Sunday Morning ~ Mangochi, Majete, Maternity

Sunday Morning ~ Mangochi, Majete, and Maternity

Madzi atupa ndi a m’njira. ~ The waters become plentiful because of all the side rivers. 

~ Chewa proverb

June 16, 2024

Hi Everyone,

The vice president of Malawi died in a plane crash last Monday. He was on his way to the funeral of a lawyer who was found dead in his hotel room a week before. People are upset and a bit worried as the vice president was well liked and thought of as a hope for the future of this country. I’m not in on most of the conversations in Chichewa amongst my colleagues, but I know they are disturbed. I heard elsewhere there was some question of foul play. I guess that’s inevitable. To my knowledge there has been no official report, but it was a small plane and the weather was bad. They were unable to land in the northern city of Mzuzu so turned around and crashed on their way back to Lilongwe in the Chikangawa forest. It was nearly twenty-four hours before the plane was located and none of the ten people on board were found alive. This is also raising questions as there was a village nearby and the crash happened mid-morning. The “forest” has been devastatingly deforested to the point where there are hardly any trees left, so there are questions about why it took so long to find them. The VP’s funeral is tomorrow and it’s been declared a national holiday. So our Monday workshop will be held on Tuesday. It never ceases to amaze me how things get shifted last minute and happen anyway. So, day off on Monday. 

I spent an overnight in Mangochi this past week, supervising the students there. I went with my colleague Esthnath; she has one group and I have another. The protocol is to request university transport for the travel but Mangochi is a good three hour drive and there has been a problem with petrol supply. So what often happens is transport is booked then canceled and we are sitting in our uniforms with our overnight bag packed and wait all day to go nowhere. I offered to drive my own car and not have the uncertainty of going or not, and that’s what we did the last two weeks. That meant we left on time at 8 a.m. got there before noon, and spent the whole afternoon and following morning with students. We stayed the night in a local lodge, which is safe and convenient, but I wouldn’t put it on the itinerary if you are planning to visit. The sheets were clean and there was a mosquito net, my two requirements, so it was ok. There was no hot water, spotty electricity, and it’s a bit loud from the bars, but it cost ten bucks a night and that includes breakfast so I’m not expecting the Ritz. Breakfast was two slices of white bread, a hard boiled egg, and fried potatoes. I’m fine with that. Tea was included, but there was no milk, with which, I am not fine. I can not drink my tea without milk. So, I gave the security guard some money and he ran to the market and bought me two packets of dried milk and was back within five minutes. Problem solved. He’d also washed my car during the night, so I tipped him for that, too. 

These poor students, it is astonishing what they endure. They are first year students and we have just finished their didactic, which is fourteen weeks of lectures with a few days in the skills lab learning the basics. Remember there are 258 of them. Then they get split up and sent all over the southern region to do their clinical rotation, which, is supposed to be the basics, like vital signs, bed making, and emptying catheter bags. Remember, they are just out of secondary school. Because of the distance of their clinical sites, we don’t get to spend much time with them there. It’s a big problem. So, when we arrived at the hospital we found them not only doing the basics, but hanging blood, starting IVs, giving meds, changing horrible wound dressings–––all with hardly any supplies. It’s overwhelming. I’d done a pep talk for them before they left emphasizing all the things they do know how to do, like be nice to people, ask them their stories, show up on time, have a clean uniform (a challenge when you see their living conditions, I don’t know how they manage), carry a pen and paper, have your stethoscope, etc. There’s a Malawian proverb, You don’t go to the field without a hoe, that I said in English not Chichewa but they laughed anyway. And then they arrive on site and are thrown into high skills situations almost immediately. I mean, I’d been a nurse for a few years before I started an IV, the “IV team” did that, and these kids are doing it on their first day!  Anyway, they were both traumatized and beaming with pride when we arrived, and very grateful for the support. That was satisfying. But when only popping in to the site for these short periods I don’t have time to get adjusted to the conditions and it’s so stressful. I’m continually murmuring to myself, “Oh My God. Oh My God.” Seriously ill women: strokes, lethal infections, septic abortions, late stage gynecological cancers, gangrenous limbs, all crammed into an overcrowded ward, side by side with maybe twelve inches between beds. At least none were on the floor, but I’m sure that could change. So we teach what we can with what they have, like no bandages to dress a wound so they just cover it with cotton roll; all the sterile technique we taught is pretty much moot. And handwashing? One needs water for that, though I did see that some of the sinks were working. No soap, though. I handed the bathroom soap I took from the lodge to the student leader and told her to share with her friends. 

Esthnath and I drove back to Blantyre talking about how frustrating this is and how it’s more evidence we need this teaching ward! I got home and soaked in a bath feeling guilty about my cushy life, then  joined a zoom call with Deb and Chris (the architects) to plan for the workshop on Tuesday. That, plus two glasses of wine, helped my spirits. 

Lest I spend the weekend wallowing in despair, I joined the Wildlife Association’s annual Majete walk and camping trip. It was fabulous. I mean the extremes I experience here are really remarkable. This event is organized by the competent leader of this organization and all I have to do is show up and pay the fee. It’s glorious. We drove down into the Shire Valley to the game park late afternoon Friday and camped in the park campground. Then early Saturday morning, we met the rangers who would accompany us on a ten kilometer walk/hike along the river to a designated campsite where we spent the night. It was so exciting! This is in the park where I’ve been in vehicles looking for animals (the big five are here!) but this was on foot, with an armed ranger in the front and armed ranger in the back. I’m told they know what they are doing and know how to keep us safe without having to kill anything. So I trusted them. We had a security briefing before setting out, which included the instruction: “Do not run. The only thing that runs here is food.” And off we went, twelve in the group. It was gorgeous. The drives through the park are gorgeous but doing it on foot was really special. The Shire River is a magnificent natural wonder teeming with hippos, crocodiles, and birdlife. There were many birders in the group and we had plenty of rest periods while they identified and documented various species. Hippos lined up in the water to watch us pass and we were assured they would not get out of the water and charge us. They are most dangerous when they are on land during the night looking for food. The rangers were always listening and watching and it was an honor to be part of the group. 

We reached the site for camping where a pit latrine with grass enclosure had been dug. There were also two grass enclosures for bucket showers. Luxury! We all chose a spot and pitched our tents, then relaxed and chatted. There was even a small tributary we visited without crocodiles where we could get wet or float a bit. It was too shallow for swimming, not that I would have swum, but it was nice to dunk and get washed off. Then the rangers built a fire and everyone cooked their supper on it while we chatted some more. I was in my tent early, read a bit, then slept soundly with occasional wakings from hyena howls. Others said they heard lions, but I must have slept though that. In the morning I watched the sunrise from my tent, boiled water for my tea on the fire the rangers had built, and we packed up like little nomads and hiked back to the park entrance. It was fabulous.

I realized when I got back and connected that it was Father’s Day, so Happy Father’s Day to all the good dads out there. We are looking at designing a maternity ward able to accommodate the fathers. It’s a relatively new concept to have fathers present at birth here. As Deb pointed out in her presentation about privacy and the proximity of beds, women want to have their husbands at their birth but they don’t want their neighbors husband at their birth. We’ve got some work to do. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~Mumbo Island-Making Progress

Sunday Morning ~Mumbo Island ~ Making Progress

Musamaumirire mtunda wopanda madzi. ~ Do not keep on staying in an area without water.

~ Chewa proverb

June 9, 2024

Hi Everyone,

This seems so weird…I’m sitting at my table wearing leggings, a wool shirt, and fleece. I am wrapped in a blanket and I’m still cold. True, this is the cold season but this seems extreme. It’s usually warm during the day, like 70’s, then into the 50’s at night but today it’s low 60’s at noon and windy. It’s overcast, a storm off the coast of Mozambique the cause, and feels more like Scotland than Malawi. It’s supposed to be cold all week. 

Last week was gorgeous, both the weather and the company. Deb, the architect from Botswana, was here and we accomplished a lot and had a ton of fun around the edges. I think we talked for ten consecutive hours at one point. Deb did a presentation at the hospital about her research on birth unit designs and the response was excellent. It sparked more enthusiasm for our midwifery-center project and by the end of the Q&A period we had agreed to hold a workshop where all parties can have input on ideas for the design (we are now referring to it as a midwifery center instead of ward as the vision grows). Faculty, hospital midwives, administrators, doctors, and students agreed to gather for a day to discuss the design and components to be included. No matter what happens, this process is exciting. I fretted about finding the money and a time to schedule this, but by the end of Deb’s visit we found some grant money that could be allocated to this and our friend Chris, an architect from Philadelphia who happens to be here for a month, can facilitate. Within a week we had a date, venue, caterer, and facilitator. Woo hoo. Moving along. 

