Christa Roby is the founder of In Their Shoes, operating in Malawi, Africa.

Catching up with Christa Roby

One woman’s effort to ease pain and teach prevention in the African country of Malawi

Christa Roby’s passion for Malawi hasn’t ebbed over the years.

The impoverished country’s seaside port of Nkhata Bay is now her home, and has been for some time. But this autumn she came back to Chilliwack to see friends, family, and make connections for her foundation in Africa, In Their Shoes. And on a sunny October afternoon, she sits inside a downtown café to chat about what she’s learned in Malawi, what she struggles with, and what she hopes for the future. It’s been almost a year since she chatted with The Progress, but she updates her blog regularly, sharing the joys and heartaches of her new, African life and career.

READ: RMT shares lessons from life in Malawi

Roby went to Malawi as a registered massage therapist, eager to share her knowledge with the people there so they could live healthier, happier lives. Pain relief is so commonly understood in North America, but is as foreign as an unknown language in some African cultures.

Roby explains that in Malawi, like many other areas of the world, women always stoop lower than men out of cultural reverence. If they are in a room together, the women must sit lower. If a father passes his daughter on the street, she must move out of the way and lower herself. Even standing straight to sweep is a sign of laziness; taking a break a sign of weakness. Women there are both subservient and strong, Roby says. And that comes at a price to their physical wellness.

Lower back pain isn’t just a passing complaint in Malawi, it’s a source of embarrassment and unavoidable burden all the same. And it can be crippling.

Roby isn’t expecting to change all of that. The culture is too ingrained, she says. But she is starting to see seeds that she’s sown sprouting here and there. A man encouraging a woman to sit straight. A woman sharing her new knowledge of anatomy with a daughter. She’s even managed to open the eyes of regional doctors who have always believed “that’s just how women age.”

She has gotten through to some of those medical professionals, as she works to build more partnerships in Malawi.

“They’re really grabbing into it,” she says, and realizing they’ve helped to create the false idea that aging equals pain.

Her favourite moments are those breakthroughs.

“When you get one person, especially if it’s an elder or a man saying ‘we need to listen, we need to start changing this; it’s killing us, our culture is killing us. We’re not providing a future for our children,’” she says. “Then they spark their own discussions, and then it becomes their issue, to own it, to make change or to not.”

She says it’s important to keep teaching people about awareness and prevention, similarly to when North American workers really began to hear the message about proper bending and lifting techniques about 20 years ago.

“This is the poorest country, and you have people all over the country crying, saying ‘I’m not bedridden but I’m in pain,’ or ‘I can’t move. I’m limited. When are you gonna help me?’,” she says. “That for me has opened up this whole other realm — if you keep caring for the patients, they’re just going to keep showing up. So how do we get into the prevention, how do we get into the awareness that we actually stop the cycle or decrease the cycle?”

She and her team has created visual postcards that show basic anatomy, bone structure and nerve and muscle systems, so that her clients can visualize how pain is affecting their movement. Most of the people over 30 years old in the country have no more than a Grade 5 education level, so meeting them at that level is most effective, she says.

“It’s empowering them to want to change it,” she says. “They’ve visualized the cause and effect.”

She tells the story of a woman who arrived at a discussion bent over at a 90 degree angle, walking with a cane.

“She was walking less than a snail’s pace,” Roby says. But she stayed and listened to a talk on pain, stretching and moving. And a week later, she showed up to another discussion, and while she was moving slowly, she was upright and there was no cane in sight.

“It was just that one simple thing,” Roby says, that must have resonated with the woman. “And then, she becomes the challenge to others. People ask themselves ‘Why am I choosing to be in this pain when I’ve seen what is to come?”

There is still a long way to go, and it could take generations to get the message across. She is working hard to respect the culture of the country she’s moved to, and stresses she isn’t trying to change their cultural views. But if she can get them working together to keep each other strong and healthy, she is hopeful the people of Malawi will embrace the small changes.

To learn more about how you can help Christa Roby with her efforts to improve health in Malawi, and how to donate to the cause, visit her blog at www.intheirshoesafrica.com.