Dr Christopher Zamani
I want to begin by introducing myself and my background to the reader. I am a black American, a general practice medical doctor in training in California, and an observer of both the African and American political economy, with a particular interest in how these large concepts and practices impact individuals and communities.
I have spent the last four weeks in Zimbabwe working at Kadoma General Hospital on attachment as part of my training.
As an individual positioned to observe both American and Zimbabwean political and economic realities and phenomena, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my observations from the perspective of an African in the Diaspora.
I humbly offer my reflections on my experiences in Zimbabwe for you, the reader, to consider.
With a week left, I reflect on all that I have seen, learned and done.
I have become a functional part of the staff at Kadoma General Hospital.
Another doctor called me part of the family, and I am recognised by people on the street, in the grocery store and at the bar in this small town.
At the hospital, I have seen suffering and death in many forms. Death that steals new breath from newborns and slowly creeps on the aged. Death that comes as the final campaign in the war of attrition on a 30-year-old body succumbing to the opportunistic infection and malnutrition made possible by Aids.
Death that is sudden, unexpected and results from the traumatic violence of a train colliding with a bus full of people.
Death that impacts upon a new-found friend, who only an afternoon prior had asked me about the possibility of intervention for a beloved patriarch, where upon hearing of the situation, I cannot bring myself to shroud the truth and I tell him to prepare for the transition of his elder into the realm of the ancestors.
I reflect upon the concept of death, the death of an individual which catalyses the suffering of family and friends.
But I also consider the deaths that manifest in larger forms that are reflected by way of death rates, statistics and disparity; the type of deaths that result from subtle differences in national policy and overt examples of international double standards.
What does it mean when the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank result in the decimation of socialised medicine and universal access to education in African nations?
When powerful economies — like that of the United States — subsidise their own corporate agriculture while pressuring African governments to drop the tariff regimes that protect local African producers.
That effect on the economy manifests itself in African farmers laying off workers, and those unemployed workers then lacking the funds to bring their wives to the doctor to receive prenatal care, thus increasing the death rate of newborn babies.
Those people that are unable to access educational opportunities, and thus cannot ensure a better standard of living may fall victim to both the lack of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases that contribute to the spread of HIV, but also delays the initiation of anti-retroviral medications that can prolong life.
The effect: deaths that come earlier and more often as a result of policies that undermine a people’s collective ability to provide critical health services to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
In my short stay here I have also discovered that the strangulation of African economies leaves individual Africans that are highly skilled and trained with few options but to depart for greener pastures, often to the same countries that have caused disaster in their homeland.
For example, when I inquired as to why it was that a district level hospital the size of Kadoma General Hospital has only four doctors, I was told that a large number of Zimbabwean doctors and nurses have departed for the UK. Indeed there are more Nigerian doctors in the USA than there are in Nigeria.
In short, to undermine a people’s ability to collectively provide services for society — via unfair trade policies, military aggression, economic sanctions or political destabilisation — is to establish a reality where death occurs at higher rates in society and the very pain that is experienced by family, friends and loved ones at the loss of a human life, becomes all too common.
I have also seen life.
New life that springs daily from the incubators of maternal wombs, entering this world with powerful screams of joy and pain.
Life reflected in babies, toddlers and children wrapped tightly to their mothers’ backs; I haven’t yet seen one cry while held so tightly to their mother’s bodies.
Toddlers alive with curiosity, watching, reaching, and grasping anything and everything in their surrounding milieu.
Children full of the life of possibilities walking alongside mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers engaged in conversation, learning their place and purpose.
I have seen life breathed back into sick and dying bodies whom upon first meeting created grim expectations about the inevitable march of death only to rebound after the care of family, nurses and doctors has allowed the body to harness its God-given healing energy and deny death its prize.
I have seen the life of families and communities, individuals and collectives seized with the project of improving the prospects for a self-determined destiny harnessed through the land.
The life of pride as I am offered the maize, groundnuts, tomatoes, okra, oranges, lemons, cucumbers, greens, sweet potatoes, beans and avocado that they have planted, nurtured and harvested on plots they have embraced as their own.
I have witnessed life, the life of a nation engaging in the enterprise of small businesses and vast telecommunications networks, fat cattle on farms and vehicles congested in town centres, the utilisation of water from newly constructed dams and the dualisation of roads, the battle of ideas and the struggle for hearts and minds; the division it can create and the renewal it can inspire.
