‘Do you know who you are without what you do?’ These words were spoken often during my doctoral studies at Penn State University by my doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. To him, our research identities, often influenced the research we conducted. If all you see is what you do, he would go on to say, then your research will only center on what you do and nothing else. For you, attention or your research only makes sense when the focus is on what you do. So if all you see for example, about African countries are disease-ridden images, resource limited settings, he would also say, then your research will only focus on disease and despair and not the humanity or resilience of the populations. It’s for this reason, my advisor would ask, over and over again, ‘can you define who you are without describing what you do?’ Can you tell your story, your ambition, your goals, even your vision or passion for life, without making a reference to your credentials.
I learnt early on in my doctoral studies that I was drawn to the stories we tell and are told about the research we do. Granted, I was committed to addressing one health issue or the other. But what moved me more, what made me alert, what was most sterling to me, where the stories behind the health issues I explored. Stories for example, of young mothers who asked repeatedly why I was leaving a local clinic where I collected my dissertation data of child malaria diagnosis, after spending three months with them in the summer of 2009. My data collection was over and I needed to go make sense of the data I had in hand, I would say. But the mothers would asked, well our children are still sick, what happens now. It’s not like malaria has gone away. These conversations with different mothers over the course of my time at the clinic, would instill my first learning experience in global health. Our research, even our interventions, no matter how well-intentioned, never last.
Like many researchers, I went to the clinic, with all my ethical requirements in place, to collect data on how mothers manage their children’s diagnosis for malaria prior to arriving at a clinic. When data collection was over, the question still remained. Not only for the mothers I interacted with, but for the many others that never came to my study, never provided their data, never even knew I existed. Unfortunately, many researchers go into clinics and communities to pose questions of people who inhabit the clinics or communities without a commitment to sustaining attention to the issue, attention to the questions they set out to explore in the first place once data collection is over.
It is for this reason that I am drawn to questions (with public health for example) that never end. That and ‘until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt will only glorify the hunter’ ( a quote by Chinua Achebe). I am committed to laying bare the assumptions and meanings that underlie knowledge, the meanings behind the stories, even efforts to question the questions posed. Not because of what I do as a Professor in Global Health. But because silence, like those of the lions, silence in the face of health issues that are critical, will no longer protect us. Not when there is too much at stake. Our silence in turn ignores the true agency and voice of people. Our silence ignores their needs in any real or meaningful way. Our silence fosters only representations of disease and despair, and not their courage or even hope. Our silence limits the gaze and the gates through which we must enter to understanding health from their perspective. In short, our silence is the very reason why we still do not know who we are without what we do.
I am a storyteller, one I realize now, is very committed to becoming the lion for my generation of scholars. Telling stories, one health issue over time, is my attempt at opening hearts and minds to the experiences of others. It is what I do and stories are a serious matter for me. Storytelling can be a guide, building or expanding, transforming or informing, until we bring healing, understanding, even empathy to the plight of others. What now keeps me alert, what is forever sterling to me, are the stories behind the health issues, the stories committed to illustrating how to make health interventions last. Keep knowing who you are, one story at a time, until hearts and minds, are open and even committed to lasting.