A letter from Martha Sommers in Malawi
May 5, 2012
Dear Family and Friends:
April 7, 2012, Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s fourth president and the second female African head of state. This followed secrecy around the timing of and death of former president Bingu wa Mutharika on either April 5 or April 6, depending on the country’s or outside countries' confirmation. The May 2, 2012, NATION newspaper in front of me describes how the cabinet members at the time were meeting with the chief justice to strategize on how to block the swearing in of then vice president Joyce Banda as president and instead swear in Bingu’s brother. Thankfully, the Army Commander pledged allegiance to the vice president and the constitution, and we had a peaceful transition of power.
JB, as the headlines now refer to president Joyce Banda, gave speeches emphasizing unity, moving forward, and not revenge. She named a new cabinet that includes three of the cabinet members she inherited and prominent members from each of the major parties. We pray and hope she will be able to move the country forward. Her Excellency Joyce Banda has a history of turning things around in her personal life. She was a market woman selling local donuts before forming the National Association of Business Women. She had to remove herself and three children from an abusive first marriage prior to marrying retired Chief Justice Richard Banda, who she says, “has been the driving force behind my success.”
She inherits crises in fuel, forex, medicines, and a local currency official value that is twice the street value. Her populace has adjusted to the governance problems of the last years so that most people buy black market fuel and forex. People are queuing up to 16 hours for packets of sugar, which most Malawians add to their tea multiple times each day. Various groups this last year have also acted out in horrific ways—from the vendors who stripped women of their clothes in the major cities because they said they were offended by their dress, to the police having agreed that they had beaten and killed a suspect and brother of one of our staff whose bones were broken and skull and trachea and heart were pierced so much that the police paid for the coffin as the investigation is pending, to Mzuzu University students burning down the office of a lecturer because they were upset about failing his class. Reversing a trend toward lawlessness is not easy. Yet almost everyone hopes and expects that things will get better. Exhausted people with raw emotions are asked to be and are trying to be patient and hopeful. Cartoons depict the country as a sick patient in an intensive care unit. Please pray that Malawi has a speedy recovery.
Ekwendeni Hospital is limping along through the country’s challenges. The hospital has had to rely on black market fuel for the ambulances and to run the generator during the frequent blackouts, and the cost over these last months has equaled the drug budget. Also, it is very hard to be transparent and accountable when forced to deal in an illegal market. The hospital management initially borrowed from the staff’s pension fund, which stopped after a staff strike. Now the staff is being paid what the government gives through the Christian Hospital Association of Malawi (CHAM) for salaries, but other allowances and locum payments are either being delayed or dropped. When payments from the government through CHAM are delayed, such as when new employees wait months for their paperwork to get processed, there is no money to temporarily fill the gap. Every week a group or the staff as a whole brings up no longer taking calls or filling in when there are shortages on the wards or resuming the strike. People “pop off” or “let off steam” in exaggerated responses to irritations and disagreements, and yet people are trying to be responsible, patient and hopeful. Even during the strike there was a schedule so that every ward was covered. The pediatric medicines that came through the matching funds opportunity I wrote about in my last letter were eagerly unloaded and put to use. Many who have misspoken repair the damage with “I am sorry.” There is resilience. Thanks for assisting us during this seemingly chronic hospital illness.
I will be returning to the United States by early August to participate in the Sharing Conference in Louisville and for mission interpretation through 2012. I am also dialoguing with the PC(USA) to figure out the best way to extend for possibly a year before returning to Malawi. Professionally, I need to re-experience working in the U.S.A. medical system before it becomes too foreign as I have not worked as a doctor there for 10+ years. Personally, living in interesting tense times in Malawi has used up my reserves, and I would like to have some “normal” time with more than rushed visits with family prior to returning to Malawi, where I still very much enjoy practicing medicine, teaching, and participating in the development of family medicine.
Hope to see many of you soon,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 106
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