It was a nightmare. It started with me fainting: one moment I heard my roommates talking, the next all was black around me. When I came to, I followed Thea out of the car and we made our way through throngs of people lying on the floor. Thea started muttering when we passed a little girl: “Look at this: I knew this was going to happen! I warned them last week already!” The girl lay curled up on a mat and next to her, in a little bundle, were her intestines. She couldn’t have been more than four years old, and she was dying. Thea walked on angrily but I felt faint again at this gruesome sight: I had to lie down. I decided to sneak into a hospital ward, looking for an empty bed. I opened a door and found myself surrounded by suffering women who, when they saw me, started moaning and begging for help. I didn’t know how to help, it was overwhelming, I wanted to get out. I tried to make my way back to the door but my body wouldn’t move. I tried harder, stretching out my arms to reach but noticed there were dozens of arms pulling at my clothes, holding me back. I felt the sheer panic of wanting to flee but not being able to.
I woke up panting and sweating. It was only when I told my roommates about my nightmare, that I realised how many ties there were between this dream and the past weeks. The setting of the dream had been Salima District Hospital which I had visited the previous week. It was the most run down health institution I have ever seen, but more shockingly it seemed such a careless, heartless place. Nurses were hanging about while patients were wasting away in what had to pass for beds. When Thea spoke to a nurse about a patient’s condition she was eyed as if speaking Chinese. The nurse urged us to discuss it with the doctor so off we went, to the Operation Room. We stood between its open doors, a pair of rusty scissors at my feet, and I could see a man being operated on just a few feet away. What was I doing there standing on the threshold of an OR, in my dusty sandals, the bacteria of all the world on me?
All the European doctors I have spoken to here in Malawi have told me the same anecdote about staff going on a lunch break rather than saving an acutely dying patient. “It is God’s will” if the patient dies during their break. I’m appalled. But it’s one of Malawi’s lessons: life is not clung to like in the West. And if Malawians would grieve each lost life they would never stop grieving.
I don’t see half of all the things that could be considered shocking in one of the poorest countries of the world. But apparently I don’t brush off as easily what I hear and see here in Malawi as I thought. On the day leading up to my nightmare I had lunch with several women whose working experience in Malawi ranged from 9 months to 17 years. All the things they told me. Tourists in their crashed car robbed of all their things while unconscious, left to die. Stunted children, sitting all day every day next to their working mother, no development or encouragement. Malawians always expecting to be given things, and when given wanting more. No ability to think ahead. Corruption scandals in government. All the trees being cut or burnt down, for firewood or to drive all the little bush animals in traps so they can be eaten. No more water in the cities. No more fish in the lake. It goes on and on: how can I not be discouraged? It’s not just these women who tell me, I hear it from ex-expatriates, from white Malawians, I read it in the Malawian newspaper. I see it. I don’t hear it from black Malawians though.
Someone here told me that when settling in a new place you go through three stages. First there’s the happy tourist stage: everything is new and exciting. Then there’s a phase of frustration, when everything and everyone seems different and wrong. Lastly there’s the phase of acceptance, when you feel settled in your new situation and are happy with it once more. I suppose I’m in phase two. I can get so annoyed with how things are done here, and then I am annoyed with myself for feeling this way.
The day after the nightmare I felt disheartened. Because it’s not just Malawi. I am tired of all the stories I hear around the world about the wrongs people do. How we destroy each other and nature. At least poor people do so because they see no other way to survive, but what excuse do we Westerners and our big money-making businesses have?