Hello Mama Africa

(Gule Wankulu)

What a joy it was to be back on the African continent!!! PEPFAR recently held its “Keys to Health Information Systems Integration, Sustainability, and Country Ownership” workshop in Cape Town, South Africa – which afforded an amazing opportunity to not only go to South Africa, but also return to the “Warm Heart of Africa”.

(My Malawian counterparts: Lucius, Ntolo and Ndasowa)

The conference was spectacular, which in and of itself proved to be quite the reunion. After working in this field for almost four years, one gets to know the key players from all over the world. I loved seeing my friends/colleagues from Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique, etc., plus all of those whom had traveled from the states.

(Tuan Anh, Amy & Fitti)

And I also felt quite honored when the conference organizers asked me to present in two sessions, including the opening plenary panel. Granted, I do feel as if I bring a unique perspective to the table, especially having worked in both CDC and USAID as well as Africa and Asia. The agencies as well as the HIV epidemic in the regions differ tremendously!


Plus, I couldn’t have asked for a better conference setting. Cape Town continues to be one of my favorite cities in the world. It offers everything from stunning mountains, beautiful beaches, gorgeous vineyards, diverse cultures, amazing food and wine, lovely boutiques and shopping centers, and an infrastructure that feels more European than African.

(Coast on the way to Stellenbosch – Fitti and Amy)

(Wine Country)

Unfortunately, crime is still problematic. In fact, I had $800 stolen from my five-star hotel room. What started out as a misfortunate event turned into a huge ordeal as a lot of my time was spent dealing with hotel security, police and eventually the embassy’s Regional Security Officer.

(View of Cape Town)

Ironically, the Westin Grand Hotel claimed to have security cameras on every floor along with chips on every key in order to monitor who enters the rooms. As such, they were able to tell me that two different people entered my room on the day my money was stolen; yet they had passed the polygraph test – proving that they were innocent.



Meanwhile, who keeps a polygraph test on site? Doesn’t that say something about the hotel’s staff? And who administers these polygraph tests?

coffee break
(Photos taken in Khayelitsha in 2002)

what beautiful eyes
(Photos taken in 2002)

Fortunately for me, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Six other people from the conference came forward with claims of money stolen, including a laptop. That’s when the Embassy got involved and applied more pressure on the hotel. In the end, we received 50% of the money that was stolen, but it didn’t diminish the amount of time and energy wasted. Granted, I quickly refocused my attention on the conference and on the beauty of Cape Town.

(Amy & Prateek)

(Perry and Prateek)

After the conference, my dear friend Fitti (from Uganda) and I decided to go on a wine tour in the hills of Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch lies at the foot of the Cape Fold mountain range, and serves as the primary location for viticulture. We only managed to go to two wineries: Spier and Neethlingshof – but the entire region, including the town of Stellenbosch – was amazing!

(View from top of Table Mountain)

On the way to Stellenbosch, we drove by Khayelitsha! With an estimated population of over one million people, Khayelitsha remains one of the largest townships in Cape Town.

(Alisha and Darko)

I have fond memories of Khayelitsha, as this is where David and I (my twin brother) stayed when we traveled through Africa almost ten years ago. At that time, a woman named Vicky had just opened a small B&B to let others experience the true township culture and way of life. Needless to say, she lived up to her end of the bargain…as this experience remains one of my favorite memories from South Africa.

(Amy at Wheel House)

On Saturday, Prateek, Perry and I hiked up Table Mountain via Skeleton and Platteklip Gorges. Hiking the Cape Peninsula offers breathtaking views of both the city and ocean below; and the abundance of flora and fauna along the way are stunning. It’s truly rare to find such natural beauty within a bustling city.

(Wood Carvers)

(My favorite wood carvers)

It took us five hours to hike to the top, but so worth it!

(Jimmy pretending to be the Gule Wankulu)

(Gule Wankulu)

As an added bonus, I was able to catch up with another one of my close friends from Malawi, Alisha, who is now working in Cape Town. I absolutely adore her and was thrilled to see where she lived and to hear all about her life! Am so proud of all that she does! And I briefly saw Darko (another friend from Malawi), too, who currently lives in Zimbabwe but happened to be on holiday in Cape Town during my stay!

(Safari Beach Lodge – Fishing Village)

(Fishing Beach)

Catching up with Alisha and Darko was the precursor to my Malawian reunion! Immediately upon my arrival in Lilongwe, it felt as if I had returned home!

(Amy at Senga Bay – Livingstonia)

(Chifatso at Senga Bay)

By the time I had left Malawi exactly one year ago, I had taken for granted all the little things that had become part of my daily routine. The beautiful red dirt roads; women walking around in their chitenje’s with wood piled high on their heads; the open expanse of land; waking up to the sounds of songbirds; the beaming smiles of the Malawians; the ‘mice on a stick’ vendors standing along the highway; and the general sense of community.