Deb and I then spent the weekend on Mumbo Island, an ecolodge on a small island a few miles off the coast of Cape Maclear, at the southern part of the lake. It’s another spot I’d not visited so when Deb suggested the destination, I jumped. It was perfect. 

We left Blantyre late Friday morning arriving in Zomba for lunch. There is a restaurant/lodge  there, Casa Rosa, run by an Italian family who have lived in Malawi for a long time. I’d not eaten there before but many people claim it is the best meal they’ve eaten in Malawi, so it was worth stopping for a taste. It did not disappoint. We had fresh squeezed tangerine juice, salad, and homemade pasta sitting on the veranda surrounded by tropical forest. Lovely. From there we continued on to Cape Maclear, should have been another three hour drive but was more like four. Though we watched a gorgeous sunset en-route it meant driving the last bit in the dark, something I try to avoid. At least we were off the main road by then but the road over the mountain to the cape is windy, narrow, and potholed with steep shoulders. I stopped for gas at the start of that road and we watched a big lorry, horn blaring, speed down the road seemingly out of control. Deb and I looked at each other. I said, “Can you imagine if that came at us on the road? Stopping for gas may have saved our lives.” Then nearly dark, we turned onto the road and began to navigate the mountain pass. At least the first few miles of it are paved now (unlike when I did it with Pat and Stacy in 2017 sliding sideways in the mud). The oncoming vehicles were mostly motorcycles and most had lights so it wasn’t too hard to share the road, but we did encounter a jackknifed lorry going up a steep hill. Fortunately, there was enough room to get onto the hillside and go around it, and I got back onto the road (big lip there) without a problem. I love my car. Whew! We got to the lodge, dropped our bags in our thatched room, and headed to the bar for a double gin and tonic. These night drives require a medicated arrival. As we sipped our drinks by––what used to be–– the beach we noticed the fellow lodgers were young enough to be Deb’s kids and my grandkids, students maybe? We didn’t get their stories before catching the boat to Mumbo Island the next morning. 

The chalets on Mumbo are built into the rocks with natural materials so they are barely visible. There are only six of them, not luxurious but completely blissful. They have composting toilets and the showers are buckets with spouts on the bottom, strung up with a pulley. At our requested time someone comes and fills the bucket with warm water for our shower. It’s like Gilligan’s Island! At dawn they leave a tray of coffee and tea on the balcony hanging over the water. The meals were simple but delicious. We kayaked around the island each day; the rock formations were fantastic. We hiked the four mile trail along the shore, up and down the terrain, sharing the rocks with monitor lizards. The first one made me scream as I turned and saw it coming toward us while we were sitting and enjoying the view. Those things are prehistoric––the size of baby alligators.  We talked…and talked…and talked, never getting bored and never running out of things to say. It was a great weekend. I’ll put some photos on facebook and may even figure out how to put some on instagram. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Keeping Water…building a reservoir?

Sunday Morning ~ Keeping Water…building a reservoir?

Mtsinje wopanda miyala sasunga madzi. ~ A stream without stones does not keep water.

~ Chewa proverb

May 26, 2024

HI Everyone,

An architect is coming this week and I’ve been trying to set up a time for her to give a presentation about birthing unit designs. My hope is to get the ball rolling for our new ward. When I sent out an email asking for availability, the head of the obstetrics department pointed out we have a new hospital administration since we got approval for this project in 2018 so we should  approach the new director before going any further. This frightened me a bit, so we urgently scheduled a meeting with the hospital director for Thursday morning. Three of us went to make our case to him. The Malawi president was in Blantyre that day, so traffic around town was horrendous. My fifteen minute ride to campus took over forty and I was worried about being late for this critical meeting. I managed to arrive on time, as did my colleagues, but the director didn’t. He called to say he’d be an hour late. We decided to wait. If we rescheduled who knew when we’d get our next chance. So we sat in his waiting room making the secretary uncomfortable. She kept asking if she could call us when he got there? We all preferred to wait, knowing something else could come up and our chance would be lost. He arrived, polite and all apologies, and shepherded us into his office.

I try to be ready for disappointment, almost expecting to be told “No”, so I had data ready to show how this project would improve care, reduce maternal mortality, and improve student performance. I was forming a backup plan for when he refused us. After all, it took us ten years in Bar Harbor to get approval for a new Women’s Health Center even though everyone agreed we needed more space. Ten years! Then, after getting a yes, it was another three years to raise the money and get the place built. So, I wasn’t expecting this to be easy. 

The hospital director is a physician and quite young. Once we were seated in his office, Christina, the head of midwifery at the hospital, explained our original project and goals and how it nearly came to fruition when the pandemic struck and our designated ward got taken for covid patients. She continued, “Now Linda is back and she wants us to re-introduced the project.” Ok, this is not what I wanted her to say. I’ve made very clear this is not my project. I believe in it and am willing to work hard for it, but it is not my project. With sinking heart I smiled and stayed silent.  Ursula, former dean for midwifery at the university, went next and I prayed she did not mention me. She provided a more academic angle, emphasizing the educational component and adding we have the support of the head of obstetrics. The director then looked at me, asking if I had anything to add. I hadn’t intended to speak, but it seemed I should say something, otherwise why was I there? I explained about my history in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer forty-five years ago. He looked up and said, “Forty-five years?!” Everyone laughed. I’m sure it was well before he was born. I said I became a midwife because of the role models I had in Malawi. I was fortunate to come back as faculty in the midwifery program and really believe this can be a model for the rest of the world, including the United States. Then we outlined what we hoped for: an addition built onto the postnatal unit where we could have a delivery suite to care for uncomplicated maternity cases and a clinical site for students. He paused for moment and I braced myself for the no. He described his experience in medical school and what he learned from midwives. He said he believes we should think bigger. “Why have just a small unit that would not allow growth? I think we should build a Center for Excellence for Midwifery. We should plan a bigger building where there could be a library, a conference room, room for teaching, as well as a comfortable place for women to receive care.” The following thoughts went through my mind simultaneously: 1) Am I dreaming? 2) Wow, this man’s mother did a fantastic job. 3) Sit still. Do not jump up and scream for joy. 4) Why are Ursula and Christina not hugging each other? 5) It is culturally unacceptable for women to touch men. Do not go hug him while jumping up and down. 6) Breathe. This is good. 

Those were just my initial thoughts. My heart was thumping out of my body. This can be so amazing! Ok, so it will take some money. It will take some time. But what took us ten years to accomplish at home took a matter of minutes! (plus the hour wait). Hospital administration saying yes to this means we can get plans drawn and get some quotes. We’ll need all that to apply for grants. The hospital director actually asked how he could help. (I pinched myself) He said he would speak to the Department of Health. He asked to be included in the architect’s presentation this week. I mean, if I wrote the perfect script for how I wanted that meeting to go this would have been it in fantasy land. 

“Can you believe this?” I whispered excitedly as we were walking out. They both turned to me and smiled. They don’t hyper-react like I do so I tried to tone it down. It was a struggle. 

This is so much more than we thought possible and we have to re-imagine a plan. Late Friday afternoon the midwives got together to brainstorm. I was still bubbling over and gushing about the meeting to the ones who weren’t there. They don’t understand my excitement about that Thursday meeting. I had to explain that, getting approval and this kind of support from administration is harder than finding funding in my experience. No one is going to give us money unless the hospital administration agrees this is a good project. Finding funding will be a job for sure, but it’s all a job. They looked at me, amused. I said, “You can’t grasp how hard this would be in the U.S.. Midwifery isn’t valued like it is here. I cannot fathom a hospital administrator saying yeah, let’s build a Center for Excellence for Midwifery on campus. That would be science fiction at home. In Malawi midwives are the largest workforce in the health system. It’s not like this where I live.” We started making a wish list, a real plan for what would work for women, students, and staff. In a way, it’s absurd to feel like a facility that meets all these needs should be such a gift, but that’s where we are. Let’s see where this goes.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Singing in Blantyre

Sunday Morning ~ Singing in Blantyre

Gule ali yense akonda potsiriza. ~ Every dance is pleasing at the end.

