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An Anchorage couple worked decades to help African villagers. Other Alaskans decided to help, too.

Ruth and Tom Nighswander visit with children served by the Malawi Children’s Village support program for orphans and vulnerable children in Chipoka, Malawi, in 2011. (Courtesy Tom and Ruth Nighswander)

Each morning on the porch of their thatch-roofed home on the south end of Lake Malawi, Tom and Ruth Nighswander receive the sick and injured for medical care before the subsistence farmers' workday begins in southern Africa.

The couple lives parallel lives in Alaska, where Tom has spent a career as a family practice doctor in the Alaska Native health system and Ruth retired as a school nurse in Anchorage. Along the way, they've built a pipeline of Anchorage residents helping a region of 37 villages and schools in Malawi.

Their latest involvement in the region started in 2000, when HIV/AIDS had filled it with orphans. Today, patients have drugs for AIDS, but needs remain. Tom said people come to his porch in the morning explaining they can't take AIDS drugs with food, as directed, because they don't have any food.

"In January and February, everybody's hungry; it's just greater or lesser amounts of how hungry you are," he said.

The couple used leave from work in Alaska to work in Africa. Jobs here provided reasonable salaries. Work in Malawi, one of the poorest places on Earth, provided a sense of purpose and an immense network of friends. They seem profoundly happy.

Tom, tall and slender, draped himself over a sofa Tuesday, apparently incapable of suppressing a smile and chuckle with each sentence. Ruth steadied the conversation, calm and precise. Their living room is full of African carvings, including some by a friend who works with his feet because he lost use of his arms due to polio.

Every year they travel to Malawi with two suitcases, one carrying their belongings and another with medical supplies. After a couple of months there, that seems like plenty.

"We have everything we need, in this thatch-roofed place," Tom said. "You live there and you kind of get in the rhythm of being there, and you come home and walk in your house and go, 'Oh my God, this is obscene.' And we vow, the rule is this: Everything we haven't touched in two years we are going to get rid of. That lasts for about two weeks and then you get sucked in again."

But the Nighswanders' house near Cheney Lake in East Anchorage is no fancier than some teachers' or police officers' homes. Rather than cashing in on his medical degree, Tom worked in a salaried position that allowed him to concentrate on care and community health, not how much he billed. Earlier this year, he was picked as family physician of the year by his Alaska professional association.

The couple met in high school in Kent, Ohio, and stayed together while attending separate colleges, each studying a field that had nothing to do with science or medicine. When they graduated, President John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address called to them. His phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," brought them to join the Peace Corps.

They got married to join as a couple and the next day left for Nyasaland. Ruth never got a diamond but saw the country gain independence in 1964 and become Malawi. The Peace Corps provided training. They diagnosed tuberculosis and conducted exams with no applicable experience, but they loved the work and decided to dedicate their lives to medicine.

The Vietnam War brought them to Alaska. In 1971, with a fresh medical degree, Tom faced a choice of joining the U.S. Public Health Service as a commissioned officer or being drafted into the military. They left mainly for stints back in Africa — including enrolling their children in school there for a time in the 1980s.

When they went in 2000, they encountered the orphan crisis. An old Peace Corps friend had recruited them to a locally run organization called Malawi Children's Village. The Nighswanders in turn recruited Anchorage to help.

More than a decade ago, I was at a parent meeting at Chugach Optional Elementary when school nurse Madelyn Schlansker told us about her trip to Malawi and suggested we adopt a school there. The children at Chugach rapidly raised enough money for a latrine. That allowed girls in a Malawi village to go to school for the first time.

Chugach fundraising is approaching $100,000 for that school, Ruth said, making it a model in the region and the envy of other communities. Five other Anchorage elementary schools also adopted schools through the Malawi Children's Village, adding classrooms, teacher housing, bicycles and even helping students after they graduate. Just a little money makes a huge difference there.

A stint in Malawi with the Peace Corps in the 1960s changed everything for Ruth and Tom Nighswander, who turned their lives to medicine and an ongoing commitment to rural health care in Alaska and in Africa. They were photographed at their Anchorage home recently. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Nighswanders recruited teachers, nurses and architects to go. Alaska engineers worked on a safe drinking water project. Students from Alaska Pacific University went, as well as high school students in the International Baccalaureate program at West High.

Going to Malawi seems to be its own reward. People glow about the warmth and smiles of the people there.

Ruth said: "I think it's that they have a hard-working ethic. They were born poor, but it's where they were born. They're just as bright. They don't have the opportunities we have here."

"Very loyal," Tom said. "Loyal friendships. Our oldest friendships go back there 53 years."

Ruth said about 300 Anchorage residents have gone to help so far.

Tom said: "What's remarkable about there and here, especially in the villages, is how similar it is. When you work with a group like we have, for years and years, it's the similarities that really become obvious and not the differences. They happen to speak Chichewa in the villages, but beyond that, they worry about their kids, enough food to eat and a dry roof, a good bicycle and education. It's the same kind of human drives."

I already knew that was true but I was grateful to be reminded of it. As we sit down to our feast on Thursday, I will give thanks for the lives of Tom and Ruth Nighswander.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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