Recently the APH met up with two vibrant individuals Brian and Belinda, recent graduates from a higher education institution in the UK. They are both passionate about supporting issues around global health and about Africa. In their two part opinion piece, they share their experiences as African students as well as of interning in Africa (Part II). Enjoy reading and do share your opinions in the comments section.
Many Africans can only “dream” of the opportunity to pursue quality training overseas at Ivy league and Russel Group Universities of this world. Institutions to which the local education system that has nurtured our knowledge and skills through years of learning, contribute to the almost blind belief that there is no better source for top quality education and I dare say, developed intellect. It doesn’t help that our African education systems have hardly changed for decades, left behind by colonial masters whose teachings of everything from the alphabet to our understanding of African borders in geography and scientific discoveries of Alexander Fleming we still cling to. An archaic system that still equates learning with memory and teaches the partition of Africa, the prairies of Canada, and for some of us, a grid by grid map of New York City.
The average student of a health discipline in Africa has had to score high grades to get into the “elite” of Society’s professionals, with the belief that at the very least, after their first degree, a job awaits them somewhere. A job, I must add, that is not with the poor health worker/patient staffing norms of an average doctor/patient ratio of 1:18000. To the students’ despair, what actually follows is a poorly remunerated job in a public sector facility, and the frustration of working within the limitations of the infrastructure that the health sector provides. The irony however, is that this sad work environment inadvertently provides a learning environment for the keen and open minded learner. Surgeries in the absence of specialists, a diverse exposure to old diseases and pathogens that still fascinate the west, and a chance to reconstruct through innovation the “shambles” of the health systems within which they work. Alas, the yearning for progress sees many seek greener pastures in the west for further education, leaving the few that remain with the hope that upon their return, they will ably contribute more to supporting the shaky sector.
Not exempt to this thinking, we too embarked on a dream in search of an education in September 2015, to what we believed would be a truly enriching experience. Heavily expectant of the opportunity to learn from household names in academia and supposed discoverers of maladies, it felt surreal to finally make it to the acme of public health and this brilliant institution. What started as a slow couple of weeks evolved into days filled with the expected stresses of academics and being away from an environment of comfort that home –in all its warmness of people and weather, food so rich and organic, vast and green plains, a true endless beauty, was made easier by the support and presence of a rich African community at the University.
As the months progressed, we became increasingly aware of a pattern about the stories of poverty, disease, filth, hunger, inadequacy etc. They were all about Africa! Every lecture, every picture, every video was a reflection of the African continent and its lifeless, hopeless and diseased plight. This was accompanied by a condescending tone when in conversation with some non-African students and their deafening lack of interest for your thoughts, or if lucky to get a response, the diatribe against the knowledge you share that made one almost question every science, or principle you learned before you arrived. The halls were filled with an obscene local ignorance of the diversity that Africa presents in its geography and an immensely poor understanding of its people and their cultures. And then you observe the lack of diversity amongst academic staff, particularly at senior levels.
In anticipation of understanding why such a picture existed, a lecture titled “Why is my Professor not Black?” was scheduled during “Black History Month” in 2015. Come lecture time, lo and behold, the trend continued. There wasn’t a single black academic on the panel, and more importantly, a non-African panel addressed us about reasons for our “absence” in the upper hierarchy of academia. The reason being, as individuals we are each selective and all possess a deep-rooted psychological bias based on our background, education, likes and dislikes and we use these to make decisions about other people (simply put, we prefer like for like).
The hour long discussion ‘in celebration of Black history month’ wasn’t even an address on some of Africa’s most prized scholars, or contributors to the field of Tropical Medicine, but rather a ‘why your professor is not black and probably will never be, because he is black’.
The hilarity is that, the so- called ‘experts’ on Africa, it’s systems, it’s people, it’s ways were non-African professors, who merely fell in love with the motherland when they ventured there once as students themselves. Throughout the discussion, the trend continued: more disparaging content, images at times insensitive – but bringing laughter to those clueless of the context from which they are drawn. Pictures of sick children ridden with diarrhea, in opisthotonus from meningitis, plagued with trachoma flies, all of them with one commonality – they were African.
The inevitable thoughts run to Chimamanda’s “the danger of a single story” or Shiva’s “the monoculture of mind” , and how these giant institutions we as Africans flock to and praise, only see and portray us as exactly that- the perilous continent with no hope of ‘self-revival’ but forever at the mercy of our intellectual ‘superiors’ to “aid” and help us solve our simple problems. Sadly, all these institutions do is possibly, unknowingly, cultivate nothing, but those two very lines in those that walk through their doors in search of an education.
Beyond these perils within academic institutions, come stories of the friend whose immediate admission to an Isolation unit in fear that she may have tuberculosis was purely down to the passport she held. The time a receptionist announced that “an African” had arrived for their appointment, or the friend who was asked why her English was good and she didn’t sound African (apparently we have a sound that I am unaware of).
Now at the end of our degree, we have become almost immune to the sights of the filth, homelessness, disease, disintegrating health services, and the realization is that ours, is a home still gravely misrepresented, maybe misunderstood by those that don’t call it home.
The understanding is that I have an unwritten role as an African student to make known the unknown or untold truths about my beautiful continent, to share context, to challenge the mention of anything remotely African. Importantly, to bring togetherness in action within the African communities across institutions in these parts of the world for there is power in numbers. But maybe it is too late, for in weeks I will be on a plane back to where I belong, and unknowingly, will pass on the baton in this relay of perils as an African student.
Many thanks to Brian and Belinda for sharing such a thought provoking and challenging piece. Did you enjoy reading this article? if so, do come back for Part II where the writers share their thoughts and experience of interning in Africa.
About the writers
Brian is a global health fellow, clinician, and advocate for social justice and passionate enthusiast of all things community themed. After his year long MSc program in Infectious Diseases, in the UK, he returned to work in the Infectious Diseases and Diagnostics arena in his home country Uganda, East Africa.
Belinda is a bioscientist and advocate for human rights. She is passionate about communities and health access for marginalized communities. Since recently completing her MSc in Infectious Diseases in the UK, she spends her time at Doctors of the World serving vulnerable populations in London with the goal of pursuing a degree in Medicine.