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Friday, 20 April 2007

Zimbabwe and Malawi: the eternal bond that binds us

By Daniel Fortune Molokele
Last updated: 04/19/2007 23:49:59

THIS past week, I took some time to reflect on the common heritage that Zimbabwe shares with the people of Malawi.

This rather rare special focus on the Malawi was occasioned by the mere fact that I visited the Thyolo district of southern Malawi recently as part of a field team sponsored by an international NGO I now work for that has medical relief support projects in Malawi.

This was my second ever visit to Malawi. My first visit was in September 2003 as part of the MISA Zimbabwe team that was dispatched to Blantyre and Dar es Salaam, in the aftermath of the unjust closure of the Daily News.

Historically speaking, Malawi and Zimbabwe converge at the level of
colonialism. Both countries were colonised by the same European imperial power, Britain.

Specifically, it was during the controversial years of the central African federation of between 1953 and 1963 that our colonial history was at its closest. This was during the days of the ill-fated triple partnership between Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia. It was thus after the collapse of the federation that the two countries' destinies somehow diverged in terms of political direction.

It then happened that Nyasaland became the independent Malawi under Kamuzu Banda and Northern Rhodesia became Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. Sadly for Southern Rhodesia, things had to go the longer route. Unlike the other two countries, it had its own unique experience of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965.

Thereafter it became known simply as Rhodesia under the leadership of Ian Smith. It was not until after the bloody liberation struggle that the country also got its full independence in April 1980.

Thereafter it became known as Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. Sadly for most of us, he remains the only post-independence leader the country has ever known.

But it is also trite to mention that both Kaunda and Banda ruled their respective countries for almost three decades each until they were swept out from power. Mugabe somehow appears to have learnt two clear lessons from those two founding presidents.

Firstly, one can stay in power as long as they can, as long as it is at least thirty continual years. Secondly, be prepared to sacrifice your country at the altar of self aggrandisement, a feat he appears to have really learnt from Banda who allowed a lot of talented Malawians to leave the country leaving it to continue to suffer as one of the world’s poorest countries.

Mugabe, like Banda, appears to believe that it is okay to allow the country to continue to sink deeper into the abyss, as he remains the captain of the ship. It is no wonder that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has recently likened Zimbabwe to a sinking Titanic!

Malawi gets a strong dose of Taiwanese know-how

Publication Date:04/19/2007 Section:Panorama
By Alexander Chou

Few of his colleagues at the Bureau of Food Safety under the Cabinet-level Department of Health knew that Cheng Hwei-wen, the bureau director, had helped found the School of Pharmacy at the University of Malawi in 2006 before joining the government. He did not talk about his act of kindness; for him it was simply a part of his commitment to Buddhism.

Taiwan, a recipient of U.S. assistance during the 1950s and 1960s, had long known that a truly independent country could never rely entirely on help from others. As a popular Chinese proverb says, "Heaven helps those who help themselves." Through industrial development and sound government policies, the country became less reliant on economic assistance. A major part of achieving that goal was to build a large work force of educated, highly skilled people. After 1949, the government expanded education to increase literacy rates. Thousands of students studied abroad as well. What Cheng tried to accomplish in Malawi followed the strategy Taiwan had adopted earlier: making education the top priority.

Cheng, who held a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from National Taiwan University and a doctorate from the School of Pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, applied his expertise to help Malawi, a landlocked, predominantly rural country in southern Africa. Starting in January 2006, Cheng taught pharmaceutics and led students to undertake further research into traditional African medicine.

As to why he chose Malawi despite having contracted malaria on an earlier visit there, Cheng said he was inspired by Robin Broadhead, principal of the College of Medicine at the university. The 63-year-old pediatrician from Liverpool, England, had worked in Malawi for 16 years.

Cheng first met Broadhead on a trip to Malawi. While en route to a pharmaceutical conference in West Africa, he visited Taiwan's medical mission in Malawi. Cheng then took a trip to the University of Malawi. Cheng recalled Broadhead giving him the valuable advice that "We are not here for the salvation of Africa; rather, we are here to learn from Africa. Learn from the Malawians carefully, and you will reap more than they will." Those words made a deep impression on Cheng.

