Dr Neil Foden
I recently volunteered in Cape Maclear, Malawi, with the Billy Riordan Memorial Trust and I would like to take this opportunity to tell you about my time there.
Firstly, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr Neil Foden and I have been qualified as a doctor for four years with a postgraduate degree in surgery. I first heard about 'Billy's' through a friend whilst I was working in a Dublin hospital. I applied through the website, attended for interview and a few weeks later I was offered an opportunity to go out to Malawi. I had a few other offers with various NGOs to go away at that stage but I was really impressed with what was being done in Cape Maclear. Not only that, but this was the first NGO that I had come across where I knew where the money was actually going.
It would be easier to write a book regarding my experience in Malawi as there is so much to tell and discuss but I will try to be as succinct as possible!
I arrived in Malawi with very little previous experience of Africa. Despite this I believe we all have pre-conceived prejudices about the continent as a whole. My time there was adequate enough to dispel these prejudices.
On arriving at Cape Maclear, I found the place where I was to call home for my time out there. I felt very comfortable early on and I was blessed to be surrounded by a fantastic set of volunteers. The following morning (in daylight!) I encountered a village and scene that I could have only ever previously imagined. There is an apparent difference between the outstanding natural beauty of the place compared with the poverty of the people who inhabit it. Despite this, I was immediately struck by the genuine friendliness and stoical attitude of those who surrounded me in this unfamiliar environment.
Now for the important part and the reason I am writing…..the clinic! I was fully aware of the appalling statistics regarding Malawi prior to arriving. For example, it has the lowest number of doctors per capita in the world, high infant mortality and a low life expectancy of just 41 years. I was happily surprised at the clinic to find that it ran well despite all of the problems that I had expected and it cannot therefore be compared to anything we have in the West. It is well organised and run very efficiently and it provides employment to many locals. I feel that this aspect is just as important, if not more so, that the medical service that we could ever offer. This process empowers locals, gives them a sense of purpose and self-respect that they would otherwise not have had. Fortunately, I had a wide variety of training at home and this helped to say the least. The mix of diseases, conditions and patients was huge. It was by far the most challenging job that I have ever done in medicine. The quantity of patients was unbelievable and the situation is compounded by the lack of diagnostic equipment and other such facilities. The simple things we take for granted at home are way beyond a luxury in Malawi. There is a great need for medicines, medical equipment and dressings and an expansion of the current services. As a physician, I was greatly restricted in my work and prescribing by the lack of available medications and services that I could use.
I truly believe that the clinic has and is making a huge difference to the people of Cape Maclear and surrounding areas. It has developed rapidly but there is still so much opportunity. I also believe that it can evolve and go from strength to strength with supporting funding. We would all like to change the world given the chance but this is not possible. What is possible, however, is to make a difference to the lives of some people who live in this world with us but for one reason or another, are not as fortunate as ourselves.
Dr Neil Foden.
MBChB (Hons), MRCSI