Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

Mtengo usamakoma pokwera pokha. ~ A tree should not only be good when climbing up.

~ Chewa proverb

June 16, 2019

Hi Everyone,

Yesterday something called a chiperone settled over Blantyre. It’s a cloud that descends and sits, without moving, between the mountains surrounding the city. I’d heard drizzle during the night, which I thought was unusual for this time of year, but went back to sleep thinking it would be clear in the morning. My bed faces a window with a view of the city, (twinkly at night) with mountains forming a backdrop. Yesterday morning though, all I saw was thick fog. It seriously could have been the coast of Maine. I couldn’t even see the garden. And the drizzle continued and it went on like that all day. I didn’t pack an umbrella or raincoat as it’s the dry season and I was not expecting a day of rain. It was so cold I had to shut the windows, something I rarely do, but I had on every long sleeved shirt I brought and was still cold. I spent the day painting on teabags, and wrapped up in a blanket on the couch reading. I think I drank fourteen cups of tea. I had planned to do a walkabout, which is my term for just rambling around by foot, but without a raincoat or umbrella it would have been just slipping in the mud and being cold and wet. I tucked in and did a lot of thinking about my work here, my relationship with George, possibilities for the future, and was actually a little bored. Cold and bored. At three in the afternoon the rain stopped and I went out to walk, happy there was electricity and a hot shower for when I got back. Then it was a nice dinner with friends who were equally bundled up. This morning is clear again but quite cold and my walk to church in a little while will be brisk.

It’s been quite a week and having some time to sit and reflect yesterday wasn’t a bad thing. I could never have imagined where the idea we had in the car ride to Lilongwe two years ago would take us. At that point in time I was so frustrated with the plight of women here and the challenges the faculty has with trying to provide a quality education for the students, I was ready to go home and say I tried and leave it at that. In that car Ursula, Elizabeth, and I complained about the way things are, beat our breasts about the unfairness of it, and kicked around this idea of having a separate ward where we could actually practice our profession in it’s true form. It seemed then like a fantasy. A hahaha-wouldn’t-that-be-nice daydream, like owning a brownstone in the East Village, or having Hillary Clinton as president. This week, two years after that car ride, the three of us were sitting in a room with twenty other people, laying out a five year plan for renovating, equipping, and instituting a midwifery-led ward here at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. I was nearly weeping for the beauty of it. It was so much more than we ever imagined we could accomplish. 

We’ve gone from hoping we could have a little corner of the existing maternity ward to being well on our way to establishing the first midwifery-led model ward in Malawi, with the support of SEED Global Health, the College of Nursing, Queens Hospital, the College of Medicine, and the Ministry of Health! All working together! To make women’s lives better! Woo hoo! It’s happening people!! 

Monday we laid out the five designs the students at Jefferson University created and went over the differences and the pros and cons of each design. My friend Chris, the architect, was there and offered to take the design we chose to get a rough estimate for the renovation. Since we don’t know what it will cost, we aren’t able to initiate a fundraising plan. Getting a ballpark figure will start that ball rolling and I never thought I would be so excited about fundraising. I actually look forward to it. Can’t wait. Then we began the long-term planning meeting which spread out over three days and we used every single minute of it and then some. I learned so much! I thought to myself several times during the three days that this would seem like the sort of activity that would drive me crazy, trying to come to consensus with this many people, but honestly, it was enlightening, and fun. As each point was brought forward, the discussion was pertinent and insightful and addressed issues we hadn’t thought of. The people in the room from administration were keen to understand our needs completely, from every angle. They said, “You have to describe this as you would describe every step of eating a meal. You can’t just say, ‘I took the food and ate it.’ You have to describe, opening the door to the dining room, selecting the plate and the fork, deciding whether you need a knife or spoon, every single aspect of this needs to be laid out in detail for us to make a plan for implementation.” It was miraculous to me. Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning? You think I’d ever be interested in that process? Well, now I am! It is fascinating when you really understand how it is applied to something you care about. We came to a consensus for the ultimate goal of the project, what our objectives are, what actions we need to take to meet the objectives, how we’ll measure the output and describe the outcomes. I’d sit back in my chair every so often just to take it all in. It was an honor just to be in the midst of the minds around that table. The incredible respect shown to one another, the way misunderstandings were clarified, the expression of pride and support for the chance to really make a difference in the lives of Malawian women, I tell you, it was something to behold. Every once in awhile Ursula, Elizabeth, and I would catch each other’s eye. Ursula would raise her right eyebrow just slightly, Elizabeth’s eyes would open a bit wider, as if the message “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS??!!!” was floating between us.

