I eavesdrop, frequently.
It’s in the writer’s job description to be nosy, and noticing. Always. To spot the ticking second hand of the watch worn in the coffin; to walk into the October North Atlantic and feel the exact level of cold; to taste the bread from a hometown bakery and catch the memories.
Writers take in all they can, for inspiration, for information. And listening is among my favourite parts of being a writer and being alive.
Ten years ago, at a fair near my Western Massachusetts home, my ear tuned to a woman selling crafts from Africa and collecting donations. To every passerby, she began her story: "I've just built a medical clinic in Malawi in memory of my son, Billy, who died there." I asked for the rest of the story, and was told one that was not without great tragedy but also not without great transformation.
As can happen, the listening led to a book. This Is Paradise: An Irish Mother's Grief, an African Village's Plight, and the Medical Clinic That Brought Fresh Hope to Both details the work of Mags Riordan, a Cork native and longtime Dingle resident who was a guidance counsellor in a secondary school in 1999 when her 25-year-old son, world-traveller Billy, drowned on his third trip to his beloved Cape Maclear, Malawi, which he called paradise.
Delivering a stone to the Cape a year after Billy’s death, Riordan began to see why he fell for the impoverished country of 15 million people known as “the warm heart of Africa”.
Initially, she considered establishing an education effort in Billy’s memory, but she switched to a medical one after witnessing famine and a cholera outbreak, and being asked to help an injured child simply because she was European and might have a first-aid kit. She realised there wasn’t so much as paracetamol in the village. There was also little chance for more in a region in which there was then only one doctor for 800,000 people and that needed so much, with challenges including rampant malaria and a local HIV/Aids rate of 34 per cent.
Her response, the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, was built and continues on via private donors and, to date, has served more than 275,000 people and saved countless lives. Riordan's story is proof that one woman can change a corner of the world, and of the gifts that can result from stopping to listen.
On the hard-packed dirt thoroughfare linking one end of Chembe Village to the other, the traffic is this: school children and teens in white shirts and blue skirts; a man on a bicycle; a woman bearing a stack of six eight-foot-long logs atop her head. Past the football pitch that, at the tail end of the dry season, is just another arid rectangle of earth, in the direction of the lonely line of poles delivering electricity to less than 5 per cent of the community, a group consisting of one doctor, two medical students and four nurses joins the flow, then heads across the plain, towards the neat brick-and-concrete building that is the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic.
At 10 minutes to eight, 36 patients stand at the louvred windows marking reception, to the right of the archway over which the word “clinic” has been painted in bright blue capital letters. The mere presence of those six letters, and the building they’re painted on, shouts another word, and there’s no exaggeration in saying it is hope.
Prior to the 2004 opening of the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, the nearest hospital was 17km down a rough road that can partially disappear beneath torrents during the November to April rainy season. The 22-minute car trip is impossible for many in this sprawling village of 15,000 people that has only five vehicles and no affordable public transportation. With home remedies or a witchdoctor session the limits of healthcare in a region that 11 years ago had one doctor for 800,000 people, infection of a simple cut could further underline the country’s median age of 17 and life expectancy of 54.5.
Unsanitary conditions, sparse staffing, and lack of equipment and medicine are the norm at health facilities throughout this densely populated country. It is one of the world’s 10 poorest; more than half its 15.4 million citizens – 84 per cent in rural areas – liveg below the poverty line. For residents of Chembe Village, however, help is just a trip across the village. Here, so many get the chance to live. All because one mother’s son did not.
Some 8,137 miles north, that mother is walking purposefully towards an airline desk in London’s Heathrow Airport. The bangs of her blonde updo cascade as she fishes through her bag, in search of the printout of the reservation for her two-leg 15-hour flight on South African Airlines. In the first row of the plane’s main cabin, she will pick at her rectangular dish of chicken and green beans, then curl up against the window. The next time she sleeps will be, as she says, not just in another country, but in another world.
Mags Riordan will need the rest. In her first two days back in that other world – Chembe village, Cape Maclear, Malawi – her to-do list will include grilling airline officials about a piece of missing luggage containing vital medical supplies; arguing for the best rate from a moneychanger; lecturing night watchmen to better guard the clinic’s limited water supply; fielding in a single afternoon four lengthy, elaborate and passionate requests from friends and strangers in need of money; reviewing the case of a nervous 16-year-old village boy who wants to relinquish the sponsor-funded slot she helped him receive at a private high school; and driving two staffers along 25km of mostly unpaved roads for a pointless meeting with health officials.
