Newsroom & Blog

Jun 12, 2024   |   Blog Post

VillageReach Board Members Meet and Learn in the Warm Heart of Africa

Members of the VillageReach Malawi team and the Board (Photo credit: Cosmart Chaula)

By Paul Suzman

Board Member, VillageReach

This May I embarked, with fellow VillageReach board members, on a long-awaited journey to Malawi, and what a beautiful country it is. It’s no wonder Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Although it had been eight years since I last visited my mother continent, it felt as if I had never been away.

Day 1: The Path to Responsive Primary Health Care

Outside Lilongwe, Malawi (Photo Credit: Jennifer Crouch)

Our first day in Lilongwe, we split into two groups to visit health facilities. Some went north to Kasungu District, while others, myself included, traveled south to Balaka to visit a community health facility and a Drones for Health site.

Our half-day journey through rural Malawi underscored the challenges of transportation faced by many in rural areas.

Bike with sugar cane in Malawi (Photo Credit: Paul Suzman)

Along our way, we passed pedestrians and bicycles often loaded with produce bound for market, making a long journey longer still. Their perseverance moved me, striking me as emblematic of the challenges and determination of many, simply to make their way in life and to provide for their families. Quality and accessible health care is a key enabler to that life.

Kwitanda Health Facility: Community Health

Our first stop in Balaka District was Kwitanda Health Facility, one of VillageReach’s first projects in Malawi (2009-2019). There, we were invited to participate in a round-table discussion “indaba,” or African style, sitting under the shade of a large tree. The Health Workers we met, including the  District Medical Officer, District Nursing Officer, Pharmacy Assistant and the HCMC (village health committee) shared with us how they work in their communities and the challenges they face. It was especially informative and rewarding to meet with the Community Health Workers, many of whom were there when VillageReach transitioned the program to MaiKhanda, a local NGO.

We learned about their maternal and baby health initiatives and the delicate balancing act of providing family planning, especially in communities where early marriage is common or religious norms prevent access. They also shared with us how women are empowered to be the primary decision-makers in these contexts. The specialist work they do to tackle the challenges of pregnancy and early childhood saves lives.

Dziwe Health Facility: Drones for Health

Drone is being prepared for flight at Dziwe Health Facility (Photo credit: VillageReach)

Our journey continued to Dziwe Health Facility, where the Drones for Health program operates. As a drone approached, dozens of inquisitive children appeared. We shared their excitement as it hovered, landed gently, delivered 1.5 kg of meds, and took off again for a 10-minute flight back to base.

The cost effectiveness and efficacy of the technology and its applications are currently being tested as part of a randomized trial. Even to a layman, it’s clear that in emergencies and in poor road conditions, especially during the rainy season, such drones could be game-changers. With advancing technology and economies of scale, we’ll likely see more such applications.

Day 2: Let’s Talk About Vaccines

Rose Magayi, a community health worker, vaccinating Dorophy Phiri in Kasungu, Malawi (Photo Credit: Homeline Media)

On this final jam-packed day, we split again into two groups. One visited Health Center by Phone and the Pharmacy Assistant training program at Malawi College of Health Sciences, while I was part of the group to visit the “Let’s Talk About Vaccines” project. In collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Health and partners, this project aims to understand the barriers caregivers face in fully vaccinating their children and identify community-driven solutions to reduce routine immunization dropouts.

To witness “Let’s Talk About Vaccines” in person, we ventured into the outskirts of Lilongwe to visit a mobile immunization clinic. Under-reached communities are not just those who live miles away from towns but also those who live in more densely populated areas for whom access to health care and trust in the system can be an issue.

Under a tent just off the main street, we joined dozens of women who were seated on chairs, holding their infants and chatting quietly. But as we patiently waited for the immunization sessions to get underway, a different kind of action unfolded.

Actors perform in front of a crowd at Kang’oma Health Center, Malawi (Photo credit: Cosmah Chaula)

A flamboyantly-garbed man strode into the courtyard, yelling loudly in Chichewa and holding an infant. A woman followed closely behind, and it was clear that they were extremely frustrated with each other. These were actors, hired as part of “Let’s Talk About Vaccines” to socialize immunization messages!

The Community Health Workers sitting among us translated quietly for us visitors so we could understand that the husband was angry with his wife that she had prioritized her business over getting their child vaccinated. Caregivers laughed appreciatively as the argument turned into a real comedy of errors with conflict between the husband, wife, her brother and even a health worker.

Eventually, though, the health worker calmed everyone down and stressed the importance of showing up to clinics and getting children immunized on schedule. Local elders reinforced the message that men should participate in their children’s health – and directed their comments to a group of young men at the corner of the square, watching the drama unfold.

When the play came to a close, all the women quickly lined up to weigh their babies before the little ones received a jab of lifesaving vaccines in their little thighs.

VillageReach Board Members, staff, actors and community health workers in Lilongwe, Malawi. (Photo Credit: VillageReach)

From Madiba to Malawi

We then immersed ourselves in a conversation with VillageReach’s Malawi team at their new offices before joining the Global Management Team for a casual dinner. I reflected on almost 25 years of VillageReach’s work. As a founding board member, and now chair of our board’s Philanthropy & Partnerships Committee, I am thankful to have been part of this journey from the start.

In December 1999 Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel visited Seattle in what was dubbed “The Building Bridges Tour”. A year later, at VillageReach’s birth, they both readily agreed to serve as our Honorary Chairs (Mama Machel still does).

They could not then have imagined the scale of the bridge that would be built, or the progress that has been achieved, or how many people have, to date, benefitted from the efforts of VillageReach’s extraordinarily dedicated team. I feel deeply privileged to be associated with such efforts.

This journey to Malawi has been truly remarkable, showcasing VillageReach’s commitment to its ‘Locally Driven, Globally Connected’ approach, which lies at the heart of its mission.

Zikomo Kwambiri, thank you very much.

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