Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Historic Occasion

Many of you may be aware (and probably sick of seeing my facebook updates) but today was a historic event for eyecare in Africa. Today the first ever Malawi trained optometrists graduated from Mzuzu University. I have learnt so much about both the programme, life in Africa and organising a momentous occasion such as this in the last week.

I was not aware that the Malawi School of Optometry was the first optometry degree programme in Africa and this programme is being held up as an example of how things should be done. The basis for this programme has been used to set up schools in Mozambique, Zambia and Kenya to name but a few. No pressure then! As I said in my first blog entry, optometry is unheard of in Malawi. As the School of Optometry Student of the Year said “When we began, we didn’t even know what an optometrist was and now we are optometrists”. Professor Kovin Naidoo made some inspirational speeches over the course of the past two days, detailing the hurdles that faced the set up of this programme and his belief that we should be helping people help themselves and by training Malawians to provide this health care service it is a lot more sustainable than people flying in for a week or two and leaving again. The ultimate goal is that this programme will become self-sustainable and that previous graduates will return in the future as faculty.
I also learnt that there are only 6 countries that staff can be recruited from as they are allowed to use diagnostic drugs; Ireland, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For the Mozambique project they can only really recruit from Columbia for Spanish speaking optometrists. Makes me feel like more people should take a leap and try Africa!

The celebrations began with a semi formal pre grad dinner. We had cancelled labs that afternoon to allow us to get dressed up and prepared for the dinner. Nice thought. At 6pm Sara and Elaine were in the office finishing writing exams for next week and I was at Sanchia’s house making the programme of events for the tables while Sanchia was starting her speech. Bear in mind we had told people to arrive at 6:45! None the less we arrived at the venue (a 15min drive from the university) by 7pm which by all accounts is pretty darn impressive. The evening went very well with the MC (i.e. muggins herself) only mispronouncing one name and calling 2 people by their incorrect title! The students were presented with prizes based on their individual strengths and Sanchia made a tear jerking speech in which some very corny optometry jokes were made (“I met you first when you didn’t know your cornea from your conjunctiva and now you are setting the Goldmann standard”). All in all, the night came together in the end all thanks to Team Awesome.

Then today was THE big event. The graduation. It was held in two big marquees on University grounds. By 9:30am we were seated and waiting for the arrival of Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi. The President (or as I like to call her JB), is automatically the Chancellor of the public universities and as she only became president in June (open to correction on this) due to the death of the previous president today was also her official induction as Chancellor. The one thing I noticed about the graduation was the out pouring of emotion by the students families. I guess coming from Ireland where it is the minority that don’t attend university, we take for granted that we will have a cert/diplomia or degree. But here where many children can’t even afford to go to secondary school, graduating from university is a MUCH bigger deal. Often these are the first people from their family to have the opportunity to attend a third level institution. The exclamations by proud parents as their child’s name was read out was tear jerking, once in a while a mother overcome by emotion would run up and embrace her child before they had even received their certificate. Our students also swore their hypocrattical oath in front of the President as they vowed to always put their patients needs first and work to the best of their ability. The ceremony was broadcast on Malawi television and ICEE had journalists interview the faculty and photograph everything!  

The icing on the cake was an invitation by the President to the Global Director of ICEE to attend the State house for lunch. So off Kovin and Sanchia went and as it turns out a very productive lunch it was. After Kovin’s speech at the ceremony in which he talked about the need for Africans to help themselves and also the need to attract more females into the optometry programme now that there was a female president, I think JB herself was very impressed. Hopefully this means that optometry in Malawi can progress in leaps and bounds and baby steps.

So long story short, this was an emotion charged few days and I count myself extremely lucky to have taken part (all be it a very small part) in the occasion. Congratulations to all who helped the students make it this far and long may the help continue for this programme. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

One Month In

So, I have now been in Malawi for four whole weeks. To be honest it feels like much more. Not because time is dragging but because I feel so settled. I owe most of this to Team Awesome (aka the Optometry Department) and the amazing friends I have made so far. It’s really true that the people you meet are the things that will shape your experience of any country and I am lucky to have met some of the best Malawi has to offer.Mzuzu is small and as such the expat community is quite close knit and there is a general feeling that people are looking out for you.

