Primary care nurses have a key role to play in improving health across Africa and Asia with VSO. Here Pam Wilson shares her experiences of working in Malawi, where she is training the students who are the future of Malawi's healthcare
After 24 years in primary care in Dundee, community nurse Pam Wilson decided it was time for a change. A former volunteer inspired her to apply to VSO. Pam's now working as a clinical nurse instructor training the next generation of nurses in Malawi, where lack of staff can mean that one nurse has to care for over 80 patients. A career break granted by her employer means her pension contributions are being paid and she's guaranteed a post back in Dundee at the same grade to the job she left.
Tell us about where you are working, and what you are doing?
"I'm a clinical nurse instructor – one of three VSO volunteers working at the Malawi College of Health Science in Zomba in Southern Malawi. I teach both at the college and on the wards of Zomba Central Hospital. I also travel all around the southern half of Malawi supervising students in their clinical placements at various rural hospitals and health clinics. Back in Dundee I taught just one student at a time… now I'm teaching classes of 65 second-year students and a new intake of 62 first-year students! When I arrived in Malawi I'd never taught in a classroom before, and I'd never used Powerpoint for giving a lecture. I'm now quite comfortable doing both. I'm really enjoying teaching the students in both the classroom and in their clinical placements where I can see them improving the care given to their patients."
Are you involved with projects outside of your day-to-day job?
"Yes – several. One involves helping to establish twinning links between Scottish GP practices and Malawian health centres. This is a three-year project backed by the Scotland Malawi Partnership. Our goal is to set up internet networks to build two-way educational, medical, nursing and patient group links. We hope to twin up to 20 clinics in the southern half of Malawi. I'm busy working with a Malawian colleague Paul Nkhoma to find suitable government-run clinics on the Malawian side of the project."
What kind of challenges are you facing?
"At the moment power cuts are a big issue. Only seven per cent of the population has electricity, but as the demand increases the generators can't cope. Every other night there is no electricity from 5pm – 9pm and often as you get up in the morning it goes off again, just when you need a cup of coffee!
"Speaking the language is a bit of a challenge, but I've mastered the greetings and can understand some of what is being said. In the classroom we teach in English and when I'm on the wards the students act as interpreters when necessary. Lack of resources at the college makes teaching difficult sometimes. I've tried to address some of the shortages by using my DFID grant and donations from home to buy books and equipment."
Tell me about where you live and what you do outside of work.
"I have a lovely house in a small village called Matawale, just outside Zomba. Mr Mbewe is my night guard and he's fantastic. He also does my washing, cleans the house, maintains the garden and makes curtains. I do my shopping in the market in Zomba. It's wonderful - you can find almost everything you need there. It's also good fun bartering with the stallholders.
"My social life is better than at home. I have a great network of other volunteers, UK ex-pats and Malawian friends. We mainly socialise at weekends with parties and trips to various tourist spots in Malawi – walking up Zomba Mountain or visiting beautiful Lake Malawi."
What kind of new skills do you think you'll bring home with you?
"Classroom teaching, using Powerpoint and other classroom aids. Teaching large numbers of students with confidence. Endless patience, having coped with everything starting late and plans often changing at the last minute without being informed about the changes."
Would you recommend volunteering to other people?
"Yes. It's a wonderful, fulfilling and very rewarding experience. The preparation training that VSO gives you pre departure is excellent, the care and support given to me while in Malawi by the programme office has made it all very easy to settle into living and working here. I've been here since April 2005 and I've enjoyed it so much that I'm extending my placement by nine more months. It would be nice if another Scottish volunteer would replace me when I leave in December this year. It will be very difficult to leave."
If you're interested in following in Pam's footsteps, find out more about the skills and experience we are currently looking for at www.vso.org.uk/healthjobs or come to our Health Information Day in London on March 8 2008.
If you'd like to support the work of VSO volunteers from right here in the UK, find out more about getting involved at www.vso.org.uk/fundraising
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