Decolonization is about asking a lot of questions

Summer school Decolonizing Global Health – Journal Day 1
By Mayra Salazar Volkmann

It can be lonely to focus on decoloniality, as I mentioned in the introduction round of the first day of the summer school Decolonizing Global Health. And at least three people who introduced themselves after me agreed with my opinion. It is the reason why I am so happy to be part of this international group of like-minded souls this week and learn more about the influence of colonialism on global health.
A researcher from the US who works for an NGO in Sub Sahara Africa, a sexual health doctor from London, a medicine student from Mexico, an epidemiology PhD student from Colombia, and an architect from China, to name just a few of the participants. I’m the only one working in journalism.
Always when the topic of decoloniality is being discussed, emotions are involved. As a white woman, I didn’t understand the full effect of the emotional responses until I attended the summer school on decoloniality last year. And so it made immediately sense when the course coordinator mentioned this morning that:

‘Emotions are there for a reason, and they trigger us to take action. They can lead to a motivating experience, and be a driver for change.’

I felt disappointed about the fact that I am one of the only white people in the group. The topic of decoloniality gets often discussed among people of colour and especially women whereas most of the work should be done by people in privileged positions and from High-Income Countries (HICs) because they hold the power to make changes.

Fall in love with the problem, not your solution

Muneera Rasheed started off today and she talked about her journey toward taking action to decolonise global health. When she worked as a paediatric psychologist in an elite medical centre in her country Pakistan, she noticed what was being valued by international donors and what wasn’t. She saw how families were asked for their consent to be part of international research but the results of the research were never implemented in the local hospitals afterwards. Muneera started to ask herself what the goal was of the international help and she found it troublesome that through the aid the responsibility was focusing on behaviour-change of individuals instead of change on an institutional or governmental level.
The discussion during her talk focuses on the lack of follow-up in general. There aren’t enough links between academia and policy and action. Journalism can play a bigger role in this, although the structural problem won’t be solved only by telling better stories.
Muneera is clear in her solutions: keeping silent is wrong, we need to speak up about the inequities in academic research. Science is not just about Random Controlled Trial’s (RCTs), it is also about engaging humans to get work done. We focus on people as numbers but there are humans behind these numbers. Also in media, we don’t value lives in the same way and that has its origin in slavery where bodies became objects.
Fall in love with the problem, not your solution, is the quote she ends her session with.

Focusing on ancestral knowledge

Kara Smythe introduces us to decolonization. What is decolonization actually? The short answer is: To identify the legacy of colonisation and actively work to dismantle and disrupt ongoing coloniality. 
She refers a few times in her session to Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh, both teachers in the Maria Lugones Decolonial Summer School I attended last year and mentions the Colonial Matrix of Power.

“With colonialism and coloniality came resistance and refusal. Decoloniality necessarily follows, derives from, and responds to coloniality. It is a form of struggle and survival, an epistemic and existence-based response and practice – most especially by colonized and racialized subjects – against the colonial matrix of power in all of its dimensions, and for the possibilities and otherwise.”

Mignolo and Walsh, On Decoloniality

And what do we actually mean by global health? The health and well-being of the global community, impacted by coloniality. Kara’s session shows us that we need to ask a lot of questions:

  • How do we define health?
  • What does it mean to be unwell?
  • How is health research carried out?
  • What are the priorities?
  • How do we treat ill-health?
  • Who makes decisions?
  • What sources of knowledge matter in health research?
  • How does the current practice of Global Health maintain colonial structures? 

The fact is that global health research is mostly funded by institutions in High-Income Countries (HICs) and therefore largely discards experiential, embodied and ancestral knowledge. Academic publishing has become commercialized with high costs for subscriptions and article processing which also leads to a lack of ‘bibliodiversity’. Diversity of academic content, both at the national and international level, is essential for preserving research on a wide range of global and local topics, in different languages.

Kilkina by Valentina Campos

Feminine power instead of fear

Artist Valentina Campos leads us in the last session for which we didn’t have to read anything. “Art & Healing”  is the topic and she tells about her paintings in which she strengthens feminine power. Campos lives in a community in Bolivia that tries to imitate the native way of living of her culture. It also means that she focuses on ancestral ways of approaching health. In the Andina culture, the body is part of everything, and instead of implying Western ideas on for example childbirth, she advocates for a more spiritual approach where women aren’t fearful but instead show great power. Balancing health means balancing the whole community, from the trees and the stones around you to the family where you’re part.
Even though I think this is where decoloniality really is about, to centre an indigenous perspective, I also get so many questions in my head during Valentina’s talk. Women could die before Western medicine helped them to survive a pregnancy, should we go back in time now? All women are different, some might not want interference from their families or attendance of their mothers and grandmothers during the delivery, is it always better to do it this way?
I’m convinced we can have the best of both worlds but I also see how people like Valentina don’t get space in public discourse and that’s what is important here. Decoloniality is not about making underrepresented voices dominant, it is about making them heard. And before that happens, the dominant voices need to be silent and listen.

My main takeaways of today:

  • Funding from High-Income Countries (HICs) decides what is important in global health
  • The roots of this inequality lie in colonialism
  • Western science is just one approach to health
  • We need more focus on the human beings behind the numbers- In order to change something, we shouldn’t be conformists
  • Women of colour are exhausted and we need more white people participating in decolonization
  • At the same time, women of colour working in HICs are also often privileged, among the oppressed. Understanding your own positionality is important.

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