Student researches poverty, health care in East Africa
January 13, 2010 · 12:12 PM
By Edward Quedado
Special to the Reporter
While visiting his friend’s family in Moshi, Tanzania, Danny Low and his friend stopped to eat a lunch prepared by his friend’s mother. He discovered later that night that the family had not eaten the past two days.
“They’d rather have the guest have a good meal,” Low said.
It was a snapshot. It was one of several instances Low would encounter foretelling more widespread issues threatening East Africa during his education abroad. For the past seven months, the Pomona College junior and Kirkland resident trekked under the unrelenting East African sun. His experience comprised of stints in nearly a dozen sites ranging up and down the mainland and coastline of Kenya and Tanzania where he worked alongside “survivors,” scholars, government officials and non-governmental organizations.
In his first undertaking with Support for International Change, an NGO providing under-served rural communities in Tanzania, Low and a band of 20-some American students collaborated with 15 Tanzanian volunteers in an effort to encourage HIV/AIDS testing and teach prevention. In the morning and evening, standing before a mass of primary school children, Low taught HIV/AIDS curriculum with his Tanzanian counterpart Lucy.
“People were open to learning and wanted to hear, partially I’m sure because I was white and therefore a welcome spectacle,” Low said.
Low said although the majority of children and adults showed an interest in learning, the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS thwarted some of the public from undergoing tests, even with a veil of anonymity.
During a six-week break, Low contacted a professor at the University of Washington who enlisted him to evaluate factors contributing to poor patient outcomes in coastal Kenyans co-infected with tuberculosis and HIV. Low’s research, to be published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine with his collaborators, found that co-infected individuals, relative to patients with tuberculosis only, responded to treatment more poorly. Compared to HIV uninfected individuals, co-infected patients were almost five times more likely to experience poor outcomes. However, Low said it was unclear whether poor outcomes from tuberculosis treatment were due to the HIV infection or due to third undetected infection. Low’s research would play a role in potentially winning a grant for Matt Arentz, a co-author of the research who reportedly has hopes of opening a tuberculosis clinic in Mombasa, Kenya.
The concluding segment of Low’s journey with the Vermont-based School for International Training produced a research project about the street children or as he coined them “survivors” of Mombasa, a predominantly Muslim coastal city which looks onto the Indian Ocean. With children emigrating from as far as Sudan, Low highlighted the importance of Swahili culture in attracting more children to Mombasa. According to his research, the influence of Islam, among other factors, played a substantial role in attracting survivors. According to Low’s research, “This was made evident through the extraordinary number of beggars on the streets on Friday, the day in which Muslims are most giving.” A high-ranking government official told Low that begging children could earn up to 800 shillings or nearly $10.50 a day, the equivalent of a professional worker.
Low studied abroad to begin what he envisions as a long-term career in the region alleviating public health crises or the lack of an adequate education structure or perhaps a fusion of the two.
His motivations were both profoundly personal and philosophical; both Low and his father Robert Low said his inspiration to work abroad traces back to the diagnosis of his mother’s breast cancer. Robert said his son’s exposure to his mother’s chemotherapy and radiation served as a catalyst for his interest in public health. On another front, his mother Lisa Joleen Low, passed him Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer, prominent for his work in establishing health care facilities in some of the planet’s most impoverished areas.
“Consequently, I perceived it as inspiration to me to move forward, for it seemed to me on the micro-level proof of my somewhat idealistic goals of greatly improving health in the poorest and most dire of circumstances,” Low said.
Asked why he took on the venture, Low said, “What is the purpose of my life? Helping people and being happy. Happiness is so tied to health care, seeing the ocean and walking through forests.”
He added, “When you’re healthy, you have the opportunity to be happy.”
Low said Africa attracted him from the standpoint of it being “the poorest and worst health care in the world … ” He also wanted to grasp firsthand what he had heard about Africa’s culture of community and dispel biased western representations.
Despite a background in anthropology and passion for public health, Low’s time abroad could not have bore so much intellectual and emotional fruit had he not been a competent Kiswahili speaker.
“Language is such a huge component of culture,” Low said.
His Kiswahili teacher in Pomona Fatma Kassamali said as much.
“When you speak the language of any country, you really become a part of the culture,” Kassamali said. “You fit in very easily and become comfortable. It works any place you go. You can’t converse about politics and you cannot know the (lower-class people).”
Low met Kassamali, a Tanzanian and Director of the Office of Career Management at Claremont Graduate University, when he sought a course to learn Kiswahili. Pomona did not offer a formal class. Upon agreeing to teach him informally, word spread and several students also took the informal class.
“They were pretty serious students but Danny was particularly. He impressed me because he was hungry for education in this particular field,” Kassamali said. “By the end of the semester, he was constructing sentences but by the end of the year, he was really speaking the language.”
Now back in Kirkland, Low declined to couch his experience of East African culture with American culture as one of superiority or inferiority. He merely called them different.
“We have as much to learn from them as they do from us,” he said.
Notions of privacy, community and happiness took on new definitions. Low cited a poll in Kenya’s most widely read newspaper, The Daily Nation, in which 86 percent of Kenyans described themselves as either very happy or moderately happy.
“They’re not happy with nothing but they’re grateful for what they have,” Low said. “On the contrary, there seems to be a sense of entitlement felt here.”
Through language, cultural differences manifested as well. In Swahili, the term “mgeni” is used to describe a guest and stranger. In practice, the culture stresses particularly inviting treatment of guests, as Low experienced in Moshi. Whereas in America, Low said, visits are more or less scheduled and thought of differently.
Concerning privacy, Low experienced firsthand just how different expectations could be when his home-stay brother abruptly took off with his iPod for a weekend.
Addressing what he wishes family, friends and Americans would realize about his experience, Low said people need to see stories from a different perspective, one that is not American.
“We see poverty and don’t see that connection to us,” Low said. Listening to his rural home-stay family, Low said they would talk up the lack of rain whenever he came home. Unrecognized to him, rain was his family’s livelihood and they had not ever endured a drought of such magnitude, lasting five years. He said the connection comes back to the western lifestyle, noting that our choices affect climate change and consequently the lives of geographically distant people.
“I think he was brought up with caution that there are some who do not have enough. Some people are brought up rich and that’s all they know,” Kassamali said. “Danny was brought up to appreciate both sides of the world.”