Friday, 21 December 2012

Happy Christmas

Yet  another Christmas away from home and I want to say a huge

-Merry Christmas
-Nollaig Shona (Irish)
-Christmas iweme (Tumbuka)
-Christmas yamampha (Tonga)
-Joyeux Noel (French)
-Maligayang Pasko (Phillipines)
- Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

Remember Christmas is not easy for everyone
- Smile at a stranger
-Say Happy Christmas to a shop assistant
-Think of those less fortunate
-Treasure your family and friends

but most of all have fun.

See you all in the New Year.

12 pubs of Mzuzu

Whenever I find myself away from home at Christmas, there are certain things that help me through the festive season. Certain traditions I bring from home. Surrounding myself with good people, eating way too much food, having a tree and listening to Christmas songs and of course, the ever traditional "12 pubs of Christmas".

Pub one!
Ah the 12 pubs. A tradition that involves groups of people dressing up in the tackiest Christmas jumpers they can find and having an alcoholic beverage at 12 different establishments over the course of the day. Few will make all 12 venues without faltering. With this in mind, the 12 pubs of Mzuzu was born. As Elaine's second last weekend in Malawi and the weekend after my birthday it was really a triple celebration. And so, the facebook event was set up, a route was drawn up, and our very own "12 days of Christmas" song was composed. And so the countdown began!

We had Ciara and her friends travelling up from Lilongwe for the 12 pubs, Jay travelling down from Karonga, Ross and Cam coming from near Nkhata Bay, Melissa from Chinteche and Josh from Mzimba.

Malawians getting on board
I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the day but some of the highlights include: an epic water fight with two French Canadian children, slap shots in the forecourt of a filling station, carol singing while walking the streets, people bedecked in tinsel, Malawians looking VERY confused and then wanting to be part of our group and dancing in the Zoo to Mmmmmbop at 3am. As Ross put it, "It was the best day I've ever had in this country", and he's been here for 16 months!

 Needless to say the following day involved very little: lounging on Elaine's lawn while Jay made breakfast, watching "The Dark Knight Rises" at Sara's and falling asleep to Skyfall! Monday also got off to a slow start with Sara, Elaine and I all showing up at least an hour late for work. A great weekend by all accounts and one that will become an annual event!

Quote of the  day: "The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends." Shirley MacLaine

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Livingstonia trip

As one of her last weekends in Malawi Elaine wanted to visit Livingstonia. It was also somewhere I wanted to go and on Friday the 23rd of November we headed off.

So what is Livingstonia and why did we want to visit? Livingstonia was the third site of Dr Robert Laws’ mission which was set up in memory of Dr Livingstone. The first two sites were on the lake shore and they were plagued by malaria so they decided to move to Livingstonia which is 900m higher than the lake. Some of the original stone buildings, built in 1894, are still in use. Why would we want to visit what seems, for all intents and purposes, to be a living museum. From what we had heard Livingstonia is set in possibly one of the most scenic areas of Malawi. There is also a trek from the lakeshore to Livingstonia, 15km, rising 900m in altitude, consisting of 20 bends in a very windy road and some very “interesting” shortcuts. Challenge accepted!

Add in a 100l drum and another 5 people
 and a goat and then we left!
Our trip started by getting a minibus to Chitimba (MK1,600). This in itself was an adventure. We sat in the minibus for an hour and a half in the bus station, being offered everything from questionable meat on a stick, incense, live mice, pots and toothpaste. After the bus was full to the brim we started to leave the bus station, but of course we packed on another 3 people who ran alongside the bus! Chitimba is about 3 hours north of Mzuzu on the lakeshore. En route we saw lots of wild baboons and the views are amazing. Once you reach the bottom of the escarpment, you can smell the lake in the air. The air is warmer but full of moisture. Unfortunately due to our delay at the bus station and the bus driver deciding to stop every 5km, we didn’t reach Chitimba until nearly 8pm. Chitimba beach camp was recommended, it lies 1km outside of Chitimba, 5mins walk down a dirt track. Similarly to Kande, it’s very popular with overlanders due to it’s huge shaded campsites. Elaine and I were famished and our first thought turned to food. You can imagine our disappointment when we were told that the cook had left for the night. Despite our pleadings for some bread and eggs (that we would cook ourselves) the owner was not in the helping mood. A helpful guy from one of the overlanders asked what we needed and we said “bread, eggs, anything”. 5mins later he returned with his friend and 2 plates of lasagne and salad. Needless to say he was our favourite person of the day. And so we had a few beers with them before retiring to our dorm for the night. Next morning was to be an early start.

