Tuesday, December 20th 2016

Working in Malawi profoundly changed me.

By Beth Sheehan

I was a member of St Mary’s many years ago as a child, teenager and then as a young adult.  The last few years have seen me live in London, Scotland and most recently Malawi in Africa.  Malawi was an interesting challenge, physically, emotionally and spiritually. When I returned to Australia a few months ago I felt a need to come back to St Mary’s and see where I fit in the bigger spiritual picture.  I had not been back in these walls for 5min when Terry & Peter I wouldn’t say bailed me up, but approached me to share my story & my Malawi experience as part of the women homilists for advent and so here I am.

When trying to think about what to speak about, to make it connected to women, to Catholic teachings to worldly teachings, I was essentially lost for words but at the end of the day those who I have spoken with about my Malawian experience have enjoyed the stories about the challenges and triumphs I have embarked on and so I am simply going to do that. Share my story.  This is a story mixed with the essence of humanity as well as the struggle for Christian belief.

I remember sitting on the crowded floor at a 5pm St Mary’s church service up the road as a young teenager, soaking up the variety of stories and homilies of people from the Indigenous community, refugees, and individuals who were struggling with their Christian beliefs and the ever changing political world who had come to St Mary’s to find their spiritual essence, core, community.  As a young, white, female I remember on numerous occasions thinking about where I fit in.  That there is something greater out there for me as an individual to assist in making the world a better place for me, for my nieces and nephews and my potential children but how do I to get to a stage like the many homilists before me to share their amazing good will and experiences across Australia and Internationally and provide hope in a world that seems to have Trumps pop up periodically to keep the wider population on our toes.  Nelson Mandela’s borrowed excerpt from Marianne Williamson’s book ‘A return to love’ sums up the little voice in the back of my head…. ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who  am I to be brilliant , gorgeous , talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?’

This is what drove me towards the journey in Malawi.

Whilst living in London I was introduced to Landirani Trust (now known as African Vision Malawi).  This would be my introduction to the African continent and the elements of not for profit work within low resource countries.

From some initial conversations with the Director Heather Palmer, promoting my skills as an exercise physiologist I came to do some volunteer trips in Malawi in 2010, 2012 and in 2014 I took 6 students from Griffith University for a 6 week clinical placement.  Little did I know that this would potentially be the life changing experience I was waiting for all those years ago.

As an exercise physiologist we promote exercise as medicine to assist in facilitating and improving activities of daily living for people with various chronic conditions.  In Malawi this meant ideally facilitating movement for conditions such as cerebral palsy, leprosy, amputations, club feet, chronic back pain, & the list goes on… or becoming an educator around conditions that are not explained well within the African culture such as arthritis or epilepsy due to spiritual connotations thought to be taking over the body.  A challenging concept for essentially a scientific mind.  My 4-6 week volunteer trips however were only the beginning for me. They only touched the surface of what I was about to experience.

My first visit to Malawi was one of the first times that Landirani had a person with a rehabilitation background as part of their annual volunteer trips.  I had shared my skills with Heather and she asked if I could do a few assessments on people they had met in their catchment area on the outskirts of Lilongwe the capital.  Little did I know that I would fall in love with the people I met and in particular Samson & Dorothea.

Sam & Dorothea had complex histories.  The history taking of village Malawians are patchy.  After having worked with them for the last 6-7 years I realise now that the mother is passing on some genetic disposition to a condition that is similar to cerebral palsy.

In 2014 when I returned for the clinical placement with my students with a combined trip for Landirani trust and 500 miles (P&O clinic) these children were in a state I had never seen.  Eating duck faeces, covered in mud, no clothes and aggressive.  Not the children I had met in 2010.  I think this may have been the defining moment that I knew I had to be around to make more of an impact on these children’s lives. Adoption wasn’t and isn’t an option but how to ensure these children could have a some what better quality of life.  But I knew this was only scraping the surface.  How do we then create opportunities, quality of life and ensure sustainability and build capacity within the community?  For me this connection with Sam, Dorothea and their siblings is a life long connection and I now provide support to them via Landirani to ensure they are fed every day and at least have clothes and a non leaking roof over their head.  I think the major milestone is now that Sam in particular recognizes me and is thankful when I come.  He now reaches for my hand and says words – this didn’t happen until this year.

Some could call it my ‘calling in life’, a message from the powers that be , what ever the answer was I put it out there that I wanted to be in Malawi for a while.  I returned home after my 6 weeks with the students to an email offering me a full time position with 500 miles.  This was it.

