Return to Malawi by Martin Laird

Martin Laird is a dental student at the University of Glasgow. He undertook his elective project in Malawi between the fourth and fifth years of the BDS course. This is his reflection on part of that elective experience.

In the past, I had been to Malawi with my high school in 2014 and 2015. My time there was spent with local primary schools, orphans and prisons across southern Malawi. However, there were three people who I met on those occasions that have had such a profound impact on me that I made it my solemn duty to meet them again. As fortune would have it, I had the chance to return to Malawi for my elective after four years of waiting!

The first of these remarkable people I’d like to talk about is a lady called Deborah Nglande. She is a principal teacher at Mendulo School in Mulanje district.

Rosie and myself with Deborah 

Not only is Deborah extremely dedicated to the children she teaches, but she also runs an orphanage and a hundreds strong programme for disabled children out of her own home to provide a safe place for these estranged children and their parents. These families are often ostracised from their villages purely because of their child’s disability. It is through this project that I met the next person in my story. So without Deborah really none of the rest of this is possible – a special thanks to her.

The second person I would like to talk about is Regina Baulen.

I was paired with Regina five years ago as a sponsor. Take from this what you will, but the stars seemed to align somewhat with myself and Regina meeting each other, from our random allocation amongst the hundreds of children as part of the disabled project. Little did we know that we were both exactly the same age (despite our very obvious physical differences) and we both have scoliosis – a relatively common spinal deformity. Mine is very mild and I have more or less overcome it, but Regina’s is far more severe and she has suffered various repercussions from not receiving treatment. I was fortunate enough to be able to fund a degree of treatment and buy a pushbike for her that allows her to travel to school independently. Despite her mental acuity being normal, her disability has meant she has only reached Form 5 of primary school.

Thanks to Deborah, I was able to meet Regina again at Chindola Primary School where we were initially greeted by the head teacher and brought into his office. What was remarkable about this place was that there was a large tarpaulin sign of partnership between Chindola and Our Lady and St. Joseph’s Primary School in Glenboig which is not even 5-10 minutes drive from my home back in Scotland. To see this in one of the most remote places I had ever been in my life was not only immensely comforting but incredible too – saying that we live in a small world doesn’t do it justice.

It was at this moment that I turned to face the open doorway to see Regina herself. I could tell that despite my much more hirsute visage she recognised me straight away and we embraced each other warmly. That moment for me made all the travelling, stress and doubt disappear, and in that instant I knew my decision to come back to Malawi was the right one.

Myself, Regina, her class teacher on the right and Principal on the left – with the wonderful symbol of Scottish and Malawian cooperation in the backdrop

We then took Regina in the car to her village. I recognised her house straight away and we were greeted by her father and shortly after by her mother. Through Deborah, I spoke to her family about how grateful I was to see them again and then asked them what sort of things they needed. Unfortunately, their house had been damaged by flooding; their roof was very unstable with the metal sheeting that made it up being tethered down with bricks. I told them that I would help fix this as well as providing anything else they needed.

Holding talks with Regina and her family while some of the villagers look on. Note the bricks holding the roof down, and the damp, weak points in the wall

I then proceeded to give over some clothes and a new schoolbag I had bought for Regina. She also required new shoes but her current ones had no size on them – I had to take pictures of them next to my own size 11 shoes so I had a size comparison. Looking back on that photo it really hit me how vulnerable she is, and how impossible it seems that we are the same age and yet how different our lives are.

A very poignant reminder to never take your circumstances for granted

My sincere thanks to Professor Bagg for recording some of this interaction with Regina – I had no idea that he was filming so it was wonderful to see this meeting in such a pure and genuine way (View). Afterwards, we took Regina back to her school. I will be the first to admit I did get upset in the back of the car as we drove away after dropping her off, but I hope it won’t be long till we meet again.

The final person I was reunited with is nothing short of a modern day saint – Sister Anna Tomasi. Anna is a retired Catholic nun who has lived in Malawi for (I believe) around 20 years.

A true person to aspire to be like – Sister Anna

She started the C.C.C trust in Blantyre, an organisation which provides teaching and employment to former inmates of the numerous prisons in southern Malawi. Many of these inmates have been unjustly imprisoned and, from seeing the prisons for myself, they live in the most squalid and inhumane conditions. However, thanks to the work of this astounding woman, the prisons have slowly improved, and multitudes of inmates have been granted their freedom, an education and ultimately a job as a result of her tireless efforts. I was so happy to see her again after such a long time, and for the second time that day I received a hug I’ll never forget – one with the strength that belied her scarcely 5ft tall Italian frame! I could tell she was genuinely happy to see me which made me so relieved that she still remembered me after all these years. She sat and told us about the work she’d been doing, and from listening to her, she seems to be doing more than ever. If anything, she looked younger now despite being around eighty years old and working twelve hour days. I was delighted to hear that her work had finally begun to gain recognition in Europe, with the Catholic Church and Italian government awarding her €250,000 towards her efforts, which she has implemented to great effect – allowing the CCC trust to grow arms and legs and take some of the pressure off her, not that she’ll ever utilise any free time to rest!

To think that this was just one day in my elective is absolutely mind-blowing. To a degree, I’m still processing that one day and will do so for some time. The remainder of the elective project, spent at the College of Medicine in Blantyre with Rosie (my classmate), working at Kamuzu Central Hospital, Lilongwe and conducting data collection with Smileawi amongst so many other things, was tremendous. But for me, being able to say I got to see these three special women again allows me to be content that my elective experience will live with me forever. I was honoured to experience it with Jeremy and Rosie, and I hope they have an equally powerful memory of that special day too.

Until we meet again

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