In the past month I have visited Lake Malawi twice, spent a weekend in Lilongwe, taught my first ever lecture, set my first ever continuous assessment (which I am avoiding correcting by writing this blog), seen more pathology that in my 4 years as an optometrist and now this week I get to be part of a huge, historic event.

This week, the first ever optometrists will graduate from Mzuzu University. As you can imagine, this is something special. Something I am very lucky to be able to be a part of. I say luck because that is what it is. If I started a month and a half later than I did then I would have missed this. As it turns out a lot of important people in the consortium who help fund and run this programme will be here, as will photographers and journalists from the national newspapers. My main concern- What am I going to wear! Now, that is not me being shallow but I know all the organisation and all the planning will get done. Our team works well and we know what needs to be done. However when I was packing I did not include a single outfit that would work for a semi-formal pre-grad dinner. How silly of me not to pack a cocktail dress!

So reflecting on the last month, I can’t believe I actually made the leap. I moved to Africa. Who knows where the next year will take me but I’ll keep you posted!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Living in Mzuzu

Life in Mzuzu.

“What’s life like there?”, I hear you ask. “Where do you live?”, “What do you eat?”
Well, I live on the Mzuzu University campus in a 3 bed house (all to myself!)

(You can see Elaine's house behind mine)

My "shower" ie a bucket and a cup
I’d imagine my parents pictured me living in a mud hut when I mentioned Africa. Far from it. However I do keep buckets full of water and candles (in wine bottles) for the frequent power outages and when water is shut off. The university tends to turn off the power and water at the weekend to conserve it. Makes preparing for lectures and eating on Sun a bit of a chore.
Sara lives across the “road”, and Elaine lives next door. It’s the Optometry cul-de-sac. It’s about an eight minute walk to the office and a 15 minute walk to the hospital from my house.
My walk to work
Shopping wise, Mzuzu has 3 main supermarkets and fruit and veg is bought in the Main Market. Bananas have become a staple of my diet, at 10 kwacha for one, it’s be a shame not to. Far from the $1.50 I paid in Australia 12 months ago! One of the supermarkets “People’s”, sells the nicest steak I have ever tasted.
Mike and Mwayi cooking the Braai

Dairy can be hard to come by and as a result cheese is a precious commodity. It would not be unusual for the news that one of the supermarkets has had a shipment of cheese to spread with the vigour of a juicy piece of gossip.

I have eaten out more than I have cooked at home. Pinetree Lodge is great for a Sunday dinner, roasts, steak and mushroom pie and the BEST sticky toffee pudding I have ever tasted! It is also one of the restaurants that has a gas cooker and as such is frequented when we have no power! Mozoozoozo hostel has amazing Korean food, it tends to be a Friday evening haunt (usually accompanied by numerous greens and a trip to the hotel).
The main staple of Malawi cuisine is nsima, a porridge type dish made from maize flour. I compare the consistency to that of cooked Ready Brek. Then there is the vegetable rape, a green leafy vegetable similar to cabbage.  The staff caf serves rape with every meal.

Drinks wise, Carlsberg has a brewery in Blantyre and three different drinks are produced- green, special and stout. Green is basically the Carlsberg we get at home, Special is, in my opinion, a nicer beer and then Stout is just what it says on the tin. A green in a bar will cost from K250-400 depending on the bar. Wine can be bought by the bottle or by the box (cue not so fond memories of goon in Australia) and then there are sachets.

