June 30, 2005
The Field Trip
One of the most memorable things that I have experienced here in Malawi was the “field trip” that we took with the people from the Handicapped Club of Ndirande.
All year the women in the club have been knitting tiny sweaters for newborn babies. Weike gives them a skein of pastel yellow, blue, pink, green or peach yarn each week to take home. The following week, they bring back a sweater or two. Each one is a work of art, with a unique pattern and tiny buttons. Weike gives the knitters 40 kwacha for each sweater. As the year progressed and the women had more and more trouble finding money to feed their families, we noticed that the amount of sweaters that were knitted each week increased. Weike takes the sweaters home and washes them.
The men in the group use a specially designed sewing machine with hand controls (they cannot use their feet), to sew small bags with drawstrings. They also are paid a small amount for each one. Brooke and I filled about 80 of them with small packages of cookies, some hard candy and “I love Jesus” bracelets. We took these and dozens of the tiny sweaters, packed in boxes and bags, on our field trip.
Mrs. Maxwell (the Malawian woman who coordinates the program for the handicapped) rented a minibus (van) for about $10 for the afternoon. About 30 disabled men, women and children jammed themselves into it. Another couple of dozen people got into three cars. We drove about five miles to Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH). There we got out. Some of the group went inside. When I asked Andrew (one of the young men who came with us) if he was coming inside with us, he said, “No I will wait here.” He and a group of others just sat on the sidewalk and waited. They were happy just to be a part of the outing. They enjoyed the minibus ride and being part of the excitement.
Some of the people (and all of the men, because they are not allowed on the maternity wards) waited in the dimly lit hospital lobby. The rest of us walked about half a mile to the maternity wing. QEH is huge. It sprawls out over a spacious campus and wards are connected with covered walkways. A matron (nurse) guided us around. As we walked, I noted the dingy walls and general disrepair of the facility. Grace told me, “This hospital used to be a showplace. The windows sparkled and everyone got quality medical care here.” But the Muluzi government (the previous administration) channeled most of the funding away and there are frequent shortages of medicine and critical supplies. Not long ago the doctors refused to operate because there were no surgical gloves for them to wear. In a country with a huge HIV/AIDS problem, gloves are essential.
Eventually, we reached our destination, the Maternity and Postnatal wards. We walked into the wards. Each one had at least 8 or 10 beds with additional space for patients on plastic covered foam mattresses placed on the floor in between the beds. The ladies from the Handicapped Club walked through the wards and handed out the colorful sweaters to the new mothers. I wish you could have seen all the smiles on the faces of both the receivers and the givers!
One woman I handed a sweater to took it but put her hand out again and said, “twins.” I gave her another sweater. I wish you could see those wards. Some of the women were laying with their infants on the mattresses, which had no sheets, just blankets. Others were sitting up chatting with other women. Some looked happy, most looked tired (when you have no painkillers, it is labor!) and others looked ill. Many women who deliver babies in Malawi are HIV positive.
The women from Ndirande walked though ward after ward giving out sweaters. I have never seen so many new mothers and babies, even in huge hospitals in the USA. Of course, in a country with one of the highest birth rates in the world, I guess this was to be expected. We even went into the “special care” wards, but still we had left over sweaters. These will be delivered to Ndirande Hospital for newborns there.
After delivering the sweaters, a small group of us walked (about half a kilometer) to the Children’s Wards. As we walked through the corridor of one of the adult medical wards, we heard mournful singing, and the walls were lined with women, who were obviously from a church. We quietly filed by a woman who sat wailing on the floor. After we passed, I asked Grace, “Who died?” She said, “Her husband.”
As we entered the first Children’s Ward, I said to Brooke, “I don’t know if I want you to go in here.” There was a huge “Isolation” sign up, and I did not want her to catch anything, but there was no one in the isolation room, and she was determined to give out the bags of treats to the sick children, so we went in. On each bed was a tiny body, wrapped in blankets. Mothers and sometimes fathers or grandparents, sat beside the beds watching sick toddlers sleep, or quietly talking to older children.
Nurses were preparing to give an injection to one patient, but despite the seriousness of the illnesses, there were no IVs hooked up, and we only saw one child, who was obviously in respiratory distress, hooked up to oxygen. We walked through several wards giving out bags to the patients or guardians.
The hardest ward for me was the last ward we visited. It was called the Nutrition Recovery Ward. It was obvious that here the children were recovering from severe malnutrition. I have never seen such emaciated children. They had limbs that were nothing but skin and bones. Their eyes looked huge in their sunken faces. It broke my heart.
By this time we were almost out of bags, but sitting on the steps outside the ward were several mothers holding sick children in their arms. They were trying to get some fresh air and sunshine. Brooke gave the last bag to a mother holding a listless infant. As we walked away, she asked, “Why were those baby’s lips blue?” I said, “Did you notice the yellowish color of her face? That baby is very, very sick. Her liver is probably not working well. You and your sister were both a bit jaundiced as newborns, but the doctors treated you, and you were fine. I am not sure what they can do for a serious case like this here in Malawi.”
Brooke asked, “Will she live?” I looked straight in my teenaged daughter’s eyes, and said, “I don’t know for sure, but she looks gravely ill to me, and probably will not make it.” We walked out of the hospital in silence.
Outside, the rest of the group was waiting. They were in a festive mood. These people, who are discriminated against because of their disabilities, who struggle each day to find food and eek out a living in a ghetto of indescribable poverty, were jubilant because they had been given an opportunity to help others. They liked the idea of giving to others. It made them incredibly happy.
We were one vehicle short going back to Ndirande, so after the minibus and other cars were loaded with passengers, I piled about six people in the cab of my truck. Grace, an adorable girl with cerebral palsy, sat on Brooke’s lap and smiled all the way home. Twelve people joyfully jammed themselves and their children into the back of my truck. They laughed and sang the entire time we traveled the deeply rutted dirt roads home.