As the first permanent audiologists in Malawi, Peter and Rebecca Bartlett arrived facing a mammoth task.
The couple and their three young children had never set foot in the southeast African country before, and they had to adapt quickly to a lack of resources and facilities.
“We started off doing hearing tests in what was pretty much a cupboard where they used to store things,” Peter said.
“I don’t think Bec and I really knew what we were going into – in fact, I’m pretty sure we didn’t!
“But we felt called and we were somewhat prepared through our 16 years in audiology, a year of which we spent in various countries.”
Peter grew up attending Templestowe Uniting Church (now Manningham Uniting Church) before studying audiology at the University of Melbourne.
In 1998, he and fellow audiologist David Pither established Ears Inc, a Christian not-for-profit organisation dedicated to reducing hearing impairment in developing countries.
The organisation has established programs in a number of countries, including the Philippines, India, Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea, but Malawi has a special place in Peter’s heart.
Peter helped establish the Hearing Clinic and Training Centre at Malawi’s African Bible College (ABC) – the first dedicated audiology facility in the country.
“Just because it’s a poor country doesn’t mean you should get poor standards,” Peter said.
“We’ve now got a very good clinic with high-tech equipment. In the last three years, we’ve had over 10,000 patient appointments. You can come in and get tested and fitted on the same day – especially if you’ve travelled a long way.”
In Malawi, hearing loss is often a result of anti-malaria medication, with children particularly susceptible to its side effects.
With Malawi having the lowest GDP per capita in the world, the clinic adopts a flexible payment model so no one misses out.
“If people can afford a private price, then that’s what they pay – that’s about 10 per cent of people who walk through the door,” Peter said.
“The others pay a community price, so they might pay $10 for a hearing aid and six months’ supply of batteries. But even if they can’t pay that, we ask them what they can pay. It might be 200 kwacha (38 Australian cents), so that’s now the price for the service.”
The audiologists also undertake outreach programs where they visit villages in remote areas in a mobile audiology unit to conduct tests and supply hearing aids.
“We are only one clinic in the middle of the capital city. More than half of our patients have been on outreach because not many can come to where we are,” Peter said.
“We work with organisations like Save the Children, CBM and others to do outreach because we’re not a big organisation, so we connect with those who understand where the needs are.
“So many people have come in and we couldn’t have done all this without the support of Manningham Uniting Church, our church in Ballarat and many other congregations.
“They have provided the money for tuition and outreach expenses, ear and health care devices and offered hope to thousands of Malawians.”
Peter returned to Australia in 2016 and now lives in Ballarat with his family, but he has been back to Malawi several times to support the medical team.
Last November was a milestone moment for the Hearing Clinic and Training Centre, as it marked the first time the facility operated without any expatriates. There are now seven clinical staff, two support personnel and five newly enrolled students.
In January, Peter will embark on another outreach visit to Malawi and he is inviting volunteers to get involved with Ears Inc. The organisation is seeking audiologists, speech pathologists, teachers of the deaf and other allied professionals to volunteer overseas.
They are also looking for a part-time Australian-based volunteer CEO who can offer organisational, business, governance and marketing skills to expand the reach of Ears Inc.
“We know from the Bible that with God, nothing is impossible,” Peter said.
“He can use every single one of us – wherever we are, whatever we’re doing – just like my friends in Malawi right now.”
To find out more about Ears Inc, visit www.earsinc.org