Katharine Balfour during her time in Malawi. ©

Katharine Balfour

Katharine Balfour from Edinburgh is a 20 year old medical student and a member of the Scotland Malawi Partnership Youth Committee. Katharine tells us about the career defining experience of working in the Mulanje District of Malawi.

What were you doing in Malawi?

I volunteered for four weeks with an organisation called Friends of Mulanje Orphans in the Mulanje District of Malawi. I worked in health clinics which had a daily intake of patients from the local area. I also spent time working at the Mulanje District Hospital which is a rural hospital with a lack of resources. I lived in one of the orphanage centres where I worked and played with the children every day. I taught them games and music and they taught me Malawian songs and dances. I even taught them ceilidh dancing!

I then spent a further three weeks carrying out a research project in Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. The project involved introducing members of the Ears, Nose and Throat Department to a new ophthalmoscope-otoscope device created by an organisation called Arclight. I collected their feedback of the device. On the weekends, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel around Malawi. I visited tea plantations, a safari park, Lake Malawi and hiked lots of the amazing mountains that Malawi has. 

Why did you decide to go?

My university [St Andrews] offers travel grants to Malawi, which was the reason I became interested in the country. After some research, and talking to other medical students who had visited the country, I decided to go. I’m also very interested in global health and I wanted to experience healthcare in a country very different to our own. I thought this opportunity would allow me to develop my skills as a medical student whilst also allowing me to gain insight into what it would be like to work in a low resource healthcare setting. I also love to understand and experience new cultures which this opportunity definitely allowed me to do. 

What was Malawi like? Was it what you expected?

Malawi is an amazing, vibrant country filled with incredibly kind, welcoming people. I didn’t really know what to expect because I had never visited anywhere like it before. Everyone wass so friendly and willing to welcome me into their homes. You get a real sense of community no matter where you go, and strangers will talk happily to each other (something I loved that is very different to the UK). The food is delicious and the portion sizes are generous. There was many a time that I couldn’t finish all of the nsima (maize flour type porridge). Although the language, Chichewa, is sometimes difficult to understand, it was easy to learn simple phrases which the Malawians loved.

What was your favourite part of the experience?

I loved being immersed in the healthcare setting and feeling like I was contributing something to this amazing country. When I was able to communicate with doctors and patients I felt like a part of their healthcare team. I found it fascinating learning about people’s daily lives and how much they differed from our own. I also could never have imagined how much I would learn from my trip - not only about medicine but about myself.

What was the biggest culture shock?

I think the difference in the accessibility of resources and the infrastructure of the healthcare sector was the most challenging for me. I found it frustrating at times when the patient had to return home without the correct medicine or with no medicine at all. Even with limited resources the doctors were resourceful. They could provide a diagnosis without the scanning technology (ultrasounds and x-rays) that doctors in the UK rely so heavily on. This part of the trip did make me value the healthcare we receive back home.

Did the experience benefit your current or future career in any way?

I truly believe this experience changed my future career massively. It taught me so much about how to act in a clinical setting and professionally as doctor. It also increased my confidence in talking to patients and other members of the healthcare team. I was shown things I would never have seen otherwise, such as surgeries and deliveries. It also made me rethink how I view my education and reminded me not to take my time at medical school for granted. The experience has only furthered my interest in global health and confirmed that I would like it to be a part of my future career. I would love to return to Malawi when I am fully qualified and continue my work in low-resource healthcare settings. 

Can you tell us 3 lessons you learned while living in Malawi?

  1. I learnt how to cope with limited resources. Even with limited power, water, food, healthcare and clothing, efficient healthcare can still be provided.
  2. I learnt how much we take for granted in the UK. After living in Malawi for seven weeks you realise how little we actually need and how materialistic the UK can be. We can actually survive without our ‘luxuries’ and still live happy, fulfilling lives. 
  3. I learnt how important it is to not take education for granted. Whether it’s school, university or higher education, the people I met in Malawi are so keen to learn and be taught. 

The Scotland Malawi Partnership (SMP) is the national civil society network coordinating, supporting and representing the people-to-people links between our two nations. The SMP Youth Committee is a group of 10 young people from across Scotland with links to Malawi. The group will help the Partnership plan and coordinate events to promote links between young people in the two countries.

This interview was undertaken as part of British Council Scotland's commitment to encourage young people to embrace international experiences in the Year of Young People 2018.