It's one thing to study a culture, it's another to go and embrace what it is. With great faith, MD Deysher left her home to live in Malawi, Africa to help children and those seeking medical attention. She has never been trained in the medical field but went to support and offer friendship to those in need. These are her shoes. -P2E Crew
For the past 10 years, after retiring from the Air Force, our family has made our home in Colorado. About a year ago my husband was asked to head up a medical mission hospital with CURE International in Malawi, Africa. The hospital specializes in caring for children and their families and treating various orthopedic disabilities from club foot and bow leg to burn contractures and improperly healed fractures. Teams of doctors and nurses treat children physically through casting, surgery, and application of external fixators.
Taking the step of faith to move to Malawi with CURE was hard; we felt like we were standing at the top of the high dive and we were either going to jump or turn around and climb back down the ladder. We decided to jump and with the full support from our young-adult children, extended family and friends, we left our home and our way of life to embark on this adventure where everything was about to become very unfamiliar. These are some of my thoughts and experiences from my first 6 months in Malawi.
With my inexperience and lack of skill in all things medical, I am humbled that I can still lighten the burden of the medical providers by taking blood pressures, doing malaria tests, fitting reading glasses, and holding children. It is a privilege to hold the hands of the elderly whose lives hold stories I only wish I could hear and understand. With the language barrier we sit in silence, but their hands speak so much of their stories, their experiences, their joy, pain and ultimately their strength.
They are mostly women, some in their 70s, so tiny and frail, yet walking around with dangerously high blood pressure due to inadequate hydration and unbalanced diet, stress, and exertion in their lives. Many have lost children or husbands to AIDS or other diseases, and they have had to work incredibly hard to survive, yet with a simple beauty and contentment they wait all day to receive a touch, a word, and some care from these medical workers.
I reflect on so many things as the machine tightens the cuff around their arm, measures, and gives a reading. And I just look at their hands, their clothing, their eyes and face and hair and admire the resiliency and virtue they radiate. Language, age, race, and background separates us, but when I look into their eyes I see the humanity we all possess.
In the states, I was a middle school math teacher, so education is a part of me. I have been meeting with a young man, Stephen, who wants to improve his English skills so that he can get a better job to provide for his family. We usually meet at the cafe at CURE, but one day we decided to drive out to his village where I visited his home and met his wife and son.
He shared with me that for Malawian youth who cannot afford a private school education, the odds are stacked heavily against them to stay motivated and gain an adequate foundation to pass the exams required for a diploma. Even for those who are able to progress through the end of high school and subsequent training, the approach to learning, though well intentioned, is based on rote memorization and lacks critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Young children in the villages who spend most of their time on their mothers’ backs lack the basic nutrition for healthy brain development, let alone the opportunity to grow up with the benefit of blocks and puzzles and books. Kids who are only able to attend school for 3 hours a day because of a lack of teachers, space, and books, require the school day to operate in 2 shifts. I hear of classrooms in which there is one desk for 3 students — so there might be a 16-year-old kid in a chair at a desk while another one is sitting on top of the desk and another on the floor beside.
I visited with a young man who helps out at the village clinics and is also studying to be an electrical engineer. He tells others that he had to decide how badly he wanted to gain an education and make that his focus and goal. I was inspired by his determination and perseverance, but see the expanse in how much can be improved for these students. They are eager to learn and see it as a privilege. I wonder how different students in America would be if given the opportunity to spend a semester as a Malawi student?
While living in Colorado, I enjoyed going out in the beauty and running. With the transition, I hadn’t run in awhile, but have started getting out the door to run again. There has been a hurdle of self-consciousness standing in the way because it’s a little tough to blend in here. I have had to get past the fact that most eyes turn toward that white woman running by and simply embrace the glances and return them with a smile and a greeting, which invariably results in a warm response.
When I stepped outside our gate the other morning, I was met by a Malawian man who was running to work in his work clothes. We kept in step (with me skipping any sort of warm-up and instead attempting a bit of conversation while keeping up with his pace) until my turn-off at CURE (about ¼-mile).
As usual, I passed by dozens of people walking during the rest of my run and greeted most of them. But there is a layer of conflict that churns inside of me every time I get out to run. I notice people looking at my Brooks shoes, dirty but still pretty nice, and I perceive their judgment that going for a run is a curiosity and a luxury.
Most Malawians are, or at least appear, quite fit. Their diets are simple and limited and largely from the ground. And since their primary mode of transport is their feet, they put in many miles during the course of a day or a week. For many, making planned exercise part of their routine is a foreign concept, it’s just part of the survival equation. So I press on and make the most of the opportunity to just be who I am in this place.
There are incredible challenges for the people who live here. In the midst of these, I see hearts that are warm, humble, and grateful. They are also tough and resilient in the face of such hardship in their lives. I am honored to have the privilege of not just seeing another culture, but living and breathing it. The people here aren’t just acquaintances, they have become my friends and neighbors. Experience really is the greatest teacher.
MD Deysher- Courageous, Willing, Friend