(Taken during Hash on the small lake in Area 10 off Blantyre Road)

On this return visit, I had an innate appreciation of all that Malawi had to offer. I reveled in the most mundane tasks, from stopping by the gas station to purchase electricity credits to shopping for Nali and Malawi Gin at the local PTC. After all, I only had three short days to experience all that I possibly could! Short but sweet…

(Amy and Chipha)

(Gwyneth, Milo and Jorge)

I arrived on Sunday afternoon and went immediately to Chameleon’s for Jazz and to reunite with old friends. Again, I relished in the simplicity of drinking an ice cold Green while hanging out on the outdoor patio with friends.

(Amy and George – Ministry of Health)

(M&E Unit at Lighthouse)

On Monday, Carl, Chifatso and I headed to Lake Malawi. On the way, we came across three Gule Wankulu running down the road. Talk about a sight to see! In general, the Gule Wankulu are shrouded in mystery. Only the local chief, who appoints them as guardians of the village, knows who they are, and they have the responsibility of driving away evil spirits from the village.

(Dinner at Blue Ginger)

(Eva at Chameleon’s)

The Gule Wankulu perform masked dances for various occasions, including funerals, puberty initiation rites, major local and national celebrations and during the installation of new chiefs.

(Me and Jorge hiking in Dedza)

Next we stopped by my favorite wood carving stalls. As we pulled over, I heard my name being hollered from across the road! Jimmy, Lucius, Charles and others came running over to greet me with friendly smiles and big hugs! As we embraced, they asked for ‘Mumba-A-Go-Go’ otherwise known as my mom! My mom made a lasting impression on many during her visits. I couldn’t help but smile when they asked for her by name!

(Taking a brief rest)

(Carrying heavy loads)

These wood carvers are especially dear to my heart! One year, we requested them to make 30 keychains for Maia’s kindergarten class, each one with a child’s name engraved on the back. Maia’s class was so excited when they received their gifts from Malawi that they sent thank you letters, bookmarks, and other items in return. It’s truly a blessing to facilitate such a magnificent cultural exchange. The wood carvers were beyond delighted when I shared photos and letters from her school.

(Children in Dedza)


And no trip to Malawi would be complete without seeing Lake Malawi. We made three different stops along the way. First, we went to Livingstonia where we climbed along the rocks and chilled out with a few Greens.

(Flowers in Dedza)

Next we went to my favorite fishing beach at Safari Beach Lodge; followed by the Wheel House. Again, I felt in my element as I interacted with children, fishermen, and other Malawians.

(Boiz Club)

We rushed back to Lilongwe in order to make it in time for HASH! My mom is always concerned that people may not know what I’m talking about when I mention Hash – so no, it’s not a drug but the hash house harriers, often described as “a drinking club with a running problem”.

(Buying produce on the road)

Hash is a great way to socialize while getting some exercise! I still need to check out hash back in Hanoi.


Tuesday was my day to catch up with old CDC partners. First, I went to the Ministry of Health, followed by Lighthouse, and finally to Baobab. It was incredibly rewarding to see all of our hard work culminate into a national roll-out! The National Data Standards Technical Working Group (my baby), chaired by the Ministry of Health is still running strong; Lighthouse continues to be a Center of Excellence and excels at all that they do; and Baobab is embarking on a national roll-out of Electronic Data Systems to manage patients on Anti-retroviral therapy, and they’re rolling out a lab information system, too. Am truly proud of everyone’s accomplishments!

(Joseph and Zoey)

(Charlotte and her newly adopted little girl from Malawi)

On Wednesday, Carl, Jorge and I went to Dedza! We explored the surrounding area and even went on a small hike in the woods. I felt ridiculous as I struggled up a hill (the terrain was slippery and I was having difficulty finding my footing); yet at the same time, women were easily walking up and down the mountain barefoot with HUGE trees on their heads.

(View from Safari Beach Lodge)

I couldn’t help but laugh as I thought about all the money we Westerners spend on gyms, fitness centers, and yoga classes. One way to build your core strength would be to hike up and down a mountain with water, wood and other items piled high on your head. And you could work on your posture, too. Oh, and let’s not forget the baby strapped on your back at the same time! My god, these women are tough!

(Thanks for the lovely ladies night, Shawn)

That night, Shawn was kind enough to hold a dinner party in my honor. In the true spirit of ladies night, we laughed, drank wine, ate delicious food, and enjoyed each other’s company. It made me realize once again just how much I miss Africa, my friends, and my life that I once had. Even though I’m enjoying Vietnam, it’s different from Malawi. Perhaps living in small, sleepy town forces one to forge closer friendships.


I’m finally back in Hanoi after an overnight in Jo’burg where I was able to catch up with even more friends, Catherine, Kevin and Amanda. I feel rejuvenated from reconnecting with so many friends. And after attending this conference, am inspired to push forward with Health Information Systems here in Vietnam.

(We born to Love – Jimmy)

Sorry for the long blog update, but much has happened over these last two weeks!

Sending much love to all,

2 comments to Hello Mama Africa

  • Tord Steiro

    Hi Amy, so cool to see pictures from Malawi!

    I’ll post some to, by the way, going back for a week in about a months time 🙂

    Glad to see you are doing so well in Viet Nam too. Cheers!

  • Melissa

    I don’t know you from Adam, but truthfully your blog is always a joy to read. I just wish you updated more! 🙂

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