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
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,