Malaria: The People Who Cared for Us

It’s strange, but the most interesting times we’ve had on this trip have been when we got sick. It really forces you to reach out to the closest people and say, “We need your help”. It also makes you stop, to absolutely drop everything, and sit still for as long as it takes to mend. And during those rest periods with unexpected friends, we have learned more than during the rest of this long trip of fleeting journeys and busy days of sightseeing.

When Niamh got malaria we were stranded in remotest Tanzania, just a valley away from Rwanda and Burundi, but a day’s journey to anything like a city. The mission hospital could have treated Niamh, but thankfully, we had an excellent drug, Malarone, which we were able to take without being admitted. Those overflowing wards are rife with typhoid, TB and other nasties so we were horrified at the idea of having to stay there. Thankfully, Fr. Alfred Sebahene came to our rescue and invited us to stay with him in his home instead where we rested with more comfort and privacy. That night, he simply prepared a small room and left some food for us. He assured Niamh that she would be fine: “don’t worry sister, we know what you are suffering and believe me, you will be fine!”.

He was right. Over the next few days, Niamh got stronger and stronger. She took another test at the hospital and peered down a microscope herself to see that the malaria parasites were completely absent from her blood sample. That hospital had seemed so dreadful when we had first arrived but when we managed to look beyond the cold, hard exterior it didn’t look quite so bad. Fr. Alfred explained that the hospital, which is highly regarded locally, was started as a tiny dispensary in the 1920s, when Anglican missionaries gave out aspirin through a window. It became a hospital in the ’60s and currently has 180 beds, with just one doctor. They have had missionary doctors from all over the world, including Ireland, and would love more volunteers.

In the end, we spent close to a week with Fr. Alfred and his family. He saw to our every need and made sure Niamh was taking proper care of herself. He took us to mass on Sunday and introduced us to the entire congregation. He would spend his evenings entertaining us with stories of his time in England and of the work he does now. We would talk as if we’d known one another for years. He explained his own work for the diocese of Kagera. He is the newly appointed Education Coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Kagera. The Anglican church has been requested by the Tanzanian government to improve education in one of Tanzania’s worst education blackspots. He is responsible for the strategic management of the education sector in the Diocese of Kagera. But with no budget allocated, he is currently absorbed in the difficult task of sourcing finance. He’s even been in touch with RTE in pursuit of funding.

At last, Niamh was strong enough to undertake the ten hour bus journey along the shores of Lake Victoria to the city of Mwanza. There we were to meet with Sr. Kate Costigan, who is working as a nurse in a dispensary in a remote part of Tanzania. Within hours of finding out that Niamh had malaria, we had spoken to her by telephone for advice on how to treat the disease.

We spent three days in Mwamapalala visiting the dispensary, the clinics, the local people, the market and even a local witchdoctor (who incidentally had been herself admitted once upon a time!). Early one morning, we heard the voice of Sr. Kate at our door: “Niamh! Quick! There’s a delivery! Would you like to see it? You have two minutes!” Like a bullet, I was out the door like a bullet. What can I say? It was indescribable. I have actually vowed never to have children after seeing it first hand but I will never forget the experience.

Sr. Kate is with Our Lady of the Apostles, based in Blackrock, Cork. Changing punctured tyres, chatting with locals in Kiswahili and Sekuma, dragging rocks from dry river beds to fill growing cracks in concrete bridges are all incidental to her work in Tanzania. The dispensary is run by the OLA on the invitation of the local bishop. With two Tanzanian doctors and two nurses, the dispensary is able to host several clinics (antinatal, paediatric and leprosy are the largest). Funds arrive from the OLA and donors, including the St. Anthony Boxes you see in shops at home. She says she can’t do much because she can’t ask for too much money but she isn’t standing still. A recently donated ultrasound machine is making a huge difference, an ambulance allows them to reach those most in need and the dispensary is growing all the time. They are about to drill a borehole for water as shortages are common. With all this activity, how she found time to fit us in is a mystery. Like so many others we’ve met so far, she went out of her way for us and showed tremendous kindness and generosity of spirit.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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