Myself, and two medical student colleagues, assisted with the Lake Malawi Medical Project as part of an overseas medical elective and, while learning a lot, had a truly memorable experience. On my first day I was met at the airport by the local coordinator of the project and guided back to the accommodation where the volunteers had waited for the new volunteers to arrive before having a shared dinner. As per day 1, I was superbly supported throughout my time with the project. I always felt safe and comfortable and this aided me in making the most of my limited time in the country. The accommodation itself had everything we needed - 3 meals a day provided, beds with mosquito nets, bathrooms with showers (cold showers but it's so hot in Malawi it doesn't matter), buckets and a clothesline, board games, wi-fi (requiring extra cost, I for the most part used internet from a locally purchased data sim as it was cheaper), and even an adorable cat and couple dogs.
My schedule each week was generally as follows:
- Monday & Tuesday: Hospital placement at the regional district hospital. This was separate to the project but coordinated by Naturally Africa in support of my learning as a medical student. These days involved departing at 6.40am to take a 2 bike taxis and a matolo (the local taxis which are surprisingly reliable for family cars that fit 10-15 people in each trip) to get to Mangochi in time for the morning meeting, attending one of the clinics while supervised by permanent staff who were either locally or internationally trained (these clinics including general surgery, HIV, diabetes, eye) and getting home by a similar route after lunch and running some errands. Of particular note was a kind and excellent clinician from Congo who had trained with the WHO and took us under his wing. Originally we had planned further involvement in ward-based activities but had concerns around the practises of preventing tuberculosis transmission in the hospital (patients with query tuberculosis/pneumonia were on the open wards in a hospital lacking X-rays at the time) and had decided to restrict our involvement to activities without this risk. A particular highlight was a morning spent at the lab being shown how they diagnose Malaria and tuberculosis.
- Wednesday: Wound care clinic in the morning followed by a medical education session with a community group of HIV sufferers. The clinics were great opportunities for hands-on medical care and plugged an important gap in the local health care system. Most commonly we provided care for simple wounds and tinea capitis but often treated large infected wounds and advised patients of the need for attending a hospital. The community group sessions involved us preparing medical content of interest to the attendees and relevance of the local population e.g. follow-up of malaria management and diabetes mellitus.
- Thursday: Wound care clinic in the morning followed by assisting with the charity's education project by providing medical education sessions to the kids (hand hygiene, how to feel pulses, what happens to food after we eat it) and taking part in games (football, roll over red rover etc.)
- Friday: Wound care clinic in the morning followed by an afternoon off to have a rest or perhaps start weekend excursions early.
On two occasions I also assisted at the local medical centre with antenatal care clinics.
Most days all the volunteers congregated together for breakfast, lunch and dinner that were provided. After dinner we would often play board games and plan weekend excursions. On occasion, we also received further education in the local language. We had early starts, leaving for wound clinics by 8am, and we all got into the routine of going to bed early.
During my time there were two volunteers spending a year with the project who took on the role of volunteer coordinators. They were super helpful, having the answer to any question relating to possible weekend excursions, technical aspects of the projects, Malawian culture etc. They, along with other Naturally Africa staff, facilitated our weekend excursions including booking suitable accommodation, coordinating transport, advising of the safe places to go to eat etc. The weekend recreation I was involved in included afternoons spent at the local resorts (lovely places of strangely polarising extravagance to the surrounding towns), visiting Cape Maclear (a coastal town with an opportunity for shopping, taking boats out on the lake and relaxing at resorts) and of course the safari at Liwonde (where we got up close with elephants, water buffalos, hippos and even a cheetah).
As a medical student, I found particular value in providing hands-on care in wound clinics, developing my communication skills throughout involvement in community education and, on placement, observing health care in the resource-depleted setting. As a general volunteer, it was out of this world to see Africa for the first time and meet the locals who never ceased to amaze me with their kindness and resourcefulness. It was a broadening and enriching experience, one that I was glad to do with the excellent support of Naturally Africa volunteers.