“Trinity is down on the corner.” There went a man directing me to Trinity College Dublin’s main campus at the heart of Dublin city centre. It looks historical, so beautiful, so built up but also freezing cold. These were my first impressions of Dublin and my very first experience of Europe! Before I tell you more about why I found myself in Dublin, let me tell you a bit of myself.
I was born and grew up in a community that is dependent on agriculture in the central region of Malawi, Africa. I majored in nutrition at the University of Malawi. I was not very passionate about nutrition or global health at this point. In 2013, I got a job with a non-governmental organisation. Since then, I attained a series of nutrition-oriented posts both with the government and private sector.
It was during this time that got much more insight into global health issues, including nutrition. I understood the implications of having 74% of the total population that survives on less than $1.25 per day. In 2016 alone, one million Malawians were living with HIV, and 24,000 Malawians died of HIV related illnesses in the same year. The 2015/16 Demographic Health Survey indicates that 37% of under-five children in Malawi are stunted; that is to say too short for their age (a result of chronic malnutrition). Just a few of the many issues to be addressed. I grew so much passion for nutrition. At this point, working in the agriculture sector, I saw how all these issues affect food production and utilisation systems. So, was my job the reason I came to Europe and specifically to Ireland?
In 2018, I got an Irish Aid scholarship through the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) to study a Masters in Global Health at Trinity College Dublin: my first flight ticket to travel to Europe. And there I went, passionate about nutrition and interested in learning how food production and utilisation can be improved to reduce malnutrition cases in Malawi. I was in a class with fifteen other students at the Centre for Global Health in the 2018/2019 academic year. It was a very diverse group. The first time that I had to survive medical doctors, chemists, nurses, computer scientists, physiotherapists, zoologists and other nutritionists all at once. I was overwhelmed.
This group though very diverse in terms of background, knowledge and skills, was made up of professionals all working to serve people and improve their livelihood in some way. The interactions were more than just chats; it was building a team of peer support. It opened my eyes to the many global health issues developed countries face. I remember one instance when my friend talked about the burden of health insurance in her country. She narrated how sometimes a person would prefer to die and let her family benefit from the insurance cover than recover and be burdened with hospital bills. I never imagined it. For once, it made me think of the advantages of the universal and free health coverage system we have in Malawi, which is not the best, but certainly not the worst.
During my learning path in Dublin I got an internship with SURG-Africa. This was an eye-opener. I worked on the data collected in district hospitals from Malawi and I must say there are some things I really never knew when I was back home. For example, I never knew that the prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) was one of the top causes of caesarean sections in pregnant women. Although SURG-Africa work is related to strengthening surgery in rural areas, finding out about health-related issues in Malawi helped me to get a bigger picture of what is going on in my country.
Between 2018-2022, Malawi is implementing the Multi-Sectoral National Nutrition Policy, which highlights and emphasises on the need to capitalise on working together across different ministries in addressing nutrition. Using the experience gained from the Global Health class, I looked forward to being home and being part of this diversity. Thus, to work with others in finding practical and low-cost solutions to the problems that we continue to face. Coming back home, I must say I appreciate the fact that nutrition has been incorporated in all the line ministries and government departments. I feel more motivated in making this system and arrangement work. Working in such teams also has helped me have insight into the many issues that the government has to address and finance. It’s not emptily frustrating to see the government redirecting money towards livelihood interventions. As long as it is serving people, we are connected! In fact, everything affects a person’s nutrition status. I currently enjoy being part of a team that continues to inform our policy.
I must say that both my student and work exposure sharpened my experience and skills in so many ways. I still keep in touch with most of my classmates, and we continue to link up for global health events. I won’t do myself justice if I forget to mention that, it was during this period that I got a very great mentor who supervised me through my research project and still links up for professional engagements.
Since my experience in Ireland I feel I am at both sides of the horizon, and yes, it is beautiful.