Installation Report: Ukwe Medical Clinic
Prepared by Alex Kaomba, Malawi Project Manager
Imagine eight kerosene lamps and candles, one for each bed, cramped in a three by five meter maternity ward. The pregnant mothers and newborn babies inhale the dangerous fumes, unaware of the detrimental consequences to their health. In the corridors, a thick blanket of darkness envelops the walls, while patients and nurses on night duty alike have to grope for their way around the clinic. Ironically, on this dark maternity ward’s roof are expensive solar panels. For decades this was the story of the Ukwe Clinic, but last Friday all that changed with the help of Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA) and its partners.
The Ukwe health clinic is one of nine government clinics in the Kabudula health district, west of Lilongwe, Malawi. Established over thirty years ago, the clinic continues to provide more than 30,000 villagers with 24-hour service, even though it only has one nurse who must also perform the midwife duties. Since its establishment, more than 20,000 babies have been delivered successfully at Ukwe.
Ten years ago, the government installed solar power systems at all its clinics in rural areas, including Ukwe. Sadly, a few years later, 90% of the clinics slipped back into darkness. With so many clinics to care for, the government had become overwhelmed and could not supply the replacement bulbs and batteries needed. The communities rely solely on the government for their replacements, and there was simply no sustainability mechanism in place.
For its second solar project in Malawi, JHA chose the Ukwe clinic that had been serving and saving the lives of thousands. For nearly two months, weekly meetings were held with villagers to mobilize their support for the upkeep and long-term sustainability of their solar power system at the clinic.
May 13th was chosen as the day in which the Ukwe Health Clinic would see the refurbishment of its solar power system. Women, men, and children came to meet us when we arrived at the clinic, and there was excitement and a common sense of appreciation for this kind gesture. Because Ukwe’s lack of lighting was a well-known problem amongst the people, even passersby inquired to learn who had donated the supplies needed to revive the clinic’s solar power system.
Mr. Chinyama (the Ukwe village chairman), ten chiefs from surrounding villages, all the members of the hospital management committee, and the Ukwe Clinic staff attended the installation ceremony.
Mr. W. Mwalirino, who was in charge of the ceremony, recounted to the audience how JHA had contacted the clinic, and because of unfulfilled promises to the clinic in the past, he was at first skeptical. He said our constant contact with the clinic in the previous months had given everyone confidence that JHA was serious about restoring lights to the clinic.
Mrs. Nyungwe, the clinic’s only nurse and midwife, has been with the clinic for twenty-five years and also spoke. She said for many years the clinic had been crying for help with no one answering, until JHA heard its call. She said her service to the community would be more efficient because of proper lighting, and added that mothers would now use the money previously spent on candles for buying necessities for their newborn babies.
Chinyama, the Ukwe village chairman and representative of the local chief asked for cooperation between the clinic and the management committee. He spoke about our sustainability model—our solar cell phone charging station. Members of the community can now charge their cell phones at the clinic rather than traveling miles to the nearest town with electricity. They will pay a few cents to do so, and that money will help the community pay for their own replacement batteries and light bulbs so the system will not fail again in the future. He explained that if the money from this business is well accounted for and well used, then that would give JHA confidence not only in the Ukwe community, but also in other clinics that are facing similar problems. Later, he flicked the switch on to symbolize the rebirth of lights at Ukwe clinic, which drew excitement and applause from the crowd.
Then it was my turn to speak. I was so humbled by the presence of so many chiefs, especially because we were deep into harvesting time and almost everyone was tending to their fields. I thanked the chiefs for coming to witness the return of the lights to their clinic, and I pointed out that JHA was looking forward to working together with their community in ensuring that electricity was always available at the clinic. I continued by stating that transparency and accountability on the part of the management committee will assist all parties in remaining committed to this clinic, and anything to the contrary will result in darkness returning to the clinic. I explained that the Ukwe clinic was the first to get assistance in Malawi from JHA, and I reiterated that it was the first time that JHA had rehabilitated an existing solar power system and that it was a rare privilege for their clinic to get that kind of assistance.
The Ukwe community has not seen any meaningful development from the government or NGOs, and the people of Ukwe are eager to build a longstanding relationship with JHA. The community still faces other challenges at the clinic. For example, the clinic is still without piped water. Whenever a woman is in labor she or her guardian must fetch water from the borehole for use. If complications arise with a patient, then they must be transferred to a district hospital. Unfortunately, only one ambulance exists in the whole district, and other trolley ambulances that were donated by the government have broken down and there are no spare parts to replace the ones that are in disrepair.
JHA and its partners remain aware of these challenges, and will be interested in seeing whether the community progresses with a common sense of purpose in taking care of their solar power system before seeking further assistance for this clinic. For now, one thing is certain: the Ukwe clinic has emerged from the shadows of darkness.