Malawi, The Warm Heart Of Africa

How I ended up in Malawi

I wanted to work internationally, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on maternal health. I was led to Malawi through my PhD advisor and my husband. I met my husband Ellis in 2012, the first year of my PhD program at Michigan State University. Through Ellis, I got to know a lot more about Malawi. He had already visited the country for some pre-dissertation work, and was planning on going back for his final dissertation data collection. All the while I had not the slightest hint or inclination that my research will take me the same site as my husband’s.

In 2013, I began working under a new  PhD advisor, Dr. Barbara Smith, who was interested in international research and therefore wanted to mentor me towards that route. She had well established contacts and collaborators in Kenya and Malawi, giving me the option of choosing between the two countries. At first thought, I leaned more towards the Kenya option. However, before I could make any concrete decisions, the Principal (Dean) of the Kamuzu College of Nursing at the University of Malawi, Dr. Address Malata, visited the MSU College of Nursing. My advisor arranged for me to meet with her and discuss the possibility of working with her in Malawi. After a series of conversations with this accomplished, successful, and influential woman, Kenya was no longer in the picture. From then onwards, my work in Malawi began.

Map of Malawi
Map of Malawi

About Malawi

Malawi is known as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ because its people are friendly and very welcoming. It is a small country in the Southeastern part of Africa. The country is divided into three regions: north, central, and south Malawi. The capital city of Malawi is Lilongwe, located in the Central Region. Even though Chichewa is the most common language spoken by the people in Malawi, there are also other languages. English is however the official language. You may visit, the official site of the Malawi Government for more information and country profile. Malawi has many attractions including beautiful landscapes, national parks and wildlife reserves, and the famous Lake Malawi. More on tourism and attractions can be found on

Indeed, the Warm Heart of Africa

I had the privilege of visiting Malawi for the first time in August 2014. As we touched down in Lilongwe on a Kenyan Airways Flight, I was filled with excitement. Ellis came to the airport with his friend, Chawezi, who was gracious enough to come pick me up with his old Jeep Cherokee. He was very friendly and made the ride to my new home comfortable although I barely saw anything in the pitch dark and moonless night.

The next day, I met my host family, a couple who rented to me their guest apartment. Indeed, they made sure I was comfortable throughout my stay. I could not have had a better living arrangement. I spent a lot of time at the Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN). I was pleased to see what beautiful building the College of nursing had. Dr. Malata introduced me to her staff and faculty, and made arrangements for a faculty member to help me get around. The faculty at KCN were of such great assistance. Throughout my time at KCN, I met many people, and made friends. When I visited the Lilongwe District Office, I received a warm welcome from the District Health Officer, who embraced my research ideas, offered suggestions, answered numerous questions, and ensured that I received all the documents that I needed from his office before I had to leave Malawi. Everyone I met or came in contact with treated me with  kindness and offered the assistance I needed: the administrative staff and midwives at the various health facilities I visited, the people I interviewed, the people I encountered each day, the taxi driver Mr. Brown who took me around, the people I met in church…..everyone. Indeed, the people of Malawi are warm-hearted.

Chambo with rice
Chambo with rice

My friends at KCN ensured that I learned some Chichewa before I left. By the time I was leaving, I could at least greet in Chichewa and say thank you. I had heard of ‘chambo’ the famous Malawian fish even before I got to Malawi, and could not wait to eat it. When I finally tried it, it was one of my happiest moments, indeed delicious. From then on, most of my restaurant orders were chambo (if they had it) with rice or chips (fries). My other favorite meal was chicken with peri-peri spice and chips from the fast-food restaurant called Galitos. The commonest dish in Malawi is Nsima, made from cornmeal. It is quite similar to TZ (TuoZaafi), a meal from Northern Ghana. I did not eat a lot of Nsima while I was in Malawi, but truth is, my husband and I have come to like it and actually make it in our home sometimes, of course, with a little Ghanaian touch :). I loved and enjoyed the fresh vegetables in Malawi. It was certainly not difficult to cook healthy meals (corn, peas, tomatoes, spinach, kale, carrots, green beans, okra, and many many more). My visit to Lake Malawi in Salima was fun. Ellis and I spent the day with Dr. Address Malata and her family. It was nice to take a break and walk along the beach. The restaurant on the beach had an awesome buffet lunch served….so delicious. I also visited the Lilongwe Sanctuary and Wildlife Center. The three-week stay was so much fun but Malawi has so many more attractions that I could not visit.. I hope to visit many more places when I go again.

Lake Malawi in Salima
Lake Malawi in Salima

Zikomo! (Thank you)

My Unexpected Journey to the PhD in Nursing

It was Monday, August 13 2012. Judith, my sister in law, who was then my brother’s (Nathan) girlfriend, and I decided to go to Grand Rapids from Ann Arbor (both in Michigan) to get our hair braided. Ridiculous…. I know… but to us it made perfect sense. I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids for my BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), and had a friend there who will braid my hair nicely but for  a discounted price. We wanted to have good looking hair for a cheaper price. We were to drive there early morning, get both of our hair braided, and make a return journey. We were in my other brother’s (Obed) house in Ann Arbor. Judith and I woke up so early for the trip to Grand Rapids that Obed, who was already awake and preparing for work expressed surprise. He could not believe our ridiculous plan … but looking back …he now knows there was another reason why I had to go to Grand Rapids that day. God was up to something!

While Judith was getting her hair braided, I decided to call Dr. Adejoke Ayoola, my advisor at Calvin College, who was and is still a great mentor in my life. I called her to request for a reference letter for a job application and also to update her about issues  and developments in my life … the fact that I could not afford to pay upfront fees and attend any of the schools I had been accepted into due to lack of financial support (International students cannot apply for FAFSA, what I was being offered), and also that every potential job opportunity somehow eventually failed. I declined offers to pursue nurse practitioner programs at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), University of Pennsylvania (UPENN), and the University of Michigan all because of lack of financial support. You see, whenever I am in Grand Rapids, I usually try to see Dr. Ayoola and say hello if there is time. I would probably not have called her that week if I had not gone to Grand Rapids to braid my hair.