Yup, we're going up there!
Sunrise over the lake
Everyone who has done the hike to Livingstonia has said “Start early to avoid the heat” and as such, alarm went off at 5:30 and out the door by 5:50. We walked the 1km to Chitimba road block where we bought some essentials for the trip (water and custard creams) and started up the dirt road to Livingstonia. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not an easy hike. It’s quite steep but there are a lt of shortcuts. Lots of the guidebooks recommend avoiding the shortcuts, as they are steep, but to be honest there was only a couple of occasions that necessitated scrambling on hands and knees. The short cuts dramatically reduce the hike length. With multiple pauses to admire the view, one pause to buy some mangos from some kids and a biscuit pause, we stopped for a break after about an hour. Over the course of the hike we met numerous villagers en route to Chitimba to sell their produce (mangoes and tomatoes mostly). These people I have respect for. They were doing the hike downhill with HUGE baskets full of fruit on their heads. If that isn’t an incentive to sell all your produce, I don’t know what is.
View from 3/4 of the way up
We continued on, thanking our lucky stars that it was overcast, while at the same time hoping that the sun would break through when we got to Lukwe so we could appreciate the famed view. Another hour and a half and another 6 or 7 shortcuts, we reached a relatively flat road and knew there was another 3-5km left. After about 1.5km we came across the sign for The Mushroom Farm. Approximately 1km later, including a mango stop, we reached Lukwe and started down the dirt road into the lodge. Here I apologised to Elaine for my constant bitching on the hike and we clapped ourselves on the back for completing this epic hike in just under 3 hours. At this stage there was no doubt in our minds that we deserved the “full English” breakfast. As we walked into Lukwe’s restaurant/bar are discussing this, the first thing we heard was “Dia dhuit”. We met Luke, a guy from Donegal, who had been cycling from Ethopia and was in Malawi for a month before returning to Ireland for Christmas. Us Irish really do get everywhere! As we were eating breakfast, the clouds rolled off and the true view revealed itself. I would not be exaggerating when I say we were speechless. No words or photos can do it justice. Luckwe is situated on the edge of a V-shaped valley covered in forest with a view all the way down to the lake. With Lake Malawi shimmering in the distance, we could really appreciate the distance we had come.

View from the top of the waterfall
Elaine and I admiring the view
Look at the size of the mushroom!
Boosted by our feed and several cups of Lukwe’s home grown coffee we (the Irish contingent) set off to explore the waterfalls. The Manteche waterfall falls for 125m into the valley below Livingstonia. The trail to the waterfalls is pretty easy to find, just continue walking towards Livingstonia and there is a booth that says “Waterfalls”. Convenient eh? So after a MK300 payment we were accosted by some local kids who offered to guide us. Along the way the picked up what is, to date, the largest mushroom I have ever seen which of course they proceeded to pose with. They took us to the top of the waterfall, behind the waterfall and to a ledge that looked over the valley all the way to the lake! Our last stop was a little pool where we could get in and swim. Bliss as the clouds has cleared and the temperature was rising!
Elaine looks happy, I look like I'm
being killed!

