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February 9, 2018 – Volunteer blog from Malawi

Blantyre KCN campus – Gertrude Mwalaba and Gibson, Dean of Research

My goodness – our third and final week in Malawi! Our work with the Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) faculty, students and key stakeholders has flown by.

This past week, Pammla and I divided our energies. Pam assisted individual faculty members, doctoral students and small groups with individual manuscripts and grant proposals; nine manuscripts and at least three grants were reviewed and critiqued. In contrast, Dean Gertrude, Dean of Research Gibson, and I left Monday afternoon to spend two days at the Blantyre Campus of KCN. It was a drive of over 400 kilometers (one way) on a two-lane highway that runs through many villages. Our capable driver Peter deftly threaded his way through the countryside.

Cows have the right of way

Still, I found it a hair-raising journey, as the villagers – men, women and children and livestock – travel both narrow shoulders of the highway until well after dark. With many pedestrians, bicycles, heavy rain, and the oncoming headlights of rumbling lorries, it was more than challenging. Oh, and did I mention that in Malawi one drives on the left-hand side of the road?

Tuesday morning dawned bright and fresh. The Blantyre campus proved to be a pastoral miniature of the Lilongwe Campus. We proceeded to enjoy a delightful all-day workshop, primarily with KCN master’s students. Together, we identified a compelling research interest area related to the developing roles and responsibilities of Malawian birth companions, and then developed a scoping review of the literature in the morning, and a related grant proposal in the afternoon. I have worked with many graduate students in my time, but this was one of the most engaged and appreciative groups I have ever worked with. Energizing!

Wednesday, Gertrude and I met with the Blantyre faculty to discuss their scholarly interests, issues related to the inclusion of knowledge users in research, the advantages of working in research groups, and issues pertaining to the balance between faculty teaching and research. Clearly, the struggle to balance workload is an international issue we share. In Malawi, where faculty members, nurses and midwives are in short supply, finding that balance is even more daunting.

Traditional Malawian musicians under the mahogany tree

Our final two days were devoted to numerous external stakeholder consultations as we sought to ground KCN’s scholarship more firmly within the context of Malawi’s developing health and health human resource priorities. Our visits included meeting with the Principal, Malawi College Health Sciences, the Department Head of Environmental Health, University of Malawi Polytechnic, and a repeat visit to the National Director of Nursing Midwifery, where we compared and discussed, in far more detail, the emergent health and health human resources priorities of Malawi.
Dr. Pammla Petrucka and I were honoured to have this opportunity to work with KCN and KCN’s stakeholders, to help them build nursing scholarship and research capacity. We were impressed by the passion, knowledge, skills and experience we found here and we will continue to review grant proposals and manuscripts for our Malawian friends upon our return to Canada. We salute our new friends and colleagues for their passion and commitment in the face of challenges far beyond the experience of most Canadians. On behalf of KCN, Dean Gertrude, Pammla and I, we want to formally thank Academics Without Borders for this wonderful opportunity.

In closing, it has become clear to us that nursing research, including student research, is a rare and precious resource in Malawi! It is imperative that it is focused upon the most pressing patient, family and community health and health system challenges. And, it is equally important that research teams engage with patients, families and communities, and with health system and government knowledge users, to help guide scholarship that produces practical and affordable solutions that can and will be taken up by the Malawi health system.


Martha E. (Beth) Horsburgh, RN, PhD has provided academic nursing and research leadership in three Canadian provinces. Her scholarship is typified by practical community and health system partnerships designed to tackle recurrent health challenges faced by patients, families and communities in Canada and around the world.

Joining the Academics Without Borders family of volunteers has enabled Beth and her colleague Dr. Pammla Petrucka, to work alongside the nursing faculty at Kamazu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, to address local health challenges through sustainable research partnerships.

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February 2, 2018 – Volunteer blog from Malawi

Celebrating a faculty member’s birthday.

Our second week in Malawi has been characterized by a hands-on approach to the ongoing research capacity building we are doing together here at Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN). Monday and Tuesday, we all rolled up our sleeves and worked through two days of research workshops with the faculty, some students and other invited stakeholders. Dr. Gertrude Mwalabu and a few of our other champions helped Dr. Pammla Petrucka and I lead the workshops using two research topics and their respective research teams as examples.

The first research team will carry out a program of research designed to better understand women’s community-based experiences in the year following surgical repair of an obstetrical fistula. The second team, led by Dr. Mwalabu, will carry out a program designed to understand the community-based experiences of young women and men (aged 19-24), as they work to meet their continuing health challenges related to HIV and HIV treatments, while also meeting the unique developmental challenges of young adulthood.

Research Interactive Workshop.

As the week progressed, Pammla and I split up, and each of us worked primarily with one of the research teams. KCN’s librarians, Kondwani and Patrick, supported the teams, and together each team worked to refine their research goals, objectives and research questions, while also identifying requirements for scoping reviews of the relevant published literature. As it turned out, each team identified two scoping reviews and two research studies that they planned to conduct together.

KCN librarian leads workshop group on through application of online query and use of search terms.

Using the grant format of the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, the teams developed the four grant outlines. Working together they also developed the on-line queries for the scoping reviews. All participants were actively engaged in decision-making regarding search terms and search parameters. And, as the on-line results of the queries came in, participants were able to see in real time how decisions regarding their search parameters influenced the quality and manageability of the resulting articles that were retrieved. As we worked through the grant proposals, participants saw how iterative the work was – as we worked back and forth to ensure that the research goals and objectives aligned perfectly with the research questions – and vice versa.

At the end of the week, one of the two groups declared its intention to continue work on its scoping reviews independently (i.e., without Pammla and I). The group members felt confident in applying their inclusion and exclusion data retrieval criteria, using the data extraction tool that they had developed. Dr. Petrucka and I are excited to review their progress with them next week.


Martha E. (Beth) Horsburgh, RN, PhD has provided academic nursing and research leadership in three Canadian provinces. Her scholarship is typified by practical community and health system partnerships designed to tackle recurrent health challenges faced by patients, families and communities in Canada and around the world.

Joining the Academics Without Borders family of volunteers has enabled Beth and her colleague Dr. Pammla Petrucka, to work alongside the nursing faculty at Kamazu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, to address local health challenges through sustainable research partnerships.

Read more