'Malawi has.only 700 healthcare workers for the whole country. One nurse can be in charge of 100 patients in rural clinics. It has the third worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Not even disposable gloves are available.'

Every NHS worker who devotes some of their time to working or volunteering in a developing country says it makes you put life in the NHS in perspective. A bit of me has always felt a trace of journalistic cynicism about such sentiments.

But now I know exactly what they mean. I was given the chance to visit Malawi in southern Africa with Unison, which was there with Oxfam to visit unions, talk about recent increases in nurses' wages and to see the state of healthcare in one of the poorest countries in the world.

I did not really know what to expect. As Malawi has never had a war, either civil or with its neighbours, and is neglected by the tourist industry, it. has been largely ignored by the media - at least until Madonna's recent baby-shopping trips.

With the added advantage that the main language is English, Malawi is generally a pretty gentle introduction to Africa. Except for the fact that once you get the opportunity to talk to healthcare workers and visit the country's healthcare facilities, you hear of the horrendous circumstances the health system is struggling with.

Grim facts

The facts make grim reading: there are only 700 healthcare workers for the whole country. One nurse can be in charge of 100 patients in rural clinics. It has the third worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Not even disposable gloves are available.

On top of all this, there is an HIV/AIDS epidemic that means that around a tenth of the adult population is infected and that has seen life expectancy fall to 37. That's lower than it was 20 years ago..

Yet what helped to make my trip so remarkable - in addition to the lovely people I was lucky to travel with - was the friendliness, politeness and general all-round delightfulness of the Malawians I met.

Eight years of living in London may have made me more appreciative of kind and friendly people, but I have to tell you, if I were living in the conditions that many of these people were living in, I would find it a struggle to bother to get out of bed, yet they were, undoubtedly, some of the nicest human beings I have ever met.

Fingers crossed that this country has a more positive future.