I updated Dr. Ayoola on my life stories, and her response is one to remember for a long time. Ooooo Joyce, I am so sorry to hear that. You know, I am actually just on my way home from Michigan State University (MSU) where I attended an annual meeting on the Calvin-MSU partnership I previously talked to you about. You know I have been telling you about their PhD program. They were even telling me they still have space for more students, and there is some financial aid left that they can offer. I always tell you to go for a PhD instead of doing a masters. It is not too late, and I would still encourage you to think about it. Maybe this is the opportunity…laugh…you know…maybe that is why nothing else is working out. But yea they have the space and the money, and I can send an email to them if you want to apply. I think you should go for it. I would encourage you to apply and see if it works out; you can always choose to decline the offer. So think about it tonight, and let me know your decision tomorrow.

During my final year at Calvin, when I started thinking about next steps, Dr. Ayoola thought a PhD in Nursing would be the best for me and had no doubt that I was capable. It’s funny, because during meetings, we would talk at length about the PhD and how it could help me achieve my dreams of transforming the lives of mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and then I would later come to her office with another master’s level application instead. I wanted to practice nursing, and be there for my patients. I wanted to put the “compassionate and caring Joyce to good use.” I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school, that is why I decided to do it right after my bachelors, but I thought I had to be a nurse practitioner to be able to impact lives. Now I know I was wrong, not because it was untrue, but because I had not yet seen the full picture of what opportunities a PhD will open for me to follow my dreams. I did not yet know what Gods plan for my life was nor where I was headed professionally.

Of course the rest of my day I was thinking about it. I talked with my brothers about it, prayed about it, and slept over it. The next day, Tuesday August 14, Dr. Ayoola emailed me to ask if I had made a decision. I decided I would give it a try, as I wait for my open door for a RN (registered nurse) job. I got back to Dr. Ayoola to let her know I would give it a try, and she immediately passed along the information to the right people. It was time to begin the application process. I was told I needed to take the GRE as soon as possible! The GRE …. Really … This is the same GRE that I had INTENTIONALLY avoided in my masters applications. I ensured that I applied to only schools that waived the GRE for students with a certain GPA (Grade point average). But now I had to take it, I had no choice, there was no waiver, and WAIT…. I did not have months or weeks to prepare for it! I told myself not to be perturbed, I will take it, and if this whole thing is God’s will, then it will work out. That night, I read about the GRE and registered for the exam. I could not get an exam date for Friday, but was able to get one for Monday.

The next day, Wednesday, I went out to buy one GRE book in store (It’s not like I had time to read more than one book). My GRE exam was scheduled for Monday, and I had exactly 4 days to study and fill out application forms and submit essays. I started working on the application to the College of Nursing, and the Graduate School of Michigan State University. On Thursday, I worked on references and transcripts, personal statement, research statement, and a short academic statement among other application materials. I then used Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to study for the GRE exam. I was scheduled for an admission interview on Tuesday, August 21.  I received an email to come for the New PhD Student orientation on Friday, August 24. I signed my acceptance form at the orientation. However, admission and registration details were still being finalized, even though classes were to start the next Wednesday.

On Monday, August 27th, I announced to my parents and other people about my new program, and right after making all those calls (no kidding), I got an unexpected call from the University of Iowa Hospital for an interview! I had given up waiting for that call…and then it came. I was scheduled for an interview on August 31, and I went for it. Why did I go? … well, that was my original plan … before the whole PhD craziness started. Judith and I had thought we would be roommates when I got the job. She was in dental school in Iowa. It was a great interview, and they told me to expect a call in two weeks.  Meanwhile, on the MSU side of things, I got an email that the admissions office needed an affidavit of $$$$$; let’s just say a ton of money to prove that I could afford tuition before they could process the admission. Once again, I needed to show proof of finances for the tuition before an I-20 (important document International students must have) could be processed. I had to tell yet another school that I did not have money. But this time around, things worked out! The college of nursing gave some funding on admission, and I was able to apply for and obtain a graduate assistantship within the college.

This is a BSN to PhD program, and students in this track take masters level courses in the first year (at that time). Two out of three of my courses that semester were online. But I did not yet have access to the online courses! The week of September 3 to 7…..classes were ongoing, and I did not have access to ANGEL (the online system). As late as September 10-14, I still did not have access. I finally got my official admission letter from MSU that week. At long last, I was able to register for classes, and get access to ANGEL. It was tough, because I had a ton of school work to catch up on. To shed some light on this, one of the courses was an online statistics course. First of all, I did not even know statistics could be offered online (first experience). Now, imagine playing catch up on three weeks’ worth of statistics BY YOURSELF while still working on the current course material. Even the professor of the course was worried that I would not be able to pass the class joining in that late. But I was determined, and worked my hardest in that class. I made it!!! … No, I did not just pass with a 3.0….I actually got a 4.0. That was good motivation to forge ahead, perhaps a sign that I was cut out for this PhD journey after all.

IN THE END, THINGS WORKED OUT! When I finally got the job offer at the University of Iowa Hospital, I declined. I had been waiting to hear from them for so long, but when I finally did, God had already taken me on a different path. The whole PhD thing worked out really well, and I am amazed at how far God has brought me, and thankful for every provision and achievement. I have so much passion for my research area, and cannot wait to graduate and start work….work that will impact and improve the lives of many mothers in Sub-Sahara Africa. I thank everyone who in any way, helped me get this far along.