Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What I do

Following my trip home it seems like not a lot of people are sure about what I actually do (apart from sit at the lake and drink Carlsberg which is what my photos show). In short I teach optometry at Mzuzu University and have done for the past 12 months. To answer some of the most common questions, No, I am not volunteering (I'm heartless, I like money) I am employed by the university as a lecturer, Yes, I have running water AND electricity (a big plus here), I have my own house on the university campus, which I do not have to pay for and Yes, it is completely different (and yet sometimes very similar) to Ireland.

So, if you have no interest in the mundane aspects of my working life, I would suggest you skip this post as it will deal with very basic (aka boring) information.

Let me start with a little background on the Malawi education system as I know it (NOTE: I am no expert and the information I give could very well be completely wrong). As far as I am aware, kids sit exams at the end of primary school. These exams have quite an impact on their education as if they do well, they may get a scholarship to a private secondary school. However, if they do not do well and/or their parents do not have the means to pay for a private secondary school, they end in a public secondary in classes of 60+ with little or no resources and often one book per class. (On a side not, a good friend of mine recently managed to supply 10 schools with 750 books see more HERE) At the end of secondary school they sit their MSCE which determines whether they will get into university or not. Pause for a moment and think how hard it would be to study English literature if you cannot read the books you will be examined on, how can you study Physical Sciences if you have never conducted a practical experiment or how can you understand the complexities of trigonometry if you have never seen a calculator or table book. I may be over exaggerating things but in reality, kids are up against it here. University is a privilege open to few, a thing I took for granted in Ireland where it was expected I would attend university.

Our students are, as a result, students who have done extremely well in their MSCE. We have an intake of 10 students per year (limited by our classrooms and clinical teaching space) and in third year we provide an opportunity for "upgrading students" where we increase the class size to 12. Currently in our upgrading students category we have and ophthalmic clinical officer from Malawi, two people with diplomas in optometry from Tanzania and a refractionist from Sierra Leone. In first year they take general science course and an introduction to Optometry course and then from second year onwards they receive lectures exclusively from our department (with exceptions for Research Methodology).

On a vision screening day at the local primary school
As for what I teach, a bit of everything. We leave the diseases courses to our ODs but so far I have thought subjects that include: Ocular Motility and Binocular Vision, Occupational Optometry, Practical in Ophthalmic Workshop, Basic Contact lenses etc etc. In addition to theoretical classes, we run practicals in most subjects and supervise clinics in the hospital eye department. We are also in the process of trying to get a vision centre, the first of it's kind in Africa, up and running.

As with every job in life, there are challenges encountered everyday. Little things that make life slightly more difficult, that make my work day just that bit more, well, work. Things that I won't go into here. I like lecturing, I like using my brain and realising I remember more from DIT than I thought I did. I have also realised that students are the same everywhere. My students do the exact same things I did in university, they try to predict what will come up in exams, they try to get away with mild plagiarism (which I did not do), they try to convince us that the due date for the assignment is a week away when really it was today but overall they are a good bunch.

Our most recent graduates
Celebrating with the graduates
We recently graduated our second cohort of optometrists which more than doubled the Malawian trained optometrists who will work in the public sector and provide a service that was solely lacking previously. This was a special occasion for me as I actually taught this group. I spent time in classroom and clinics with them and I supervised their research projects. They made me proud and I hope that they continue to do so in the future as they venture out into the big bad world.

Where do I see myself in the future? To be honest I don't know. I cannot imagine staying in Malawi long term. I really like this country but there are so many things that you are up against when working here. It feels like you are constantly banging your head against a wall.
Will I return to Ireland? Eventually. Ireland is, and will always be, my home. How soon I return there is another question.
Where to next? Who knows. I have said I will stay here another year, we'll see how that goes and make a decision from there.
Our students really like "crazy photos"

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