~ Chewa proverb

May 19, 2024

Hi Everyone,

The Blantyre Music Society is a community group of amateur musicians, made up of both locals and expats, choir and orchestra. They perform concerts in December and May and last night I attended the May concert at a private primary school near me. I knew a few people in it and looked forward to an evening out. It was an earnest performance by people who like to make music. I took my seat in the school hall and read the program. It was short with an eclectic mix of classical, pop, and original music. I enjoy watching people perform, always a little envious of their talent and the fun they seem to be having. I saw the final number was Sing, an old Carpenters song that came out when I was a senior in high school, and I thought, hmmm…interesting choice.

In high school, I was part of a music group started by three young, artistic, energetic teachers who loved the performing arts, and Sing was our signature song. I was surprised at how emotional I became last night when the choir started singing it.  Hundreds of images paraded through my mind. Last night’s rendition was strained, to say the least, as they struggled to stay on key, but it still evoked images of myself in my little blue alto dress (sopranos wore red), dancing as we came on stage, singing Sing, feeling something close to joy. 

I wasn’t supposed to be in the group. I was a cheerleader and my father, tyrannically strict, told me I had a choice of being in this singing group or cheerleading. He would not allow me to do both. I loved being a cheerleader but desperately wanted to be in this singing group. All my friends were in it and I had a monstrous crush on the director. I didn’t spend long deciding what to do. I would do both and I’d sneak and lie to do so. It was just a matter of planning and plotting. I appealed to my mother, who was sorry for my plight, and she agreed not to turn me in. You may think it would have been more appropriate for her to confront my father and support me, but that’s because you didn’t know him. It was much easier to sneak. That way the whole family didn’t have to suffer. As I sat and listened to this song last night I thought of how hard I had to work for that experience. I thought of the times, returning from rehearsals, carefully opening the storm door, hold it until it clicked shut without a sound, tip toeing up the stairs skipping the second step because it squeaked. I felt not one iota of remorse for this at the time. Recalling it last evening I felt something like pride. It was an act of righteous rebellion, not for some greater good for the world, but for something that made me happy. Listening to the simple lyrics brought back a time in my life when I made choices about who I’d become and, still today, I think they were good choices. 

I wasn’t a performer. I was shy and insecure. But these three teachers exuded enthusiasm for the fun of it all and gave us a chance to experience it. They liked their job. They nurtured a confidence in us the bored band/ orchestra/ glee club director never could. Not that I was in the band or orchestra––I quit violin lessons in fifth grade when the class bully made fun of me––but glee club counted for a music credit and there were no tryouts. It was okay, but nothing like singing in the other group. That was pure, lighthearted, choreographed fun. Last night, listening to that simple song, watching the musicians struggle to stay on key, singing along to it, brought back moments of happiness in a confusing time of life. I felt successful. After our performance there was a photo in the newspaper and my disobedience was discovered, so I had to sit through a lecture about what a disappointment I was and was grounded. I can’t remember for how long, but I’m sure I snuck out. It wasn’t bad.

I’m grateful to those young teachers who bucked our crappy school system and made us feel like we meant something. It was so refreshing, especially since some of our male teachers made fun of girls in class then mocked us for crying. It was the 70’s. We knew what it was like to be considered less than the boys. We also learned what it felt like to have worth and which we preferred. We’re not going back.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Mwabvi Mothers’ Day

Sunday Morning ~ Mwabvi Mothers’ Day

Zengelezu adalinda kwaukwau ~ If we delay, the consequences will affect us.

~ Chewa proverb

May 13, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I’m late with writing this week. I was camping over the weekend, away from all forms of communication and realized how peaceful and calm I felt. I got home yesterday afternoon and thought about pulling out my laptop to write but decided to linger in the unplugged world a bit longer. I had a bizarrely sleepless night last night so am up early and will write about my week(end) and post it today. I hate to break the streak I’ve got going. 

The Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi was founded in 1947. It was originally dedicated to protecting animals but over the years it has broadened its scope to environmental activism as well. It belongs to international conservation organizations and has many educational programs in the schools and community. They present a topic one Tuesday evening a month at the Blantyre Sports Club and I usually attend. It’s interesting and nice to have a drink and mingle. They organize several weekend trips to sites I wouldn’t go to on my own, and this past weekend I took advantage of the camping trip to the very south of the country, the only part of Malawi I hadn’t visited. I was a little nervous about making the three hour drive alone as I had no idea where I was going and I always feel a little safer with a companion, but everyone I asked was busy with something else so I decided to go solo. I knew I’d be meeting up with fourteen others and figured, carpe diem. 

The destination was Mwabvi Reserve, where large animals have vacated or been poached, but birdlife is abundant and interesting rock formations are scattered about. I’m not a birding enthusiast per se, but got more interested when George was here. He loved it and I love being around those who love it. Their excitement spotting and identifying is contagious. 

The plan was to meet there on Friday afternoon/evening then gather for a Ranger-led hike to a gorge on Saturday morning. I packed up my very basic camping equipment which consisted of my single person tent, piece of foam, a sheet, and a change of clothes. It’s hot there so I wouldn’t need much. I borrowed a cooler from my landlord and packed up some food, water, tonic and gin, boxes of matches (I had no stove), and set out at noon on Friday. It was a three hour drive and just in case I had a flat tire or something I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time before dark.

The organizer had sent very detailed directions describing a detour since the main road to the park had a bridge washed out. He sent a photo of the school where we should turn onto a dirt road and proceed through a village, turn at a T junction, then follow painted rock signs to the gate. It was seven kilometers on a rough road with two bridges that were the exact width of the vehicle. I would have been terrified doing that at night; it was scary enough during the day. I made it to the entrance, heaved a sigh of relief, paid my fee, then set off on the next two kilometers to the campground. I think I was expecting some type of open jamboree where we’d all camp in one big space. There are no amenities there, it’s real bush camping. I’d brought some extra food to share thinking we’d all be together, but they were individual campsites, very private, and remote. We chipped in to pay the rangers to slash the high grass so we could find the road and indeed the campsites. I had no idea where I was supposed to go. I thought others would already be there but when signing in I saw only one other person had arrived; I had no idea how to find him. I pulled into the first campsite I came to and got out of the car. Looking a the newly slashed grass I immediately thought of snakes and got back in the car. I changed into long pants and boots, left everything in the car, and went to walk around. It was easy to follow the slashed grass paths and I explored the other campsites. Not knowing if there was some plan for who slept where I didn’t want to set up my tent. I followed the road around a loop and saw a vehicle through the tall grass and hoped it was someone who knew what they were doing.

I met Phil, an older gentleman who definitely knew what he was doing. He was in the process of setting up his camp and, wow, I could have lived there comfortably for months. His tent was bigger than my living room. He had a table, chairs, cushions, stove, lanterns, air mattress, welcome mat, and piles of blankets. “Are you just here for the weekend?” I asked. He told me yes, he had been coming on this trip for years and he wanted to get there early so he could have his favorite campsite. He said he couldn’t do the hike anymore but still wanted to come. His wife died two years ago and he seemed very lonely, a bit frail, and frustrated with his aging body. He said his mind and body weren’t working in sync anymore. I could not believe he set that tent up by himself. I also couldn’t believe he made that drive alone, though he had a monster vehicle. I could have lived in that. I sat and chatted for awhile thinking, hmmm, chairs…hmm…, nice, and considered the rock I’d be dining on. He gave me the whole history of this outing, how he used to be the first one to the gorge, how he loved the place. He’s British but has lived in Malawi for thirty years. I asked if his late wife was also British and he said, “No. She was from Yorkshire.” I laughed. He just about smiled. Very British. I asked him if there were rules about who got which site and he said, “You got here first! Take whichever you want!” It sounded like an order so I left and decided to stay where I had first parked. It was small and fine for just me. I set up my little tent, then thinking of Phil’s nice little welcome mat at the door of his tent I took the floor mats out of my car and made myself one. There. Home.

