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Chitambo School of Nursing's first student intake
Chitambo School of Nursing's first student intake

A New Chapter for 'Livingstone's Hospital'

Monday September 14 2015

Julie Davidson tells how a family pilgrimage led to partnerships between Scotland and a Zambian hospital with links to the famous explorer.

In 2003 three sisters flew from opposite sides of the world to meet in the Zambian capital of Lusaka for an emotional journey back to their childhood home.

Marion, Jo and their half-sister Zanna, women with the family name of Currie, left husbands and children in New Zealand, Scotland and England to visit their father’s grave in the remote bushlands of the country which was still Northern Rhodesia when they left it over 30 years earlier.

Dr Hamilton “Milton” Currie, employed by the Church of Scotland, was one of several generations of medical missionaries, including the grandson and great-grandson of David Livingstone, who toiled in the lamplit wards and rudimentary theatre of Chitambo Hospital. He died in harness in 1974 – almost 70 years after Malcolm Moffat, a nephew of Livingstone’s wife Mary Moffat, founded Chitambo Mission.

The sisters’ pilgrimage to Zambia was, predictably, an intense experience. Like many mission families Marion and Jo Currie have the sunniest of memories of their African childhood – and the saddest memories of the kind of sacrifice mission families too often made. They lost their mother at an early age. She died giving birth to her fifth child, a tragedy compounded by the fact that their medical father, handicapped by isolation and meagre resources, was unable to save her. Her grave at Mwenzo Mission, north of Chitambo near the Malawi border, was also on their itinerary.

“I suppose we thought our Zambian journey would draw a line under our parents’ lives and our own early history,” says Jo, who left Zambia for nurse training in Edinburgh when she was 17. “But instead it marked the start of a new chapter.”

Marion returned to Wellington to write Livingstone’s Hospital, The Story of Chitambo - recently revised to update the persistent nature of the Livingstone connection, and describe where her sister Jo (now Jo Vallis, co-ordinator of the registered charity Friends of Chitambo) has taken it. This month (September) Jo is returning to Zambia for the fourth time, driving forward an initiative which had its origins in modest fund-raising and now has the support of the Scottish Government and her employer, NHS Education for Scotland (NES).

In Zambia she will be reunited with with the charity’s Zambian partners, Levy Chifwaila, senior nurse tutor at the Chitambo School of Nursing, and Consider Mudenda, project co-ordinator and IT specialist, who have just spent a month in Scotland on a packed programme of visits to key Scottish emergency care services.

The exchange visit (Jo takes with her two colleagues from NES) was made possible by the Scottish government’s small grant fund. Holyrood’s commitment to the Livingstone legacy doesn’t end at the border with Malawi, and as Jo admires “how much we also learned from Levy and Consider” she adds, “Thank goodness for a Scottish government with a humanitarian approach to sharing our experience and learning from the rest of the world.”

Chitambo Hospital, which has 150 beds, is now run by the Zambian government and serves a scattered rural population of about 100,000, living in villages up to 100 miles away where the only form of emergency transport may well be a bicycle. Chitambo District, nine hours drive’ up the Great North Road from Lusaka, has a network of 12 clinics, usually staffed by only one health worker, and a critical element of the joint project (which also involves the Zambia Research and Development Technology Academy) will link the clinics by mobile phone “hotline” to a new NHS24-style resource centre at the hospital.

The most common emergencies are road accidents, falls, burns (rural Africans still cook on open fires) and snake bite, but giving birth in the bush, contrary to the outmoded and romanticised perceptions of some natural childbirth enthusiasts, often presents problems. Levy Chifwaila describes a recent call-out to a clinic about 40 miles away. “Our ambulance and a midwife rushed to attend a maternity patient who, by the time they arrived, was unconscious and bleeding heavily. The midwife managed to deliver the baby but she didn’t know how to resuscitate the patient or deal with the complications. This is the type of challenge which our distance advice project will help us meet. It will save lives.”

It’s just over 142 years since Scotland’s illustrious missionary-explorer died in Chief Chitambo’s village. Famously, his followers buried his heart under a mupundu tree, dried and salted his body and carried it 1500 miles to the coast for the voyage to an icon’s funeral in Westminster Abbey. The tree is long gone, but in 1902 a tall monument was raised on its site, and in Marion Currie’s book there is a photograph of the Currie family at its foot. The snap is dated 1953, the flaxen-haired children are all young, and they still have their mother.

In 2003, around the same time as the three sisters were journeying through Zambia to their father’s grave, I, too, stood at the foot of Livingstone’s monument, watched by five ragged children in a lonely woodland clearing, Our paths never crossed. But 10 years later I met Jo Vallis at one of the many events held during 2013, Livingstone’s bicentenary year, and learned of Friends of Chitambo. The charity was still in its infancy. In two years it has come a long way.

Julie Davidson, author of Looking for Mrs Livingstone, is the patron of Friends of Chitambo. For more information on the charity contact Jo Vallis at 15 West Street, Penicuik EH26 9DG, 01968 673978, jovallis@hotmail.com

This is an abridged version of an article from September's Life and Work. Subscribe here.