Friday afternoon the chief nursing officer from the Ministry of Health in Lilongwe joined us. She was taken on a tour of the existing ward and Ward 1-A which will become the midwifery-led ward. Her presence here was a big flipping deal. People curtseyed a little when they greeted her. She spoke about her support for this project and how she hopes it will become a model for the whole country. I nearly fell over in a swoon. Someone even dropped the first ladies name, saying she might be interested in supporting this. There’s still a ton of work to do, but it’s nice to hear people talking about this not as an idea, but as an existing entity. Now to create it step by step. 

It feels like we’ve gone up the tree, we’re just now planning how to get down.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre

Kanthu ndi Khama ~ You can only achieve from persevering

~ Malawian proverb

June 9, 2019

Hi Everyone,

It feels good to be back, especially at this time of the year. June, July, and August are dry with warm days and cool nights. The rains are finished and were plentiful this year, too plentiful in some areas as the cyclone dumped record amounts and villages in the south were destroyed. Blantyre was spared though and everything is in bloom. It’s gorgeous. I’m sitting in the garden of my little rented cottage surrounded by poinsettias of three different colors and bougainvillea of at least five different shades. And those are just the show offs. There are calla lily, various cacti, trumpet vine, and loads of others I can’t name, all in bloom. Pretty sweet. I’m still adjusting to the time change and have been groggy in the morning, so got up just in time to walk the three miles to church and didn’t start writing until now, already after noon. 

Malawi’s presidential election happened on May 21st and the results have been contentious. One party claims fraud while the incumbent slid very easily into reelection. I’m praying this is not what happens to us next year. The aftermath has been some rioting, plenty of demonstrating, and some protests which escalated into police throwing tear gas into crowds. One of these episodes happened last week where the American Ambassador was. I am unclear about her role there, I heard she was trying to negotiate with the losing party, but don’t quote me on that. She was evacuated, wrapped in a sheet to protect her from the tear gas. I think if I were part of Peace Corps now, I’d be restricted to my house. But I’m not so am freely moving about and feel quite safe here in Blantyre. All the protests are in Lilongwe. I had to fly into Lilongwe this time as the Blantyre airport has dug up its runway. A driver collected me for which I was extremely grateful having traveled for 32 hours with an unexpected stop in Lubumbashi in Congo! The driver said he’d been waiting for me for four hours as no one would say why the plane was late. I’d barely slept for two nights, so was very glad he’d waited. As we drove into the city and approached my hotel I could see a huge protest happening. The driver turned around to go an alternative route but we ended up being encompassed on that route as well. He pointed to the rocks and broken glass on the road and said, “See. It has turned violent.”  He rolled up the windows and locked the doors, but it all looked peaceful to me. Some people were in costume, some wrapped in bandages carrying knives (the driver silently pointed to them), many dancing and singing but I don’t know what the words were. We slowly rolled on without an incident.

SEED had booked a room for me at the Capitol Hotel, which used to be the swankiest place in town when we were Peace Corps volunteers in the late 70’s. Joe and I celebrated our second anniversary there in 1980 at the nice restaurant. I had Steak Diane, I still remember that. Matt was three months old and we’d left him with the nanny of one of the embassy families. So crazy to be staying there in 2019. It’s probably ten times the size it was when it was built, maybe more. There are several restaurants, stores, and a business center inside now, very much a corporate feel. I was too tired to utilize any of it, so just finalized the arrangements for my meeting the following morning, took a hot shower, and crawled between the crisp white sheets. It took about ten seconds to be unconscious and I stayed that way for twelve hours. It was glorious.

Wednesday was a holiday in Malawi but the nursing advisor who is now working for SEED met with me to get briefed on the midwifery ward project. We planned to talk from ten until noon when a driver was coming to drive me the five hours to Blantyre. That two hours passed in a flash. Wow. She is a powerhouse and is totally on board with this project. She has worked for WHO for many years and has had positions high up in the ministry of health. To say she is well-connected is an understatement. The SEED team is coming to Blantyre this week to discuss the plans for the future and while we were meeting she got a call from the chief nursing officer for the ministry and invited her to come to Blantyre and learn about this project. She hung up the phone and casually said, “She’ll be there.”  I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified. It is fantastic that there is involvement and support from many sectors but I also know this is going to complicate the process. Ultimately it will contribute to it’s success, though, (I hope) so here we go…

It’s easy to slip back into life here. The cottage I stayed in last time is occupied and the owners rushed to get the second one finished for my arrival. They ran into a few problems (I can sympathize) so I ended up staying my first night here in their big house. It was more than comfortable, and I was able to get into the cottage the following evening; it feels good to be unpacked and settled. My office on campus was waiting for me untouched, and my colleagues were there on Thursday when I arrived. We started making plans for the big three day meeting coming up and there was some confusion about who was responsible for the food: lunches and teas, etc. The team from Boston is coming as well as the Lilongwe team, so it was kicked up a notch. A menu was discussed and the idea of having it be extra special was outside the budget. I suggested we just use the caterer we’d used for our original meetings for the ward, who is a local man with simple but good food. It was very affordable. “Will that be suitable for the people from Boston?”, the dean asked. I replied, “Of course! We are in your country, we should eat your food.” She said, “Well, I don’t know if we should go by you. You are a Malawian.”  I was flattered.  And yesterday when I went shopping for food, some of the merchants at the Blantyre market saw me and remarked, “Ah sister! We haven’t seen you for a long time! Where have you been?” It feels nice.

