*Disclaimer: We are healthy. We don’t need a doctor. Read on to find out more.
In the two weeks since we’ve left the States, I feel like we’ve settled in to our home here. Classes are underway, we still have managed to avoid the Zambian bug for the most part (though it might be finally making an appearance), and the communal learning has finally commenced.
And yet, I still feel uneasy every time the health team heads out into Zambezi, outlying communities, or starts our 9 am class in the church hall.
For the last four months, the health team has worked to create a curriculum that not only covered basic topics that were important to general health and safety, but also addressed relevant needs in the community here. First aid, water safety, pregnancy questions and germs are pretty universal topics, but we also wanted to save a lot of time for conversations with classes about the information they wanted to learn. Instead of preaching what we believed was most applicable, we wanted to serve as a resource and be a tool for them to learn with to become community health ambassadors.
In our first week of classes, we traveled to a rural village school for a talk on the importance of education and puberty, visited both the Zambezi Hospital and a rural health clinic and arranged for visits to learn practices at both, and conducted classes in Zambezi and Dipalata on a variety of topics. We were excited to finally begin in Zambia, and couldn’t believe it was time to get started.
Except, like most plans in Zambia, things changed.
The students at the school we visited spoke little English, and much of the lessons were conducted through a translator. While this made the information more accessible to students, I couldn’t help but feel it increased the distance between us and the people we were trying to connect with.
Planned visits to the hospital and clinic on Friday both ended in less than ideal ways, as the doctor at the clinic was absent (fetching more vaccines for children) and the head nurse we had been in contact with at the hospital was out sick.
Our classes have been full of lively conversation, with each class focusing on a topic of our choosing and one topic of the community’s choosing. Often, these classes are discussion based, with myth-busting and fact-finding taking the majority of our time together. But for as much as our students have learned, I can’t help but feel like we are still unintentionally put on a pedestal here.
Because we are students from America – the land of opportunity and endless knowledge – it’s believed that we have answers for everything. Our community classes are built with the intent of spending half of the time in discussion about their chosen topics after we have had a chance to consult a few health manuals, but they still appear to take our suggestions as law. The problem of the white savior complex has been common in conversations with previous Zambezi students and staff, but experiencing it firsthand is a much different situation.
I’m fresh out of Gonzaga and have already gone through the medical school application gamut once, and I feel like now I’m living the scenario questions that they give you when you apply. To quote the secondary application for the University of Virginia School of Medicine (from where I am still awaiting a letter telling me that I was rejected, considering class starts next month): “How would you best approach bringing medical knowledge to a community that doesn’t necessarily share your beliefs or traditions?”
In our recent weekend trip, we stopped off in Chinyingi, a nearby community to see a suspension bridge and mission hospital. Upon reaching the hospital, we learned that only one patient was currently at the hospital for treatment, and the hospital was undergoing renovations to update it and make it as functional as possible. However, the hospital employed just one nurse, and no doctors.
We met the priest for the Chinyingi parish, Father Matthew, and his eyes lit up when Jeff explained that one of the teams we brought was a health education team. “Send us a doctor,” he said. “Send us a doctor, send us nurses. Come stay here. We will host you and support you while you’re here, we just need you to send us a doctor.”
Again – just because we are from America, the land where anything is possible and endless opportunity keeps the doors open.
The health team really struggled with not approaching our classes our excursions with a “white savior” complex – we’re not medical professionals, we don’t know all of this information by heart, we just used resources available to us and tried to find information that we thought would be useful to the people of Zambezi, but we also wanted to make sure that our classes were tailored to the things that community members wanted to learn.
I have another couple of years to work out the answer to that initial question on paper, but for the next two weeks that’s the situation we’re living: We’re trying to avoid preaching health practices, framing information in the context of our location without coming off as the pompous kids who think they’re making a difference.
Working together with Moira, Molly, Hayley and Justin is inspiring because they keep our group focused. Their drive for grounding information and practice in a realistic way for the people of Zambezi has made conversations much more approachable with our students, and using resources available here has proved to be a struggle that gives rare and great triumphs.
Yes, we are different because of the color of our skin, and our location of origin, and the opportunities that are readily available. But these coincidences that landed me in America and Gonzaga could have just as easily dropped me in the middle of Zambezi, seeking out knowledge at every turn. While we have access to information at the literal tap of our fingers, working with the community here has given me a new appreciation for not only the varying sources of knowledge, but the drive of Zambians to continually acquire knowledge. Everyone I’ve met here so far has seemed content with what they know, which inspires me to keep asking questions.
I’m 22. I don’t know everything, which is probably something that is odd to hear (or read) a 22-year-old say (or type). But after experiencing the white savior complex, and struggling to rationalize it as the availability of resources, I can’t help but be inspired to keep striving to learn from everyone and everything around me.
How do you approach bringing medical knowledge to a community that doesn’t necessarily share your beliefs or traditions? You don’t. You can’t. All you can do is come in with an understanding of your beliefs, and work to share them with those who have differing beliefs. Learning doesn’t occur when beliefs change, but when they are shared. And that is what I’m doing here.
