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John Chiphangwi: The unsung patriot

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As medical and health professionals gather on Saturday for the College of Medicine research dissemination conference, one of the activities during this high-profile gathering is a lecture in the memory of professor John Chiphangwi.

That they have organised this lecture in honour of the late Chiphangwi is commendable. However, if truth be told, the lecture alone does not come close to the amount of recognition that the man deserves.

The late Chiphangwi (1936 -2002) is one of the greatest Malawian men of our time. In political, civic and economic discourse, h remains largely unrecognised.

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But for those of us in the medical profession, Chiphangwi is a hero, a great role model, an example of all that is best and should be best in our nation.

He was a man of vision, courage and modesty, who against a tide of scepticism founded the College of Medicine, now recognised as one of the finest medical training institutions not only in the Southern Africa region but also for the whole of Africa.

His remarkable achievements may be highlighted as the College of Medicine reaches its Silver Jubilee Anniversary in September 2016.

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But he was a man whose contributions to the country cannot be confined to time.

Chiphangwi’s vision of creating a medical school in post independent Malawi was shared by very few at the time. There was scepticism about whether Malawi could afford or was able to develop the human resource necessary to sustain a medical school.

This unwillingness to seek opportunities was not only to be found amongst the expatriate community but even amongst senior Malawians as well.

Against this negative background, Chiphangwi was a member of three separate feasibility studies which were conducted before a consensus was reached in 1986 that Malawi needed to have a medical school of its own.

Before the establishment of the school, many bright young students were being sent to be trained as doctors in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But few returned to clinical practice in Malawi like Chiphangwi did.

Nowadays, it is common to hear that there are more Malawian doctors in Manchester than they are in Malawi. This is in part due to the fact that many Malawians who went abroad to train as doctors never returned.

Apparently, the idea of a medical school in Malawi was intended to curb this loss by ensuring that doctors are trained locally.

Chiphangwi sustained the vision of a medical school for Malawi and he was finally rewarded in 1986 when the Tripartite Commission endorsed his plans. This persuaded the then President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, himself a medical doctor, to give his final approval.

If vision is one of the prime characteristics of a hero, courage must be just as important and Chiphangwi demonstrated this virtue throughout his life. He was not afraid to constructively challenge those in power when necessary.

An example was when he made President Banda -on his traditional Christmas Day visit to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) – to see for himself the truly appalling conditions of the then maternity unit.

As chief obstetrician at QECH and Head of the Department at that time, Chiphwangwi refused to allow the hospital administration to put on a false show to disguise the poor conditions in the maternity unit.

Knowing the governance situation at that time, nobody in Malawi was expected to openly demonstrate such courage to the lion of Malawi. There was fear amongst those in President Banda’s retinue, as they approached the obstetrical department, for they knew Chiphangwi risked imprisonment or something worse.

As it turned out, Banda acknowledged the bravery and integrity of Dr Chiphangwi and promised a new unit which would be called the Gogo Chatinkha Maternity Unit in memory of Dr Banda’s late sister.

This is how the new maternity unit at QECH came up.

Chiphangwi was always a true patriot. Once he qualified as a doctor, he returned immediately to Malawi to do his internship at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and was then posted as District Health Officer to Dedza.

It was here he realised that he wanted to specialise in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and it was while working in Dedza that he witnessed how African women bore the burden and high risk of childbirth and the unacceptable maternal mortality especially in rural communities.

Probably that is when his vision of establishing a community based medical school for Malawi started.

Chiphangwi’s postgraduate specialist training in obstetrics was done in Africa. It began at Makerere University in Uganda but was interrupted by the coup d’état of Idi Amin such that he was forced to complete it in Kenya.

Chiphangwi then returned to Malawi and continued to pursue a unique career, pioneering the creation of the College of Medicine and at the same time combined it with excellent clinical research, especially into the emerging pandemic of HIV and Aids.

He was not trained as an academic research scientist , but on witnessing so many of his patients affected and dying of Aids in the 90s, he promoted research studies and was respected internationally for his work on risk factors for HIV acquisition in pregnancy.

Indeed most of the early baseline information on how HIV infection was spread among young women was revealed from the work of Chiphangwi and his colleagues. The work forms the basis of management and treatment of HIV to this day and is a legacy bringing honour to Malawi in the international scientific community.

And yet, for all his achievements, he was a truly humble man. Although made Director of the Medical School Project Office, he refused the role of first Principal. He felt he did not have enough experience in the setting up of a top class medical academic institution.

However, he became its second Principal and was responsible for all the initial planning and development of the now internationally respected College of Medicine.

Chiphangwi’s qualities even shone while he was studying to be a doctor. His career as a doctor in training began at St Andrews University in Scotland. There he not only distinguished himself as a student of medicine but also proved himself a great debater, eventually representing the University on tour of the USA.

It is therefore not understandable that such a man has not been honoured adequately by his country. Is it because he never joined politics?

Chiphangwi avoided politics to concentrate on realising his vision of transforming the health of this nation through its own Malawi trained doctors. Despite being invited three times to take up the portfolio of Minister of Health, he declined in order to concentrate his main purpose of improving the health of his fellow Malawians.

Politicians come and go with their compromises, broken promises and lost ideals but the really great men, whose power to inspire others comes from their noble example, are quietly ignored.

Such a man was Chiphangwi. Although he is honoured by the institution that he founded through the naming of the medical college library after him, the knowledge about his wider influence on health and education nationally and internationally is not generally recognised.

But what qualities define a hero? Is it not vision, courage, endurance and great integrity?

Chiphangwi, to say the least, is a true hero for our time, for our nation. And as the College of Medicine, which he founded, clocks 25 years, one would think he would be adequately honoured with more of a memorial than an unmarked tomb in his village.

On Saturday, the John Chiphangwi Memorial Lecture will be given at the College of Medicine by a former colleague of his, Professor Malcolm Molyneux.

This annual lecture was set up by another fine Malawian doctor and Obstetrician Dr Ron Mataya. Its purpose is to commemorate the truly important contribution Chiphangwi made to Malawi but also internationally.

This acknowledgement by the college he founded is not only appropriate but very well deserving.

I am one of the many graduates who have benefited from the vision of this great man of our time. It is my hope and the hope of many that one day his name will be better known throughout Malawi.

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