I walked down a trail toward the river but it was getting toward dusk, which lasts only a moment, so didn’t go too far (snakes). One other family arrived and set up camp next to me. I went over to meet them and could tell it wasn’t their first rodeo either. Man, these people camp in comfort. I don’t have that much cooking stuff in my kitchen! It was getting dark and I didn’t want to walk through that grass at night (snakes) so said goodnight and went back to my site. We were supposed to meet at 6:30 am for the hike. I was tired. I ate my pasta salad, and decided not to have much to drink so I wouldn’t have to get up during the night to pee (snakes). I got in my tent to read. It was bliss. I didn’t need the rain fly and being open to the star-filled sky was magnificent. The night noises are a lullaby. I read for awhile and could hear other cars arriving and setting up camp in the pitch dark. Man, they are brave. When I could tell human activity had ceased, I dozed off and slept like a baby. 

It was just getting light when I woke. I sat up and could see the sunrise from my tent. I got up to light a fire for tea and laughed that I had brought two boxes of matches. It took one match. Everything is dry and the water was boiling within three minutes. I drank my tea, ate my hard boiled eggs, avocado, and bread, and set off to find the group. It was all beautifully organized. We piled into three 4 x 4’s, collected the ranger, and drove about a half hour to the trailhead. We got a few instructions then fell into line and followed the ranger who carried a large rifle. The rock formations were spectacular! Sandstone that is carved by I don’t know what. Wind? Water? But incredible shapes and textures. I’ll put some photos on facebook. We plodded along stopping for photos along the way, then came out to a gorge that took my breath away. I had no idea it would be that grand or unique. Sensuous curves along the walls with shallow water flowing through. Almost everyone stripped to their bathing suits (I didn’t get that memo) and got in the water. The Malawian family, the ranger, and I were the only ones who didn’t go swimming. I went in up to my knees just to see down the gorge, but wow. It was worth the hike. There is no other way to get there. We stayed there for about an hour, had snacks, chatted, then packed up to hike back to camp. Even though we had tree cover for most of it, that part was really hot. 

Later in the afternoon everyone met up on what they call “Sunset Rock”, a huge outcropping of sandstone with a view of miles and miles. Everyone brought their sundowner drinks. I made my gin and tonic in a water bottle and it carried very nicely. It was lovely sitting, chatting, sipping, snacking. We stayed until very dark and I was worried about Phil making it back to camp. A few of us surrounded him with headlamps and it was sad how he complained about needing help. I thought it was amazing he made it there at all. Back at camp Marc, the organizer, made a campfire and chairs and coolers were placed around for seats. We paid him for the ranger fees and people were settling in for the evening but I was ready to be horizontal so didn’t stay very long. Plus, it was bloody hot and the campfire was not as inviting as it might have been. Phil called it bush television. By then I was less worried about snakes, walked back to my campsite, had a nightcap, and tucked in. 

Yesterday (Sunday) I went back out to sunset rock to watch the sunrise, then back to make breakfast and pack up. I took a long walk down to the river bed but when it started getting really hot I walked back and got ready to leave. The ride home was easy, I was less worried about the road, and I had plenty of daylight to unpack, clean up, and get ready for work today…which I need to get to. So I’ll wrap this up. 

Today is an office day, so just working on the grant writing and my speech. I’ve been asked to speak at the Day of the Midwife celebration in Lilongwe in June, so I’ll need to prepare. Someone read my blog post last week and asked if I’d speak on midwives’ role in climate change. I asked a colleague if she knew of any Chewa proverbs that would relate to climate change. I thought I’d include it in the speech. She gave me the one above, and it’s perfect. I’ll practice saying it in Chichewa. I thought a lot this weekend about how little we need really. I used hardly any water all weekend to cook, wash, and drink. It’s one of the things I love about camping, being close to the earth and using only what you need. It took only a few sticks and dry grass to boil water, I could brush my teeth with a cupful or less, and it only took maybe a liter to wash off. The shower did feel good when I got home, though. 

Ah! I managed to avoid Facebook for Mother’s Day. So, I wish mothers everywhere all the love and respect you deserve. It’s hard work having your heart outside your body all the time. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ International Day of the Midwife

Sunday Morning ~ International Day of the Midwife

Mimba si kupha namwino. ~ The pregnancy does not kill the midwife.

~ Chewa proverb

May 5, 2024

Hi Everyone,

In 1922 the International Confederation of Midwives declared May 5th as International Day of the Midwife. It was an effort to raise awareness of the role midwives play in caring for woman around the world. I’m not sure that goal has been met, but there is a celebration in many countries and Malawi is one of them. This year the parade has been postponed for a few weeks but it will happen in Lilongwe, the capitol city, where bands, parade, dances, and speeches make up the celebration. I love it. In many countries, the entire health care system is dependent on midwives. 

There are many fewer midwives where I come from and we make up a fraction of the health care system. For my twenty-three years at the hospital in Bar Harbor I was the only midwife. I always felt valued and appreciated and did not need, nor expect, a parade.  However, recognition of the profession at the national level would go a long way toward improving women’s lives, especially with the human rights abuses happening now. So often in the states, midwives are seen as a fringe alternative instead of the experts in physiological birth and women’s health care that we are. It’s exhausting to be continually fighting the constant attacks on women’s rights. Unless we make profits for the medical system (which healthy bodies don’t do) we’re nearly invisible. 

I went online to see what was being said about today. I found a write up on the United Nations Population Fund website and started paraphrasing, but I liked all of it so just decided to include the whole thing. Here it is: 

Midwives are the heroes of millions of stories.

As providers of culturally sensitive health care, leaders in their communities and emergency responders in times of crisis, they are courageous and indispensable.

When disasters such as climate events or conflict strike, midwives are most often the first responders for women, representing the single-most effective way to avoid preventable maternal deaths.

The climate crisis in particular carries specific threats for women and girls: Research shows that hotter temperatures can lead to pregnancy complications and can cause or worsen maternal-health issues including premature births and miscarriages.

But midwives are not only first responders in the climate crisis. As providers of safe and environmentally sustainable services, they also represent a vital climate solution for the future. For instance, they can contribute to decreasing climate emissions by supporting breastfeeding rather than formula, which must be packaged and shipped.

With that in mind, the theme of the International Day of the Midwife this year is “Midwives: a vital climate solution.”

Many of the countries most at risk of climate change are also where women and girls are the most vulnerable to preventable maternal deaths, child marriage and gender-based violence. Climate disasters can disrupt access to family planning, safe births and other vital services. Midwives are instrumental in ensuring that health services are more mobile and can urgently reach women.

Yet a global shortage of nearly one million midwives and a lack of international commitment to invest in their training, development and support limits their reach – and endangers the women and girls who rely on them for care.

Midwives deserve our recognition and respect. Instead, they are forced to confront challenging work conditions, low pay and a lack of career opportunities – all factors driving the global shortage. Too often, this majority-female workforce also faces gender discrimination and sexual harassment while on the job.

The world must urgently invest in creating an environment that enables midwives to do their important work, by establishing pathways to quality education, providing necessary resources and empowering them to act as full partners across health systems everywhere.

In more than 125 countries, UNFPA advances midwifery by strengthening quality education, regulations and workforce policies, and building strong national associations of midwives. To date, UNFPA has supported the education and training of close to half a million midwives worldwide, trained more than 100,000 midwifery faculty members and invested in more than 1,600 midwifery schools.

In collaboration with the International Confederation of Midwives, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and a host of global partners and donors, UNFPA is developing a Global Midwifery Acceleration Roadmap, which will be launched at the World Health Summit in October 2024.

“In a world where every two minutes a woman or girl dies during pregnancy, childbirth or its aftermath – as our latest data attest – the midwife is always the hero of the story,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem has said. “Think of a midwife: what comes to mind? Excellent teamwork, competence, good judgment and caring. Hallmarks of the profession – traits that underpin the best of humanity, that will surely help create the peace we seek.”

That’s what I wanted to say. 

Love to all, 

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Nankoma Island

Sunday Morning ~ Nankoma Island

Chibale ndifupa sichiwola. ~ Brotherhood is a bone that never rots.

~ Chewa proverb

April 28, 2024

Hi Everyone,

My first impulse is to say I feel guilty about the life of luxury I’m living at the moment, but in reality, I feel I’ve earned it. I’m loving sitting on this veranda, the lake lapping at the pilings, the branches of the Baobab tree shading us, belly full of delicious breakfast, thinking about what to do with the rest of the day. It has taken me a long time to outgrow the feeling of not deserving good things but I’m getting there. We’ve had such a great week! It’s so much fun traveling with a friend who appreciates the beauty of this place. 