Life is also a phenomena that I view representing both the individual promise that is felt with the birth of a healthy vigorous baby, but also of the collective concepts and national policies that enable a nation to promote health and safety and to ensure that growth predominates over decline in the population dynamics. My view is that those nations of the world that are opposed to the concept of African unity, African cultural renaissance, African resource re-appropriation and resource nationalisation, are keenly aware of the need to keep African countries weak; and what is the greatest resource for empowerment of any society is its human resource base.
Yes us! We the people, mere mortals, flawed as we may be, are more valuable than all of the gold, diamonds, copper, platinum, cobalt, chrome or agricultural commodities that they could ever extract from the soil. Thus, to promote policies that negatively impact our ability to promote life and safety on a societal and epidemiological scale is to work towards tipping the balance of population growth and decline towards the latter, thus ultimately weakening the human resource base.
As a collective, people can promote health, growth and safety for everybody on a scale far greater than any individual or family can achieve. Whether this manifests in the improvement of road infrastructures to reduce traffic deaths or the installation of large-scale irrigation schemes to boost food security and access to better sanitation, it is through the pooling of our energy, the application of our efforts towards a common goal and the harnessing of the accumulated surplus of the nation that we can create conditions that promote life.
The balance and the imbalance between life and death, division and unity, stagnation and renewal, growth and decline, liberation and enslavement reflects a battle, indeed a war, that is being engaged for the soul and direction of this nation.
As an African in the Diaspora, I find that my experience thus far has helped me reflect on the battle within myself. A battle for me to be the best me that I can be and to define what exactly that would mean in this scheme of things.
At times I have found my experiences and surroundings here to catalyse feelings of hope and despair, faith and scepticism, frustration and fulfilment, anger and grace, solitude and community, strength and weakness, pride and self-doubt, power and impotence.
The struggle of black people in America has parallels to the challenges faced by African nations. As a community, we live a precarious existence. Some would characterise the black community as a colonised nation within a nation.
Black Americans constitute some 30 to 40 million people or between 10 and 15 percent of the larger US population. Statistically we suffer higher rates of deaths for nearly every health indicator that is recorded: heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, HIV and Aids, maternal mortality and infant mortality, to name a few.
Black people in America are statistically far more likely to be stopped in our vehicles by police, given harsher sentences in the justice system than white Americans for the same crimes, and are imprisoned in far greater numbers than would be proportional to our share of those in the general population convicted of crimes. Statistically, black people are far less likely to secure home mortgage loans or new business loans than similarly qualified white Americans.
Black people in farming are virtually non-existent. Black people are far more likely to live in under-resourced urban communities, in closer proximity to environmentally polluted sites and farther away from grocery stores and farmers’ markets that provide fresh healthy food. The neighbourhoods that have larger proportions of black residents are far more likely to be serviced by public schools that have fewer resources, less experienced teachers, less advanced level courses offered and more emphasis on sports programs and vocational training than on university preparation and pipelines to professional career development.
Too often, attempts by black people to highlight the injustice that we face in America are met by the dominant society denying the validity of our collective disadvantage by referencing the high-profile black Americans that have “made it”, the Barack Obamas, Oprah Winfreys or celebrity sports athletes and hip hop artists. The reality is that, while not diminishing these people’s individual accomplishments, their success represents isolated examples rather than the systematic empowerment of black Americans as a whole community. What adds insult to injury is that often those black Americans that succeed in American society in spite of the added difficulties and systematic obstacles, then encounter hostile environments within their respective professions as they face a workplace where black people are few and far-between, and racist assumptions about the abilities and attributes of black people simmer just below a surface veneer of equal opportunity. Successful black professionals are often subject to higher levels of scrutiny in the workplace and are often misinterpreted as having communication styles that are intimidating or disrespectful. We work harder to demonstrate our competence and work longer to demonstrate our loyalty. As a medical doctor, I can attest to the under representation of black Americans in general and black males in particular as healthcare professionals.
I have experienced the subtle expressions of prejudice that demonstrate to me that some of my medical colleagues are unsure how to respond to me in a professional setting as exemplified by some greeting me in what they interpret as black vernacular or “ghetto talk” when they clearly do not use such patterns of speech with their other peers in the workplace.
I reflect on the battlegrounds for black people in the United States and in Zimbabwe and I understand why the war for this place and for the hearts and minds, thoughts and emotions of the people here, including — at this moment — myself, is so important. This place stands at a precipice, as so many societies, and so many of us as individuals search for meaning and a direction to walk out of the wilderness.
