A Year Of Living Differently - Jacquie Labatt Photography

A Year Of Living Differently

As featured in MORE Magazine, February/March Issue 2011

In 2007, Josée Sarrazin, then 43, a radiologist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and her husband, Michael Schull, a Sunnybrook ER physician, put an “X” on their calendar. It marked the date when they and their children, Camille, then 8, Gabriel, 5, and Juliette, 3, would begin a year’s sabbatical in Malawi, a small nation in southeast Africa.

“We’ve often told our kids how privileged our lives are,” comments Sarrazin, “but to truly understand that, they needed to experience the world.”
Malawi at dusk. Densely populated and landlocked, sub-Saharan Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, a place where most people live on less than $1 per day — enough to buy two cups of rice. Yet, as Sarrazin and her family discover, Malawians are friendly and gentle by nature. Proud of their beautiful, peaceful country, they battle daily assaults on the spirit with dignity.

Without access to the Internet or TV, Josée Sarrazin and her family reconnect with one another while adapting to their new routine. In the cool of first light, after the kids join their mostly African classmates in the tiny English-speaking school, Sarrazin volunteers at local hospitals and teaches French. With time, worries begin to dissipate: Young Juliette stops wondering,Will a lion eat my clothes? Says her brother, Gabriel: “I’m no longer afraid when poor people here speak to me. Now I say hello back, and they smile.”


Sarrazin tends to a four-year-old patient, just before a life-saving procedure. For the first time ever, she sees children die; Malawi’s modest hospitals have neither hygiene nor basic medical supplies. The country also suffers from a severe shortage of health workers, many having succumbed to HIV/AIDS before treatment became accessible. “You need a strong stomach,” Sarrazin says of her work.

Malawi is a nation of more than 14 million people that moves on foot. Residents walk hours each day to gather the basics: food, water and firewood. For the 8O per cent rural population, poverty compounds their already difficult lives.

The spirit of the people
Nearly half of all Malawians are under the age of 15. In a country where the average life expectancy is 44, children grow up fast, often becoming heads of households. For others, days are filled with work. Sarrazin’s youngest daughter, Juliette, is acutely aware of unattended Malawian girls, barefoot and half her size, carrying heavy buckets on their heads. Yet she finds these girls “nicer” because they are always smiling. “It takes more to make girls at home smile,” Juliette tells her mom.

Rachel Sajeedoo, a health-care nurse in rural Malawi assigns numbers to several hundred "health passports" belonging to HIV-positive patients who have come for their monthly medication and counseling.
A clinic nurse assigns numbers to several hundred health records belonging to HIV-positive patients who have come for treatment. With one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the world, Malawi has tried to develop solutions to the pandemic. While in Malawi, Sarrazin’s husband works withToronto-based Dignitas International to help address this ongoing crisis.

The barber shop serves as a sort of men’s club in Malawi, a man’s world where women are expected to be submissive.  HIV affects a disprortionate number of women and children.
The barbershop serves as a sort of men’s club. Women’s lives tend to be overwhelmed by the daily fetching of water, working the fields and caring for families. When mothers become ill, the burden of responsibility falls to their daughters who must then drop out of school. The consequences are self-perpetuating: Less than half of Malawian women are literate, compared to 76 per cent of men. “It’s like girls don’t count here,” Sarrazin’s eldest daughter, Camille, observes.

A Country's Struggle
A medical worker weighs a toddler in a community under-five clinic. While healthcare statistics in Malawi are grim, one bright spot is the country’s progress toward reducing the mortality rate of children under five. Experts currently rate this global Millennium Development Goal, as set by the UN, as being “possible to achieve” in Malawi.

The Family
Josée Sarrazin frequently tells her children, “Making the right choice often means choosing the thing that both excites and scares you.” Malawi offered just such an option. For her, achieving “success” in Canada was a catalyst for putting her words into action. 

Here, Sarrazin on a riverboat with Juliette, husband Michael, Gabriel, and Camille.

Rosina Kwatisani, 40, is the widowed, HIV-positive Malawian mother of six and a self-described “uneducated.” Rosina lives in a four-room house without running water or electricity, in a village whose men have all died of AIDS.  Always concerned about whether her maize crop will yield sufficient food for her family, Rosina rises above her own concerns to assist others suffering from HIV/AIDS.  She accompanies them for treatment, helps care for their children, and gathers water for them at the community well, all out of the kindness of her heart and because, she says, she’s blessed to be living “the good life.”
Rosina, 4O, is a widowed, HIV-positive mother of six, who describes herself as an “uneducated.” She lives in a four-room house without running water or electricity, in a village where all the men have died of AIDS. Constantly worried whether her maize crop will yield sufficient food for her family, Rosina rises above her own concerns to assist others suffering from HIV/AIDS. As the fortunate recipient of life-saving drugs and treatment, Rosina says she is blessed to be living “the good life.”
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