And, she’ll get stood up by the chief’s sister, the highest local authority, for a meeting about a villager’s ongoing allegations that the land on which the clinic stands belongs to him. Upon Mags’s arrival for that meeting, the chief’s sister is out of town, and the chief’s sister’s husband greets her with, “What are you doing here?”
The chief's sister's husband is not the first one to wonder this. Not about Mags Riordan's mid-afternoon presence on his porch, but about her curious presence in Chembe Village in general. Why this thin, white 57-year-old Irish secondary-school teacher and mother-of-two would materialise in the village in the year 2000. Why four years later she would lift a shovel and heft a wheelbarrow to help build the 12-room clinic.
Funded by private donations, the clinic is staffed by a revolving team of a dozen international volunteer doctors and nurses who, to date, have seen 275,000 patients there and in an extension, which provides two inpatient wards, a laboratory, and services including porridge distribution and family planning, HIV/Aids counselling and drug distribution.
Going for a snorkel is more the aim of those who visit the rough-sand shores of the ninth-largest lake in the world, and lodge within a community 50 per cent malnourished, 90 per cent unemployed, 90 per cent illiterate, and 100 per cent beyond the first world’s concept of poverty.
One of those to visit thrice in the 1990s, one of those who found the village irresistible was Billy Riordan, a boy-band handsome, easygoing 25-year-old tour boat operator and hostel employee from lush, rural west Kerry.
He was a world traveller with a well-worn backpack, a global network of drop-everything-and-go companions, and a craving for destinations along the world’s lesser-known roads, and the village’s location, smack at the end of one of those roads, answers the biggest “What are you doing here” that might be posed to his mother.
Answers why she left home and family back in Kerry to spend her days in a whole other world. It is because Billy Riordan loved Cape Maclear, writing, “This is paradise, Mum. You have to come, you have to come, you have to come.”
Two days later, on February 20th, 1999, after stepping into Lake Malawi, Billy Riordan drowned.
“What are you doing here?”
When it comes to this life on this earth, it would be natural to imagine Mags Riordan answering, “Just trying to get through the day.”
In the space of nearly four decades, she lost her first child, a four-month-old daughter, to drowning when the family car plunged off a pier; suffered the death of her second son, also at four months, to cot death; and then mourned Billy. That she now lives in a village she warns prospective volunteers is no modern Starbucks-strewn hotspot but “deepest, darkest Africa”, and that she is not curled into a corner back home, can mystify.
If asked how she has survived, the answers are “It’s an Irish thing” and/or “I was born like this,” given with the shrug of a soul who certainly has suffered and who fails to suffer fools, something she practises again on the porch of the chief’s sister. Mags simply wants to return to what she is doing in the village that is the Trust’s Malawian headquarters and her eight-month-a-year home.
Today there is another sponsored student to meet. Emails to return. An elderly watchman must be let go gently from his job. A donor needs to be contacted.
The chief’s sister’s husband’s question grabs the imagination, winding the bystander down the lanes of possible reasons for not only how this person has survived what she has, but how she’s accomplished what she has, despite the raging failure rates of non-government organisations, despite being an outsider, despite being one single person, and one single female person, one single white female with a very big idea in a very small country and culture dominated by black males.
But if you are in Mags Riordan’s presence, there is little time for pondering. Instead, there is the race to gather your things from the woven straw mat on the chief’s sister’s front porch and catch up with her as she marches off across the sandy lane, hoists herself into the boxy white 2009 Toyota Landcruiser that doubles as one of the clinic’s two ambulances, and bounce over a rutted road edged with mud-brick huts.
Fuelled by a press of the accelerator, and Mags’s disgust about the loss of an hour that could have been better used, there is a swift drive home to launch into the next litany of tasks.
The brakes are ignored in the ambulance’s descent of a cratered hill that threatens every joint in the vehicle, and in its occupants’ bodies. Yet, at the wheel, Mags breaks into a smile as she calls out an energetic “Hang on!”
It is, you suspect she has learned, sometimes the only thing you can do.
This Is Paradise: An Irish Mother's Grief, an African Village's Plight and the Medical Clinic That Brought Fresh Hope to Both by Suzanne Strempek Shea is published by PFP and is available at Dingle Bookshop in Dingle, Charlie Byrne's Bookshop in Galway, suzannestrempekshea.com and Amazon.com. Extract used with permission.