Class of 2016
PS: Mom, happy birthday in advance, since I won’t be able to say it next week. As your present, here is a picture of me, smiling, and doing fun things. Thanks in so many ways for every opportunity you’ve given me, I love you to the moon.
PS #2: Mama Phillips, Davis says he loves, you, happy anniversary, and happy birthday (the triple whammy)!
PS #3: Trevor, Rosie, Kelly, Andy, Carlee and the rest of the Sinto Squad: miss you guys every day and can’t wait to hear about all of your post grad adventures. Counting the endless days until I get to see you all again.
so excited to see a post from you today! You are full of insight and I’m so glad I got the chance to know you more this past semester. You are always so reflective and often I felt like I could just see you thinking every time we did something in class or with the freshmen. You are going to make a great doctor, not only because of what this experience is teaching you, but because you are so good at caring. Keep up all the hard work. Love you muchochoochie
Computer gals! I hope classes are going wel!! Literally waiting on the edge of my seat to hear about them. Keep up all the great work I know you’re doing. If there’s a young student named Michael that took the class last year, say hi to him for me! I’ve been sending extra prayers to him!
Glad you all made it back from Dipalata healthy and happy!
Umm hi. Bittersweet it is your blog day. 1. Because so so excited to hear from you and about your experience. 2. Sooooo long before I hear from you again. Aka you will be back in the states. (Yes, entirely selfish) you are allowed to roll your eyes or wave your hand as I am sure you would if I was actually saying this to you.
It never quite occurred to me how this experience would shape you for the potential of medical school and even better a career within medicine. Of course you are on the health team and medicine is one of your passions but I never put it together. You will never forget these experiences. They will shape who you will become in the medical profession, how you deal with patients and the balance of it all on hard and long days. I cannot wait to watch you turn this experience into more than words on a application or a journal entry but into guiding practices in your life.
You are right you are not the savior to this community but you are a great friend and companion to them. Be present and love extravagantly.
Happy taco Tuesday from afar.
Love you miss you,
What a bonus! 2 posts in one day! Thank you all for sharing your journey! You all are a wonderful group of young adults! Take care everyone!!!
Katie B – I miss your smiling face! There’s going to be a new baby at Christmas, Laura’s due in November. Love you!
BOOM! That’s what I’m talking about. Matt, thank you for reminding me of the importance of seeking to understand before ever thinking about trying to make a change. Thank you for so intelligently describing how mutual learning comes so naturally only after we are capable of accepting and sharing the beliefs of ourselves and others. It is definitely difficult to be viewed as a celebrity or an all-knowing chindele from the so-called perfect land of opportunity, but I hope that you and the rest of the Zam fam are able to find peace knowing that many of the Zambians look up to you all because of the opportunities and possibilities that you are giving THEM. Hey, maybe right now your only qualification for teaching your health classes is that you had access to Wikipedia for all of your info while you were in the states, but I hope you know that just being present with the students in your classes and having a desire to teach and to learn is a gift and a blessing for all of them. That’s all they want.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Matt. I wish you and the rest of the zambaes strength, patience, and curiosity as you continue your classes this week. I can’t stop thinking about y’all.
Ahhhhh *sigh of relief*, I have been dying to know how the health team is doing, even though I have known that you are tackling the complexity of teaching health in a foreign context with grace and diligence. In listening to the five of you prepare your hearts and minds and curriculum, I knew that you would thrive in this role. I hope you are enjoying debunking some of those wild myths and Matt and Justin, I hope you’re getting comfortable talking about “that time of the month.” The complex dynamics of culture and privilege and tradition can seem like such a barrier to operating at eye level, but learning to creatively work towards accompaniment will make you the most unique and powerful doctors and nurses. Reading the blog is the best part of my days- keep em coming!! Kisu mwane, Hannah
Its so great to read your post! As always you are such an intentional, reflective, caring person. The issues you are grappling with in your blog are such difficult ones to overcome, and I applaud you for the way you’re facing these internal and external challenges. What an amazing realization and humbling experience to arrive at a place of acceptance and curiosity in regards to something that could so easily seem clear and definite–medicine. I know that this will contribute to what an amazing doctor you already will be one day. Keep sharing. Keep loving! And know you are all in my prayers!!
P.S. Count your blessings you made it out of Dipalata without getting sick!
