Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beating death to the speed

Death, the robber of daily breath, has slower days, too; days so slow
a bicycle travels faster.
Clever minds merely attach carts to such bicycles during death’s
slower days, load the sick before conditions worsen, and rush to the
nearest health facility. Chances are that the sick will more likely be
embraced by hospital wards than the jaws of death- beating death to
the speed.
Sounds strange? This knowledge has been widespread in Malawi, spanning
from the days of the ox-cart, when pregnant women, the seriously ill,
among others, depended on community goodwill and human-animal
(donkeys/cattle) relationship to tame death.
At least until the beef cattle owner realized that, beaten more often
at the back, the beef animal develops thick skin and fetches little in
kilos at the market. You beat the cow and you squeeze some meet ‘into’
the animal, hitting oneself in the pocket.
Cattle are also scarce these days, apart from earning hefty head
prices- and so the bicycle took over. The Centre for Reproductive
Heath (CRH), a department at the College of Medicine (a constituent
college of the University of Malawi) in Blantyre was among the
institutions to buy into the idea.
A pilot project on bicycle ambulances was born in Makanjira and Nkumba
areas in Mangochi. This was time, in early 2000s, when well-founded
fears about high mortality and morbidity rates animated the nation.
There was a decree- silent decree confirmed by the Demographic Heath
Survey of 1998- that, out of 100, 000 births, some 894 Malawian
citizens had to die. Just like that.
“This is too high a rate”, complained the then CRH executive director
Dr. Agnes Chimbiri “It is too high a rate we cannot attain
sustainable, social-economic development. The woman, more than men,
contributes a lot to national development.”
While the Malawian father is still very much the patriarch, it is the
woman who controls the home, crop fields, and life.
Hers were sentiments made with logic and a modicum of documented
evidence Traditional Authority Makanjira had no more task than to
“We can only achieve real well-being by investing in the health-needs
of our women. It is good that Mangochi is among the districts
exploring the use of bicycle ambulances,” Makanjira said at the time.
Today, women continue to die. What does not continue, however, is Dr.
Chimbiri at CRH; She now is at the United Nations Development
Programme (Malawi office), taking the message home, perhaps, that for
development to live by its name, is must wear the ordinary woman’s
This development begins at the maternity wing.
What has changed, also, is that new innovations on how to utilize
bicycle ambulances are emerging- this time around from strange
destinations, Take, for instance, The Netherlands. Anything Malawian
about the Netherlands?
“Very well so,” quips Roel Barkhof, chairperson for a Dutch foundation
called Transport4Transport. This is a foundation that promotes
innovative transport technologies in a bid to speed up the time it
takes one, in this case pregnant women, to reach health centres and
get their lives back.
“He who cares for you, and your health, is a friend in deed; it goes
beyond blood. It is something that has to do with the inner
connection. In that respect, there are so many things Malawian about
Holland, and many thing Holland about being Malawian. We are all
striving for good life. Well-being.”
Transport4Transport foundation is an arm of Wagenborg, a profit-making
organization registered in the Netherlands. The later uses part of its
financial resources and staff (who work for the foundation as
volunteers) to help improve healthcare delivery systems in such
countries as Malawi.
“Malawi is the only country we are working in. We want to help improve
people’s lives, and this includes those with physical challenges. So
far, we have funded the production of over 400 carts for bicycle
ambulances and spend 280 Euro (about K54, 320) on each,” said Be Vam
der Weide, foundation treasurer.
The two were in Malawi to gauge progress on activities they bankroll
and, among other charity organizations, visited Stephanos, Liebemzell
and Maikhanda- marking their third visit to Malawi since 2007, when
they set their heart on Malawi and never want to pluck it back.
Barkhof and Weide came so silently, physically. But their actions, as
good actions do, spoke louder than words and reached the ears of Reen
Kachere- Minister responsible for the Elderly and People with
Disabilities- at Capital Hill.
Kachere quickly asked for a meeting on Friday, July 9, 2010.
Among others, the minister said she wanted to exploit the possibility
of using Transport4Transport’s kind financial hand to produce carts
for physically challenged people wishing- not to reach the hospital
faster this time around, but- to venture into small scale businesses!
“Mobility has always been a challenge for most people with
disabilities, and this is because most of them lack amenities such as
wheelchairs. Those with wheelchairs also face more challenges in terms
of transport: they fail to carry bulky goods. We feel like these
people could help us in that regard,” said Kachere.
Kachere said, given such opportunities, the physically challenged can
operate door-to-door businesses- in the process uplifting their
social-economic status.
As it stands now, most of them sit in the country’s streets looking
for ‘today’, daily bread. Kachere says this is not the best way to
live one’s life.
“It is my hope that, once these carts become available to these
people, they will begin to live productive lives. Productive life is
characterized by progress; there is no progress in looking for arms.
It’s opportunities like business that offer the possibility of human
progress,” said Kachere.
She envisages a time when every wheelchair shall have a cart attached
to it; in the cart, goods and other materials that add value to life-
supporting the one in front of the cart.
This is hope. Yet, it all started with a dream, then vision, of one
Peter Meijer. In February 2009, he decided to come to Malawi with his
family and venture into bicycle-carts’ production.
He opened shop on the fringes of Chemussa and termed his business
‘Sakaramento’. The locals set up bicycle taxis and call them
‘Sacramento. It all means bicycle transport.
Meijer then came across Barkhof and Weide through the internet, and so
begun the process of hope for many.
Said Meijer: “We produce two kinds of carts: CareCar (bicycle
ambulance) and TengaCar (transport cart). The Care Car is a bicycle
adapted to transport patients and pregnant women to healthcare
facilities in rural settings. It has sun and rain protectors to
safeguard the life of the patient.”
It is the TengaCar that Kachere is interested in because, as a push
and bicycle cart, the physically challenged and elderly can carry
goods in high volumes. What with a recommended maximum load of 150
kilograms- the equivalent of three 50 kg bags of maize, rice, or
Sakaramenta is also doing a social service. It encourages its workers
to go for further education, both secondary and technical, offsetting
80 per cent of the costs. That is why the organization closes at 4
O’clock during weekdays to give people the chance to go to school.
Blessings Kachepa of Matimati Village, T/A Njema, Mulanje dropped out
of Muloza Community Secondary School’s Form 2 class due to lack of
funds. He now has the future back, having secured the opportunity to
attend Form 3 at Chirimba Night School.
“I have been given the world again; school means everything to me,” he said.
Sentiments shared by Hassan Isaac, 27. Though he has no Malawi School
Certificate of Education certificate, he now pursues a Refrigeration
and Air-conditioning course.
In November, he will be sitting for Malawi Trade Test examinations.
It is change happening. It has happened for the hands behind the
carts; will it not happen for those using the carts?
“It will (work.), surely,” Kachere can be hopefully stubborn.

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