Church in Livingstonia
Not content with our hiking that morning we decided to continue on to the town of Livingstonia, further up the mountain. En route we stopped for a drink and proceeded to, all three of us, be beaten at bao by some locals! Another shortcut through some people's back yards and we were in Livingstonia town. First thing on our minds was food. We found a lovely little cafe in the main square near the University but the only food they could offer was scones. After scones and tea, and me buying the cutest earrings ever (proceeds of the cafe went to an orphanage so it was a good investment), and a discussion as to how there are no restaurants in town(!) we set off to see the sights. The buildings in the town are very pretty, It really reminded me of a British colonial town (which, essentially, it is). The Stone House was the only place in town where we "might" get food. It also hosts the museum and has accommodation. Here we had a mountain of beef stew, read a book about bee keeping and decided to climb the bell tower of the church. Views from the church are amazing. You can see up to Nyika plateau, down to the lake and all around the Valley. Highly recommended.
Stained glass depicting Dr Robert Laws' arrival

I mean really?
We set off back to Lukwe and ended up having a conversation with some local school teachers about how the women do all the hard work in Malawi. After Elaine saying "If you were in Ireland, you would carry the heavy baskets and work the fields", they laughed, a lot. The women here carry HUGE baskets full of food on their head, while carrying children. I see them working the fields AND they are responsible for the house. What do the men do we asked? "They make the money"- apparently! After arriving back at Lukwe, a beer was well earned, after all Elaine and I had been walking for the best part of 12 hours! By about 10pm we were WRECKED and retired to our little chalet. A lovely wooden chalet perched on the edge overlooking the valley. Surrounded by trees and we drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds and monkeys. We woke the next morning and found that an opportunistic monkey had eaten one of Elaine's mangos. However as we stepped outside to follow the trail of peel, the view took over. I could have sat there all day on the terrace.

I'm not really sure how
I thought pineapples grew
but this wasn't it!
Before we left we paid a visit to Lukwe's permaculture garden with the owner Ock. Listening to him talking about how he started and his plans for the future was refreshing. He has a real passion for his garden. The lodge is already run on solar power and he plans to introduce hydroelectricity to allow more power in the evenings. The gardens grow everything from coffee, to pineapples, to chillis. Their aim to be self sustainable is well underway. It really is an inspiration.

 It then became time to leave this haven. Luckily we got a life back to Mzuzu with some friends who drove up. Could not have faced the downhill hike and then hitching back to Mzuzu. Livingstonia, I will be back!

Quote of the day: "I think it's my adventure, my trip, my journey, and I guess my attitude is, let the chips fall where they may" Leonard Nimoy. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Birthday Reflections

As a birthday draws close, it gives the perfect opportunity to reflect on the year past and look to the year ahead. I am turning 26 tomorrow and if I am to be completely honest, it scares me a little. 25 was a good year. I am now heading rapidly towards my late 20s and /gulp/ the dreaded 30! It seems like I should start being sensible, you know, buy a house, start a pension plan, settle down. Even the thought of it is bringing me out in hives. So, for the moment I will continue my usual method of running away from real life.

My 25th year started out well. I had flown to Singapore after spending a year in Australia and was en route home for Christmas. I spent my birthday on the top of the world's highest roof top bar drinking a cocktail with people I had met 2-5 days beforehand. And then a dumpling dinner with one of my best friend's housemates (as he decided to feck off to Shanghai for that week). It made me realise that it truth, strangers are just friends you have not met.

This year, I will be celebrating in the Warm Heart of Africa with friends who, 5 months ago were strangers (apart from Elaine of course). A Mzuzu birthday will be slightly different to a Singapore one but no less fun I'd imagine. Dinner and drinks at the Zoo and possibly dancing. Life is different here and that is no bad thing.

The last birthday I celebrated in Ireland was my 23rd. Wow, you guys have gotten out of buying me a lot of birthday presents :P In reflection on the years spent since I left Ireland, honestly, I am a different person. I am more confident, I know more about myself and I am more content with who I am. These changes, I am not sure I would have achieved without taking off on my own.

Looking back at the past year, a lot has changed. I had a job I hated, worked as a locum and then moved to Malawi. I travelled around Singapore and Malaysia, met some amazing people and come home to a brilliant Christmas. Lived in Galway and loved it, experienced the Volvo Ocean Race, ran the prom many times, had lots of coffee and chats and all in all enjoyed my 7 months at home. However my itchy feet got the most of me and as such my time in Ireland was brief.

So having looked back at the past year, I look towards the one coming. What will it bring? Or more importantly what do I want it to bring? Where in the world will I be for my 27th birthday? What will I have achieved in the next year? What do I want to achieved? All of life is setting goals for yourself. Whether you achieve those goals or not, it is always something to work towards.