A bit of background: Stacy and I are friends by marriage. Our husbands grew up together, then as young newlyweds, we all grew up together. I went to graduate school where Stacy’s husband, Patrick, was studying medicine. We lived a block from each other. We graduated on the same day. We had combined parties. When I went into labor with the twins, Stacy came over in the middle of the night to stay with the other kids. They are godparents to Rachael, we are godparents to their kids. It’s a deep bond. It was awkward and sad when Joe left me, then sad again when Patrick died during the pandemic. We’ve done a lot of celebrating and grieving together, now here we are single, comfortable, and open to adventure. I like this stage of life. 

Stacy’s visit coincided with mid-term break, a fortunate unplanned coincidence. She’d sent me a list of some sights she might want to visit and I planned a road trip. After getting acclimated in my tiny house for a night, we set off for the Shire Valley and two nights at Majete Game Reserve. There are two ways to experience that place, basic and lux. We went lux. We were greeted with cool towels, ushered to our tent, then perched on the veranda to watch animals drink and mingle…it’s rather nice. It’s hot there but our physical activity was little to none. We were taken on game drives at sunrise and sunset and served three luscious meals a day. Aside from brushing our teeth, we barely lifted a finger. It was lovely. We saw four out of the big five: elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo, and seven lions lounging around with full bellies. We didn’t see a leopard, but we did see two hyenas which are particularly elusive in my experience. I’ll call that a win. A female elephant chased us away when she thought we were too close to the babies. That was impressive. I kept glancing at the driver to see if he was still smiling; it looked like those tusks could have flipped our vehicle. Well after dark and safe at the lodge we were greeted with warm towels and warm smiles. Great life.

Thursday we drove out of the valley, back through Blantyre to the Zomba Plateau where the KuChawe Hotel sits overlooking the town and mountains. I’ve always wanted to stay there but never splurged on a room just for me when Blantyre was only an hour away. So this was a treat. We arrived early afternoon and had time for a hike to the waterfalls through indigenous forest before dinner. Baboons have taken charge of the balconies and we were told not to leave our bedroom windows open. Baboons come in and take the packets of sugar on the tea trays––– a consequence of their  destroyed habitat. The area is preserved now and reforestation is happening after most of the trees were taken for firewood. Not such a great life for baboons.

After a luxurious (well, nice) stay there we made the four hour drive to Dedza to see the rock art. We checked in to the Pottery Lodge and asked the receptionist to book a guide while we got settled and had a cup of tea. Then off we went for a three hour tour that would get us back just at dusk. We thought we’d timed it perfectly. But the guide (who was adorable and great) was long winded, we hiked to sites I hadn’t seen before (which were amazing but far), and the sun was already on its way down before we left the area and started down the long rutted dirt road. It was dark by the time we reached the tarmac and we had twelve kilometers to the lodge. I have a rule of not driving at night here but there was no choice. The dark road offers extremes of blinding oncoming headlights and absent head or brake lights. It is harrowing. Hundreds of people walk the edge while bicycles with wide loads take up half your lane. It’s impossible to see them even with good headlights. I drove so slowly I’m sure those behind were cursing me, but Stacy had to lean forward to identify any pedestrians and warn me. It was stressful. I was so relieved when we turned onto the dirt road back to the lodge, which was also a nightmare, but less of one than the main road. We made it intact without a motorcycle collision for which a huge relief sigh was emitted. We dropped our bags in the room and could not get to the bar fast enough to order drinks, which we consumed expediently. When the waitress asked if we wanted another we both said, “Yes!” emphatically and simultaneously. She laughed. We didn’t.

Saturday morning we rose early, packed, had breakfast, and headed for the lake and the paradise we now inhabit. Dedza is high and the lake is low. We descended hairpin turns on a good paved road I’d never been on through gorgeous rolling hills, clearly denuded of trees but green with vegetation–––a stunning landscape with hardly another motorist. It was lovely, the temperature rising with the descent. We made our way to the lake and the site where we’d get the boat to Blue Zebra, the lodge on the National Park Island of Nankoma. The fifteen minute motor boat ride was exhilarating–––very different from getting to Likoma. There is nothing on this island but the lodge and hiking trails, 300 bird species, migrating butterflies, and indigenous forest scattered with Boabab. I stayed here in 2018 but it looks very different now. The structures are the same but the beach is totally gone and the pool is almost in the lake. Two chalets and the spa are in the water, unusable. If our chalet was at ground level it would be in the lake, too, but because the front is on pilings, the lake laps underneath. This is the highest the lake has been in forty years. 

Tomorrow the boat will zip us to the car at Senga Bay and we’ll drive back to Blantyre. This has been a sweet little break without news so we’re bracing ourselves for updates on the state of the world, then a day of grant writing before Stacy leaves. I’ve said many times this week, I love my life. My prayer for the world is everyone can say that.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Sorting Visits

Sunday Morning ~  Sorting Visits

Phiri siliyedera mkhwere. ~ The hill doesn’t not pay a visit to the monkey.

~ Chewa proverb

April 21, 2024

Hi Everyone,

There is a mountain in Mozambique near the southern tip of Malawi called Mt. Chiperone. Occasionally a cloud pattern forms there which forces a weather pattern in the highlands of Malawi called the Chiperoni. It is a period of grey drizzly weather with a strong south east wind. It can last for a few days or a few weeks. People have died on Mt. Mulanje when caught in the Chiperoni. Over the past two weeks we spent ten days locked in cloud cover with periods of steady rain, different from rainy season rain which is heavier and shorter lived, so it seemed the Chiperoni had arrived. I pulled out my long sleeves and saw many in fur-trimmed jackets. The low clouds made me feel tired, like I want to curl up with a book or movie in the middle of the day. I don’t know if it was the Chiperoni, the eclipse, or mercury in retrograde that caused the emotional slump I’ve been in, but the clouds have cleared (physically and metaphorically), and it’s sunny again with a slight coolness to the breeze reminding me that winter is coming. It’s just gorgeous. The poinsettias have all burst as well. I’m perking up.

I went to church this morning thinking I was a few minutes late. Turns out I was forty minutes early. Apparently, the visiting priest who did the early mass was expected to stay and say the later masses but he didn’t know that so there was a scramble to find another priest. The choir entertained us, which was lovely, but I started wondering how long I would wait. My four cups of morning tea were going to be a problem. I looked around and no one seemed impatient. I marvel at the tolerance I see on a daily basis. On Wednesday morning, I did the 7:30-9:30 lecture for our first year students, then went to my office to work on the exam questions. The students have a half-hour tea break before another lecture starts. At 11:30 I realized I needed more data for my phone and walked out to buy some at the table on the road. A student approached me and asked, “Madam, are you coming back to class?”  I said, “No! I was only supposed to teach the first lecture. Didn’t another lecturer come at ten?” She told me no one had come, so the 256 students had been sitting there waiting for an hour and a half. I felt awful. She said, “Ok, I will go cook lunch.” without seeming upset about a wasted morning. 

On Thursday these same students had a midterm exam. I was asked to invigilate (“proctor” in American) the exam with another faculty member. (I swear my nursing boards were not this crowded when every new grad in the state sat for them at once.) Exams are taken very seriously here. Students are to be silently seated, the lined paper and answer sheets are distributed individually, followed by the exams. Now, for this many students gathered in one huge hall, you’d think it would more efficient to have them pick up their papers on the way in. No. Not ok. They are not trusted with that task. They all take a seat under orders to be silent and then the invigilators walk around handing out four sheets of lined paper to each of them. After that we handed out one answer sheet. When it was confirmed they all had those items, we then passed out the exam questions. This literally took forty-five minutes. I think I walked two miles just handing out papers. When the exam started they were not allowed to get up from their seat. They must raise their hand and an invigilator walks to them, hears their whispered request, then deals with it. There were surprisingly few requests and they were simple. One girl dropped her pen and was afraid to pick it up. Maybe seven asked to use the toilet. A few asked for another sheet of paper because they’d made a mistake. It seemed so stressful. When the allotted two hours were up, they had to raise their hand to be allowed to come and hand in their tests. We had to staple the papers together and have them sign a sheet. This took another two hours. A two hour test took five hours. I ran out of staples twice. 