I started another journal after having mine stolen in Hawaii. I’m trying to write something every day, even if it’s short. I used to write much more, but my phone distracts me now. It used to be when I was sitting and waiting for something I’d take out my journal and write, but now I look at emails or articles I’ve saved. I keep saying I’m not going to do that, but I keep doing it. On Friday I wrote the date June 7, 2019, and instead of writing about what was going on here, a cascade of memories started pouring from my pen. It was the date of Zack’s senior prom and the day Joe moved out of our  house. I wrote about squatting in the greenhouse painting girl’s toenails as Joe silently packed up the car with his things. There were gowns hanging all over the place, tuxedos over the backs of chairs as classmates and friends gathered to get ready for prom. It was all surreal. He never explained anything and never told the kids he was leaving. Aside from him leaving the family that day, the scene was everything we’d dreamed of creating: a place where our kids and their friends would gather and we could be supportive and involved. And here he was walking out without a word. I know I drank a lot during that time, trying to keep my panic under control. I’m pretty sure I didn’t start until evening, but I may have had something that afternoon to get me through it. I can’t remember now. I do remember being in a dream-like state, going through motions and pretending I was ok: taking photos, making french braids, and bobbie-pinning lily of the valley in the crease of a french twist. I remember those details with such clarity, but after the kids all left, it’s a complete blank. A big black hole of an evening, the lights probably extinguished by wine and denial. That was a long time ago now. Seventeen years. That’s a lifetime around here.

And now, here I sit in this beautiful garden, grateful for all who helped me through that time, propping me up and letting me cry. I’m shaking my head at where my life has gone since then. I’ve often said I would not have chosen to have my family break apart like that, but can only control my own behavior, not someone else’s. You can’t make someone love you when they don’t. (Isn’t that a song lyric? Pretty sure I’ve heard it before.) I’ve played the hand I was dealt and it has brought me here, happy with my life as it is and working on something I completely believe in. Whatever force in life taught me to persevere, it’s what I am most grateful for.

I walked back from church this morning with Ursula. When we got to her house she invited me in and made tea. We sat and talked about the election and it’s aftermath. We made plans for the upcoming week. We both have the same vision for this project and both want it to succeed. We talked about being realistic. When I said I should be going, she walked with me through the maize field to the College of Medicine gate. We said goodbye and she said, “No, we must remember that things move slowly. We will succeed.” We embraced and I walked home.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Speaking Life

Sunday Morning ~Speaking Life

Moyo wanga ndi mbiya, n’sunga ndekha. ~   My life is like a clay pot, I take care of it myself.

~ Chewa proverb

June 2, 2019

On my way again. I sit here, tucked away on a stone staircase, out of the way, with budding shrubs and a few purple blossoms strewn around. It’s warm, finally; I took my jacket off. I’m packed for the month. I’ve got some science books, some kids clothes, and some beads to donate. I’ve got the architectural plans, my clothes for the month, and a citrus squeezer for a gift. I was one short last time. I’ve got my passport, some cash for the visa, two books to read, and an empty travel mug. I’ve finally downloaded an app that will get me to the airport at an early hour ––– earlier than I can ask my kids to drive me. My house is in good hands with friends visiting for the month. I’ve had some quality time with the grandkids while their parents spent last night away to celebrate my youngest’s birthdays. My twins turned thirty-three yesterday. What a completely different life it was then. I thought about that this morning, trying to make breakfast and walk the dog with the two little ones clamoring. How did I have five and still finish graduate school? Well, I was thirty-three years younger, but still. Tonight is Amelia’s ballet recital. I didn’t want to miss it so I’m glad the timing worked out. 

I have no idea what will happen with my travels after this trip back to Malawi. I’ve got the month of June to work on getting this ward established and then Kathy will arrive in July and take the baton. She sent me a list this morning. It’s a list of Quaker Advices, one of which was “Let your life speak.” I love them all, but especially this one. I often think this is not what I imagined my life to be like at this age; sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it gets me down. Today I find this advice reassuring and comforting: Let your life speak. I’ll leave it at that. 

Love to all,

Linda