Quote of the day: And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.”  Abraham Lincoln. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Lake!

I couldn’t be in Malawi and not talk about the lake. After all it is known as the “Land of the Lake”.  All one side of the country is bordered by the lake and it would be remiss of me not to talk about a place where we spend most weekends. Having just spent another weekend at Nkhata Bay, it has reminded me how much I love the lake.
Now this lake is HUGE. They call it the calendar lake as it is 52 miles across and 365miles north to south. 20% of Malawi’s surface is covered by water, from Lake Malawi and three other lakes. And Lake Malawi makes up 75% of Malawi’s eastern border. Standing at the lake shore, it is very easy to think you are facing the sea, when it is windy and there are waves I constantly have to tell myself that it is a LAKE! According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), it is the 3rd largest lake in Africa and the 8th largest in the world. The lake is also known as “Lake of Stars”, a term coined by Sir David Livingstone in relation to the lights that the local fishermen use at night.

Traditional boat

Recently the lake has been a source of some potential conflict between Malawi and Tanzania. Oil has been discovered and there was talk of a possible war over the right to harvest this oil. However, thankfully, this conflict seems to have died down a little. There has always been some conflict over Tanzania’s access to the lake and having a share in the profits from the lake. However if there was to be drilling for oil, the hundreds of fishing communities on all shores of the lake could have their livelihood lost.
Kande Beach
The first place I visited on the lake was Kande Beach. A resort run by an English man set on a long stretch of beach. It’s a beautiful setting and is frequented by overland trucks Here I went horse riding for the FIRST time ever. The trip ended with us going swimming with the horses! Kande is very popular with overland trucks and this can result in nights dancing on the bar. In other words, lots of fun. The beach stretches as far as the eye can see and there is a scuba school on site run by Justin and Joy- Aquanuts.

Here in Mzuzu we go to the Northern Lake Shore, from what others have told me, the northern shore is the most beautiful. The nearest town to us is Nkhata Bay, a town worthy of its own blog post, considering we go there again and again.

I have also visited Makuzi beach resort. Beautiful gardens, a private beach, good food but a tad out of a backpackers budget. Luckily we visited there with work.

And then there is Chinteche Inn. Widely known as the most expensive resort on the Northern Lakeshore. Why was I there? For a music festival. 3 days of African music while taking dips in the lake or lounging on the beach. 

There is a risk of bilharzia in Lake Malawi. A small risk but a risk none the less. However as the parasites live in snails that live in reeds in stagnant waters, the risk on the Northern shores is minuscule. (see my point about waves) But seeing as you prevent yourself getting the parasite by taking a dose of praziquantel (or as I like to call it "The drug I take when I have been swimming in the lake") once every 6 months, and it costs a little over a euro, why not take it. It most certainly is not a reason to not swim in this glorious lake.

Quote of the day: "You only live once; but if you live it right, once is enough." --Adam Marshall

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Home Sickness

Being away from home for a prolonged period of time will lead to bouts of home sickness and today I had my first “episode” since moving to Mzuzu. I can’t explain it, it came over me all of a sudden this afternoon.  Last time I was away it was nearly a year before I felt really homesick. Why it has happened so soon after leaving home is beyond me. I have a few theories.

My first theory is that in the past two weeks I have missed two major family occasions: my youngest sisters graduation and my cousin’s thirtieth.
See there is a child missing!
(Although the photo is very symmetrical now)

 Two events that I won’t see again. For me, that is the worst thing about being so far from home. Missing those occasions that are important to you and your extended family.

My other theory is, the last time I was away I was in Australia which has all the comforts of home. I mean there is water and electricity everyday, cheese is readily available and there is a huge Irish community with Irish bars where you can go for your full Irish/pint of Guinness. Here, it’s a whole other world. Home comforts are few and far between and home seems ever further away than when I was in Sydney.

