The next time Christa Roby returns to Africa, she will be going home.
The Chilliwack registered massage therapist has purchased a piece of land in the southeastern country of Malawi, in a beautiful lakeside area called Nkhata Bay.
“My first step is to build a house,” she said. It’s a childhood dream come true for Roby, but it’s also the first stepping stone toward building her new organization, called In Their Shoes. The new venture is a culmination of two loves —caring for people on a one-to-one basis, and being a part of the continent of Africa.
She never knew how to combine the two, until recently. Roby has spent a considerable amount of her adult life in African countries, most recently in Zambia with an organization called Hands At Work.
And while she was in Canada, she worked with patients here as an RMT.
Her heart was tugging in both directions, until she realized she could unite the two passions.
“For years, the two functioned individually, not knowing they could be blended together,” she said.
As an RMT, Roby holds a vast encyclopedia of health care knowledge within her. Her mission with In Their Shoes will be to visit homes to identify which of them are caring for people who are bedridden. She will then work with those families to pass on her knowledge and teach them the skills to provide better care in their own homes. It will include teaching patients and their family caregivers how to improve mobility after illness or injury through movement and massage.
“I feel my role is to not hold what I have in me, but to share it,” she said.
In the best care scenarios, treatment will allow people to earn an income once again and free up family members to do the same. At the very least, Roby will be giving patients back their dignity by showing them how to modify movements.
So many simple ailments can lead to a loss of life without proper medical knowledge.
For example, lower back pain, an ailment so commonly treated in western countries, can lead the family’s main income earner to be bedridden.
And lower back pain is even more prevalent in areas like Malawi, where 90 per cent of the industry is agriculture and workers typically bend at the hips instead of the knees — all day long.
This sums up a few of the reasons Roby chose Malawi as the starting point for her organization.
There were three criteria she set out for herself. There had to be a high health care need, and Malawi has the sixth-lowest quality of health care in the world. It had to be a place where there were many remote communities that needed home-based health care knowledge, and again, Malawi’s Nkhata Bay fits that bill perfectly. Travel from remote villages to the closest health clinics and hospitals includes boat rides, long taxi and bus journeys, or more often, days of hiking back and forth only to find closed or filled-to-capacity clinics. For 200,000 people, there may be two doctors, no pharmacy, no diagnostic machines like x-rays.
Finally, the area had to be safe for Roby, and since Malawi has a democratic government that is not currently in conflict, it was a good fit.
But she pointed out that while the people of Malawi are in need, Africans are not a helpless lot.
“These are strong people with the ability to survive,” she said. “What they need is hope.”
And sometimes hope comes in the form of knowledge, and taking care of yourself.
“My goal isn’t to build up a network of westerners,” she said, but to give the knowledge to the people of Malawi, so that they can continue to share the knowledge.
“My heart is guided to work with what’s there,” she added, and in teaching the locals she hopes they will build their own new structure of health care.
Giving Malawi people a new way to deal with illness and injury will give them hope, dignity and a better overall quality of life, she said.
“I want to give them their basic dignity, these people have lost so much,” she said.
HIV is also prevalent in Malawi, where life expectancy is 50 years of age. The epidemic has left a whole generation of parentless kids, who now have the advantage of antiviral drugs but are being raised by their aging grandparents.
To learn more about In Their Shoes, or to help Roby financially in setting up her new organization in Malawi, visit www.intheirshoesafrica.com.
She will also be keeping a blog on that site to share her experiences.
Life in Africa is worlds apart from life in Canada, and Roby is often faced with new experiences while overseas. Staying focused on helping those in need keeps her steady.
“You have to approach it with a hard softness,” she said. “You can’t be torn apart at everything. I don’t think the culture shock ever ends, it’s always a new experience.”