Perhaps the mere fact that life in extreme environments demands more, foments the development of amazing individuals but whatever the reason, they are certainly here.
First off, I just want to say that Dr. Chrissie Kaponda and her husband Alex are truly incredible. The more I learn of them, the more I am blown away by their perspective, their generosity, and their work. In addition to their professional work, they have a personal commitment to educate as many girls as possible. They know that when women are educated the entire family is better off and here, in this strongly patriarchical society, there are enumerable barriers against the education of girls.
Just to provide a small cultural illustration, women when greeting men actually kneel while shaking hands (this doesn't happen often in town but I have seen it here and it seemed to be standard in the village). Women are also expected to maintain the home, cooking and cleaning for the family. So, while the boys have time to study, girls only study if and when all their other work is complete. Girls' boarding schools have come into being with the purpose of removing the brightest from their homes so they can study. One woman here told me that all professional Malawian women attended boarding schools, so this strategy seems to be working.
I'm not sure how many girls Dr. Kaponda and her husband have put through school. Alex says their have been more failures than successes, but there have been successes and at the moment they have three adolescent women, in addition to their own daughter, who are living with them and studying.
Amazing person #3. This morning I was introduced to Dr. Meguid, a visiting obstetrician who supplements the manpower of the country’s three obstetricians (yes 3). He is a tall man in his mid-40s with sincere eyes and a head full of thick shaggy brown hair. He currently works both at Bottom Hospital as well as at a private hospital. Dr. Kaponda was having a meeting with Dr. Meguid and she called me in to hear the stories he was telling.
He said that yesterday he was called to the private hospital to do a vacuum extraction. Once he arrived and assessed the situation, he determined that an episiotomy would be needed. After requesting scissors, he said it took about 5 minutes for a pair to be located, and then (remember this is at the private hospital where patients pay for care) they were so dull it took eight cuts to cut through the skin. He said to me, "I tortured the woman and she said, 'Thank you,' having no concept that she should expect better care, I felt horrible." From there, he went on to discuss the shortage of gloves. Apparently for the 30-50 deliveries done at Bottom each day, they estimate that they need 600 gloves, but Dr. Meguid said he cannot remember a day when they had enough. He also said that recently the suction in L&D broke and so now when a newborn really needs suctioning, they have to run across the hospital with the baby to the neonatal nursery.
Dr. Meguid, Dr. Kaponda, and the dean of the College were discussing the disempowerment of women here and how this directly effects high mortality rates among women and infants. He said, "They are poor, uneducated, voiceless, and have no one to speak on their behalf." No one seemed to know why basic supplies are in such short supply - mismanagement, corruption, national poverty are possibilities – but irrespective of the cause, the problem is clearly enormous.
After the horror stories, Dr. Meguid assured me that beautiful things also transpire in the hospital and welcomed me to Malawi and to this work. I was very happy to meet him and to know that he is also here, in this system, passionately envisioning and working, against all odds, towards a better reality.
If anyone does want to ship supplies here, the address is:
Dr. Chrissie Kaponda Kamuzu College of Nursing - Research Center Private Bag 1 Lilongwe, Malawi Africa
(I have been told that writing "feminine hygiene products" or "religious items" on the customs slip will expedite the process.)