliefs my freshman year. Harsh. My theology professor was a young, hip Jesuit who wore black turtlenecks and corduroy pants. Really cool. We read the play Equis and discussed it. We explored the values of different social groups. I told him I was giving up religion. I couldn’t deal with a cardinal who was so stupid. I couldn’t kiss the ring of someone who didn’t believe I was equal. This Jesuit said, “I’ve been there and I understand. You need to do this. Go for it.”  and in that moment it was like someone released a grip around my throat. I’d grown up with a father that demanded I fall in line with his beliefs or he’d “pull the rug out under my feet so fast I wouldn’t know what hit me.” (A favorite line of his.) I had to comply, after all, he was paying for college. And there I sat with a man who listened with compassion as I rejected all his life represented, and he didn’t reject me. I walked away a little confused by that. I wasn’t accustomed to men supporting me. This was new.

I took a course on ethics my senior year, taught by a PhD nun, who’d published several books. In one of our conferences I asked her about her faith and how she managed in an institution who didn’t value her as a woman. She was curled up on a sofa in her office, elbow resting on the back and ankles pulled under her. Short hair. Plaid skirt and tights. I forget her name, though I can see her clearly, sitting comfortably and smiling at me. She was a tough teacher. I got a C in the course and never worked so hard for it. Well, maybe for the C in organic chemistry, but not for an elective. She talked about the calling. She talked about how much easier it was after vatican two. She talked about the freedom to go swimming now! But she told me she had no regrets. She knows there are changes that need to be made and she’s excited to be part of it. 

Over that year I sat with my atheism and didn’t like it. There was an emptiness I didn’t want to live with forever. I had friends, boyfriends, sports, travel, all that makes a life rich and privileged. But I missed my faith. I found myself gravitating back to mass, which were plentiful at BC, let me tell you. I could go any day of the week, morning, noon, or night. I felt good there. I felt like going back was more like reuniting with friends than being on a forced march. I’m grateful for the open arms that are always there for me and do feel like progress is happening, though slow and sometimes painful. When is forgiveness deserved? Is it deserved only when asked for? When the knife is at the head? I hear lots of different opinions on this.

Our friend Dave started disappearing from our social scene. We’d call when we were going out, or having a party, but he’d never return our calls. By this time he was a priest in some part of Boston, I forget where. He’d moved a couple of times, as they all do early on, and for a while we weren’t sure which parish he was in. That was strange, we thought. He married many of the couples in that group and buried many of the parents. At one wedding he was at after not seeing him for months, we were milling around and someone said to him, “Hey stranger, long time no talk to you!” He said, “Yeah, well, my phone rings too, you know.” We looked at each other awkwardly. Many of us had called him several times and he’d never returned our calls. We sat at our assigned table in the reception hall and discussed it. What was he talking about? Do you think he hasn’t been given our messages? Does he look unhealthy? He looks like he’s lost weight.

The last time I saw him was a couple of years later when he baptized my godson. He died shortly afterward, probably of AIDS but that is speculation on my part. He was wasted and short of breath and needed help to stand. I realize now he was being kept away from us, maybe under the assumption that this raucous group of friends had led him astray. It’s my belief he was hidden away because he was dying of AIDS, not because he was a sex offender. I pray that is the case, and then think, what has it come to that that is my prayer? I wonder who was with him as he died. What a closeted, unhealthy, confusing time it was, not just for the clergy, but for other of our friends as well. Instead of coming out to us, they just slowly drifted away. We didn’t see them again. It was a big loss. 

Social norms were different. There was common behavior that would never pass for socially acceptable behavior today. I grew up in an era where misogyny, homophobia, power imbalance, and sexual harassment was the norm. Mad Men is spot on. It wasn’t right, but I accepted it as something that would never change. And though it still exists, we’re shining a light on it now in a different way and I wonder what that will mean on the stage we’re currently playing on.

Sunday Morning ~ Going together

Sunday Morning ~ Going together

March 3, 2019

Pita uno si kuyenda, kuyenda n’tiye kuno ~ To say “go there” is not the right way of traveling, but it is to say, “let us go together”

~ Chewa proverb

Hi Everyone,

Whew! Whirlwind trip to Philadelphia this week to see the final presentations of designs for the midwifery ward. This has been an incredible process and I’m blown away by what the students have done. 

I’ll give a little background on how I got connected to the interior design students and how they ended up getting involved in a project for a midwifery ward halfway around the world. My friend Chris is a professor of architecture at Jefferson University and spent a year teaching at the Polytechnic in Blantyre. We met at our Chichewa class. George and I had been taking the class for a couple of weeks and one day this cute bearded guy rushed in and sat down, explaining he’d just arrived from the states and wanted to learn some Chichewa. There were about ten people in this late afternoon class. Everyone was always in a rush to leave to get home before dark so we never really hung out and chatted afterward. One evening I was walking home after class when the heavens opened up into a deluge. My umbrella was useless and I was drenched within about twenty yards. Chris was driving by, saw me, and stopped to give me a ride. I got into his truck, dripping wet, incredibly grateful for the lift and that was my first real conversation with him. When the class ended we didn’t see him again until the deputy US ambassador came to Blantyre and invited a group of Americans to a luncheon. George and I went, though it was in the middle of a busy work day and not close to campus. I don’t like to pass up any invitation like that, in fact, I’m trying to think of any invitation I do pass up. Not many. About fourteen of us were at this luncheon at a really terrible Chinese restaurant, sitting around a big table chatting with each other. Chris was there with a friend sitting to my right and I struck up a conversation with her. I told her what I was doing there and was going on and on about the plight of Malawian women and how we wanted to start a midwifery ward to try to improve things. This was when the idea was brand new. I told her I wasn’t sure how we’d find a space or even begin to renovate it. I think Chris heard the word “renovate” and turned toward me and said, “Tell me more about this. This is the exact project I love for my students to work on.” Chris’s specialty is health care architecture and I took this as a sign from God. We agreed to meet sometime and talk more about it.