The last 2 years have seen me living in Malawi managing a prosthetic and orthotic clinic for a Scottish NGO , 500 miles.  This was potentially one of the most challenging yet fulfilling experiences of my life.  The role was a mixed role of management as well as clinical guidance.  I had to upskill and quickly.  The beauty about this role however was that I was surrounded by individuals with a wide variety of disabilities.  I felt that I could impact, although minor, a small element of their lives by assisting in the provision of an assistive device, create elements of hope and in some cases independence. In Malawi however, those with a disability are seen as having evil spirits within their mind and body.  The families are often extradited or pushed to the back of the village.  Whilst providing an assistive walking device or prosthetic is beneficial there is a large role of education and inclusion that is necessary.

As a tall, white, blue eyed, blonde female – entering village life can often be confronting for me and for the community.  Particularly the more remote as I am often seen either as a ghost or godly (not sure which is the best outcome there). An element of my whiteness leaves a false sense of understanding that I have all the answers.  That I can provide a magic tool for curing blindness, that I can operate or provide a walking device that will cure club foot or for a child with severe CP and epilepsy will one day walk again.  In some cases we were able to do this by encouraging the parents and the community to assist in facilitating movement, education and opportunity for the individual with the disability. Education on all levels is so vital.  Assisting the clinicians I worked with to also acknowledge how important education is was a constant struggle.  These are educated Malawians working within the medical profession and struggling with teaching their families and communities that epilepsy is not the individuals being taken over by demons or evil spirits but rather a neurological condition.

Malawians however are strong in faith.  They believe they have literal connection with their God which now is a very Christian looking God.  A god that provides life and food if and when necessary.  Village life is tough.  The more rural and remote the village there is still a connection with the spirits and less of a Christian god but ancestors and godly beings not dissimilar to our indigenous community of Australia.  Being mindful of these beliefs whilst trying to impart modern knowledge had its challenges.  Yet despite these challenges I was often left in awe about the immense sense of faith and connection with their god in a place where food was scarce and hope was minimal.

This was another of the challenges I so often faced.  In Malawian culture the first 3 questions are … What is your name? Where are you from? What religion are you?

A question heard amongst Western Australian desert Aboriginal tribes: “Who dreamed you, carried you, set you down?” would be a question I Think I would rather be asked.

If I answered I grew up a Catholic I was off the hook.  If I answered that I didn’t attend church on a regular basis there would be an invite to attend with them.  Having done this a few times in Malawi to both various Christian Malawian denominations I hated being made a spectacle of.  The white woman embracing their god finally praying and acknowledging there was a god who could save us all from the fiery depths of hell and who would also audibly speak to us was something I wasn’t yet shall we say ready to witness.

I did however start to attend an interesting evangelical type American blended Malawian church where I thought they were in touch with the 21st century God – inclusive of all.  After 3 months of living in Malawi I ended up moving in with an English girl who little did I know was heavily immersed into this particular church and ran bible group every Tuesday at the house.  What had I gotten myself into??  The group that attended were a mix of educated Malawians, Americans, English and myself the token outspoken Australian.  At first I felt I could blend into the background and simply speak to my god during the reflective times and block out some of the pre 21st century beliefs.  I spoke to myself on a regular basis about the fact that my god could still be my god and that each individual could have their own beliefs.

After many months however when I continued to attend the church and Hillsong was ever present I thought to myself I can’t go through this every Sunday.  The breaking point was the needing to be cleansed because of the amount of still single people in the church and the discussion about the illness and the needing to reflect on why there was such a singledom.  I think the pinnacle was then emphasized that same weekend that Caitlin ( aka BRUCE Jenner) decided to gender change.  The Tuesday bible group had engulfed my lounge room and were up in arms about him needing to connect with God and be cleansed and attend therapy to cleanse him/her of his evil thoughts and assist him on his road to recovery.  I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer and decided to educate my fellow groupees about transgender, gays and lesbians.  The looks given towards me as to whether I had lost my mind, was I actually announcing that I too needed cleansing and did I too need to pray more for supporting such outrageous thoughts.  No but as I quoted the ever true bible …. Neither Greek nor Jew nor slave nor free… are we all not from the same GOD???

I looked around the room and there were people from all over the world, all of which had degrees.  Whilst I acknowledged that it was in fact illegal in Malawi to be homosexual was it not my part to play to educate even this small room of people.  Apparently the night was not the night.

That night in particular got me thinking about my purpose in Malawi and the need to assist in education across all facets of my life… working with the disabled, educating the believers……and so when my time finished in Malawi I knew that my upcoming goals were to work with individuals with a disability and in particular children and assist with getting more exercise physiologists out into the wider disability community within Australia as well as internationally to better enable these individuals and give them a better quality of life and so here I am in Brisbane providing an exercise service as well as working for our professional body and working towards these long term goals.

Malawi was a life changing part of me and to sum it up change starts right here with each individual.  As Mahatma Gandhi said ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’.