How does homesickness affect me? Well me being a misery guts I think about all the things I am missing, people, places, events. Even simple little things like going for a coffee with a friend and it turning into a 2 hour chat session are things I miss so much. Then after about 5/10 minutes of torturing myself like that, I get the lump in my throat where I know I am holding back a flood of tears. Now luckily today it didn’t get to that point today as a good friend, Kelly, arrived at my door just before they started. And as much of a drama queen as I may be, I won’t let myself depress others!

Dealing with homesickness is a whole other story. I have a few tried and tested methods
  1.   Chocolate, wine, pjs and some crap TV/chick flick
  2.  A mug of Lyons tea with some Cadbury’s chocolate
  3.  Melted cheese on toast and a good book curled up in bed
  4.  Listening to some familiar music. I love Don Stiffe’s Missing Galway
  5.  A good cry. 
  6. All of the above are good but nothing quite as cathartic as a good, gut wrenching cry.

Some people would suggest talking to home but I find that that can actually make me feel worse. It can make me feel like I am out of the loop with what is going on in people’s lives (generally because I am).
So what am I doing tonight? Well I blew off Jillian (Jillian Michael’s workout) and am currently listening to Don Stiffe on repeat, in my pajamas and about to pour myself a glass of wine. Note to self, download some Declan O Rourke and Gemma Hayes for some more Irish music. Unfortunately I have no chocolate in the house, my block of emergency cheese is in the freezer and I have some work that I had planned on getting done tonight. C’est la vie

Quote of the day: Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin.
(for the non Irish speakers, that means "There's no fireplace like your own fireplace." i.e there's no place like home)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Screening Day 2

The eye is the jewel of the body.
Send quote to a friend

Excited about having their eyes tested

Another 6:30 am start. However, I arrive to the office to find Sara there and not another soul. Apparently the students took it on themselves to tell the bus driver not to show up until 7:30. Considering we were supposed to be in Enekewni at 7:30 to start at 8, you can imagine we were p!ssed. Especially when I could have had another hour in bed!
Symon helping measure V.A

Today was very different to yesterday. Today we were screening at a primary school. Our aim was to see kids and get their vision corrected as young as possible so that they could progress through school and have as good as education as possible. The education system here is slightly different to at home, the kids need to pass each class (called standards) to progress to the next level. This results in some children having to repeat classes multiple times. As you can imagine, bad eyesight would be a HUGE disadvantage in this case. Also the classes I have seen have anything from 60-120 children. Yup, you are reading that correctly. The teachers here are saints. Teaching that many children, with many sitting on the floor as there are nowhere near enough tables and chairs, dealing with children with mental problems etc etc.
Why is the mzungu taking my photo?

So we began with the youngest classes and screened ALL of the standard ones and twos (approx 200 students under 7). Then after lunch we screened the teachers and specially selected students who the teachers suspected had vision problems. Dealing with the kids was very different to adults. Luckily a lot of them had no major problems, we picked up some children who needed glasses to see the board and also some interesting pathology but mostly it was fun to see the school kids react to the mzungus- asking for pens or money or coca cola. The funniest though is when you take a picture and then show them the picture on your camera, it’s the funniest thing in the world to them.
Tired and sweaty after another long day

Ryan and Elaine hard at work seeing who needs cyclo 

A first year helping measure V.A for the first time

Waiting to be seen
Our office for the day

Everyone wants glasses

Again a HUGELY enjoyable and tiring day but it’s nice to be going out and meeting people and seeing that what we are doing is making a difference. It just reinforces my thinking that this was ultimately the right decision for me. Talking to one of the Canadians who was over for the week to help with the screening and he said “It must be an amazing experience to feel like you are making a difference” and these past few days, I have really felt like we are. 

Quote for the day: "Life is a game, play it; Life is a challenge, Meet it; Life is an opportunity, Capture it.~ Unknown "

Monday, 8 October 2012

Screening day 1

Checking the ocular health

Today marked the start of World Sight Week. Thursday the 11th is World Sight Day when eye care professionals all over the world will be taking part in awareness and fundraising activities. As part of Vision 2020 initiative we decided to host a week of screening days in areas in and around Mzuzu.