Months went by and progress was slow. We initially thought we’d renovate a little corner of the existing delivery suite. I went and took photos of it to show Chris to get some ideas of how we might go about it. The clogged sinks full of putrid water were of particular interest since it was a scene I wanted to eliminate. Chris and I met for a beer and I explained more about what we wanted to do. He made sketches and lists of what we needed. We discussed rainwater collection and solar panels. I was getting more and more excited. I shared all this with my colleagues who thought my enthusiasm was quaint. A sort of entertaining side show. Progress crept along, and we ended up being given a much larger and more appropriate space than we ever dreamed of getting. By that time Chris had gone back to the states and was teaching again at home. But he had several Malawian projects going and planned to return for different intervals during our second year there. We stayed in touch. I emailed him the news about being given a larger ward which meant the renovations would be totally different. When he returned to Malawi my second year he came to dinner and we had more time to discuss the possibilities.  He knows a lot about the building industry in Blantyre and had insight into how this might actually be possible and not just a pipe dream. I always thought the more people involved the better, and having someone be interested for reasons other than monetary, was thrilling. He was looking for a way to improve the infrastructure, give his students a meaningful project, and leave something sustainable. How lucky were we?

I came back to the states unsure about what my future role would look like back in Blantyre. In September Chris connected me with faculty and students in Philadelphia eager to have a real project to work on. As students, their projects are theoretical and designing something that may actually be used gave their project a deeper meaning. I asked my Malawian colleagues to send a prioritized list for their vision. Chris went back to Malawi for a week in October and I arranged for two faculty members to meet him and walk him through the space. They were wonderful and accommodating, but a little unsure of how this was going to work. 

Chris wanted to make a video walking through the ward with them explaining the rooms as they are now and what we wanted them to become. At first they were shy and reluctant to be video taped, but they relaxed into it and he made a great piece that made it easier for the students to visualize what they were dealing with. We’d listed what we wanted in the physical space: privacy for patients, a clean utility room, a sluice room (what we call dirty utility), an office where midwives can lock their belongings and have a quiet space to conference, air circulation, running water, hand washing stations, reliable power source (solar!), all basic but necessary components of this. We talked about cultural considerations, room for a guardian at the bedside at all times, etc. and it was satisfying and gratifying to see the students and their faculty take all this and incorporate it into a beautiful design that uses local materials. When I was in Blantyre, Ursula and I had a conference call with the class as they presented the project at mid term. We were able to make comments and identify things missing or unnecessary. It was exciting to do that for several reasons: first, the internet was fast enough for us to see each other and hear well. That was exciting on it’s own. The students said it was exciting for them to see the place and have someone from Malawi so involved; it gave a sense of credibility and urgency to their projects. And for us, it felt like energy was pushing this forward. This all makes the project feel more multi dimensional. Being in Philly this week for the final presentations had me nearly in tears. I was astounded at the amount of work they put into this! The professional quality of the finished products was so far above and beyond what I expected that my eyes were bulging out. And the interest everyone expressed in the success of this project was touching and exciting.   

I’ve been contemplating the fact that the design work is being done in the states and am sensitive to the ethics of taking any portion of this project away from local control. But the more I thought about it and discussed it with both my Malawian colleagues and Chris and the students, it feels like everyone wins. We have no obligation to use any of these designs, but they are now ours to use as we wish. There was no cost to us and it enriched the students’ experience. It seems like bridges were built all around. Chris told me, there are only six architects in Malawi and they are so overwhelmed with projects it would be years before they got to this one, and we’d have had to pay for it. Because there are so few architects, buildings are renovated or built with little design in mind and they often don’t work well. That’s what has happened at the hospital in Blantyre. There are all sorts of maze-like additions added on and it’s incredibly hard to find your way around and the building doesn’t make any sense environmentally. The rooms are dark with little ventilation or air flow,  the traffic pattern is impossible, there is congestion everywhere, it’s hard to maintain, the drainage isn’t great in the rainy season, the guardian shelters are not conveniently located, and all of this could be improved with some creative design. I feel so lucky to have made this connection. This is going to make this ward so much more functional and sustainable. 

There were five students who made five different designs, incorporating all our requirements. You have no idea how I wish these students designed our women’s center in Bar Harbor and saved us several zillion dollars, headaches, and intolerable mansplaining. The students were from different countries and it was interesting to see their individual interpretations and the various ways they executed the nuances. They had researched maternity issues, they incorporated natural elements of the landscape and existing structures, their colors were soothing and appropriate. It was fabulous. I was lost in the fantasy of working in these wards, imagining myself functioning efficiently with students at my side. They’d even photoshopped pictures of the faculty into the images. It was so cool.

Now, all that’s left is some fundraising, acquiring building contracts, securing staffing, getting supplies, having an opening party and we’re done! 

There are bridges being built, connections being made, and a desire to do good in the world. This is all happening and we need to know that.

Love to all,