CAPE MACLEAR, Malawi — In February 1999, a 25-year-old Irish tourist named Billy Riordan drowned here in Lake Malawi. Just two days before his death he wrote his mother that he had found "paradise" in this sleepy lakeside town of 15,000, populated by rural fishermen and backpackers from abroad.
A year later his mother, Mags Riordan, made a pilgrimage to place a memorial stone where her only son died. She, too, was captivated by the lakeside spot ringed by mountains. She found the people easygoing and welcoming. Over the next two and a half years Riordan returned here five times.
"Billy's death was a catastrophic event for our family. I felt something positive must come from our tragedy and I was looking for a project in the village in memory of Billy," she said. "An outbreak of cholera and continual deaths from malaria and simple childhood diseases very soon made me realize that a medical clinic in this area is not just necessary but it is essential."
There was no doctor for the little town and the nearest medical clinic was a difficult four-hour drive away.
"I knew setting up a medical clinic was exactly the right thing to do as a memorial to Billy," she said.
Riordan knew how to raise money for a charitable project — just a few years earlier she had organized aid for Bosnia and overseen its distribution.
She went back to Dingle, in County Kerry. Contributions came in from "Cork to Dublin and Wicklow to Galway," Riordan said, adding that she raised more than $100,000. With that money she built and equipped a small clinic on land that was donated by the local chief.
In 2006 the clinic expanded to become a small hospital, offering 24-hour medical services.
Now the clinic is staffed by doctors and nurses who treat villagers for a wide variety of ailments, including HIV and AIDS.
"AIDS has decimated the village," Riordan said. "We are offering counseling, testing and treatment with antiretroviral medicines. So many people now have hope for healthy lives."
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