In between lectures and exams I’ve been looking for ways to get our midwifery-ward project funded. I’m finding it rather exciting–––very unusual for me who hates asking for money, but this is different from approaching rich people and asking for a donation for a building that should be paid for with public funds. I’d prefer wealthy people pay what they owe in taxes so there would be money enough for libraries and health centers, but that’s just me. I find grant funding easier. Turns out there are lots of organizations who allocate funds for projects like ours. I have no problem selling the project to someone whose job it is to fund projects. This I enjoy, though I realize other people in those organizations call rich people to ask for that money. What a system.  

This week I met a woman with experience. 

Ruthie is from UK who lost her only child, a doctor, and decided to create a non-profit in his memory. The organization funds many different community projects but she heavily focuses on health. She funded a maternity center in one of the Blantyre districts and is currently working on getting another one funded. She’s not a medical person so is interested in what I can offer–– like fostering a liaison with the University for mentoring staff. This relationship has potential. 

We met for lunch and she showed me the floor plan for the proposed unit and I about fell off my seat. We would die for that unit at the teaching hospital. “This is exactly what we dream of!” I said and asked how she got funding for something on this scale. She listed several organizations who fund these types of projects and gave me lots of suggestions. She showed me the grant she is currently working on. It was a bit intimidating. I realize this isn’t something I can whip up in an afternoon. I’m going to need a floor plan, an estimate of building costs, equipment list, and some proof the hospital is on board with it all. It’s all doable, it’s just a matter of doing it. I’ve got to budget office time to write and collect information. I see why people make a living writing grants. Each organization has different requirements so that alone will take some figuring out. One suggestion she had, which I had never thought about was Rotary International. There is actually an active Rotary Club here (who knew?). She said she’d get us on the agenda to make a presentation to them in July. The hill isn’t coming to the monkey, but I am encouraged.

Students finished exams on Friday and this week is mid-term break. The timing is perfect since my friend Stacy arrives tomorrow and I’ve got a little road trip planned. We’ll start off at Majete and hopefully see the big five, then Zomba, Dedza, and a little luxury at the Blue Zebra lodge on the lake. I can’t wait to share places and people I love so much.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Finding the Way

Sunday Morning ~ Finding the Way. 

Kufunsa ndi kudziwa njira. ~ To ask is to know the way.

~ Chewa proverb

April 7, 2024

Hi Everyone,

I love my life here but I am having serious FOMO with things happening back home. A solar eclipse going right through my home! I’m bummed about missing that as well as my fiftieth (yikes) class reunion. Of course, the election I’ll miss is giving me anxiety attacks. I need to make sure my absentee ballot is in as soon as possible. I’ll have to find a support group here. I’ve got PTSD from 2016. 

The days on Likoma were so lovely I believe the trip was worth it, though I’m not planning to repeat that journey. I loved the coastal walks and quiet roads and would love to go back on the bigger boat with a more civilized boarding system and a first class ticket. But it feels good to have ticked another bucket list item. 

On Easter Sunday we walked a mile to services at the cathedral. The dog living at our lodge followed us and we couldn’t keep him out of the church. Many Malawians are afraid of dogs for good reason. They are often feral and very aggressive. They are great guard dogs but I’ve heard horror stories of packs tearing people apart. The dog that followed us was sweet, but the congregation didn’t know that and kids were screaming with fright. We didn’t want people to think we brought the dog on purpose and we kept trying to make it go away. But it would not leave our side so we took turns staying outside with him. Ady sat with him first then a half hour later I went out. I tried sitting by the door so I could listen to the music, but I couldn’t bear seeing the kids frightened so moved over to the cloister, sat, and contemplated. After an hour Ady came out but I didn’t feel like going back in. The service was five hours long. We decided to walk into the village, mill around there for awhile, then go back to the lodge. 

In the afternoon I took a long walk along the cliffs then had a swim before dinner. The lake is so inviting on Likoma: no crocodiles, no hippos, no snails, so (hopefully) no bilharzia. I watched the sunset while bobbing in the waves. It was idyllic as was the fresh Chambo (lake fish) we had for dinner every night. On Monday we hired Pablo to guide us around the island for the day. We started at the northernmost point to see “bell rock”, a curved rock amongst the pile of boulders that made a metallic clanging sound when struck. That was pretty cool as was the Baobab forest we walked through to get there. We walked into the village where we saw a hollowed out tree (also pretty cool) and a museum, which was nothing more than some framed photos of the past presidents, clay pots, and a few spears. After that visit, three of our foursome were tired and took a motorbike taxi back to the lodge, but I was in the mood to keep walking. There is a women’s cooperative I wanted to see so told Pablo I was good for a few more miles. He seemed a little disappointed but I guess figured he’d get a decent tip so we walked and chatted and it wasn’t long before he asked if I had a husband, a question I get asked a lot. I usually say I do but left him at home, It’s just simpler. But Pablo had just told me how his wife had run off with another man so I told the truth, “Yeah, my husband did that to me, too.” That’s when the offers started and I realized my mistake. I should have known better but he was just a kid! I wish I could say it was flattering but it wasn’t. I said, “Pablo, be serious, you are younger than my children!” He assured me that was not an issue in his culture. I said, “Well, it’s a big problem in mine. Plus, I’m not interested in casual sex even if you were my age.” For the next six miles he exhibited remarkable persistence. He told me he felt very close to me and could confide in me, to which I burst out laughing, “You don’t even know me!” Then asked if there were some international book that men have with similar lines? Then he pivoted, “Ok, if you don’t want a relationship, then maybe we could be friends with feelings.” I think he meant “friends with benefits” which also made me laugh. He assured me he was circumcised, which was tmi but since HIV affects more than half the population, I guess he thought that might be what I was worried about. Writing this makes it sound more creepy than it was; I never felt unsafe or even uncomfortable. It’s the same way I get asked for money, but in this case it was sex. It’s easy enough to just say, no. I was thinking of last week’s proverb: If you don’t ask for honey you will only eat wax. That plays out a lot here.  

We arrived at the cooperative, a workshop for single mothers and widows. They take non-recyclable glass bottles from the lodges, break them into small pieces and sand down the edges in long PVC pipes filled with sand. A small motor rotates the pipes for two days using a bicycle wheel. It all comes out looking like sea glass, then they make chandeliers, shower curtains, and art with it. I don’t know who started it, but I loved it. 

From there we walked along a coastal path for another couple of miles back to the lodge, and I was glad Pablo was with me. I would have had a hard time following the trail with the long grass and villages to maneuver. At one point we passed an old woman, hunched over and leaning on a walking stick. I said, “See her? She is probably younger than me.” To which he replied emphatically, “Yes, and her husband is twenty-seven! He drives a motorcycle taxi!” I laughed. He said, “It’s true. Age doesn’t matter here.” and walked on.

The next morning the Chilembwe arrived at 7 a.m. on it’s southward journey. We were on the dock and ready to board along with a few hundred others. We could walk on from the dock, but the pushing and shoving was scary. I thought we’d all be trampled. Soldiers were trying to keep everyone orderly but even they were having a hard time. I was relieved to get aboard, climb to the upper deck which was already full, find a little spot, and tuck myself in for the ride. No way was I going back inside. I had covering to shield from the sun, some water and food and I wasn’t budging. Next to me was a huge basket of dried fish which didn’t smell too bad and I could lean against it. Soon, the smell of marijuana overpowered the fish. It was a twelve hour journey back to Senga Bay so it was dark by the time we had to lower ourselves into that fishing boat, but going down was much easier than climbing up and the lake was calm. A guy held onto my ankles as I hung down from the deck and it wasn’t too scary. This boat had an engine that worked so that was nice. We hovered until everyone had paid before heading into shore and then it was back on someone’s shoulders to the beach. There we found a young guy to carry Ady’s suitcase and guide us back to the lodge. It was too late to try to drive back to Blantyre so we glamped for the night and hit the road before sunup. 

Excellent adventure. Ady and I bonded.

So, back to business and teaching when I got back. The week before Easter we finally met and made some decisions about this midwifery ward project. In their formal and respectful manner we had a discussion about whether this vision was still viable. Everyone present agreed we should pursue it but the original location wasn’t going to work anymore. The hospital is government run so all health care there is free to the public but they want to offer a paid service where it is less crowded (and supposedly better care) to bring in some revenue. We decided it wouldn’t work to share the space with a paying ward and it’s not big enough for both. I asked if it were possible, if funding could be found, to build our own space? It had been exciting to be given an existing space six years ago, but if what if we could design something that really worked? Wouldn’t that be better? I fully expected this to be denied because it seemed too good to be possible, but easy as pie, the head of the obstetrics department said, “Yes, there is other space you could use.” She described two areas in the maternity unit she thought was wasted space and we quickly got up to do a tour.  