Queuing for the first room
Checking VA and preliminary tests

Today we left for Chikangawa, a village about 1 hour south of Mzuzu. Here Francois, Rowan and James had done trojan work over the past few weeks recruiting people with genuine eye concerns so  that we could see the people who really needed it. Our screening rooms were set up in 3 classrooms at Chikangawa primary school. Here the teachers had selected the students they felt that would benefit most from the screening. 

In total we saw approx 300 people, 30 of these were referred to the hospital for cataract removal, low vision services or suspected glaucoma among other conditions.Approx 200 pairs of glasses were distributed for free and it further cemented how happy and grateful people here are. Teachers can now see to correct papers, students can see the board and people who thought they were just going blind are being given a ray of hope by being told that cataract surgery can restore their sight.

Who will benefit from glasses?

Seeing who needs to go to the refracton station
3/4 of team awesome with a very grateful principal and school coordinator
It was a tiring, 12 hour day that involved coordinating 23 students and 7 adults and my very first matola but as my first ever vision screening it is a day I won’t forget in a hurry. Next up, Enukweni and a primary school with 1,200 pupils!

"The eyes have one language everywhere." - George Herbert

Thursday, 4 October 2012

New post coming soon

I have been neglecting this blog I know! There will be some new posts coming soon, hopefully at least one this weekend. In the mean time I want to share one of my favourite poems with you.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
Robert Frost

I studied this poem initially in first year in secondary school as a 12 year old. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate it fully. Take from it what you wish, whether you take the road in life or quite literally the road to travel but it is one of the few poems I can quote or recite fully.

Friday, 14 September 2012


In a very lazy blog post, Sara, who arrived at the same time as me and is my partner in crime, has been uploading videos to you tube. Check them out HERE to get an idea of what Malawi and Mzuzu look like!


Learning bao on the beach from Happiness
So far, I have learnt Bao from a guy called Happiness, drank beer with a guy called Sunshine. We’ve had a serious discussion about the fact that there are two guys called Cheese on Toast (I sh!t you not) in Malawi (one based in Lilongwe and one based in Cape McClear in case you were wondering) and we’ve also moaned the fact that there is a guy named Jacket Potato who lives in Mzuzu that I have yet to meet. Fear not, Jacket Potato is currently visiting his parents. 

Now to explain the names, most of these guys are rastas/ artists in town or on the lake and so they pick their Rasta name. As far as we can see their real names are Jimmy!

Life in Africa

Well, it’s a little different from Ireland. Having previously lived in Australia, I can categorically say that this is a whole other ball game. In Oz, home comforts were available, cheese could be bought and power outages were not a frequent occurance. It’s taking some adaptation, ok a LOT, of adaptation, I shower with a bucket for Christ’s sake!
However the biggest issue I have is the concept of “Africa time”.
In the developed world time is a linear thing. A project has to be completed by a certain date, a number of things need to be done before the project can be completed and so these things get done side by side to ensure things finish on time. However here, time is circular, one aspect is not started until the previous is finished. And if the project doesn’t get finished on time, pepani! It’s extremely frustrating when you want to get something done. For instance, I arrived on a holiday visa and was to apply for a temporary employment permit when I arrived that the university would organise as I was their employee. However it took nearly a month to get the forms that we had to fill in, (a holiday visa is for 30 days), which necessitated a run to immigration to extend my holiday visa. The simplest things involve at least four visits to someone’s office. It is something I don’t think I will ever get used to, “You are sitting there, why can you not stamp this form for me?”, “Well you see the official stamper is out of his office, no we don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Never leave home without it!
Home comforts. Now, I haven’t been away for long enough to really start missing anything but I can picture myself in a few months having some moments of home sickness moments! Now like any good Irish person, I brought a freezer bag full of Lyon’s tea with me which I am carefully rationing for evenings when nothing but a good mug of tea will do, however simple things are what I know I will miss. Cheese on crackers, good chocolate, salt and vinegar crisps, meanies, home made soda bread, Mammy Lawless’ rhubarb tarts, buying a new top from Penney’s. These are things that give me a little pep in my step and the things I will miss (apart from people obviously, I’m not completely heartless).

