As the plane began to fly low, I curiously leaned onto the window to take a glimpse of what the country looks like: flat plains and dry looking landscapes that run endless over the horizon. “Where do they get food from?” I thought to myself, as not a lot of green could be seen from above. As our plane slowly pulled off the runway following the ramp marshal’s signals, I reached out to my phone to check directions to the place where I will be staying for about two and a half months this summer.
A day after I got to Lilongwe, I started working at my host organization, the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation in Malawi. Baylor operates a pediatric HIV clinic, as well as an adolescent and psychosocial program, with the aim to reduce HIV/AIDS morbidity and mortality.
Despite the progress made in fighting the AIDS pandemic, HIV/AIDS is still a major issue in Malawi. According to one report, an estimated 48,000 people died in Malawi in 2014 because of AIDS. That is more people than the Nationals Baseball Park in Washington, DC, filled to capacity!
These alarming figures drove the Baylor College of Medicine to support the efforts of the Malawian government and establish a clinic and a psychosocial support program to help adolescents with HIV live positive lives. Part of the psychosocial support is done through the Teen Support Line (TSL). The TSL is a 24/7 helpline operated by trained counselors who use mobile technology to provide psychosocial support to adolescents with a fully disclosed HIV status.
The helpline has been running for a few years now, and for the past three weeks, I have been working with the local team to automate processes involved in data collection, call recording, and forwarding. The toll-free number, which works on two major telecom operators (Airtel and TNM), is communicated to teens across the country whenever they come for a refill of their medication (typically once a month).
On June 4th, I travelled to Mulanje in the southern, rural part of Malawi, next to the border with Mozambique. As we drove on the highway south of Lilongwe, the dry looking plains gave in to a hilly and green landscape. Mulanje is home to one of the tallest mountains in southern Africa and is a major destination for hiking and outdoor enthusiasts.
Mulanje district’s health indicators, however, are not flattering. Child and infant mortality rates are higher than the national average.
We arrived at the Mulanje District Hospital around 8 on a Saturday morning. Teens were grouped into clubs in which they participated in fun activities such as games and dancing as their friends take turns to get a medical checkup and collect medication. Gift, one of the Teen Club coordinators, held a training session with local health officers before introducing the helpline to 118 teens in attendance. This helpline service can make a huge difference, especially in resource poor settings where specialized psychosocial services are scarce.
The short code number was hung on a wall of the packed training room in bold characters next to a sign that reads: “God loves you, HIV positive or not!”
As I reflect back on my first three weeks in Malawi, I am reminded again how important field work is in understanding development related issues and empathizing with affected populations. This is why the internship program abroad is such an important piece of the Global Human Development program, even for someone like me, born and raised in the developing world.