Archive for Januarie, 2012

Spending time with the people

Finally! In almost 6 months of studying global health I finally had a lecturer with something to say. So far all I’ve “learnt” is graphs, statistics, intervention strategies…the basic things you could find in a textbook, medical journals or the WHO website. Today, however, we had a lecturer from India. He studied in UK and then worked in a rural village in India. He now heads a few projects in Mumbai, including clinics in the slums and also coordinates a master’s programme in disaster relief at a university in India.

He was talking a lot about context and how “western” solutions often try to “save” or “rescue” other low-income countries with modern solutions or medical techniques. He touched on the fact that the more medicine progresses, the more expensive it becomes and the less people can be reached. But the part I was interested in most, is when he talked about humanitarian aid. How often good intentions end up into making situations worse. He mentioned when people go in to help in a disaster relief area to, for instance, do some surgeries which resulted in eventual amputations because they had not learned the culture or studied the people. His answer for “but what if you don’t have the time to learn about the people” and he said “then don’t come.” And in my mind I thought: Amen!

It is so often that aid and humanitarian efforts to save the world result in wasted money and even sometimes in making the situation worse. It happens in all fields, not only medicine. People building pipelines to supply rural areas with water, which stop working 6 months later because no one educated them on how to maintain the pipes and where to get the material for maintenance. Another example is of a volunteer who called the Indian police to report slums where children were working, which resulted in them being sent back home, only to find them back 6 months later working in worse conditions (boarded-up windows ect) so that the police would not find the slums again.

He said “what kind of mother would send her 10 year old son kilometers away to work for almost nothing if it was not a desperate situation.” The point being, before acting, find out WHY people do what they do. Walk in their shoes. Share their meals. Use their toilets.

He mentioned that, so often, it is the “rescuer” of the giver who decides what to give, with people neglecting asking the victim what would improve their lives. I have seen this over and over in church projects, in outreaches, in medicine, where people from a high income context want to make a difference, but it has no real effect because it is not sustainable within the context. And I really feel it is time for the “victims” to have a voice. Time for the “giver” to sit up and listen to what the need is. We can learn just as much (even more) from a Mozambican child kicking a ball outside in the dust, than what we can give him.

Another thing I liked is India’s policy on not accepting aid. He quotes that “aid cripples”. Thinking of South Africa and various other countries in Africa, how aid money is spent on dictatorship, ministers building houses and buying cars and never reaches the people, this policy does start to sound very attractive. I have always been an advocate of spending time with the people, of education and sustainability, but hearing it in this context today was liberating. There is so much wrong with the world, but we do not need to sit around and wait. The poor have a voice. The minority has a voice. The suffering have a voice.

And there are people ready to answer.

So that’s my thoughts on this. There are some great people out there, with big hearts who want to dedicate their lives to helping people, but we need to make sure we are, indeed helping. Anyways, if you want to go and volunteer in India (four months minimum) in Mumbai, let me know and I can give you his details.

So, lastly, I encourage everyone to enter in a debate, to think outside the box, to spend time with people and, most of all, to listen…


All who wander

Today I changed my blog to “All who wander…” referring to “All who wander aren’t lost”.

It’s because something in this quote rings true with the way I, almost permanently, feel. I’ve been wandering my entire life.

I’ve ended up in some strange, unpredictable places. Places I would never have pictured myself in if you’d asked me a few years previously. Living a year in a small town in the mountains of Mpumalanga, working in a rural hospital as one of only two white people on staff. Moving to Cape Town, working in a mental hospital. Wandering around the cape flats and making friends with people whose lives look radically different than mine. Wandering around in Europe, living in Sweden for 6 months. Wandering around in snow-covered mountains in Norway, looking at glaciers and experiencing the northern lights.

Sometimes I wander around between the people I meet. The friends I make. My life has been blessed with many strong and valuable friendships. I always feel like I don’t deserve having the friends I have, because they are so special and loyal. I would not be half the person I am without them.

Mostly though, ever since I can remember, I’ve been wandering around in my own thoughts. In fantasies I create inside myself. In my mind I’ve travelled to the strangest places, both wonderful and scary. Mostly my thoughts are chaotic, emotional and wildly expressionistic. Sometimes they flow together coherently enough to make a blog post or write a short story. Other times they move into poetry or beautiful sentences. Most often though, I am just wandering between the chaotic worlds that are created within my mind.

Today I am 26 years old and my mind has been wandering a lot lately. I’ve been wandering why I’m not married. If I would ever have children. Why I’m 26 and I don’t have a steady job, and when I will eventually “settle down” and “grow up”.

But I look back at my life, at everything I’ve done. At every unexpected curve and valley and mountain. My life has wandered onto a strange, beautiful and scary path. I’ve been wandering a lot lately.

I don’t, however, feel lost.

Northern Lights

One day, a few years from now, I’ll think back over my life and remember that I’ve seen it. That I saw the night sky light up in green and orange and white. The evening was described as crisp. In my world though, -6 qualifies as cold, but apparently it was a warm Norwegian winter. It was a clear night and we could see the stars. We heard later that this was a good thing. The woman told us that when they were younger they were told that, if you waved at the lights, they would come down to grab you. Earlier it had never occurred to me that people lived in places where they could see this almost every evening during winter. We had coffee and biscuits, like proper grown-ups, conversing in basic English. But inside, like children, we counted the moments and hoped it would be tonight. We checked our watches regularly. The man had said it usually comes past 8, but it was 9pm already. We tried to look out the window as often as possible, without seeming rude.

Inside I knew. Tonight.

Suddenly he spotted it and were were up like children. We dressed in our boots, jackets, scarves and gloves quicker than we had ever before. In a few seconds we were standing ankle-deep in the snow, our eyes fixed on the sky above us.

It danced. It really danced. Even more than the pictures had lead me to believe. Green. White. Then orange. More green. Moving as if to the beat of some unique, cosmic rhythm.

Years later I will remember thinking that this was the “coolest thing I had ever experienced on my 25 years on earth.” Years later I will remember that the sky danced for me.


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