Saturday, April 21, 2012

GlobeMed Global Health Summit 2012: Walking Together, Walking Far--Partnership as a Framework for Meaningful Action

"If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together." --African proverb

I've always been a fast walker. The way I've always seen it, the faster you walk, the faster you get from point A to point B, because what mattered was not the distance but your destination. But Summit...Summit couldn't have shown me more how wrong I was in my thinking, as nice and pretty my intentions were.

To be honest, I was a little lost and crazy before all of this. I came to Brown a chalk-full optimistic first-year (let's just stick "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" in there), searching desperately for the people and the groups and the courses that would give me a chance to mold myself into someone I actually wanted to be. Let me just say that being aware of global health disparities was not exactly on my list. It was too broad. Too much. Between the impoverished and the comfortable I knew I'd have to walk worlds before I could effect change. And then there was GlobeMed, and after the intriguing yet ever-confusing info sesh I attended near the start of the fall semester (Models? Framework? Flowcharts?) I decided there was something more to this movement for health equity than just what I could do and how many shoes I would run down.

Small groups 11 & 12 at our final discussion!
Partnership--if we are greater than the sum of our parts, then there's definitely something about the GlobeMed network that speaks to humanity. I think that was one of the most prominent lessons I learned at Summit. From Melissa Covelli's opening keynote on eradicating the 1% (of polio cases, excuse me) to the three intense workshops I attended on FACEAIDS, PIH, "big pharms" and pharm labs, the overarching model of their partnerships with those struggling took, roughly, the form of "asking what they need." GlobeMed isn't just another non-profit whose mission is to dump tons of food or medical supplies in a needy community and calling it a good day's work. It's a network of students looking to start a conversation with other people around the world, to learn about differences in an attempt to foster global health equity--because we believe everyone deserves access to healthcare and the right to a healthy life. I know word choice changes how we see things and I know I'm biased; and it's not to say that quick goodwill trips don't do any good. But all of these presentations, including other colleges' globalhealthU track 3 talks, really overturned how I thought about my own aspirations. Getting from point A to point B wasn't the point at all. Sure, raising money and sending that money to U-Tena is one of our biggest goals at our Brown chapter, but the conversation doesn't stop once that money is transferred. There's accountability, constant updates, and GROW--always, always more to do before we reach our next goal, and the way we get there is what truly sets the course for helping others help themselves. And making friendships! Not as the typical white-supremacist, "this is what we're going to give you and this is what you should do with it," but friends, partners, forming a global community.

Selling Kenyan bone jewelry :)
Speaking of friends...Hwajin and I made so many at the conference! There were hoards and hoards of other students so actively involved and in love with the GlobeMed mission, and it was so stimulating to not just get to know them as people, but brainstorm ideas to better our chapters, find common ground on issues, and even start pretty heated debates on morality and the like. Personally, I found it so amazing, how the first thing I could talk about with someone within five minutes of meeting them was the marriage of conventional hospital births with the comfort of homes in an effort to celebrate birth, as a human right, even in those countries without proper sanitary facilities.

Oh, UT-Austin adopted us...
Obviously, it's near impossible to bring the entire Summit experience back to Brown. But in three short days, I've taken more notes than I have all semester long for my Gender Studies seminar, written down more quotes than I imagined, smiled more about the world and the direction we're headed, and loved more our efforts to be a constant of change. As Jonathan Smith so curiously put it, we need to change how we see global health inequity, and change this epidemic of disease into an epidemic of emotion. I believe that GlobeMed at Brown provides a collective step towards this movement, and along with the other 49 chapters, 1,500 students, 21 countries, and countless partnerships among them, I think with hands shaped like hearts, our footfalls will take us to a place that cannot be summed by any point in the alphabet.

I am so excited to see what the next school year will hold for us :)

--Elaine Hsiang

A big question: How do we reconcile targeted interventions with a belief in holistic health?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Abroad Reflections: Intersections in Health

Taking leave of the oppressive sun, I head inside the home of my host mother, Gloria, who has the television turned on to a sermon being held outdoors elsewhere in South Africa. Gloria lives in a modest, yet comfortable house in the older part of Zwelethemba, an apartheid-era black township in Worcester. She is a family matriarch, perhaps in her 70's, with two daughters and a son, from whom she has become a granny and great-granny. I tell her I have visited a sangoma—a traditional Nguni healer that specializes in medicinal herbs and ritual communing with the spirit world. Gloria asks me what the sangoma said and I recount the story of the traditional healer’s calling: wracked with terrible visions and pain, the woman had been compelled by ancestral spirits to join her profession. Gloria asks me if I believe in such things, but before I can respond, answers her own question in the affirmative because I "don't know about it." We turn our attention back to the television, which cuts to a woman publicly confessing her (extensive) sins. Gloria tells me, assuredly, that the woman is a sangoma. She tells me that, as a Christian, she doesn’t believe in sangomas, only Jesus.

As if to illustrate, Gloria shares a story of when her boy, at age 6, developed a brain tumor. To treat this tumor, the doctors told her that a surgery was needed, surgery that could only be performed in the distant city of Cape Town. Once there, Gloria realized that she should have had her pastor at church lay on hands. So, she asked the doctors in Cape Town to delay the surgery, then travelled home by train several hours and went to her pastor in his church. He knew why they had come without her telling and did lay on hands. When she returned to Cape Town, she prayed, the doctors took another x-ray and the boy's tumor was gone. Gloria attributes his healing to her prayer and to her faith: "I believe in doctors, I'm not saying that I don't, but mostly I believe in Jesus Christ and prayer."

This account, one of many personal stories I heard during my stay in the township, only serves as an introduction to the entangled traditional, post- and neo-colonial influences in Zwelethemba. A sociologist might approach this interaction using the lens of ‘intersectionality,’ the multiple facets of a person’s identity that mediate oppression. I am not a sociologist, but one thing I learned abroad is that any individual's beliefs are produced by their relationships and interactions with other people, or as a mentor put it, their "web of witnesses." It was precisely these that the South African apartheid regime sought to control. The physical separation of the township from Worcester by a DMZ-like barren expanse constantly reminded me of this. We often hold our beliefs without context, as unquestioned habits divorced from the people and structures that influenced them. In particular, one might miss the oppression or privilege wrapped up within one's worldview. Open-minded recognition is the first step to emancipation.

Connor Barnhart
Real names withheld.