Last Monday, I flew to Lilongwe, Malawi with Jon. OR Tambo, one of the airports in Johannesburg, is modern and comfortable. There are about a million counters for SAA and we had a pretty easy check-in process after taking the commuter train, Gautrain (pronounced ‘Ha-train’), to the airport. We got on our flight, enjoyed a meal – a meal?! you never get a meal on a flight that short in the U.S. – and settled in. The airport in Lilongwe, Kamuzu, is named after Malawi’s first president. It is not as modern as the airport in Joburg and the process was quite interesting upon our arrival. We got on a shuttle – I remember doing that a long time ago, before Israel renovated their airport – and rode what felt like 10 meters to the terminal. We waited in line to buy our visas, then to have someone verify our visas, then to have someone stamp our visas and then to have
someone stamp our passports. Meanwhile, anytime someone ‘from the airport’ would come cut in with another visitor’s documentation, we’d wait. We got through, collected our luggage, someone searched through our luggage, and we were off. Someone from Baylor came to pick us up and took us to Jon’s office, which happened to have an A/C unit but until then, I pretty much hadn’t stopped sweating since we landed.
We headed off to the Kumbali Country Lodge, which is a lovely place on the outskirts
of town. It is one main lodge with some rooms, a few houses, a convention center, a pool, a cultural center, and so on. It’s lush and green with cute adopted dogs that run around and friendly staff. One great thing about the lodge? It’s close to the President’s compound and always has power and water. One thing that is not a guarantee in Malawi due to the power companies needing to do load shedding. There was wifi at the lodge and since Jon had to work during the day, I spent my time reading, catching up on news and watching some shows that I had backed up. Delightful. I started to not feel well and thought I’d caught a stomach bug; I’m not sure if it’s that or a result of my Malarone, which is the anti-Malaria medication I needed to start two days before we arrived. It is taken every day when you’re there and then for seven days afterwards. That, coupled with sleeping under a mosquito net, keeps you pretty well-protected from the undesirable infection.
I also spent the day with a colleague of Jon’s at the Baylor College of Medicine-Abbott Fund Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence (COE). It’s a pediatric HIV clinic that works tirelessly to help kids and their families. I observed how the triage team checks patients in – they weigh them, take other vitals and count their medication, to see how diligent they’ve been with their treatment. Based on their assessment of the patient, the give their chart to someone in the nursing team or, in more emergent cases, to one of the physicians. I’ve shadowed other health care providers before but I’ve never seen anything like this. To meet a six-month old baby with HIV was one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve witnessed. I know it can be hard as a parent to raise a baby but to have that baby be sick from so young and to most-likely be sick, yourself?! Gut-wrenching. As it was described to me, that’s just what life is for a lot of people in that part of the world – they don’t know any different. I was so inspired by the providers at the clinic and by the patients, themselves. The parents work so hard – most (if not all) of them being so incredibly poor – and yet they were still smiling, still positive, still moving through life. We needed to follow a patient to Kamuzu Central Hospital, right next to the clinic, and it was even harder over there. Women sitting on the floor next to their babies who are sharing hospital beds with other sick babies, people lined up in the hallways, women washing their clothes outside because they were there for so long, etc. It really put things into perspective for me. I was truly humbled by the whole day and am appreciative of Baylor for the work they do and for letting me observe.
We also get to see some friends (and make some new ones) while I was there. One of our good friends from Durham, Ben, lives there and we had dinner, talked about the election and other U.S. topics and met some great people from all over the world. (He also took us to his favorite Chinese restaurant which was fun. I don’t think we’d seen a Chinese restaurant in South Africa yet.) We also hung out with some of Jon’s colleagues and saw what their lives are like. It was great to see a glimpse of ex-pat life – lots of good conversation, food and fun. I can see why Jon liked living there so much.
The last part of our trip was going to Lake Malawi, to a town called Salima about two hours away from Lilongwe. This lake is massive, bordering Mozambique and Tanzania, too, and is the ninth largest lake in the world. Kumbali has a sister lodge there and we arrived pretty late in the evening after a harrowing drive that consisted of trying not to hit any of the dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians that mill all over the roads, the countless animals meandering and the swarm of flying ants that encased our car in a particularly epic onslaught. Jon switching on the windshield wipers instead of the turn
signal was one of his greatest mistakes, he admitted, as it caused said ants to smear all over our windshield, thus making it even harder to see and making this journey that much more challenging. If it wasn’t so terrifying, it would’ve been funny. We arrived at the cliff-side lodge to a warm welcome and a gentle push to eat our dinner because we’d been keeping the staff up with our tardiness. We ate a lovely meal and went to our cabin, which was basically the size of the bed. The toilet and shower were outside of our room, with the toilet being an eco-toilet. (You basically sit on what feels like a regular toilet and instead of flushing, you throw wood chips down it. A ‘self-decomposer,’ as Jon described it.) We were tired and wanted to go right to sleep. But, because of load-shedding, the power was off. And, as we quickly discovered, it was an unbelievable, previously-unexperienced kind of hot in that place. I spent the next four hours having some of the most unpleasant, ungodly thoughts and couldn’t breathe. It was terrible. And I felt like a woos (I’ve never known how to spell that) but I couldn’t help it. Finally, the power came on, the fan started and I could eventually fall asleep. Phew. The next day, we awoke to the beautiful lake, a big group of people fishing and a lovely breakfast. We had a great day of playing games, reading and a
boat ride. We asked the manager to turn on the generator that night or we’d likely have to go home. They turned it on and it worked until 12:30 am, when it inexplicably shut off. And the power didn’t come back on until 2:30 am. Oof. We headed out after breakfast, saw a bit more of Lilongwe, ate at Mamma Mia (an Italian restaurant), naturally, and checked back in to the Kumbali lodge.
It was quite a trip! I met a lot of nice people, saw some amazing and amazingly sad things, learning a lot about the country and the people there. It’s certainly clear why it’s affectionately called ‘The Warm Heart of Africa.’
– By Naama