Hooked on Africa
Meet Karolina Siwicka, a Polish orthopaedist treating sick children far from home in Malawi. She enjoys the support of her family – her husband Piotr who works at the hospital and her kids who eagerly play football with their classmates after school as they did back in Poland. Ahead of her latest family expedition to Africa we chatted with Dr Siwicka on the wild nature, reality and hospitality of Malawi and about how people can help without leaving their home country.
Poland.pl: As a family you have decided to become volunteers in Malawi. How did that idea and such a need emerge?
The notion of mission work had always been in the back of our minds. When we were travelling around Asia a decade and a half ago we became aware of the enormous needs. Our resolve to do mission work was bolstered by our stay in Cambodia. That country is populated by thousands of children with amputated or deformed limbs – the victims of a civil war and land mines. When I felt I had achieved enough professional experience, the decision was taken. But that took several years. Although working in Africa provides a wealth of new experience, medical missions are not the occasion for experimentation and testing one’s skills. Working in such places is very demanding, requires considerable knowledge. An ability to improvise and plenty of willpower also come in handy. Our decision to become involved in a medical mission therefore had to gradually mature.
Poland.pl: What did your work at that site involve?
Piotr is a logistician: he helps the hospital’s administration but also assists in the surgery section. If need be, he also repairs dilapidated equipment and electronics or creates equipment useful in rehabilitation. Above all, he has taken upon himself the enormous task of looking after our kids and is patiently involved in teaching them according to the Polish primary school programme.
I am an orthopaedist. My work involves operating on and restoring the fitness of children’s arms and legs. I learnt how to reconstruct limbs and operate on congenital defects by observing some of the best surgeons in Japan. That key experience from my past quite often helps me cope with the most neglected and advanced cases which one wouldn’t see in Europe. Here unfortunately they are not uncommon. At times, I perform an operation only after several weeks of preparation. That means sifting through countless publications, atlases and whatever I can find on YouTube. But always within reason. It can be quite a challenge knowing there’s no-one to refer a “difficult case” to. In that sense, working there is like working at a university hospital with the highest referral rate. We have systematically conducted mobile clinics that enable us to help children in remote areas. We examine them, qualify them for surgical procedures and provide transport to our hospital.
Poland.pl: How would you describe the reality you have encountered?
As a family, we have grown accustomed to travelling, changing countries of residence and adapting to new surroundings. The reality of Malawi surprised us far less than our friends had imagined. Most of the “differentness” had been predictable. Time in Africa flows more slowly, and there is less pressure. We were pleasantly surprised by the nice, friendly people, the moderate climate and amazing nature. Personally, I was positively surprised by the hospital – how its work was organised, its equipment (slightly antiquated but diverse and constantly supplemented thanks to benefactors). That made it possible to carry out a broad range of high-quality medical treatment.
Poland.pl: What made your job there the most difficult?
No situation has been so difficult as to be impossible to resolve. Even with limited access to diagnostic facilities and medication one can somehow make do. But that requires additional time and often additional expense. At times a failure occurs due to what we call “the human factor.” But we don’t blame individuals but rather the country’s generally poor state of organisation.
Poland.pl: Although Malawi is not a popular tourist destination, the Malawians are known for their hospitality. How did they receive you?
As a destination, Malawi came as a surprise to us as well, but a lucky break provided by our Internet browser during a virtual trip around the world. Except for locations on the map and sparse reports from human organisations we knew next to nothing about Malawi. To a children's hospital I happened to run across I sent a query whether they didn’t need an impassioned volunteer’s pair of hands. The first reply was already full of positive energy, and a short time later I found myself in an operating room among an ever-smiling team. We were received as if we had been working there forever. Indeed, Malawi is not a popular tourist destination, and its lack of infrastructure is to blame. However, I can assure fans of the film version of Tolkien’s novels that travelling through the local mountains guarantees the same kind of excitement as that provided by the movie. The nature, especially during the rainy season, is awesome. It’s worth sacrificing comfort to experience the local surroundings.
Poland.pl: How does one organise family life with two kids nearly 8,000 kilometres from home? How have your children made out?
The most difficult was organising life in Poland in such way that would let us take the decision to travel. Both from the professional and the family angle. Not many people, possibly apart from tropical aquarium fish devotees, know anything about Malawi. That part of Africa is incorrectly associated with hunger, rioting and runaway inflation. For us, the most difficult thing was convincing others that our decision was well-considered and wise.
It makes no difference if one moves 500 or 8,000 kilometres. After a few adjustments, moving to Africa is no difference than organising one’s life in Poland or any other country. The rented house found through an advert had to have tight mosquito netting and the second-hand car had to be able to cope with the rainy season. One must brace oneself for occasional interruptions of power and water supply. Kids can usually be signed up for school via the net. Our kids are living here normally- After school they get together with schoolmates and play football, go to music lessons and at weekends we go to the mountains or try to catch a glimpse of wild animals in the reserves. The kids notice and appreciate the fact that time here does not race ahead.
Poland.pl: You returned to Malawi following a break. Why was that?
Africa is an incurable addiction, but fortunately a harmless one. Since May this year we have been back in Malawi working in that country’s only children’s orthopaedic hospital. It is estimated that some 50,000 children who live there require orthopaedic treatment, and their population is constantly growing. We are able to perform some 1,500 operations a year, so there’s enough work cut out for us for at least the next 50 years.
Poland.pl: How can other people, Poles included, get involved in helping people in countries in need of support like Malawi?
Helping people in poorer countries does not require any super-powers. It all depends on the extent to which one wants to get involved. Help can be extended in a variety of ways including not very time- and effort-consuming ones.
- In our times of universal web access one can begin with the simplest forms entailing no financial outlay such as wisely disseminating information. One can read up, reliably comment and share the websites of aid projects, thereby enhancing “volunteer awareness.”
- The second easiest way to help is through financial support. It’s best to choose a registered organisation with completed, documented projects or those cooperating with the authorities. That assures us that our assistance reaches those for whom it was intended. We should make an effort to earmark aid for specific projects.
- To anyone who wants to become personally involved and share their knowledge or skills I would suggest joining the existing projects of trustworthy organisations. Time will come for putting your own ideas into action. By becoming familiar with the needs, local conditions and obstacles, we increase our chances of implementing our own aid project.
- Anyone with more substantial resources wishing to share them would do well to carefully check what specific needs our assistance is targeting. It is unwise to suddenly decide to design a school or build a well in an unknown locality randomly found on the map. While sitting at a desk in Europe, one cannot fathom true needs and local limitations. As it is when setting up a business, in addition to a good idea, effective aid requires a “market study.” In such a case our support will be more effective if we benefit from the experience of organisations which know how to overcome local problems and adapt projects to local needs.
Our involvement in Malawi is backed by the Polish Medical Mission. The PMM’s patronage gives us a sense of security. It also enables us to legally raise funds to cover the cost of our stay, to equip the operating room and aid our hospital’s young patients. The PMM’s campaigns carried out to date have made it possible to provide the hospital with mobile ultrasound equipment, various surgical instruments and surgical aprons, vacuum therapy wound treatment sets, a resuscitation cart and several hundred jackets for young patients during this year’s exceptionally chilly dry season.
Since 2008, the efforts of Polish volunteers in the developing countries are also backed by the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Poland. Over the past decade, nearly 300 people have decided to support the cause by financing several-month-long volunteer efforts benefiting local communities, mainly in African countries. Volunteer groups are dominated by doctors and nurses who, like Dr Siwicka, are pursuing their passion whilst bolstering the local health service and providing medical aid to those in need.