Running water. As I write the water has been off for over 24 hours. Having spent the weekend at the lake, all I wanted to do when I got home was have a warm shower. No such luck. I did however have my shower bucket full and managed to have a cold shower this morning before work. Never did I think that I would obsess about water so much but I currently have my ear strained to hear the cistern of the toilet filling up so I can do my dishes!

Being able to buy simple things: hair ties, make up, a magazine. These things are readily available in  Lilongwe but very rarely make the journey north!

But it’s not all bad. Seeing the veg that are available makes me more aware of eating only in season. The veg is delicious. I’ve never seen avocadoes as big or eaten tomatoes that taste as “tomato-ey”. Papayas here are the size of your head. My veg tends to go off quite quickly which I suppose is a testament to the lack of chemicals used.
I have a great circle of friends here. I can go to the Zoo on my own and be guaranteed that there will be someone I have met once or twice there to chat to. While the environment here is very different to home, I think it causes stronger bonds. When you bitch and moan about the fact that there has been no water for over 24 hours and how all you want is to wash your hair, or when you’re dancing like mad as the only white people in the nightclub, it’s a unique experience that you are sharing.
You really start to evaluate your life back home. People here are so friendly and thankful for everything despite them being a resident of one of the poorest countries in the world.They don't call Malawi "The Warm Heart of Africa" for nothing. It makes me question what I need to be happy. As the saying goes “If you have a roof over your head, food in the fridge, and money in the bank you are among the richest 95% of the world”. What more could we want, if we are surrounded by people who we love and who love us in return, why do we feel the constant need for stuff. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to throw out all my personal belongings (sorry Deirdre, I’m not giving up my wardrobe that easily), but it does make me wonder.
Now this post has got a little soppy but fear not people, I will not return a hippy. They say travel changes you, who knows what changes I’ll see in myself at the end of this year. 

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Lecturing in Mzuni

So lecturing eh? Well despite me having no experience in lecturing, I can pretty much guarantee that there is teaching blood running through my veins. At last count, there are eight of my extended family involved in teaching in one form or another. Was I ever tempted into teaching? As my mother said “You don’t have the patience for it”. Hence lecturing, the students, for the most part, want to learn.

So, what is lecturing in Africa like? Well, the students want to learn. They are very proud of the fact that they are studying optometry and that they are going to be some of the first optometrists in Malawi. As a result, attendance for classes is 100% pretty much all the time. Classes start at 7:45 and continue until 4:45 with an hour for lunch from 11:45. However when we are in the hospital for clinics, it’s very unusual to finish before 5:30!

I currently lecture Physiological Optics to the 2nd years, I share Practical Ophthalmic Workshop with Elaine for the 2nd years also and spend 28 hours supervising hospital clinics for both second and third years. However tomorrow week this will change. The third years are currently sitting their final exams and in an attempt to normalise the academic calendar, they will be starting fourth year on the 10th of Sept. When this happens, I will still be lecturing the 2nd years but I will be teaching Geriatric Optometry, sharing Clinical Case Analysis with Sara, sharing Occupational and Environmental Optometry with Elaine and sharing Practise Management with Sanchia. Now all I need to do is relearn all that I learnt in college!

Then comes the fun of setting exams and grading them. In secondary school, it seems like the students were given everything to learn off, like a lot of schools and as a result they have trouble applying their theory in clinical situations. Also during exams they give a basic answer and don’t elaborate on it. If you don’t spell out EXACTLY what you want in an answer, it is likely that they will give you the correct information but not how to apply it clinically, or what use the test has. Needless to say it can be frustrating.

All in all, I am really enjoying lecturing. Those of you who know me personally knew I was bored in commercial optometry. While I think optometry is a fantastic job, in Ireland it is just not challenging. I felt like I hadn’t used my brain since shortly after I started work but now, I am constantly having to think on my feet, I am constantly learning and I am enjoying it. I’m not saying I will never go back to commercial optometry but the system in Ireland needs to change to give optoms a wider scope of practise that is more in touch with what we learn in college. Until that point, a lot of younger optoms will feel unchallenged and a bit disillusioned by their job which, a lot of the time, just involves “one or two”. 

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.