A Missionary Doctor's Autobiography
Fateful Trip to Malawi
Salisbury airport was amusingly small by modern standards, but it seemed like the gateway to adventure as I walked out of the tropical sunshine and adjusted to the comparative darkness of the terminal building. I found the check-in counter, checked in my suitcase and soon the flight to Chileka was called.
I was pleased to have a window seat, behind the wing, so that I could take in all the details of this my first flight. Fastening the seat belt, I read the leaflet on emergency measures as the Dakota bumped along the runway and prepared for take-off. Soon we were airborne and left behind the sprawling city and its suburbs. Villages looked like models and cars like Dinky toys.
As the DC-3 continued to climb, the African bush stretched out, brown and dry, with occasional patches of green where irrigation or rivers supplied life-giving water. Soon the "FASTEN SEAT-BELT" sign was switched off and the passengers began to move around. For the many children on board, who were going home to Malawi from boarding school in Salisbury, air travel had already become common-place. Not interested in the scenery below, they ran around laughing and shouting. As a novice air-traveller I was rather startled to hear the stewardess say to the rowdy youngsters, "Settle down; otherwise I'll have to open the door and put you out!" Then I noticed she was smiling!
Dakotas are renowned for their reliability, not their smooth flight. As the plane hit "air-pockets" it rose alarmingly and then sank sickeningly, causing some passengers to use the brown bags provided. I was thankful that I was a good "sailor" and as I peered out of the window, hoping to catch my first glimpse of the Zambezi river ahead, I thought back on the events leading up to the present trip. I had always wanted to be a "missionary doctor" and so had applied to do what is now known as a student elective, at the Nokuphila Hospital near Johannesburg. However, Dr C. Paul Bringle, the Division Medical Secretary, arranged for me to go to Malamulo Hospital, in Malawi. My parents were not keen for me to go to a tropical area, in view of my encounter with malaria as a baby in Rhodesia, but I had reassured them, "I'll take prophylactic tablets and malaria is treatable these days." Yes, I had taken the Daraprim tablets and would take one every week.
The train journey from Cape Town to Salisbury had taken four long and dirty days, over the desert-like Karoo and through Botswana as the coal-burning steam engine blew out a cloud of soot and cinders which settled on the railway carriages and their occupants. At Bulawayo, in Southern Rhodesia, I had to change trains, after a wait of several hours.
My reverie was interrupted by the passage down the aisle of the captain's newsletter, which contained details of the aircraft, the flight, outside air temperature and items of interest. I was glad that I was the last passenger on the aisle and so got to keep the news-letter as a souvenir.
After passing over the Zambezi river, the terrain became more hilly and also greener. The plane then passed through clouds which made more "air-pockets" of turbulence and was soon descending to land at Chileka airport - if it could be given such a grand name. It really consisted of just one dirt runway and a small single-storey reception building, which housed the airline offices, as well as the customs and immigration. I was slightly disappointed that there was no one to meet me. Probably they will be waiting at the airline terminal in Blantyre, I thought. Collecting my luggage, I boarded the airline bus, which made its bumpy way over the unpaved roads between the tall trees and tropical vegetation.
Arrival at the airline terminal brought a real challenge - there was no sign of anyone to meet me! I went to the reception desk, and said, "My name is Robert Buckley. Do you have any message from Malamulo Hospital for me?"
"Can I phone the hospital from here?"
"Why not?" I persisted.
"The telephone lines are down, since the storm three days ago."
"When will they be repaired?"
"We don't know. Maybe next week."
"Is there any way of getting in contact with the hospital?"
"Sorry, we do not know of any."
The hollow feeling that came over me was partly due to frustration but also to low blood sugar, as breakfast had been before seven.
"Where can I get something to eat?" I queried.
"Try Riley's hotel; it's not too far, you can walk there."
Leaving my suitcase at the terminal, I walked down the hot and dusty street. The hotel was surrounded by porches on three sides to keep out some of the heat and glare. By now it was after 2 pm but eventually I found a tall waiter, dressed in a spotless white uniform, topped with a red fez bearing a black tassel. I asked him if I could have something to eat.
"What would you like, Sir?"
"Maybe some cheese and tomato sandwiches and a glass of milk?"
"I'll have to make the sandwiches. You can wait out on the kondi."
"On the what?" I asked.
"The kondi," he replied.
"What is a kondi?"
"That's the kondi out there", inclining his fez toward the cool verandah outside, with a tone of any fool knows that. (Over the ensuing weeks I learned that each country has its own jargon - for example, what the Americans call "the bath room" was here the chimbuzi, but usually shortened to chim.)
Feeling refreshed, I soon found that the Church's Union headquarters were not far away. Things were looking up! Even better was the news that Dr Kotz and family were in town and were expected shortly.
Dr Sigi Kotz was the medical director of the hospital, and was returning from a few days of leave on Lake Nyasa, with his wife Ethel and their three children, Arligene, Darlene and Freddy.
"Welcome, Bob. We knew you were coming, but not when. No, I'm sorry, we did not get any message. We're on our way to Malamulo now and if you don't mind squeezing in with the children, we can give you a lift. You'll be staying with us."
The station waggon was already loaded with five people, a dog and camping gear, but somehow they found a corner for the tired medical student and his suitcase. As we drove along the twisting dirt road, past tea plantations, I wondered what the next few weeks would hold.
"You came at just the right time," said Sigi. "We are having an AMNA meeting tonight and we will just about make it in time. You will be able to meet some of the staff - I'll introduce you." He explained that AMNA was the Adventist Medical and Nursing Association and that they held regular meetings for discussion, education and fellowship.
It was already dark when we arrived and after dropping off the family, Sigi took me to the meeting, which had just started. It was rather formal with a chairman and secretary, who read the minutes of the previous meeting. There was a report of some research and plans were made for the next meeting. I was introduced as the "new student doctor". After the long day of travel, I did not remember many of the faces and even fewer names. Also introduced was Lilian Guy, a nurse from England, who had recently arrived, having worked for three years at Kanye Hospital, in Botswana. I noticed that she had red hair and freckles, but we did not get a chance to talk as she was helping serve the refreshments - rice and beans, with a cereal coffee, called "Tono". Neither of us could imagine how fateful that meeting was to be.