Carol McGregor: Malawi Diaries

Thursday July 12

I'M WRITING this in the "Three Bells" pub at Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport. I've found a comfy corner as I'll be here a while. I left the house (in Perthshire) this morning at 11.30 - still packing at 10am - and I was dismayed to see all the concrete blocks outside the terminal building at Edinburgh airport. Such a shame that Scotland is now embroiled in terrorist threats.

Last week, I received an email from Haroon in the Pakistani Sightsavers International office, being very apologetic and sympathetic about the bomb threat at Glasgow Airport. He was just re-thanking the Scottish people for all their generosity after the Pakistan earthquake when Scotland sent more than 2m.

All this fanaticism affects us all.

I am very excited about the trip to Malawi to get publicity for SSI and, needless to say, it'll be wonderful for me to see Ewan in Lilongwe.

The logistics of the "meeting" are, to say the least, difficult. Timings have changed from them arriving one day early to three days late!

I am in touch with David Alexanian, the producer of Long Way Down, and now he assures me they won't be more than two days late!

We had hoped to meet up on the Saturday but now it's looking like Monday or Tuesday. I hope this doesn't disrupt the SSI project visits too much.

Ewan knows nothing of my visit. I follow his progress on the BBC website and last night I watched a clip of him falling off his bike and hitting his head, albeit in a helmet, on the road. Not nice to see. I know it happened more than a week ago, but he was so down in the interview, I just wanted him to give it all up! He won't of course.

Eve (Ewan's wife) is now out in Malawi and joining Ewan at the Tanzanian border to ride with him for two weeks. She doesn't know I'll be there either. I do admire her courage for undertaking all the training and even learning to ride a motorbike in the first place.

Chris Moyles on Radio 1 gave Ewan a hard time this morning in his weekly interview because his wife was joining him and Charley's (Charley Boorman, Ewan's travelling companion) wasn't. What will he say when his Mum also turns up! I'll only be with them over one night though and will not interrupt their trip at all.

I just hope it all goes to plan.

Terminal 3 is just packed with people of all nationalities. It's such a drab place, but work is going on to improve it, hopefully.

I met up with Ann (SSI media manager) right on time and we checked in at the only desk that didn't have a queue – Ethiopian Airways, first to Rome and then on to Addis Ababa before another flight into Malawi.

Friday July 13

The flight was late into Addis Ababa, which looks like a nice town – from the airport window. Some high rise buildings, no skyscrapers and a lot of trees. Two mosque towers.

The flight to Lilongwe was delayed one and a half hours but no problem with the flight. Met at airport by Ronnie Graham, east central Africa regional manager for SSI. I first met him in Bangladesh. It was nice to see him again and meet Johnny – the local driver.

Drove straight to the country lodge where we are staying. The room is very African with high wooden ceilings, all wood furniture and mosquito nets around the bed.

Met Sandra - an advocate for the Malawi government - for dinner. We hear the mortgage rate was recently 45% but has now dropped to 18% under the new government, which is still in a minority situation (like Scotland).

Ann came to tell me Ewan was on Channel 3! Can you believe I'm in Malawi and watching Ewan in Young Adam on TV!

Saturday July 14

Breakfast at 8.00am, then we were on the long and bumpy road to Lilongwe. I worry about Eve managing these "corrugated iron" type conditions on her bike.

David phoned today from the Malawi border, around lunch time so Ewan and Eve will now have met up.

Met Georgina, the photographer who flew in from Nairobi this morning to take photos for SSI. Had dinner with Georgina, photographer, Sarah Epstein from UNICEF, and Ann.

I so admire these young women for the jobs they do. Ann had previously worked in Peru. Georgina has photographed women in conditions at the mines in Congo and Sarah has dealt with child prostitution in Thailand and AIDS in Africa.

Sunday July 15

We left for Lake Malawi at 10am. Went to Livingstonia Beach Lodge Complex, lovely beach and waves on the lake! Beautiful spot.

Had a buffet lunch then went on to a tropical fish farm, miles from anywhere, but near the lakes. Divers catch the fish and they are put in a variety of tanks. All beautiful colours. They are sold all over the world.

Then went on to a crocodile farm - absolutely fascinating. Ranging from babies to full grown old ones about 10ft long. Vicious looking things, but so still they almost looked dead until they move and then it's very fast (farmed for their skin and also meat).