Basically alcohol is a plastic sachet costing K10 each. You can get them in normal (ish) drinks but also lovely fake fruit flavoured ones.  Slap shot is a drinking game where, after you down the sachet, someone slaps you on the face to get rid/take your mind off the dreadful taste!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Journey to Mzuzu

Now, one would think that after travelling previously, I would have packing down to a fine art. Oh no, that is/was not the case. Firstly I had to move out of my house in Galway city, a feat that took two and a half car loads, the best part of a day and some ruthless disposing of clothes by my sister. Then came the trauma of packing my life away for a year. Add to that the cultural restrictions in Malawi (covering your knees and shoulders), the fact that it would be winter when I was arriving and the evenings would be very cold AND the summer would be very hot, humid and wet, trying to pack for working professionally and for socialising proved more difficult than I initially thought. The trauma of packing was further exasperated by the fact that I was getting conflicting information about my baggage allowance. One person was saying one bag of 23kg, another was saying two bags of 23kg and no-one could say 100% what I would be allowed when I got to Dublin Airport.

In the end when I arrived at Dublin it seems I could have checked as many bags as I would have liked and so my paltry 32kg in 2 checked bags seemed totally inadequate for what I was headed for.

Anyway after one last fry and abandoning my poor mother in tears at security I once again set off.

And so my 29 hour journey began,

I flew Dublin – Frankfurt where I had a 6 hour stopover which I passed drinking German beer, eating frankfurters and discovering that terminal 2 in Frankfurt Airport has terrible duty free!
Next up was my 10 hour flight to Johannesburg.

And then a two and a half hour flight to Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi). Bonus of this flight was that I was upgraded. However, all this meant was I had a slightly bigger seat and got some free newspapers and a posh-er dinner. Now if only I had been upgraded on my long haul flight, one can but dream.

At this point it had been 24 hours since I left Dublin, 30 since I left home in Galway and it would be another 5 hours until I arrived in Mzuzu! Arriving at the airport was a bit of a shock, for anyone who has travelled through a regional airport in Ireland, that is what it was like. Small airport in a field and one luggage carousel. At that point I met the lovely Sara from the states who would be starting in Mzuni at the same time as me. From here we travelled with a delightful, devout Christian taxi driver called Gift towards Mzuzu. Five hours later and not one single toilet break, me and Sara dash out of the car, say hi to our new colleagues and make a bee-line for the toilet.

After we remembered our manners we were introduced to the Dean of Health Sciences and finally got to meet the other members of our team who (Elaine aside) I had only ever spoken to via email.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Why Malawi?

How did I end up in Mzuzu you might ask. Well, I’m an optometrist with incredibly itchy feet. Having spent 3 months travelling South America and then a year living and travelling in Australia, I would be lying if I said that living in Galway and practising as a regular optometrist excited me. A good friend of mine that I went to college with had been living and working as a lecturer in Malawi since February and in April she posted the link to a job in Mzuni (Mzuzu University) on Facebook. A skype interview followed and I was offered a job lecturing optometry in Mzuni. 

Mzuzu is the third largest city in Malawi which has one of only 3 public (i.e. funded by the government) universities in Malawi. The university itself is about 5km outside of the town located in a district called Luwinga. 

Malawi, along with many other African countries have an underdeveloped health system and optometry is generally unheard of (eg, our department went for dinner (all 5 of us) and the acting head said “You are sitting at a table with all the optometrists in Malawi).  Unfortunately many millions of people around the world are functionally blind due to uncorrected refractive error, therefore they are unable to lead full lives. As optometry stands in Malawi, it is underdeveloped and ICEE along with it’s partners set up the optometry programme as a means to make optometric services more available to Malawians. This August will see the first optometrists graduate from Mzuni and go into practise. The programme is currently staffed by expats (as there are no optometrists in the country!) but the aim is, in the future, that previous students will return to lecture. Having an opportunity to be part of exciting developments like this is something that I could not turn down. 

Lecturing has always held an interest for me but having no masters/PhD meant that in the Ireland/the UK it would not be possible. This gives me the opportunity to try my hand to it before committing to 2 years masters! Those of you who know me would know that I can be a bit of a commitment phobe! Hence, I find myself, a mere seven months after returning home, leaving on a jet plane and travelling to the only continent I have yet to visit- Africa.