Dr Grace Chiudzu is one phenomenal woman who against all odds has made it in life. Having lost her father, her familyâ€™s only financial muscle, at a tender age did not deter her from becoming a gynaecologist. She faced hunger, ill-treatment, and lack of school fees. But her hard work and determination saw her getting scholarships, become Chief Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, and being able to open her own clinic. Through it all, she was raised by a single mother, a mere peasant farmer. Albert Sharra talks to her.
Who is Dr Grace Mary Chiudzu?
I am a third born in a family of nine and am aged 48. I am Roman Catholic and come from Mponda village, in Mchinji. I am Chief Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe. I am currently heading the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Ethel Mutharika Maternity Wing. I also have a private clinic (Mlolera) in area 47 sector 4 in Lilongwe, where I work on part time basis.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father was a primary school teacher. I lost him when I was only 15. My mother is a former peasant farmer.
Take us through your academic journey.
Apart from doing my primary education at various schools, I did my standard eight at Lunyangwa Girls Primary School in Mzuzu where I was selected to go to Ludzi Girls for my secondary education. After my Junior Certificate examinations, I was selected to go to Kamuzu Academy where I did my A-Levels.
In the same year, I was offered a scholarship to go and study medicine in the United Kingdom at the University of St Andrews for three years. After graduating, I proceeded to do my clinical training at the University of London St Maryâ€™s hospital in Paddington before returning home.
Later on, I left for University of Natal King Edward VIII hospital in Durban – Republic of South Africa, to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.
Why did you come back to Malawi?
I came back to Malawi to finish my clinical training with the University of Malawi at the College of Medicine where I graduated with Bachelors of Science, Bachelor of Medicine (MBBS).
I came back because of my family -Â especially my mother and the women of Malawi. I felt my home country needed me the most.
Where did you grow up?
I have grew up in various places because of my fatherâ€™s work which involved him moving from various schools. We went back and stayed in the village in Mchinji after his death.
How did losing your father at 15 affect you as a girl?
It was tragic for me. I had to be separated from my mother and went to stay with my aunt in Mzuzu which was not easy for me.
What memories do you have of growing up?
The first memory of my childhood is that my father loved me so much. He did not look at me as a girl but as one of his children with potential to excel in life. He encouraged me to work hard and wanted me including all my brothers and sisters to do well in life. Secondly, is about the death of my father and the life that followed thereafter. We struggled a lot financially but God was on our side. We all managed to cope and achieve our goals.
What are the difficulties that you went through after you lost your father?
Of course, I appreciate the help that my aunt rendered to me. But my stay in Mzuzu was a challenge for me. It reached a point when I decided to stop school and stay with my mother in the village. Unfortunately, my home village then had only a junior primary school.
For one to attend a senior primary, he or she had to go to a boarding school or stay with a relative somewhere far. Because of this, my mother insisted that I put up with whatever problems I was facing at my auntâ€™s place for the sake of school. I did go back and finished my primary school education. Fortunately, I was selected to Ludzi Girls Secondary School â€“ a boarding school.
What did your mother go through to ensure that you attained your basic needs and education
My aunt was the one paying for both my primary and secondary school fees. But the payments were erratic.Â As a result, when I was in secondary school, I normally attended school two to four weeks late every term.Â After seeing my hard work and determination, the headmistress arranged for a bursary for me to finish my form two. My mother could not afford it. Imagine that she was distilling and selling kachasu (the local beer) just to meet my fees and my siblingsâ€™.
Mostly, the harvest was not good to the extent that she would go to a maize mill to ask for gaga or deya (maize husks) to feed us. Fortunately, after form two, I was selected to go to Kamuzu Academy. At that time, we were not paying school fees. We started paying a small fee when I was in form six. Luckily, my uncle paid the fees.
What was life like in the village?
Fortunately, I was only at the village during holidays. But it was still hard staying there. We used to live in a two-bedroomed house that was heavily leaking during rainy seasons. We could not afford to patch it up. Our daily financial support was from the kachasu sales. The sales would be higher when we were around during holidays because boys and men would come not just to buy the beer but to propose to us.Â But just like my brothers, my sisters and I were determined to finish school and become independent.
How did your mother stay strong for you through all this?
When I was in form four, there was a certain family in our village that was well to do. This family wanted me to marry their son. My mum, though struggling to feed and clothe us, refused. Considering our poverty, she could have gladly accepted. But she wanted me to finish school and get a good job before getting married.
Being a third born, what responsibilities did you assume?
When I was around, I helped with looking after my younger siblings while my mum was busy with chores. But after my A-levels, my mum wanted me to start working right away so that I helped with my siblingsâ€™ fees and other financial expenses.Â I knew without a university degree, my assistance to my family would not be enough. Eventually, she reluctantly allowed me to proceed with my studies. From the first month I went to UK, I started sending her financial assistance. I must say she was a very good financial manager and that made it easier on my part to assist my family.
Did you manage to assist all your siblings?
I managed to assist them all finish their education except for one whom despite all our efforts decided to drop out of school. I managed to construct a good house at the village which unfortunately was abandoned due to unresolved differences with our relations.
Eventually, I built my mum a house at a trading centre within the district where she is residing to date. I can proudly say she is now living a comfortable life since she gets financial support from all her children.
Did you have big dreams as a child?
Of course! I call myself a lucky person because I knew what I wanted to be quite early in my life. I started dreaming of becoming a doctor while I was still in primary school. Each time I went to a hospital, I became inquisitive after seeing long queues of patients waiting. After realising that they always waited for a senior doctor, I developed a desire to become one. I am happy that I realised my dream.
What does your average work day as a Chief Obstetrician and Gynaecologist involve?
My job starts at 7:30am with a handover round where we get reports of what has happened during the past 24 hours. Then I attend to my administrative desk. The clinical dayâ€™s work finishes with a handover round at 4pm in labour ward. When the need arise, I delegate meetings. Then if there is no emergency to attend to, I knock-off.
What are the challenges that you face in your current position?
The main challenge is lack of drugs and supplies. This poses many challenges to our daily provisions of services.
The second thing is lack of discipline among hospital staff. This is mainly due to the operational system which is in place in all government hospitals. It is a challenge to guard the misconduct of staff with the current operation system.
Another challenge is that most people are left disappointed because they cannot be attended to by me specifically when they come to the department. As much as I would want to attend to everyone, it is impossible for me to do so.
What are you doing to address them?
We are currently lobbying with the Ministry of Health and I am happy to say that we are having full support to rectify these challenges.
What are the current maternal issues that are affecting women in Malawi?
Mostly they are cervix and breast cancer; HIV and Aids, where married women are the highest risk group. Most people are still ignorant of reproductive issues resulting in decisions putting their life at risk of illness or death.
If you were given a chance to change the situation, what would you do?
Ensure that we educated the girl child who in turn will educate everyone.
Is there anything that you think that as Malawians we can do without having to push the responsibility to government all the time?
As men and women, we should work hard and take initiatives in maternal issues. We should stop waiting for handouts. We need to be honest and take responsibility for our actions whether good or bad. As women, we need to keep on encouraging one another to fight for our equality as opposed to being favoured for being women. We have to play
I wanted to provide services to women to the best of my ability without many restrictions. I also a leading role in promoting the girl child education.
What prompted you to start your own clinic (Mlolera)?
wanted to beef up my financial base.
What are the challenges that you face at this clinic?
Unfriendly financial institutions and conditions that can help one progress and grow.
Could you please tell us about your immediate family?Â
I am married to Hastings and together we have two lovely children Fiona (17 years) and Clive (15 years). My husband is a civil servant. He is director of buildings in the Ministry of Lands.