Throwback Thursday: Phoebe's take on Health and Community in Argentina, South Africa, Vietnam, and the U.S.
Vietnam – The Anthropological Experience
In each country we spend most of our time in the capital city, but for one week we do a rural stay – in Vietnam our rural stay took place in Lac Village. The small tourist town lay in a basin amongst the rice paddy fields surrounded on all sides by massive mountains that looked like nothing we have in the U.S; everything there was wilder, scragglier. During the day we either had class in a nearby bamboo loft or went on site visits to the district hospital, local clinics, and mountain minority villages. We visited Thai and H’mong villages (both ethnic minorities) and were able to go out into the community with translators to ask questions pertaining to our subject of study – infectious disease, we focused primarily of HIV/AIDS prevalence, stigma, and treatment services. I felt like a real live anthropologist. At one point we found ourselves sitting on mats on the floor of a Thai woman’s one-room home, our group of six squished between her bed and loom, chickens wandering in and out of the front door, while she told us via our translator about how her son had died years earlier of stomach bleeding and how that has shaped her family’s current healing practices. It was surreal, an experience that I never would have had access to on my own. It humanized the statistics and tales that I hear in public health classes; not only have I been told about it but now I’ve spoken to someone living with and experiencing the struggles of health care access in rural settings on a daily basis. It was the real deal.
South Africa – A Traveler’s Guide to Cultural Complexity
My time in Cape Town, South Africa has been one of constantly checking my privilege and having my mind blown by the dark history that can still be seen everywhere in this seemingly utopian ocean-side city. We have class every day in a soup kitchen in Salt River, the Muslim neighborhood in which we live in homestays. The room is split in two with a divider, on one half we have class and on the other half the homeless members of the community have meals and programs. I helped serve meals a couple of times – it was a blast and a great informal way to connect with the community.
My case study group – our class is split up into smaller research groups with narrow focuses; my group’s is HIV – did a couple of group discussions and information sessions with the homeless men and women. It was an incredibly cool opportunity to talk to people who are actually infected with HIV and TB about their experiences, although we found it difficult to get them to open up. As young Unitedstatesian women, we were not really in the position to push them to speak either; talking to older South African men who we had just met about health issues involving sex tended to be a tad uncomfy.
The rest of the country program was also great – I’m constantly impressed by the access that we have thanks to IHP. Some of our guest lecturers included a sangoma (“witch doctor” though they don’t like the term), a former ANC resistance fighter, an advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, and many more. We also did site visits to two townships (shanty towns where blacks and coloreds were forcibly relocated during the Apartheid). That was unbelievably eye-opening. They look like every shanty town you’ve ever seen in the movies – scrap metal structures leaning on each other keep from falling down, dirt roads, incredible overcrowding…I’ve never seen poverty or oppression like that. And I did an entire project on the pervading health impacts of Apartheid-induced migration in South African society today so I could go on about it forever.
Argentina – Where Existence is Resistance
The political activism in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires has blown me away. The program itself has been structured to showcase the country’s political history and the public response; in our first few days we visited ESMA, the naval academy turned concentration camp where the majority of the political prisoners – los desaparecidos – were held during the last dictatorship. They referred to it as Argentina’s Auschwitz – an incredibly powerful and experience and one that showed me an ugly side of world history that I feel not many people, especially in the United States, know about.
Later on in the month we then had to opportunity to march with las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared people – the political prisoners that the government will not confess to having murdered – who have become a political force in the country. These women are now 80+ years old and are still prominent actors on the national scene. There was so much community support and other causes – any case of injustice – have been taken under the wing of Las Madres. The air was one of empowerment, but every time I stopped to remember that these women had all lost children to government oppression and still have received no closure for what happened to them, my heart broke.
My favorite experience of the entire semester happened in Argentina: our rural stay in the province with MOCASE. MOCASE is an activist group of farmers fighting for food sovereignty that is partnered with other such activist groups internationally through Via Campesina. They live on a communal farm and we were fortunate enough to be able to live with them for a week, joining in their way of life, partaking in the daily duties such as cooking meals for everyone and making bricks, and were able to learn about what their take on agroecology is and what they’re doing to take back power over their own food and lives. We were the first American organization that they had every partnered with. It was amazing to see a completely different lifestyle and way of doing things – it helped me to see that there’s not just one way to live your life. I will probably live on a commune myself one day now.