So glad to hear you and the rest of your zam fam are doing well and have stayed healthy! I pray we can keep it that way. It’s exciting to hear about how you have gone about sharing the medical information you have brought with you, and the struggles and realizations that have come along with that. From my perspective, working in an emergency department for the last year, I have begun to understand the importance and potential of preventative care in the prevention of disease and illness. To me, this largely consists of medical education, and strong encouragement to practice that education i.e. healthier diet, more exercise and smoking cessation. (A little different education you guys are sharing, but nonetheless education) When that education is implemented and practiced, it’s amazing the change you can see in a person’s health and their significantly decreased need to see a physician or nurse. So it is truly exciting for me to see that progress being made in places like Zambia where it can be utilized so heavily for the improvement of life and prevention of disease. The education you share has the potential to lessen their immediate need, to some extent, for those doctor’s and nurses as it has the capability of preventing sickness that would require such services. Perhaps even more important, yet more difficult, is understanding how to most effectively share this information, as you reflected upon. But I can’t think of a more effective way to do so that what you thought of above: by asking each other questions, learning about each others cultures and then sharing your information in such a way that is compatible with your new understanding of their desires and lifestyle. I feel your reflection is extremely encouraging for the people of Zambia and the rest of the patients you will get to treat and educate in your bright future as a physician (It’s going to happen). You will no doubt leave a remarkable impact on this world and i’m so excited to see what you learn on this wonderful trip to Zambia. It seems like it was just yesterday Katie spent her time in Zambia teaching the local children and immersing herself in the Zambian culture. It’s amazing how life changing that experience was for her, and the indirect impact it had on me. I can tell it’s doing the same to you Matt. God bless, I’ll keep you in my prayers buddy,
Mr. Matthew Clark,
I’m so glad you decided to take the short flights over to Zambia! It is such a beautiful place with some beautiful people. I have very much enjoyed sitting here at my desk, eating breakfast before work, and reading your post. I was expecting more sarcasm and jokes out of your post but I’ll let you slide while you are on a different continent ;). It really sounds like you have a good understanding of what your role is in Zambia. I struggled with the “White Savior” Complex while I was there as well. I still today get messages on Facebook from friends I made in Zambia asking me to send them laptops, money, and plane tickets. That is a very difficult thing to deal with and I wish you the best of luck my friend. It’s hard to tell people you don’t know or you don’t have what they are asking of you. Just keep laughing, smiling, and doing everything you can to provide knowledge and a helping hand while you are there. I would love to sit down and talk about your experiences when you get back (and when I’m back in Washington)! That goes for you too Zac and Davis!
As a wise Todo once said..
I bless the rains down in Africa,
I’m glad you’re alive and well! It’s great to see you’re learning just as much, if not more, than those that you are there to teach. Much like you, I know it isn’t my place to preach about what you should be doing or feeling or experiencing. Not that I would have anything good anyways… All I do have to say is that you are so loved and missed over here. I can’t wait for you to come join the post grad life in Spokane. My heart is with you my friend.
Miss Polacheck: The beauty you hold inside in unrivaled by anything that has ever or will ever be seen by the human eye. Also, you’re pretty damn cute. Mom loves you. I’m sure dad does too, but we don’t talk much these days.
Davis: My dear boy, when you get back to Spokane I would love to take you out for a beer and talk about the important things in life. Faith, love, friendship, and of course, Justin Timberlake. Happy very belated birthday.
Zac: It has been far too long since you and I have been able to share our lives with one another. I hope that we will have the opportunity to reconnect when you roll back into town.
Be well my friends! Go Zags.
Your post sparked an unforgettable health-team memory from two years ago. My group and I went to the Zambezi hospital to help in the under-5 clinic and the nurse there wanted us to administer shots to children. I will never forget the expression on Hannah Van Dinter’s face, the only nurse-in-training on our squad, completely awe-struck by the fact that they would let us stick needles into their babies. We all refused (except Susan Norwood, of course) and tried to explain how this was a task none of us were trained to perform.
It’s so fun to hear about the health team adventures. Thanks for sharing!
WOOT! Health team! Your opening line of this post had me so very giddy! I am going to tell you now…you are making a bigger impact in your health classes and in the hospital than you think. It is the most beautiful thing sharing views of health and methods of diagnosing, treating, etc with people who have very different views. It allows both groups to grow and extend their breadth of knowledge (as I am sure you have experienced). It was there, “teaching” a class on the bench in Kalundyola that I realized that Zambians have such extensive healthcare and use renewable resources that we currently are lacking. (Have you gone to Kalundyola? I sure hope so!) This community and the other health related conversations in Zambezi are what drew me to naturopathic medicine. Matt, (and other health team members (hi Molly and Hayley! Hope you are having a fabulous time!)) have you thought about this route? Join me at Bastyr next year!! Anyways, keep sharing and learning and loving.
Kisu Kisu Mwane,
P.S. Jenny, hi! I am thinking about you! Hope your Chacos are treating you well and you have gotten a better hang of driving on those rough dirt roads. I am excited to hear about your experience year two in Zambezi. Much love to you and Jeff!
Man once you start getting behind on these, they really add up fast. Please excuse the delay…hope you’ll still see this.
“So, this is Zambezi.”
I can’t help but think of you whenever someone brings up Detroit. There have been many times when you’ve inspired me, or have just made me pause in appreciation. TY4T
“Everyone I’ve met here so far has seemed content with what they know, which inspires me to keep asking questions.” – You, a couple paragraphs ago. I almost feel like this is you in a sentence. I read it and I was like, “Hi, Matt.” You want to know the world and the people in it so you can make both better for one another, and that’s damn admirable. Damn.
Miss you. Still have your Oregon shirt! HA means I have to see you again!