“They didn’t even have nappies at the maternity ward,” she tells me
“I had to get my sister out of there: that hospital was a health risk.”
With our feet on the edge of a South-African fireplace, we are having a glass of wine. She is a beautiful woman from Lesotho who has made an impressive journey in life, now finishing her PhD while being an accomplished facilitator.
Twenty minutes ago, she asked me what I exactly try to find out with my research. So I told her about our projects on how parents support their children after a serious injury. About our research on care for children who lost a parent due to fatal domestic violence. And about our recent survey on emergency staff’s education needs regarding child traumatic stress.
She listened with interest, and then she started talking. About her experiences with hospitals in South Africa.
It’s not that I had never thought about the bigger picture. On the contrary, I’ve even wondered out loud in speeches whether I was doing the right thing helping our services get from, say, a quality score of 8 out of 10 to a 8.5. There are so many places where we’re lucky if that figure is a 4 or a 5. It wasn’t the first time that I was in South-Africa either. Last year, I spent three months there.
But all of a sudden it hit me. I felt embarrassed. Quite deeply embarrassed, to be honest.
I am working on problems that are important in a highly resourced context. Of course, it is good to improve our services. Children and adults exposed to trauma deserve the best support, and sometimes we can clearly do better. In many cases though, we are investing a lot of energy in achieving marginal improvements.
I have always had the idea that I was not the right person to work with refugees, with people from different cultures, with people from low- and middle-income countries. Who was I to do so, being a ‘white privileged person’? I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of going to low-resource settings and offering my help. As if I would truly understand what the local needs, and possible solutions, were.
But two weeks on from the conversation at the fireplace, that seems a feeble excuse. Also, through the Global Young Academy projects, in particular the Africa Science Leadership Program, I actually feel that I can contribute. That I can work with colleagues from Africa, Asia, and South America to find out how to support local professionals, for example.
So now I have a tornado in my head.
(For the concerned: it’s a good, benevolent, awake-at-night-because-I-have-ideas storm 🙂 although a bit more sleep would be appreciated…)
It will take a while for the dust to settle and for me to find out what my next steps are. The major societal issue on my mind is the refugee crisis. I can dream up a number of projects involving refugee youth, setting up research together with them. Or even better, have them lead it.
What is clear despite the whirlwind though, is that I want to avoid being a desk theorist about this. I will need to ‘get my feet in the clay’ as we say in Dutch, and – without an agenda – explore what people themselves consider important.