(The following was adapted from a speech I gave at the SAWIP Farewell Event on the 21st of September 2017 in Washington D.C.)

Good evening ladies and gentlemen

My name is James van Duuren and I am really honoured to get this chance to speak to you all tonight.

Apologies for my voice, D.C. has decided to really, really try its best to keep me a little longer by giving me a bit of a cold to deal with – but South Africa is calling.

These past 6 weeks have flown past in a whirlwinds of sites and sounds and even now, 2 days before I step onto a plane to go home to South Africa, I still find I have to pinch myself every day to believe that I am here in Washington.

This SAWIP experience is not something that I ever expected nor is it something that I could ever have dreamt of for myself when I wrote that first application back in February.

As I look about the room, I see the faces of my colleagues – the SAWIP team of 2017, as well as the faces of all the people who – to use the term – conspired to bring them here – host families, board members and friends.

What you have all done and what this moment represents is more powerful than you realise.

There is a lot of talk about supporting the next generation of leaders but you in this room have moved beyond words, and through your actions have helped to realise the potential of a group of students who I am nothing short if in awe of. These SAWIP students are already leaders in their own spaces. They have been leaders since they could speak their first words. But you have encouraged them to dream of becoming more than that – to learn more, to dig deeper, to fight harder, to think bigger. I know this because you have encouraged me to become more than that.

It is hard for me personally to imagine that I could deserve to be a part of a team like this, when all I’ve ever wanted to do is live day-by-day contributing some small piece of value or meaning to the lives of the people and patients that I see.

There is a well known African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child… but sometimes, I believe, it takes children to raise a village. These young people in this room are those children and as we go back to our communities, our universities, our homes, I know that we will take up that mantle – to learn more, to dig deeper, to fight harder, to think bigger.

In South Africa sometimes you have to learn to run before you remember that there is some joy in learning to walk. Being away from home for a moment, in an environment such as this that tells you what is possible, a space where every interaction, every minute of your time is spent engaging and debating, sometimes disagreeing, with experts and world leaders sparks a new flame. New ideas that need to be implemented. Who better to walk the path than these students in front of me.

So my SAWIP teammates that you are already leaders, that you are powerful, that you matter beyond measure.

My own experience has been one of growth and my placement at John Snow Incorporated has helped to cement in my mind my role in the future of healthcare in South Africa.

My work at the university of Cape Town with SHAWCO Health running community clinics week in and week out has taught me that while we may win the battle against disease by being hands on the ground, we will not win the war… unless, unless… we think bigger. We consider the current situation in Global or African healthcare not as an immovable status quo but as a unfinished book waiting to be re-written.

I want to go back to South Africa to be a part of this process. Healthcare for all means healthcare for all! I want to help to change the focus of medical education in Africa, using concepts that I have learnt here to push for a decentralised model giving greater responsibility through task shifting to nurses and technicians while showing greater respect for these roles.

I want to support the formation of student clinic programs like SHAWCO at universities across South Africa, giving patients the treatment they deserve and students the perspective shifting training and experience they require.

The truth is I don’t know exactly what my next steps are or where the road I walk will take me and the challenge seems insurmountable, but the students in this room take on that burden. We care for the world around us. We care for our patients, our families and friends, our communities and the future of South Africa… and yet we so often forget to apply that same care to ourselves. We have to be kind to ourselves – this is something that I myself struggle with. When every day of your life is spent dealing with the harsh realities – whether it be in healthcare, education or politics – it can be hard to remember that.

That is the simple message that I want to share with you tonight. Nothing more, nothing less. Be kind to yourselves. Sometimes you are the only person that will be, but in those moments know that you have a net of people around you – your SAWIP teammates, host families, me – to help you stand when you can no longer, to steady you when you feel you are falling.

I would like to end by quoting from a post that I wrote for SAWIP:

The cry to be valued of my SAWIP teammates and young people worldwide comes to the surface in this same way, “We have stories to tell” they say. “We have experiences to share! Let them shape the realities that you are creating!” Maybe as South Africans we don’t have to compete for the spotlight, but we do have to make sure people listen to our stories on behalf of the people whose stories we carry with us.

I believe more and more that a shift has to take place but if we let our actions speak louder than our words, maybe then the world will realise that we are of value to the conversation.