Coffee and mince pies fuel new links for the MalDent Project

On Tuesday 17th December I took a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh to attend the Scottish Government International Development festive networking coffee morning at St. Andrew’s House. After  a brief introduction from Joanna Keating, who was accompanied by her whole team, those of us from our various projects were able to roam at will and meet our fellow grant-holders. Joanna’s team was able to make any links requested, to facilitate new collaborations. It was a great event and the room was soon converted into a hubbub of coffee and mince-pie fuelled discussions.

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Following my attendance at the most recent Malawi Cross Party Parliamentary Group (CPPG) meeting at Holyrood on 20th November, I was very keen to have a discussion with colleagues from Mary’s Meals and Water Aid. I was in luck! Elizabeth McKernan from Water Aid and Gillian McMahon from Mary’s Meals were both attending the event.

Water Aid seeks to provide ‘clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene‘, three things which should be normal for everyone across the globe. In just about every human activity, water is essential and this certainly applies to the objectives of the MalDent Project. Delivering the most basic dental treatment requires a clean, safe water supply and there are especially interesting issues around the level of natural fluoride in Malawi’s groundwaters. Fluoride at a level of 1 part per million can reduce the incidence and severity of dental caries, bringing considerable oral health benefits. The underlying geology of the rift valley has resulted in some areas of Malawi having virtually no fluoride in the water, whilst other areas have potentially toxic levels which result in dental fluorosis and other systemic pathologies. This is, therefore, an area of research interest in the context of dental public health.

Following the CPPG meeting at Holyrood, I had travelled back to Glasgow on the train with Elizabeth and two of her colleagues from Water Aid Malawi, Natasha Mwenda and Yankho Mataya. Natasha had delivered a great presentation at the meeting and both Elizabeth and Yankho had participated in the subsequent discussions with delegates.

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Natasha Mwenda delivers her presentation at the Cross Party Parliamentary Group meeting

On the train, we discussed the possible interfaces between the work of Water Aid and the MalDent Project, of which there were several. I mentioned that in February 2020 we were organising a workshop in Lilongwe to launch our work with the Ministry of Health on development of a national oral health policy for Malawi. Yankho was very keen that Water Aid be involved and I have now e-mailed both Yankho and Natasha to invite them to attend on 13th and 14th February.

The oral health policy will contain a significant emphasis on prevention of oral disease, particularly in children. We know from research evidence gathered in Scotland that supervised toothbrushing with fluoride-containing toothpaste in schools is a very effective intervention. Work over the next couple of years, involving a PhD student based in Blantyre (see a future post), will focus on developing a version of this approach which would be applicable in Malawi. Mary’s Meals has been working for many years in Malawi’s schools and earlier in the year I had met with Daniel Adams, the Executive Director of Mary’s Meals, for an informal discussion about this aspect of the Maldent Project. We enjoyed a very valuable hour sharing ideas and agreed to keep in touch as the MalDent Project progresses.

It was good to hear and see more of the work of Mary’s Meals when Gillian McMahon delivered her excellent presentation at the Cross Party Parliamentary Group meeting at Holyrood.

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Gillian McMahon presenting at the Cross Party Parliamentary Group meeting

It was also very exciting to hear that Water Aid and Mary’s Meals have started some collaborative work. I was, therefore, delighted that both Elizabeth and Gillian were attending the recent coffee morning. We were able to commandeer some chairs in a corner of the room for a valuable chat, which identified some very tangible possibilities for joint working into the future. It was a particular pleasure when the Minister, Mr Ben Macpherson MSP, joined our discussion for a while and we were able to summarise some of our initial ideas.

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Mr Ben Macpherson MSP joining the discussion with Elizabeth and Gillian over possible collaborations between Water Aid, Mary’s Meals and the MalDent Project

There were also representatives from Police Scotland and I enjoyed a long and interesting conversation with John Wyllie, Head of its International Development and Innovation Unit. We have a number of joint interests, including use of mobile phone technology for public messaging, and have agreed to meet early in the New Year to continue our discussions.

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Busy networking underway!

This was a very useful event for the MalDent Project and from the lively conversations that were taking place around the room, I’m sure the same will have been true for many others. Many thanks to Scottish Government International Development for setting up the morning and to the Scotland Malawi Partnership for organising the Cross Party Parliamentary Group meetings. These information-sharing and networking events are invaluable for establishing partnerships that combine skill sets and result in effective, sustainable partnerships.

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