The power of print media and hope for Lifeline Malawi

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 28, 2012

Dr. Chris Brooks, a former Calgary-Banff-area physician, founded Lifeline Malawi out of his passionate concern over the HIV/AIDS crisis in that southeast African country.
Photo courtesy of Chris Brooks

When one of my favourite columnists, Licia Corbella, wrote a piece in the Calgary Herald last week headed “Will people die from my decision?” she really grabbed my attention – especially because it concerned the humanitarian efforts of another of my favourite people, Dr. Chris Brooks.

“I helped to make a decision that may have dire consequences for the warm and kind people of Malawi,” she confessed in her March 22 Editorial Page feature.

Licia was referring to financially driven cutbacks in the medical outreach of Lifeline Malawi, on whose volunteer board of directors she sits and about whose ongoing work she had to make some hard decisions at a recent board meeting.

Calgary-based Lifeline Malawi was founded in 1998 by Chris Brooks, a popular physician who served the Calgary-Banff area for many years.

The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked southeast African nation with a population of 16,000,000 living in an area smaller than the Maritime Provinces.

In 1998 it had only 93 doctors in the entire country, Licia noted. It also had one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, leaving over a million children orphaned.

So moved was Chris by that reality, that at an age when he could have retired comfortably, he sold his medical practice, home, and all, and, with his wife, Heather, and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Chloe, moved to Malawi, arriving with nothing but three suitcases.

Chris is straightforward about the role of faith in his move. “I was called as a doctor to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a country of need,” he says.

From spartan beginnings, he quickly brought together teams of medical personnel and other volunteers, and eventually some paid staff, as well, to do what he could to make a difference.

“And what a difference he and the dedicated Lifeline Malawi team have made,” Licia said in her column.

“From dispensing medicines from the back of a Toyota truck under a baobab tree with a nurse and a pastor, to building two of the best medical clinics in the southern African country, it’s not an exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of lives have been saved.”

In fact, Lifeline Malawi “was the first NGO possibly in all of Africa to start treating people living with AIDS with anti-retroviral drugs,” Licia noted.

Self-sufficiency has been one of Lifeline Malawi’s long-term goals, with the entire operation eventually to be turned over to Malawians themselves.

Much of that is in jeopardy now, however, including the very existence of one of the clinics. Due to the current global economic downturn, there has been a significant drop in charitable donations from Canada. Also, the Malawian government, which relies heavily on outside help, has had to cut back its support for health care.

As Licia was writing her column, there was an urgent need for $200,000 to keep things going, she told her readers, “shamelessly pleading” for their help. (I’ve subsequently learned that the revised figure is closer to $600,000.)

The outpouring of response to her column has renewed my faith in the print media. Within three days, over $170,000 was received by Lifeline Malawi as a result of Licia’s plea.

And now I’m trying to do my part.

Back in 1994, I was best man at Chris and Heather’s wedding. He thanked me, saying, “You held me up while I was having a bit of trouble standing!”

I’m hoping through this column I can hold Chris up once more, together with his vision for medical services in behalf of the people of Malawi.

For information on how you can help, too, go to


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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