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African steps of positivity

SISTER ACT: Volunteers Andrea Hardie (third left) with Drs Alison Mabley and Yvette Pygott in the hospital grounds

IT’S HARD to imagine a hospital operating on light from a mobile phone but this is the norm on Likoma Island, home to some of the poorest and most remote people on earth.

A 12-hour boat ride from mainland Malawi, St Peter’s Hospital on Likoma is the only healthcare facility for more than 80,000 people, both on the island and in surrounding Mozambique and Tanzania.

A decade ago, St Peter’s had the good fortune to attract and gain the assistance of a UK family who wanted to support a hospital in Africa.

Cue sisters Kathryn Garnett and Andrea Hardie, exuding a steely and quiet determination, who were motivated to lend support as a result of the efforts to dissuade them from contributing towards the set of the hospital on the remote island.

“That’s what decided it for us,” says Kathryn. “It might not be easy to get to, but a place like that was obviously in dire need of support.”

Kathryn set up African Steps with their late father Stuart Gordon in 2003, with Andrea and their brother John joining as trustees three years later.

“Our father had been an accountant working within mining communities in Africa who set up their own field hospitals to tend injured staff,” says Andrea, a nursing sister at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester.

“Towards the end of his life he said he wanted to support a hospital in Africa. Sadly he never visited Likoma as he died in 2007, but he knew that by then we’d installed an x-ray and ultrasound unit.”

Kathryn and Andrea have both made the long three-day journey to Likoma several times now. On each trip they took UK medical staff who helped to train and support overworked staff at the hospital and bring with them vital equipment.

Midwives

In March GPs Alison Mabley from Birmingham and Yvette Pygott from Worcestershire visited with Kathryn and Andrea, while midwives Kris Theuns and Ruth Riley, who work at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley, have just returned from helping to teach baby resuscitation techniques.

“Over the years our relationship with the hospital has changed from us basically giving money to now sharing skills and equipment and encouraging good practice,” said Andrea.

“The staff there who are led by senior clinical officer, Mathias Londo are incredibly multi-skilled. They show great courage in extremely challenging conditions such as having an erratic electricity supply, which unfortunately, has led to tragic deaths on the operating table.”

Free health care is agreed by the Malawi government, with St Peter’s being funded by CHAM – the Christian Health Association of Malawi, and the Diocese of Northern Malawi. However, both have limited and stretched resources.

Francis Vuma, the hospital administrator, wrote in his latest report to the medical board: ‘The support of African Steps has indeed uplifted the hospital and allowed us to achieve what we only dreamt of a few years ago.

‘The retention of staff, housing, x-ray machine, ultrasound scanner, air conditioners, drugs and staff incentives have played a major role in transforming the hospital. Without African Steps we would have drowned a long time ago.’

The charity, which is about to build a TB isolation unit, is currently working with another charity, Global Sunrise, to install solar power for the hospital.

Doctors Alison and Yvette, who trained together, said they were both shocked at the lack of equipment that is taken for granted in UK hospitals such as surgical gloves, painkillers and antibiotics, along with foetal heart monitors, thermometers, stethoscopes, suction machines and instrument sterilizers.

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CHILD’S PLAY: An ante-natal clinic for the under-fives

And they told of how many patients would often travel for days to get treatment, citing the case of a young boy who walked with his mother for three days after suffering a broken arm.
Alison said: “It’s so humbling to see how much the staff do with little training. We live in a complaining society in the West, but that’s certainly not the case on Likoma.”

When the four-strong team arrived in March, they were greeted like royalty by the local mothers’ union who baked them a cake. One fisherman offered his catch which would equate to a week’s wages for him.

It’s clear that Kathryn and Andrea have started something that will endure on Likoma, because they have won the trust and respect of the people there.

“We have six children in the next generation of our family and they are already becoming involved in fund raising as they get older,” said Kathryn. “Our dearest wish is for our link with Likoma to live on.”

For more details visit the website: www.africansteps.org.uk

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