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Reflections From Behind The Lens: What's Revolutionizing Health Care in Africa

It is a hot summers day in Cape Town with a light berg wind occasionally straightening the flags that sway at half-mast. The news of Nelson Mandela’s passing is still fresh, and this weight is felt by everyone from people vacationing to beggars, from the critics of Africa to the optimists of what lies ahead. In the back of everyone’s mind is the question, what’s going to happen now?

As one drives into the V&A Waterfront the Aquarium and the elaborate seven star, One and Only Hotel rapidly draw ones attention. Few notice the beige walls of the UCT Graduate School of Business hidden above a parking lot across the road. But this is a place for action, not looks. Here, in a small conference room five people have flown in from all corners of Africa to discuss rats, sanitary pads, soccer balls, mobile clinics and networks. It is a strange collection of artifacts, but the ideas behind them are revolutionizing health care in Africa. Collectively they represent a movement that is developing practical, low-cost, locally-based initiatives that are raising the quality of life for everyday Africans. These were the winners of the GOOD Pioneers of Health Challenge.

There is a humbleness that comes with working in humanitarian issues, and a sense of confidence that comes with seeing a product or action improve a person’s life. The casual but focused postures amongst the five sitting in the center of the room resonate with this. Flashdisks are passed to the front desk to upload their presentations. It's clear an extraordinary social experiment is about to commence. What will some of the brightest minds in health care have to say to each other?

In the hours that follow no distraction alludes from the front of the room. Mental cranks churn as each presenter reveals their innovation, and the audience quizzes how it can be improved on or adapted to their cause. There is a strong pull towards women’s empowerment as we hear Boitumelo Rakosa explain how she uses soccer as a tool to educate girls about HIV, and sexual and reproductive rights. Megan Mukuria has tapped into the basic need for affordable sanitary pads, and has structured a business plan to distribute low cost pads in the interest of keeping girls in school, and using the monthly purchase of pads as a means to distribute critical health care information through comic books that come free with the pads.

Elaborating on the ever-present burden of HIV, Forgie Wilson notes the elaborate networks commercial operations in Africa hold and has utilized this infrastructure to access rural areas and offer health care services particularly in HIV, TB, malaria, and maternal health. Pushing social entrepreneurship in health care, Michael Iyanro has developed a model of mobile clinics to distribute around West Africa and provide maternal health care through a self-sustaining and fully scalable solution. Smell a rat in your midst? Well Emilio Valverde will make you hope you do. He’s taught them how to sniff out landmines and TB. Now a rat can detect 40 cases of TB in only seven minutes. It would normally take a lab technician a full day to complete this workload. A selection of South African innovators were also asked to present on their work of which I was fortunate to have an opportunity to discuss my approach to harnessing visual media for advocacy and social mobilization, and how I intend to use this for my current project on the masculinity crisis in South Africa. The excitement in the room boiled over and it was time to explore a little. These are doers after all and not just talkers.

Wesgro, with the Department of Health and former Good Neighborhood winner, Bruce Good, arranged an itinerary that covered every element of the complexity of Cape Town. A series of tours guided by industry experts shared the challenges of offering health care in the townships, and how this is being overcome by structuring green hospitals. We walked the streets of Bo Kaap and learned the history and culture that developed out of the slave trade with the Cape Malays around a family dinner table eating delicious rotis. In the spirit of innovation, time was taken to learn about one of South Africa’s greatest health pioneers, Chris Barnard, who conducted the first open-heart transplant at the Heart of Cape Town Museum, set in the actual theatre rooms where the operation took place.

The most touching part of the tour though was a visit to Robben Island that happened to fall on the same day that Cape Town was hosting a memorial service for Madiba. We walked through prison corridors that held Nelson Mandela and his associates for the majority of his 27 year sentence and heard the stories of struggle and abuse that the Apartheid system enforced. Witnessing and experiencing a place drives a reality home like no statistic or explanation can ever do. We left the island moved by his remarkable commitment to achieving a democratic South Africa, and continued to his memorial service where we celebrated his life with a unified Cape Town audience to a selection of bands that had shared close ties with Mandela, like Johnny Clegg, Lady Smith Black Mambazo who sang when he received his Nobel Prize, and Annie Lenox. As a local it was particularly special to share this with our guests. There was an atmosphere of unity that I had not experienced since the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

A week flew by exceptionally fast, but slow enough for us to make long lasting friendships, and realize that we are a part of community consciously working towards empowering Africa from a grassroots level up. As Mandela proved to us, something always seems impossible until it is done. It was a great privilege to be amongst the minds that are taking on the seemingly ‘impossible’ task of developing adequate health care in Africa, and making a difference.

Damien Schumann is a photographer / installation artist whose work is inspired by contemporary social issues and human justice. The essence of his art does not only lie in the creation of imagery and objects, but also in the impact it has on its viewers. Considered a visual anthropological study, Schumann strives to produce pro-active work for Advocacy, Communications and Social Mobilization Purposes. To see more of his work, continue here.

Damien served as the photographer throughout the GOOD Pioneers of Health Exchange in Cape Town. All of the photographs related to the event and included in this piece were taken by him.

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