In the antenatal wing there are two big rooms currently being used for storage of crap; rusted beds, torn mattresses, broken shelves. It wasn’t really enough space for what we needed but any port in a storm, I thought. We walked over to postnatal ward. There are two rooms there, clean, empty, and adjacent to a bathroom (plumbing!), that looked very attractive. It could be a perfect spot IF we could add on to it. There is a nice open space on the outside of the wall I could envision an addition for everything we needed. We returned to the meeting room to discuss a plan. As we walked by the labor and delivery unit, the Ob pointed to the hallway lined with women laboring on the floor and said, “See?”  I said, “Oh yes, I’ve been in there. That’s why I feel so strongly about this project. It could improve everything. Absolutely everything.” 

So, we all agree it’s a good project. The hospital will give permission. We just need money. So, Melinda Gates, if you are reading this, could you get in touch? I’m looking into grants. We’re excited and hopeful, again.

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Safunsa adadya phula. ~If you don’t ask for honey, you will only eat wax.

~Chewa proverb

March 31, 2024

Hi Everyone,

It’s early Easter morning and I’m sitting on the veranda of my little chalet watching the fishermen paddle out in their dugout canoes. The scene is framed by two huge baobabs. I face west so am not watching the Easter sunrise, but the pinks and blues over the lake are beautiful. I slept soundly last night and woke full of gratitude for the gifts life has given me. The only thing missing is a pot of tea, otherwise, complete bliss.

I mentioned last week how I’d always wanted to go out to Likoma Island and explore. I’ve read and heard about the big cathedral commissioned by Anglican missionaries and built from 1903 to 1911 and I wanted to see it. It’s the largest church in Malawi, the third largest in central Africa, and the size of Winchester Cathedral in UK. The sheer remoteness makes this place alluring, but to build this kind of church here is fascinatingly bizarre to me. I know a few people who have ventured out and their stories made the desire to get here even stronger. But most people say they’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t taken on the challenge. And getting here is a challenge. When my colleague Ursula asked me what I was doing over the Easter holiday I told her I was planning to go to Likoma Island and see the cathedral, she responded with what I hear from most people––– I’ve always wanted to go there. “You should come!” I said. Her response was, “No, I will never get on that boat.” I laughed, haha!, and told her I don’t like boats that much either but I really want to go. Little did I know. 

When we left Karonga on the very northern shore of this lake in 1981, we had a ten month old baby and a choice of small plane or the Ilala, the lake steamer, for transport. There was no road that went all the way south at the time and the Ilala made a journey up and down the lake once a week. We chose the boat, knowing it stopped at Likoma Island but we decided it would be too much to get off and stay there for the week with a baby and all our luggage. We saw the island from the deck of the Ilala and thought that was the closest we would ever get. But since I returned to Malawi in 2016, it’s been nagging at me. To spend three nights here it requires four days of travel. When I saw the four day Easter break this month it looked like I could tack a few days on each end and make it work. Which I did. Though I’m not home yet, so guess I should qualify “work”. 

The Ilala begins it’s journey at the southernmost tip of the lake at Monkey Bay. From Blantyre that’s a four and a half hour drive. It’s also possible to get the boat when it stops at Senga Bay heading north, also a four and a half hour drive from Blantyre. Since I’ll be going to Monkey Bay in May, I decided to go to Senga Bay. I booked a lodge for Thursday night planning to get the boat mid-day Friday, arriving on Likoma Island Saturday morning. The Ilala has a few cabins but they book quickly and friends have slept out on the deck and said it was lovely. That was my plan. Ady, a young American woman I’ve met, heard of my plans and asked if she could come along. I was happy to go alone but having company is nice too, so sure. She made her own reservations at the same lodges and Thursday afternoon we set off for Senga Bay. We arrived at a sweet little lodge called Cool Running, situated right on the lake (soon to be in the lake), a short walk down the beach to the boatyard where we’d catch the Ilala. 

The Ilala had been out for service for the prior month but was scheduled to make its first journey north on Friday. I woke feeling lucky. I’d slept well, had a gorgeous breakfast, and joined Ady to enjoy the onshore breeze and wait for our adventure to begin. We were so excited. 

The man who runs the lodge on Likoma sent us a message saying there were three others coming to Likoma on the Ilala and they were boarding in Monkey Bay. He’d heard from them that they were still doing the final inspection following the repairs and departure was delayed. He connected us so we’d hear from them when it left so we could gauge when it would be arriving at Senga Bay. There is no dock at Senga Bay. It was our understanding that they send a small boat to shore with debarking passengers, load up with goods and people and then return to the boat for departure north. So our 1 p.m. departure would be three or so. No problem, I thought. Beautiful day and gorgeous setting, and the boat trip was part of the adventure. So we waited…and waited,…and waited. As it got later and later we started doing the math and got a little anxious. Will we still board by nightfall? How much is this going to cut into our time on Likoma? We got occasional updates from the people waiting in Monkey Bay saying only they were still waiting. A little after three, when we should have already been on the boat for two hours, we heard the Ilala did not pass inspection and they were getting the Chilembwe, a smaller boat, ready to sail. They were planning to be off by five. The staff at Cool Running assured us the Chilembwe was fast! Very fast! It would be here by seven, or even six. We should be ready to board by six because it does not wait, just a quick drop of goods and people then off again. 

We ordered sandwiches because the Chilembwe has no restaurant, packed up our stuff and headed down the beach at 5:30. I thought it would be fun to sit there and watch it arrive and be ready to hop aboard. Ady was planning to camp at the lodge so she had quite a bit of luggage. She hired Tiger, a guy selling curios on the beach, to carry her stuff. His brother accompanied him and insisted on carrying mine. We followed them along the shore, through the village where fishermen were preparing their nets. The village was buzzing against a panorama of apricot sky. The sunset was showing off spectacularly. We arrived at the “boatyard” which was nothing more than part of the fishing village, where scores of people with baggage were sitting and waiting. It looked like there was going to be quite a competition to get on the smaller boat. Knowing this was “first come first serve” I wondered if they had a limit to the number of passengers allowed on? (This was before learning there are exactly zero safety regulations) It was almost six and we still hadn’t heard that the boat had left Monkey Bay. Ok, I thought, it might be between seven and eight we board so we’ll just eat our sandwich on the beach here. No problem. But Ady was getting nervous. She asked, “What will it be like to board this boat in the dark?” Yeah, I was a little worried about that myself. We saw a wooden fishing boat completely laden with bags of goods, baskets and luggage. We wondered where that was going? A man sat down next to us and asked if we wanted him to take our luggage, but we didn’t understand what he meant. To the Chilembwe? “Yes”, he said, “we take it to the boat for you.” But we thought why pay him when we will just get on the boat they send to shore? So we told him no thanks. But more and more people were putting stuff in that wooden boat. It definitely looked like they knew something we didn’t. It got dark. We finally got a message that the boat left Monkey Bay along with “No seats. The boat is full.” and I figured, ok, two hours at the most, but would they let us on? Eight o’clock came and went. Ady asked me when I thought we should call the whole thing off? It’s not like that hadn’t crossed my mind, but the boat was on its way! We at least knew that. But from the looks of all the stuff on the fishing boat, I couldn’t imagine everything fitting. But we had nothing to lose by waiting as the alternative was going back to sleep in the car. And Tiger was long gone. I texted the owner of the lodge on Likoma and asked him if there was a limit to the number of passengers allowed on the Chilembwe? I never got a response. 

