Reading the posts of my peers and picking up with colleagues at the end of their long days of work a common theme seems to rise to the surface. “Is what I contribute valuable? Is what I do seen?” A cry more than a question. It comes to the surface in different ways like flotsam and jetsam bobbing in the waves.
I’m x, I work at y and I just got back from z for a project that saved the world in a million different ways. Hearing some version of this introduction has become common parlance over the past few weeks. It has a strange effect on me. I reject the immediate impulse to dismiss this as arrogant. Professional systems in Washington, D.C., like the Metro, have been designed for efficiency and this breakneck speed does not allow for you to slowly get on the train at the station. The system has simply evolved to allow people to network and collaborate, getting the most out of every interaction and every minute of their time.
Perhaps part of the naivety of youth, but in South Africa we seem to place more value on where we are from and what the identities of our communities are than on where we work or our achievements. Yet we still want to be valuable in these professional spaces. We want to contribute to the creation of knowledge. We want to be a part of… but how do we navigate the need to be seen and heard if we do not compete for the spotlight, if we don’t open the door for interaction?
I’d like to think that our stories speak for themselves and that we let our actions lead the way because this is something that falls more comfortably for me. But is it not as arrogant as shouting our achievements from the rooftops if we think we’ve done enough to be too proud to make the effort. Especially, if the real enemy we are fighting underneath this all is complacency. Working in healthcare it is easy to get overwhelmed by the work and lost in the day-to-day strain of trying to help someone in front of you when you know in the back of your mind that there are thousands more like them that are not getting the help that they deserve. I’ve realised that if we ever want our actions to become more than themselves we have to think bigger and act in ways that are more than the sum of ourselves.
Hearing all these achievements of those around me I’ve had many of my own doubts in terms of my deserving a seat at the table. Everyone you meet is doing such groundbreaking work and working on projects of such scale and magnitude that are only imaginable back in South Africa. I’m a young medical student, five years into university without a qualification to my name. What then makes me valuable enough to sit and discuss issues of international policy with these powerhouses of industry and public health?
After a meeting the other day discussing, almost off the cuff, what I believed to be the biggest challenges to providing healthcare to urban populations in developing countries. I think it was then, after that meeting, that I realized I’d had an answer to my own question all along: my experiences and the stories they tell make me valuable. The patients I’ve clerked, the histories I’ve heard, the faces and communities I’ve seen have shaped my view of the needs of my own country and left me with stories to tell.
When you are removed from the situation on the ground it’s easy to believe that what you think up on a chart or pretty protocol somewhere is what is the best reality for communities you are trying to help. My opinions and analysis in that meeting raised a few issues that had not been considered and the discussion went on for three times its intended length. It was something that struck me to be recognised for the value I had brought in this way. While I was learning so so much from these experts around me, I was surprised that they could possibly be learning something from me too.
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 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 while we should not be the only voice, I shift has to take place in our minds to realise we are of value to the conversation.