Amandla! Ngawethu!

This has been a resounding cry for the last 3 weeks as I’ve participated in the International People’s Health University (IPHU), the South African National Health Assembly (NHA), and the Third People’s Health Assembly (PHA3), all here in Cape Town.

The phrase means: Power to us!

And it is shouted as if it were a mandate from God himself, with incredible fervor and passion.

All three of these consecutive events have been incredible. I don’t think I quite understood the significance of everything I was attending until I was nearing the end of them all. Especially, the IPHU. It almost (almost) makes me wish I’d put more effort into it, although in reality I was overwhelmed with the cold, the travel out to Belville everyday, and sitting all day long while trying to prepare for the NHA and do my own coursework (which is still being neglected, HA!)

But all three conferences were simply beautiful. They really reframed the way that I think about health: the fundamental human right to health, what health means, what affects health, and all the actors who shape how health is practiced, accessed, afforded, manipulated, and destroyed. These conferences gave me such a different outlook on how I want to shape my own career as a public health nutritionist and eventually a doctor. It also gave me a new interest in health policy, which is ironically timed as that’s the online course I’m currently taking.

Globalization as a term has been thrown around so much in the last 5 years, but the effects of which, especially as it pertains to health really only set in during these conferences. In all of the lectures and presentations from different people about different countries and their respective systems, a map has been created in my head that shows the interconnected (tangled) web of how much the policies and actions of one country affect the other. This was most apparent when we discussed transnational corporations (TNCs) and the detrimental effects the many brands that we consume have on places all over the world.

It’s pretty frustrating to think about how complicit we are in ruining our own health and the health of people all over the world. Most of us don’t even realize what all of these corporations do; how many things they have a hand in. I’m not sure that any one person could know all the things they have a part in and the consequences, since they’re often so secretive. Even when we think we’re being conscious consumers, all of those corporations buy up thousands of other smaller companies, such that most of the time you don’t even realize that you’re continuing to fund those big names.

The people who attended PHA3 came from all walks of life, spoke all different languages, and had varying commitments to the concept of “Health for all, Now!” Many were typically involved in the health sector as doctors, or other health care providers, many focused on the policies and politics of health and health insurance, others were part of NGOs that focused on specific issues, others were concerned about environmental degradation especially as it came to extractive resource mining, and many other people hit hard the ideas of human rights and how a lack of them would inevitably result in declining health, as with the cohort from Palestine. There were so many issues voiced throughout the conference, and everyone was so passionate about their topic.

One overarching sentiment was that of solidarity. There was a lot of communist rhetoric throughout the conference, and I’m sure there were quite a few people that belong to the party, believed in aspects of communism, or were at the very least socialists. Despite the fact that practicing communist ideology can get tricky around certain audiences, and can at times be alienating because of its history, I think they chose the better aspects and rhetoric to utilize. Everyone had a voice, even when some of the voices were a bit inane. Yes, people referred to each other as comrade, but it was more a sign of respect and an equalizer as it was meant for anyone regardless of age.

The best shows of solidarity were when a group started up a chant or a song from their country or organization. No matter what language was being spoken or what corner of the world the chant/song was coming from, or how ill timed it was in the middle of someone’s speech, they were given space to rally and celebrate, and everyone would join in with just as much passion, even when they didn’t know the exacts of what was being shouted.

So what am I going to do after that barrage of information; the overstimulation on health topics and the idea of health as a human right? I have two choice, I can do nothing or I can move forward as an activist for health and human rights. The choice is pretty clear for me, especially as the sense of social justice has been ingrained in my thinking (thank you, Oberlin College).

But the better question is how do I become an activist, or rather a become a better activist? It brings me back to a conversation we had during IPHU about what is an activist? What does an activist do? And part of that conversation was that an activist doesn’t settle for the status quo–he or she makes it their responsibility to do what’s right even when it may cause you personal discomfort. So how do you reject complacency? How do you go beyond the rhetoric and being an activist in name only and move towards living a life and carrying out the work that embodies those ideals. It’s very easy to get stuck–to make a way for yourself and forget about everyone else–and it’s very easy to lose sight of your purpose.

Sooooo. I guess I need start making some tangible first steps. But  even the first, seemingly easy, steps that I should take already make me uncomfortable—like networking for one. I have a stack of business cards from people I met throughout these conferences.

  • I actually need to get over feeling weird about networking and contact them. I need to make those connections and ask questions and find out where I can go to learn more and what events I can be a part of.
  • I need to get linked into PHM-USA and become an active participant
  • I  need to practice better discipline and actually read the materials that I’ve been given references to.
  • I need to buckle down on the language learning; get some Rosetta stone or something.
  • And finally, I need to apply to damn near everything so that I can get funding to do what I need and want to do (*cough* BOREN FELLOWSHIP *cough, cough*)

Anyway, before I start moving away from practical, tangible steps back into the world of fluffy idealism, let me finish this post. These last few weeks have been great! I’ve met so many great and interesting people who are doing amazing things in their commitment to seeing the idea of “health for all, now!” manifest in their own countries and communities. It’s inspiring and it’s time to get to work!


(this is where you say, NGAWETHU!)