I was trying to enjoy the deep orange moonrise. I was marveling at the scene and being part of it, as well as wishing we knew what was going on. Groups of people surrounded us eating, talking, smoking. Small kids were playing, some were crying. Nine o’clock came and went. The wind picked up and whitecaps were starting to form. Then, all at once, everyone got up and ran to board that fishing boat. They literally charged for it; kids were being tossed up, people were climbing the sides, older people were being carried on others’ shoulders, and this already overloaded boat now had about a hundred more people on it! There was no way I was getting on that boat!  We couldn’t see the Chilembwe coming but someone obviously got a message we didn’t. Then a guy named George came down to the beach and saw us, two mzungus (white people) standing there looking lost, and asked what we were doing? We told him we were waiting for the Chilembwe and he told us to get our stuff on that fishing boat, which, by now was completely overloaded. I told him we were planning to take the small boat sent by the Chilembwe. He said, “No no no, they won’t send that boat here with these waves. You need to pay him to go in that boat.” I really didn’t want to believe this. In my ear Ady said, “I don’t know about this. It looks so sketchy.” Couldn’t argue with that, but I hated to give up. I also didn’t want to be stupid and get us both drowned. I never heard any drowning stories associated with getting to Likoma aside from the Bishop who built the cathedral and was so anxious to get there he set out in a storm and drowned. That story went though my mind. I finally called the owner of Cool Running and asked if this was what we were supposed to do? You’d have thought someone would have told us! She said, “Yes, the wind is picking up and fisherman are coming in. You’ll need to get on that local boat.” Oh my God. My heart sank. A guy came up and asked for money to carry our bags out there. I said, okay, looked at Ady, and said, “She said we go with them”. In less than a minute he had our bags on the back of the boat just in front of the two outboard motors. I started to wade through the water, not sure how I’d climb aboard when he said, “No! I carry you!” I started to say that wouldn’t be necessary when he bent down behind me, stuck his head between my legs and stood up. I was on his shoulders trying not to scream when he just dumped me onto the boat. I thought, oh my God, those poor refugees trying to escape this way. Holy hell. Then turned around to see Ady being carried out. I thought, “If I don’t die by drowning she is going to kill me.” So with the last holdouts aboard, they untied the rope attaching us to the boat on shore and we were adrift, maybe a hundred people on a boat the size of a Boston Whaler. Then a guy whose legs were at my face level, tried to start one of the motors. He pulled the cord, oh I don’t know fifty, sixty times? Black smoke pouring out and nothing purring. We were just floating away! I looked around for oars, never mind life jackets. None. Not that I could see under all the stuff in the pitch dark with bodies everywhere. They uncovered the second motor and took off the cap. The cord on this one apparently was missing, so one of the guys took a piece of plastic twine (the kind that wraps a bale of hay) and wrapped it around the thing looking like a tire wheel. No idea what that part of the motor is called but it was metal with a big groove. He then pulled the twine to spin it and miraculously after three tries it worked! That motor sputtered to life and they then tried to steer us while they tried to get the other motor going. I kept looking at shore wondering if I could swim that far. Wouldn’t you think they’d check the motors before untying us?! The whole time people are yelling back and forth to each other, but no one seemed panicked. Which I was taking as a good sign. After another twenty or thirty tries on the first motor it actually started, which I took full responsibility for since I was praying to God to make that motor start. That motor, despite the billowing black smoke emanating from it seemed stronger than the other one and the boat actually started moving in the desired direction. The captain said in Chichewa that the reason the motors wouldn’t start was because of the mzungus on board and they should buy them a new motor. People laughed. I worried about being thrown overboard. 

Then howls went up as another overloaded boat, smaller than ours, passed us heading for the Chilembwe which was now approaching. Where did that boat even come from?! We headed straight for them as if we would bisect them but then turned somehow, I couldn’t see what was happening. My head was bowed and I was praying. It was a race to be first to board. I considered just staying on the boat and going back to shore, it all seemed too dangerous, but wasn’t going to leave Ady. But I was sure she was as freaked out as me. Maybe more.

I looked up to see us heading straight for the side of the Chilembwe towering over us, and a guy threw a rope up to someone on the deck who caught it as we slammed into the side. Before we even had even stopped people were scrambling up the side of the ship! I thought, please God don’t tell me we have to do that, when I heard Ady yell, “Linda, there is no ladder!” I yelled back, “I know!” at this point thinking I really can’t do this, when a guy appeared in front of me and said, “You pay me to help you.” I thought this was the same guy who carried us out to the boat and I said, “I already paid you!” But he had my bag and said, “Follow me. Get to the front.” Hah! There was a sea of humanity climbing up the side trying to get on an already full deck. I was shoved to an opening in the rail where it was easier to grab onto something and when I saw my bag go flying up I thought, Ok, I’m going. It was one of those situations when you think, failure is not an option. I don’t even know what I took hold of but grabbed on and got my legs up while others were fighting to do the same. I yelled, “I can’t leave my friend!” and he yelled back, “I’m getting her. Just go!” So I went. I got onto the deck, reached for my bag being trampled, when a guy with a recipt book yelled, “Where are you going?” I yelled, “Likoma” and he told me to pay eight thousand kwacha, which was way less than I expected to pay but couldn’t get into my backpack for my wallet in this crowd pushing me forward into the cabin. I was already stepping on people. I just moved forward with the wave and once inside I almost fainted. It was really hot and the rows of seats, like airport seats, were overflowing. A body was on every surface. I stepped between legs and around baggage carrying my bag to the front where I saw three empty seats. I looked behind and saw Ady had made it on, so I kept going. I saw the empty seats were wet. Something above them, maybe an air-conditioning unit, was leaking water onto the middle seat and splashing onto the others. The woman behind said that’s why no one was sitting there. I was like, fuck this, I’m sitting here. It was a hundred degrees in there so this was not a functioning air conditioner. I had an umbrella in my bag so got that out and wedged it into the middle seat so the water ran down the sides of it and stopped splashing on the outer seats. then I made a little tent with a chithenje that made sitting there not dry but tolerable. I was just so relieved to be on board and not in the dark waters of the lake, I didn’t care if I got wet; it was only going to be fifteen hours on this thing. At that point I just didn’t want to ruin my son’s wedding by dying before August. I sat close to the window and Ady got in the aisle seat. We just looked at each other with a “can you believe that?” look. Holy shit. God only knows what was going on behind us on deck but a while later it felt like we were moving. It was after midnight. The guy with the receipt book found me and asked for his 8,000 kwacha, which, I happily handed him then turned to Ady and said, “Bargain!” She sorta smiled.  

Despite the blaring music, the crying babies, the stifling heat, and the drunk soldiers, I actually fell asleep. Maybe from sheer relief, but all the noise was less bothersome than a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I opened my eyes to see a hint of dawn out the window and gave thanks for making it through the night. I could only see water so had no idea where we were. I took a drink of some ginger beer from my bag and realized I had to pee. Knowing there were many more hours to go I had to find a toilet, expecting it to be indescribably filthy. But it wasn’t too far away so I only had to step on or around about fifty people lying in the aisle, over an outboard motor lying among them, and into a free loo that even had toilet paper!! I couldn’t believe it! I gave another in the series of prayers of thanks, and made my way back to my wet seat. My shirt was soaked but it kinda kept me cool. Not too bad. Ady woke up and seemed to be not speaking to me. I thought she either hates me for this or is not a morning person. I reminded myself she did ask to come. It wasn’t like I talked her into this. 

I could see Likoma Island way before I thought we should be there. I expected to arrive around 2 p.m. and it was only 8 in the morning! I was sure I was hallucinating. But there we were, and you’d think I’d been adrift at sea for months instead of on a lake for eight hours, I was so happy to see land. I checked my phone to see a message from the owner of the lodge saying he sent someone to help us get off the boat (thank you Jesus) and drive us to the lodge. His name, no lie, was K1. I won’t go into details of getting off that boat, but it made your worst airplane departure look like you were carried off on a palanquin. It was absolute bedlam, but K1 shouted to us from an opening to pass our bags to him. They went overhead person to person until they reached him and then disappeared. I didn’t even care if he was stealing them. A long time later we were outside being crushed in the crowd, but (thank you Jesus) we were on a cement dock and only had to walk a short plank. Words cannot express my relief at this tidbit. We looked back at the Chilembwe swarming with people getting on and Ady said, “Did you see the one lifeboat says maximum ten people!!!!” Yes, I had seen that. I’m also willing to bet there weren’t enough life jackets for 500 people. Oh well, we were here. They loaded us onto a Mitsubishi minicab and K1 drove us through the town to Ulisa Lodge on the opposite side of the island. Ady said she’s already dreading the ride back but I’m thinking I may never leave.

It really is paradise. And the cathedral is astonishing. We are going there for Easter service.

This has gotten very long so maybe I’ll save the story of Tuesday’s meeting until next week. It’s a good one and I am happy. I do love my life. I’m grateful.  

Happy Easter everyone.

Love to all,

Linda