I was travelling from London to Rome this morning when I heard the terrible news about the bombings in Brussels, which comes after the New York, London & Paris attacks, war in Syria, Iraq etc., the refugee crisis, breakdown of the welfare system in many countries, desecration of wildlife habits… in short, I despair.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that the human race is essentially selfish. The clash of cultures, religions, politics; is all this antagonism really necessary? I would argue that we, as humans, need to be more cognisant of our neighbours and assess their needs and wants while trying to help each other. It is the latter concept that provides me with some difficulty.
Let me start with two recent visits to Sierra Leone during and after the Ebola crisis. My first visit was in August last year, the Ebola crisis was slowly coming to an end though we were still at a heightened alert and a curfew had only recently been lifted. I spent large amounts of time in a camp with others that had gone to Sierra Leone to help. What I found was one cohort of people that were willing to listen and learn from the local population though the large majority of foreigners seemed to have what I refer to as a “post-colonial” mindset: We are here to help and know better, so please stand back and watch us sort this out. To a large degree, I do not believe that the Ebola crisis would have been resolved in a relatively short time frame without foreign help. Treatment centres were set up in quick time and I had the privilege to work in the ETC diagnostic laboratory in port Loko. West Africa did not have the economic or medical infrastructure to cope, while aid agencies and NGO’s brought in much needed organisational skills and supplies. What was missing, in my view, was the ability to integrate with and listen to the local population. This did happen with time and had positive outcomes, but it could have been better with a more empathetic approach.
The resilience of the local population was amazing. I met many locals who had nothing in monetary terms, but they seemed content. They had a supportive social structure and spent a lot of time socialising in small groups. Every morning they would clean their little plots and the neighbourhood, in the evenings they would congregate on their verandas or around the smoky kitchens. They always seemed to have time for a friendly chat, yet they lived from day-to-day. In the so-called western world we have moved away from this social support network, being more focussed on monetary gains and materialistic values. We tend to neglect our emotional health and social support structures, we are not moving forward, we are regressing.
Unfortunately, as Africa becomes more “westernised” there is a slow dissipation of social support networks and an increasing tendency towards a rich vs. poor society. SUV’s and smart phones are becoming prevalent while others scrape by on selling oranges to get a meal for their kids. Back-handers were an expectation, from people in well-paid employment, while the poor had little opportunity for social progression. How do we change this? I really don’t know – I struggled with my helplessness in these situations. I remember two occasions in particular, (1) when we walked through a neighbourhood with a relatively high density of amputees (as I understand, these were punishments during the Sierra Leone civil war), and (2) we visited the slum at King Jimmy’s wharf. On both occasions I had wanted to donate money, but to whom? Would they share the money, would it make a difference? A moral dilemma. On returning to the UK I searched for charities to support these causes, but found nothing; instead, I support a young girl in Columbia.
On a different note, I wanted to become involved in educational programmes after the Ebola crisis. To my dismay, I found very little information on strategic planning and forward thinking. The crisis is over, what do we do now? Let’s try to set up an MSc programme, they said, only for me to find out that there was not even an in-country BSc programme; the latter is required for the former. Piss-ups and breweries comes to mind.
Am I too idealistic? Probably. However, if anybody is looking for a science educator to help in a third world environment, please give me a shout. In the meantime, I will continue to dream of a better world.