I recently returned from three months volunteering (as a writer) with the Dignitas International team in Malawi. My brother Michael and I have been fundraising for Dignitas’s work since the very early days. Both of us were initially drawn in by the story that founders Dr. James Orbinski and James Fraser told about a dire health emergency in Zomba, Malawi – an under-resourced corner of one of the poorest countries in the world. I remember Dr. Orbinski saying “people with AIDS are being left to die helplessly under the trees in the hospital courtyard.” These stories triggered emotions and those emotions in turn triggered actions. This is the power of narrative: you pick up a phone and retell a story, thoughtful people ‘get it’ and donate money. Before you know it, words become deeds and tens of thousands of lives are being saved in Africa.
As the years passed and Dignitas moved from success to success, the narrative about our emergency intervention in Malawi broadened in scope to include stories about a powerful research component that was beginning to have significant health policy impacts. In addition, the story about the frontline care we provide to populations at risk deepened to include measures to strengthen and build capacity in the local health care system. More recently, Dignitas has started a brand new and very exciting chapter that will bring the methodologies and expertise gained in Africa to bear on the health care challenges faced by remote Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario.
While in Malawi, I visited every corner of the project and worked to articulate the evolving Dignitas story so we can harness the power of the emerging narrative for the next leg of our fundraising journey. On a more fundamental level, after years of talking about Dignitas International, I wanted a hands-on engagement with the mission in Malawi. Essentially, I wanted to enter the story and learn to tell it from the inside out.
During my time in Malawi I stayed with Dignitas’s Country Director, Vanessa van Schoor, and got a front row look at the fierce energy and unflinching resolve it takes to keep a big, complicated project on-track and on-budget in a challenging local context. The Malawian nationals who manage our project day-to-day in Zomba and deliver services in our catchment area are the most inspired and inspiring team of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Being around them gave me a daily education in what it means to be a proper human being – their easy familiarity with complex diagnostic problems; their ability to communicate with exactitude and enthusiasm when training clinicians in the field and, of course, the easy grace one feels in the company of people who have dedicated their lives to doing good. Everyone who supports Dignitas should know there is a lot to be proud of over there. Our team in Zomba has a splendid reputation in-country and a growing international profile. This organization punches way-way above its weight.
The next ten years are going to crackle with excitement as Dignitas continues to grow and transform our Tisungane Clinic into a national centre of excellence that will fund research into primary health care solutions for the 21st century. Solutions that will have an impact not only in Malawi but around the world. My brother Michael and I often comment on how lucky we feel to be working with people this smart and dedicated. The next chapter of the Dignitas story belongs to all of us.
Board Member, Dignitas International