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.