By then, the University of Malawi had been trying to recruit qualified pharmacy professors for more than two years, but its efforts were in vain, according to Cheng. An article in an academic journal confirmed his opinion. "Malawi needs pharmacists. There is no School of Pharmacy in the country and currently there are around 60 pharmacists for a population of 10 million," a Feb. 26, 2005 article in Pharmaceutical Journal stated. While discussing the school, the article added that it would offer courses aimed specifically at dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and various tropical diseases.

Looking over the condition of the school's facilities, Cheng was moved to action. "The most striking fact was that the classrooms and necessary equipment were not ready," Cheng said. "The funds to maintain the department were not quite there yet. Nevertheless, they were very optimistic and confident that the department would begin operations in January 2006 as planned. Perhaps, it was their optimism that moved me. I promised them that I would go back again to teach."

Cheng ended up doing more than teaching. Before he got started, he felt that it was necessary for Broadhead to get a better understanding of the medical resources Taiwan would be able to offer. By visiting Taiwan, Broadhead could see the fruits of research and development in the field of traditional Chinese medicine in Taiwan.

Through careful arrangement with the Republic of China embassy in Lilongwe, Broadhead came to Taiwan in November 2005. During his 10-day visit, he was taken to the Taipei Medical University and Bureau of Food and Drug Analysis in Taipei City, where he looked at pharmaceutical equipment, facilities and the state of the school's research in modernizing traditional herbal medicine.

For Broadhead, the trip was important because he was convinced that Cheng was fully capable of "learning from the Malawians." Since Cheng had experience with finding new applications for traditional Chinese medicine, he could bring the same skills to bear on African medicine. In a telephone interview April 13, Broadhead said that after being accompanied personally by Cheng to Taiwan's hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, he was more than willing to welcome Cheng to join the team in Malawi.

Taking a sabbatical from Taipei Medical University, where he had taught pharmacy for many years, Cheng started preparing for Malawi. Creating a syllabus for his students-to-be did not worry him. Equipment such as projectors, computers and other electronics would be a problem, as Malawi was one of the poorest countries in Africa. These items were abundant in Taiwan, however, so Cheng purchased equipment for the new school before he left for Malawi, since he felt the students there deserved the same tools as their counterparts in Taiwan.

In Malawi, Cheng directed his students to research traditional African medicine. He taught them how to design questionnaires so they could gather information. These were distributed to over 100 local healers, and as a result, the students learned the medicinal properties of over 100 herbs, said Cheng. He trained students to input data into computers and edit the material into a professional format. Cheng's plan was to collate their findings and publish a book about traditional African medicine, which could become a vital record and a useful reference for researchers.

To broaden the students' pharmaceutical knowledge, Cheng decided to arrange a study tour to Taiwan for two lecturers and three of the first eight students in the department. Cheng and his students at the College of Pharmacy at Taipei Medical University prepared to receive the visitors. The three students--John Mponda, Lumbani Makwakwa and Collins Minyaliwa--began their 10-day program on July 24, 2006, which included analyzing Chinese herbal medicine with members of the doctoral program at TMU, meeting with pharmacy students from institutions such as National Taiwan University and the National Defense Medical Center, as well as visiting Sinphar Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., a local company that created new drugs from Chinese herbal medicines.

Minyaliwa commented, "Professor Cheng is a good person. Before he came to Malawi and helped the School of Pharmacy, the best you could do was to become a pharmaceutical assistant dispensing drugs in a local pharmacy." Now, Minyaliwa would like to establish a company of his own to produce medicine. Mponda said he planned to become a college professor and teach pharmaceutics in his home country.

The two lecturers, Mwapatsa Mipando and Chikumbutso Mtegha, stayed on after the students left, spending three months studying at various institutions in Taiwan. Along with placements at TMU and CMU, they visited the Pharmaceutical Industry Technology and Development Center, a government-funded research institute. "I was able to see how traditional medicines are evaluated for them to meet the standards required for human use," Mipando wrote in a report about the study tour. "Also, new methods of processing natural products were shown to me." He said he hoped to later use those techniques to do pharmacological analysis on Malawian herbs.

While the study trips to Taiwan were productive, Cheng was aware of the challenges in building a group of pharmacists. He knew that holding on to students would be difficult, since many would likely quit their studies and pursue employment. Yet, he stressed that education was always a valuable investment. "Even if only one student became determined to stay and serve in Malawi, it would be worthwhile," he said.