15th of November 2017, by Yvette Löwensteyn
In the summer of 2016, my friends – Joep, Peter, Feddo – and I listened to an enthusiastic story from two girls who had done a tropical internship in Malawi. They praised the welcoming community in Nkhoma, the staff at the hospital and the beautiful scenery of the country. In short, there was not much that kept us from going as well, and within a year I found myself reading safari magazines in the airplane to Lilongwe.
A couple of months before, I had joined Medpacker. I really liked the smart initiative to more evenly distribute medical supplies among different hospitals in third world countries through travelling students like myself. With the help of my uncle who works at the Diakonessenhuis, I also organized some equipment to carry along and fortunately my flight ticket included a second bag.
On arrival, I happily reunited with my friends at the guesthouse in Nkhoma and we started the next Monday together at the morning report.
Although I had done an internship abroad before in South-Africa, I noticed that there were many things about the internship that could still surprise me and that had to do with Malawian people being less fortunate to live in a low-resource country.
Currently, Malawi is the poorest country in the world. People live on less than 1 dollar a day. The poverty is clearly visible in the badly maintained buildings, the dirty and often ripped clothes that the children wear, the road signs that state that this road would not have been there was it not for UK Aid. At the hospital, which is actually well supplied to Malawian standards, shortage was a common used and experienced word.
Shortage of blood, shortage of handgloves, shortage of ultrasound gel, shortage of antibiotics, shortage of books, shortage of stethoscopes, shortage of electricity, shortage of hot water, shortage of staff, shortage of beds… etc.
There was one time when the X-ray machine was broken and we had to wait two weeks before it was actually fixed and we could do X-rays again. Unthinkable in the Netherlands, reality in Malawi. The only MRI in the country was situated in the south, a five hour drive and a long waiting list away.
The director of the hospital was happy with the medical supplies I had brought along, and made sure it was distributed evenly among the wards where they were needed. It was nice to see the nurses at the maternity ward stitching with the gear I took from Utrecht. Some supplies were less needed and were sent to the bigger hospital in Lilongwe.
The shortage of things in general did not always seem to bother the Malawians, or they seemed to have accepted it in some kind of way. Most of them were very friendly, in for a joke and with a distinct sense of hospitality. One time, we were invited to two weddings taking place at the same day, and we drove with a couple of staff from the hospital in a bus back and forth between the places, listening to the same African songs over and over again, enjoying the ride over the weddings, laughing and talking, amazed by the cultural differences – and similarities.
Our friends had not made up stories about the magnificence of the landscape. It is truly impressive, especially when you explore the sunny shores of lake Malawi or the foggy mountain tops of the Mulanje Massif. Places which most people from the village will never visit.
After 6 weeks, the place felt like home and we could not imagine to leave so soon again. Even now after 4 months it feels surreal to be back again living my Utrecht life at a fast pace while our friends continue the tranquil way of life that had become unavoidably natural to us.
For the future, I hope the hospital will continue training sufficient staff to make a difference, even if it is at a small level, because that is what the country needs. Intelligent, passionate people with a vision who are not afraid to work hard and who want to fight for their country.
In the meanwhile, hopefully Medpacker and future students can help only a tiny bit with supplying extra medical gear.