Malawi Elective 2019 – a reflection by Katie Read-Challen

Katie Read-Challen is a dental student at the University of Glasgow. She undertook her elective project in Malawi after completing the fourth year of the BDS course. This is her reflection on that elective experience.

Spending 3 weeks in Malawi this June for my dental elective was such a fantastic experience, mostly thanks to the group of people we travelled with and those who we met along the way. Vicky and Nigel Milne knew so much about Malawi and had made many close connections from the time they had previously spent in the country. I was very inspired by all their efforts at making their charity more sustainable including the funding of local dental therapists through University, bamboo toothbrushes (donated by Humble) to reduce plastic waste and the Smileawi Spanners branch of the charity who helped local engineers fix hospital vehicles. It was great meeting Alan Stewart and Andy Lancaster, the two mechanics, as well as Heather Lancaster who did a great job at organising us dentists during the data collection. We had a good laugh the whole time and I would definitely recommend joining a Smileawi trip to anybody who is interested!

The Smileawi Team. Heather_ Nigel_ Katie_ Abi_ Paula_ Kirsty_ Vicky
The Smileawi team: Heather, Nigel, Katie, Abigail, Paula, Kirsty, Vicky

Starting this September, I will be studying an intercalated degree in Global Health which I am looking forward to even more since the Malawi trip. The oral health survey is an exciting project to be involved in and it was interesting and satisfying seeing it right through up to the input of the data on the laptops, despite the data input itself being tedious at times! Collecting the data at the selected primary schools was immensely fun as the children were so sweet, the teachers so welcoming  and the translators who helped us were brilliant at keeping the good mood going all day.

Abi putting data into the laptop - not a bad place for it!
Abi putting data into the laptop – not a bad place for it!

We set up in church halls or classrooms and used head torches, mirrors and cotton wool to carry out the dental examinations. The translators helped us to fill out the questionnaires and the children would then wait very patiently for their turn to see us and collect their toothbrush afterwards. We suspected that some older children told us that they were in the survey’s age range of 5-12 years in order to get a toothbrush, as there was a surprising amount of wisdom teeth seen for children that young! The fact that many children did not own a toothbrush was one of many poignant reminders of the poverty in Malawi and reinforced the need for a dental prevention programme there.

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We worked in pairs with one person examining the child and calling out the charting whilst another person scribed

The School for the Blind in Ekwendeni and School for the Deaf in Embangweni were really inspiring and turned out to be very fulfilling experiences, after my initial nervousness about how we would communicate effectively with the children there. We were able to teach our visual prevention lesson to the children at the blind school by describing the pictures and we were able to sing our toothbrushing song in the school for the deaf using dance moves – which the children loved! The following two photos show some of the the children at Embangweni School for the Deaf after receiving their bamboo toothbrushes donated by Humble:

At Ekwendeni School for the Blind we handed out Days for Girls reusable period kits and taught a small class of girls in one of the dorm rooms, some of whom had albinism, how to use them.

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The girls at Ekwendeni School for the Blind receiving their Days for Girls reusable period packs

Overall the experiences at these two schools were my favourite due to the challenges we were able to overcome in order to carry out our survey and brushing instruction as well as the admiration I had for the teachers and the pupils overcoming their own daily challenges, always with a smile.

There is so much more I could have written about Malawi – each day was packed full of experiences that would have easily filled an elective poster. Going forwards we hope to raise money to fund two feeding programmes at Dunduzu and Malivenji primary schools in the North in order to aid nutrition of the pupils as well as help the schools to increase the number of pupils that go. It would also be great to send mosquito nets to the residential schools (Ekwendeni School for the Blind and Embangweni School for the Deaf) as well as plastic teeth for the phantom heads at the School of Health Sciences which trains dental therapists. I have left extremely inspired by the work of Smileawi and the MalDent project and I look forward to seeing the results of the survey and the positive effects it could have on the oral health of Malawi.

The Smileawi team with staff at the School of Health Sciences and the phantom heads donated by the MalDent project
The Smileawi team with staff at the College of Health Sciences and the phantom heads donated by the Maldent Project

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