Ever thought about VSO? Oncology Triage Project Nurse Fiona Galbraith had wanted to volunteer since qualifying in the 1990’s. Ambition now achieved, she offers these reflections on her experience as Clinical Instructor in Trinity College of Nursing and Midwifery in the Nsanje district of Southern Malawi.
Described as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ Malawi and Scotland share strong links. The more I researched my offer of a VSO placement, the more I heard wonderful stories from friends, friends of friends and colleagues about a country which thrives on a sense of community, faith, and a relaxed lifestyle. Indeed there are only three times of day in Malawi; morning, afternoon and evening!
The appeal of Trinity College of Nursing and Midwifery was its real need for healthcare professionals, and its rural location; the college is five hours drive along a dusty dirt track from the city of Blantyre, the nearest place for western-style shopping and decent red wine! In collaboration with the Principal Tutor I managed to get funding from the Tropical Health Education Trust (THET) to provide the first mentorship scheme to run from the college. This was a week-long residential course using the programme developed by NES (NHS Education for Scotland) and was attended by fifteen delegates from the surrounding rural hospitals and health centres. I also managed to secure funding for an extra laptop for classroom teaching to allow all students access to a computer at any one time!
My other focus was community midwifery. Many women in Malawi die through childbirth. Some can’t afford to get to hospital, others can’t travel the distance as the winter rains lead to collapsed bridges and river crossings become inaccessible. And it’s not unusual to see a woman in labour arriving at the hospital either by wheelbarrow or on the back of a bike!
A second cohort of community midwifery students who undertook a Joyce Banda initiative to reduce mother and child mortality rates also recently graduated. I taught them nursing skills such as vital signs, bed bathing, NG tube insertion, catheterisation, and oxygen and drug administration, and was able to follow them through their module which included socio-economic health issues, and neglected communicable disease, all of which was a real learning curve for me. Once qualified the midwives will be placed in villages to be able to reach their patients more speedily.
Although there is real poverty in Malawi, I perceived very little depression, stress or anger. Village children have a freedom and imagination that we have lost long ago with the advent of technology and fear. The kids made my year extra special and I have learned skills in bakery (weekend treats of chocolate cake and mandasi) and in nursery nursing (everyone wants a plaster for a scraped knee or cut toe). On the downside I was expecting lack of resources such as bed linen, medication and dressings, but I did not appreciate how little life is valued.
It was a fantastic year and a great opportunity to experience life in a ‘different world.’ There is a common myth that we go to developing countries to impart our knowledge and skills but it is definitely a two way process. I learned just as much, if not more, than I was able to give.
For more information on VSO www.vso.org/uk