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Engaging with Context

Today is National Writing Day in the UK, so what better way to celebrate than this brand new blog post that definitely hasn't been sitting in my drafts for the past six weeks!?

I could sum up the last ~3 years of my (academic) life in two words. If you've spoken to me even once in this time, you can probably already guess what those words are.

community engagement

That's right. A randomly allotted senior design project made me qualified for a purposefully chosen Master's dissertation topic which led me to a research role. In the last three years, I've spent countless hours thinking about how individuals come together and interact for various purposes - from consumerism to public health interventions. What has become more and more important in these reflections is an appreciation for what those individuals bring to such interactions - a history, a perspective, an identity.

I wrote about the prioritization of these different puzzle pieces in my last blog post - explaining that there is not a simple hierarchical prioritization of these different factors. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and so the solutions we derive when we approach any question or global challenge cannot be developed without acknowledging these different factors. Without engaging.

It’s a reason response to the Ebola outbreak in the DRC hasn’t been as effective as we'd hope over the past ~10 months. From afar as a global health community we may react with worry and fear and a desire to stop what can be an incredibly deadly disease. And as a result we pour a bit of money into it, we eventually send the calvary, and we congratulate ourselves on a job well done. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back for the DRC yet. One reason transmission still persists is because the priorities of stopping it don’t line up with the priorities of the people it affects.

The DRC is a complicated case because of its history and ongoing conflict. Millions of people around the country have been forgotten or ignored and struggle with feeding their families, surviving malaria, and more on a daily basis. And suddenly, all these resources and initiatives and plans and tasks are flooding into their towns and villages to fight Ebola. But that might not be not what they really needed*.

This background, this history, should play a larger role in our response to such outbreaks and challenges because it is larger part of the story than we may give it credit for. Like the slices of Swiss cheese in my favorite metaphor, it shapes and guides the trajectory of where we are and where we are going. I can share this silly picture of me eating a waffle in Brussels last month and you may see it and appreciate the quality of the camera or how delicious that waffle looks. But when you see it in the context of a photo taken 20 months ago, it has a different meaning. It is not just a photo on its own, but it is part of a bigger story (maybe the story that I still don't know how to eat waffles without making a mess or that my topping preferences are very consistent) - it is influenced by its history.

There is a very well known idiom that you've surely heard: history repeats itself. But a few months ago, I read a sentence that made me think about this even more. In a travel memoir of the first Polish journalist correspondent in Africa, Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote "History is so often the product of thoughtlessness." In a chapter chronicling the tumultuous history and civil wars of Liberia, Kapuscinski reflects on this idea of history repeating itself out of "human stupidity . . . idiocy, and folly." We see this so clearly in colonial history - in the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of human the hands of other humans. A history we've written - out of thoughtlessness.

I recognize I am biased, but I truly believe community engagement is our greatest weapon against this thoughtlessness. Engagement is the opposite of thoughtlessness. It's the active pulling in and involvement - an active consideration for the people, places, and things that we just don't know. It's been called upon at increasing volumes over the past few weeks as the 'secret weapon' to stopping the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC - engaging with the affected communities and building trust to work together to and eventually halt transmission.

A failure to consult the people on the ground, to champion community engagement, is a step towards a vicious cycle of challenges, history repeating itself, and thoughtlessness.


This book was recommended to me a few months ago and I honestly did not have high expectations, but it quickly became one of my most memorable and moving books I've read in a long time. Kapuscinski does an incredible job intertwining history, politics, society and masterful prose in every chapter.


*Instead of turning this post into a novel on Ebola outbreaks and communication challenges, here's some additional reading to take a look at if you are interested in this very complicated current event:

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