May 13, 2008
Malawi Brain Drain
Watch the show: Part 1 | Part 2

The idea for the documentary "The Heroes Are Tired" came from old conversations with a dear friend, Mr Amir Syed. Ten years ago he and I used to sit around and chew over the news, digesting some stories, spitting out others. This issue of rich western countries 'poaching' Africa's doctors was one issue that stuck in his gullet. Amir and I were young hot-blooded idealists and this seemed a fundamental injustice.

In truth, having seen things now with my own eyes, and with a slightly (if only slightly) more mature understanding, I can see that the issue is far more complex and almost intractable. I'll always remember a few days into the shoot, asking Robert Ayella, a Ugandan doctor who features in the documentary, what he thought of the term "poaching." "We are not animals," he said. "we can't be poached." He's right. Africa's brain drain is at least in part the story of doctors exercising their undeniable right to migrate. Moreover, many of these doctors have already served a number of years working smack in the middle of hell. Because a pitiably under-resourced rural hospitable at the centre of an HIV/AIDS and TB explosion is about as close to hell as I've ever found on earth.

There was one thing I was never sure came across strongly enough in the final film. I personally don't blame any individual doctor for leaving for the "greener pastures" of the west. While filming I came to understand that in their place, I would do the same thing. I'm no saint, and most of us aren't. But that realization gave me all the more reverant respect for the tiny handful of people like Dr Robert Ayella who remain behind on the battlefield and work tirelessly to heal the people who need it most.

The world needs heroes. My own cynical heart needs heroes. And I found a few in Malawi while filming this documentary. But those heroes are tired, and they are few and far between: most of us wouldn't last a week in Dr Ayella's blood-stained, white, soft-soled shoes.

In many ways, this subject and it's people were strangely familiar to me. I grew up as the son of a nurse, and spent my fair shair of time in hospitals until my adolescence. The strong graceful smiles of the nurses here were the same ones I remember; as was that dynamic where terribly ill patients seem to comfort their family's grief more than the other way around; the pace was the only thing that had changed. While I remember taking a brown bag lunch to my mother on the obstetrics ward, and sitting with her while she ate, here in Malawi there was no rest for anyone. For instance, in a small clinic outside Thyolo, nurse Grace Makhembera told me that in her life, she had delivered more than 10,000 babies.

As filmming went on I began to hope that the international community will learn that the only way to keep a healthy number of doctors in Africa is to offer them what most of the world's medical community want: A high caliber of medical training in their native country, top research opportunities, and salary support to stay at home where they're needed and understand the local communities needs.

There is a quiet crisis at work here. It's one I hope we wake up to before it's too late.

-- From Aaron Lewis, Filmmaker/Journalist, SBS Dateline
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World’s Untold Stories showcases courageous correspondents telling intimate stories of society's most vulnerable people. Often gritty, always powerful tales that open our eyes to a world that is at times disturbing and captivating. Storytelling that is raw and unyielding in its impact. World’s Untold Stories will bring the viewer tales from all corners of the world, and shine light on activities almost never exposed.

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