It has been a long journey for my first mission with MSF, I have finally arrived in Nsanje, Malawi. Starting in January of this year when I signaled to MSF that I would be available, I was sent different possible programs from them, the first being Myanmar which was quickly taken off the table as that was not for a first missioner, then several programs in Uzbekistan for HIV/TB but for a period of a year and I preferred six months, which I was told not a likely scenario as the minimum length of the mission was for nine to twelve months.
Then quickly in succession came an HIV project in Zimbabwe, again for a period of a year, an Ethiopian program in kala-azar, medical program in South Sudan in medical care and even before I could wade through the information that kept on piling electronically, the Malawian project in HIV/AIDS was presented to me as perhaps most suitable with my training and mentorship experience in HIV/AIDS in Africa.
The rest of the projects were not then further discussed. The Malawian project was to be for a period of nine months despite my wish to be there for six.
I was asked to send in my notarized diplomas and a police report and be ready to leave by mid-April while they applied for a work permit for me, which might take up to two months. In the meantime, while waiting, I was asked to go to South Sudan by Medical Teams International in April; that was a trip that was on and off again several times since January because of security reasons and other reasons unknown to me. So off I went, delaying leaving by two days so I could run the 117th Boston Marathon, fundraising for MSF.
Right after my return from South Sudan in late May, I received permission from the immigration office in Malawi to stay in their country for six months while waiting for a work permit! It was not really a work permit. My departure date was slated to be June 1st.
But then my mysterious illness intervened, I got sick shortly after returning from South Sudan. I had to delay my departure and for a while I toyed with the idea that if it turned out that I was not to go with MSF, I began to consider other alternatives: going to Lebanon to volunteer in the Syrian Refugee Camp with Medical Teams International but then my passport has entrance and exit stamps for Israel, a sure thing to prevent me from entering Lebanon.
Fighting in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo between the government forces and M23 rebels has started again and there might be a possibility of volunteering in the refugee camp as well.
And so it was to be almost another two months before I left for Malawi. MSF has agreed to let me go to Malawi for seven months, closer to what I originally wanted, six months. On July 26th I finally boarded an early train to MSF-NY for my briefing. New York City is not one of my favorite cities, perhaps because I do not know it well despite having run through all five boroughs in the 2009 NYC Marathon. It looks rather imposing and impersonal compared to Boston.
On the evening of the same day of the briefing I flew to Lilongwe, Malawi, via Charles de Gaulle and Nairobi. Unfortunately, because of delayed departure in Charles de Gaulle, I missed my plane for Lilongwe, which meant staying overnight in Nairobi. My luggage did not arrive in Lilongwe and after two days of waiting for it, Kenya Airway informed me that it was left in Paris. Perhaps my luggage rebelled and strongly hinted that I was meant to be in Paris!
The temperature in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, was cool, not at all humid; this is their winter I was told. Malawi, formerly Nyasaland, is nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa”, probably because it has been a relatively peaceful place.
From the little I saw, Lilongwe seems like a big and sprawling city. The tarmac road that we were on was smooth and not pot-holed, surprisingly for an African country. However like most African countries, there is a conspicuous absence of sidewalks so that the edges of the road are slowly being eroded. Soon a two-lane road will become one lane and opposing traffic will have to dodge each other while traveling on it.
We rose early the next day to drive to Blantyre, named after Dr. Livingstone’s birth-place in Scotland, a five-hour journey. It was cold, probably in the 50s. Clusters of men in warm jackets huddled over open fires that they had made from dry leaves and trash. In the distance, layers upon layers of mountains shrouded in purplish-blue hue with whisks of mist gracing their peaks looked like a lovely water-colored painting. Now and then in the vast plain rose isolated globs of mountains, as though God was tired of making mountain ranges and just simply dropped earth and rocks on the plain; they appeared out of place.
Women were hurrying in the early dawn to market. The orange-red sun rose over the mountain ranges, slowly dissipating the mist. Calvin and Hakim, the driver, stopped at the markets to haggle over potatoes, onions, okra, and tangerines. Men and women stood in the middle of the road with arms outstretched holding out a full-grown chicken to passing vehicles hoping to make a sale.
Frequently we were overtaken by minibuses which started here in the 1990s. The locals call them “mdula moyo”, which means literally “cut your life” in Chichewa. They sped on the motorway and resulted in senseless loss of life. One minibus passed by with a slogan of “HARD TIMES NEVER KILL” printed on the back.
The Baobab trees stood stark naked looking rather pregnant with their bulbous trunks; they are my favorite trees in Africa. This being winter, they shed all their leaves. At one point between Dedza and Ntoheu the motorway ran along the border of Mozambique; one could literally step off the vehicle and walk right over to it.
I finally was dropped off MSF office in Limbe, not too far from Blantyre. There I had two days of briefings fighting off jet-lag trying to keep awake. On the bulletin board was a news release; Somalia: Kidnapped MSF staff released after 644 days. These two ladies were kidnapped from Dadaab, Kenya, in October 2011, where I went a month later to do medical relief in the Kenya/Somalia border during the drought, and they were just released this month.
Five days after I left New York, I was finally on my way to Nsanje. We left the cool, almost wintry weather in Blantyre, the highlands for the lowlands. I was freezing without my warm clothes as my suitcase still had not made its appearance.
As we descended the highlands the Shire River that flows out of Lake Malawi and eventually joins the Zambezi River could be seen basking in Nsanje. Half of the trip to Nsanje is on tarmac road and the rest of the road is under construction. This part of the Rift Valley that Nsanje nestles in is flat and the temperature is surprising pleasant at least for now. I have finally arrived.