A long drive back in the dark. Lots of people on the roadsides and bikes – no lights at all. Really dangerous.

Monday July 16

Left at 8am to see an opthalmic screening programme at Mchingi. Meet the ophthalmologist, Michael. He does this screening only once a year and probably 200 people to see in a day. First, they register, then sit outside on the ground, wait their turn to see a very basic eye test by a nurse. Then they go on to see the doctor, who prescribes creams or drops and refers to the hospital for cataract operations.

They go that afternoon, have the operation tomorrow.

Then to a village to visit two women who have had cataract operations and had their sight returned. A TV camera was with us all day from Malawi TV. SSI haven't been on local TV since 2001.

Living conditions are just so appalling – hens, pigs, goats all wandering through their village and the children are just filthy.

We caused great excitement and a lot of laughter which was good. The husband of the lady who had her sight restored was very pleased because prior to the operation she could not do "the housework as HE found it difficult to carry the water!"

We then visited a local hospital - a general hospital with an ophthalmologist and beds only in a general ward.

I find these hospitals quite difficult; the smell of bleach and lots of people is quite overpowering at times.

The general wards were so crowded. The men's ward had mattresses on the floor and even just rush mats, for people who had just had operations. Families were with patients and were sitting on beds and it was such an overpowering place.

We were escorted into the theatre and watched two cataract operations on adults. The hygiene is so poor. Only the area around the eye is swabbed. The floor under the operating table is soiled and even the sheet they lie on is stained and dirty.

The ophthalmologist was very nice but said his hand shakes when there are visitors! Such delicate work. I felt a bit emotional with it all and when I changed out of my white wellies and green gown I was glad to leave.

Back at base we decide on tomorrow's plans for meeting Ewan. I'm so excited about that.

Tuesday July 17

Up at 6am and away at 7am to visit two schools. Had a bit of a tummy upset and worried about the long journey. However, I took an immodium and Georgina gave me a sachet of Diaralyte and I manage to overcome it. Not really at my best but did interviews at both schools.

The first one had 1,552 pupils and just ten teachers. Big campus but no resources.

I went to see a seven-year-old boy, called Andrew, who has only just been integrated into a P1 class. He is blind and very badly co-ordinated. A teacher found him and discovered he'd been kept indoors all his life. The teacher has very little help in coping with him – but she seemed to handle him fine. He was the size of a three-year old.

The next school was larger and more organised. An older boy was using visual aids – a small telescope and a magnifying glass and seemed to be coping well in the large class.

They were learning English, by rote, but were enthusiastic and the teacher was good. The walls were brown, the floor, where the pupils sit, was hard earth. The teacher had a wooden desk in one corner, otherwise no furniture.

It is a slow process but with the help of SSI, these pupils with visual difficulties are being found and are now in learning. Vincent was with us from the Malawian Education Department for Special Needs. I wonder what he would think of the equipment and resources at a school like Kingspark (where I worked in Dundee).

We left around 11am and drove back to Kumbali Lodge to prepare for Ewan's arrival!

We just got to the barrier before the hotel, when a vehicle came up behind us followed by Charley, Ewan and Eve on bikes.

We had a really quick drive into the hotel so that Ewan wouldn't know I was there. I dashed for my room to basically hide, until it was time for me to go to the reception to surprise Ewan.

It worked so well. He had no idea and when I gave him a coke and a glass he was amazed! It was a wonderful moment and so lovely to see him again. Eve was there too and it was a very special moment.

We met up again at 5.30pm for a trip to Lilongwe to a drinks reception at the British Ambassador's residence.

We later had a lovely dinner together but as the motorbikers have to be up early everyone left by about 10.30.

Ronnie gave Ann, Georgina and I a present from the SSI office – a Malawi apron, an African cloth and a plate from Mammamia (a local restaurant).

Wednesday July 18

Last day.

Said goodbye to Ewan, Eve and Charley at 7am. I told Ewan we would be in Cape Town when he arrives and he was delighted. I didn't think it warranted another surprise, especially when Jim (his father) will be riding a bit with them.

Left the hotel at 10.45 for the journey home. Lilongwe, Lusaka, Addis Ababa, Rome, London, Edinburgh.

Took 29 hours.