Don's Diary

February 1, 2002

I address the Graduates Association's Annual Ball referring to our most celebrated alumnus, David Livingstone. My enjoyment of the evening is slightly marred by one colleague's disclosure of a recent encounter with a spider the size of a small hedgehog in what will shortly be my room in Malawi.

My family talks all day about spiders. Finally, I ring my mother-in-law, a very old Malawi hand, who recalls no hedgehog-sized arachnids. She rather spoils the calming effect by claiming that she met and killed one poisonous snake each day.

The early morning Glasgow-Amsterdam flight requires de-icing before we depart. I can usually count on meeting other Strathclyders on this flight - today, it is an engineering professor en route to St Petersburg. After agreeing that excess vodka, rather than local fauna, is the main hazard there, I briefly consider jumping ship and joining him.

The sight from the aircraft window of the summit of Kilimanjaro, lit by the morning sun, is my reward for persevering. My fellow passenger Kenneth Kaunda has dedicated himself to fighting the Aids pandemic that claimed the life of his son.

In Lilongwe it is high summer with jacaranda and flame trees in full bloom; the country waits for the rains. I meet up with Jim Kennedy from Strathclyde and Ralph Gunn, Georgie MacMillan and Annette Morrison from Bell College, our partners in the Malawi Millennium Project.

Bad news: the David Livingstone Clinic, due to be opened tomorrow, is nowhere near completion. The ceremony has been transferred to the nearby Assembly Hall, which is in a mess.

Today's challenge is a single ceremony in two hemispheres. The principal of Strathclyde, Andrew Hamnett, presides in Glasgow at a large gathering of staff, student and graduate donors. I am in charge in the Assembly Hall, now looking splendid, where we can hear every word.

The principal introduces the Princess Royal who freely acknowledges that the project has achieved much more than she anticipated when launching it in 1999. Responding, the vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi tells us of his country's debt to Livingstone and of his admiration for the Strathclyde students who stayed at his residence in August 2000.

The British high commissioner describes a visit to the main hospital in Blantyre where patients, 60 per cent of whom are HIV positive, sleep under and between beds. On a visit there a year ago, I found two nurses caring for 70 patients. More nurses are urgently required, and here Kamuzu College of Nursing, for which we have built the clinic, holds the key.

After the ceremony, the Princess Royal meets donors. She spends most time with six Malawians in Strathclyde for an intensive course to equip them to train primary teachers and so help Malawi meet its target of free primary education for all.

Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there are protracted Malawian-style celebrations that end very much later with the vice-chancellor leading the singing of "I Belong to Glasgow".

Ralph and Jim leave very early for Blantyre to hand out 100 David Livingstone scholarships to students and to present a microscope to the Malawi Polytechnic. Georgie and Annette prepare to visit villages to give gifts to children. Later, they will help open our container, the third we have sent, which is filled with books, clothing, hospital equipment and surplus PCs. After settling up with our builders I depart, reluctantly, for Scotland.

Back at work, I chair a meeting of the Secretaries Group of Universities Scotland, held at Stirling University. Some important business is covered, but my mind is often elsewhere. Sheer exhaustion is one explanation but another is that Africa never really lets you go.

And the spiders and snakes? I never saw even one.

Peter West is university secretary, University of Strathclyde, and convener of the Malawi Millennium Project.

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