Zimbabwe occupies a space and time of transition and transformation where it must choose what it will come to represent for itself and for the world. Change is inevitable, but in which way will that change be directed? What example will Zimbabwe provide for the people, the region, the continent and the world so hungry for answers? What example will I choose to follow within myself?
Will change represent a renewal of one’s self-purpose, the concept of pride in who and what you are, ownership of yourself, your actions and your destiny. To take responsibility for being the best you can be. To be your own savior, your own hero, and to reject those that would harness your mind, body and soul for a purpose not of your own. To accept your failures and then take responsibility for corrective action. Or will the choice be made to accept the definitions and limitations that another would place upon you. To conform to expectations. To reject the notion of your inherent equal humanity relative to others and submit to the concept that you cannot posses the knowledge, culture, resources, temperament or sophistication requisite to define your own needs and desires and to extricate yourself from whatever swampy mud pit you find yourself stuck in. To accept the power of external elements in your environment to determine your mood and disposition.
To seek to survive off of the charity of others and pity yourself while fantasizing about worlds far away. To seek contentment in mediocrity. To take the easier route instead of the better route. To seek immediate gratification instead of long-term fulfillment. To soothe the pain of this existence with the comforts of vice, addiction, greed, laziness, excuse, privilege, blind faith and dogmatism. To be enslaved in comfort instead of toiling in freedom.
I find myself wrestling with these very themes in my own mind and heart; a microcosm of the battle lines that I have interpreted in the observations of my surroundings during my limited time in Zimbabwe. As I reflect on these conflicts within myself and outside in the current social, political and economic milieu, I correlate the lessons I have learned in Zimbabwe with my life’s experiences as a black American. I believe that as Africans, wherever we find ourselves, whether we have been born and bred in Zimbabwe or other parts of Africa, or are the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States, we must consolidate and defend our gains, forge critical links and partnerships on the basis of a Pan African framework and utilise our material and human resources to provide for ourselves.
We must reject the notion that we need any aid, or that we need other people to manage or employ us. Africans can construct anything and everything that modernity requires on our own, unless you accept the notion that non-Africans are genetically more intelligent than we are, or that modern technology was imported from extra-terrestrial aliens.
In fact, we can construct modern tools at a lower cost because we have direct access to the raw materials. We should look into new ways to develop resources. For example: why submit to the limitations placed on the sale of gem diamonds; when even the less valuable industrial diamonds have applications that produce specialised industrial tools that would find a much broader domestic, regional and global market than trying to sell them in their raw form. If we cannot purchase the blueprints for technological production, then we should reverse-engineer those machines and gadgets we want, and what we cannot reverse-engineer, we should endeavour to create from scratch, from trial and error, indigenous innovation.
Self determination and Pan African unity must be what we discuss in our social circles and what we teach our children. Most importantly, it must be what our actions reflect in our business dealings, trade agreements, travels and political solidarities.
We must learn about the cultures and realities of other Africans both on the African continent and around the World in the Diaspora. We should encourage those that have left the continent to return home to build a self-determined future together. For myself, I have determined that the best way for me to promote the strengthening of the Pan
African vision and collective empowerment based on that model, is to move to Africa upon completion of my medical training and professional obligations in the United States. To serve the health and medical needs here, as so many African doctors have left and are now working outside of our continent. As a black American, I believe that it is imperative that black Americans re-establish our cultural affinity with the continent of our ancestry. We must reverse the brain drain and move our intellectual assets to African institutions.
We must promote our own film, literature, music and poetry necessary to create the cultural framework for African Unity. We must tell our own stories and direct that message responsibly. I had the opportunity to attend the 2012 Independence concert outside of the Rainbow Towers, and was impressed to witness Zimbabwean musical artists performing for national unity, cultural pride and consciousness. Imagine if the current global cultural power and influence of black American Hip Hop artists were harnessed to popularise Pan Africanism instead of consumer culture, materialism and conspicuous wealth.
Reader, all of these grandiose ideas and concepts begin with your own self-reflection; how do you position yourself and your individual efforts within the larger set of goals, strategies and tactics requisite to truly determine our own destiny. The eyes of some of us in the black American community and many more in places like South Africa,
Namibia, Zambia, Kenya and elsewhere are trained on Zimbabwe.
This nation stands at a precipice, what example will be set; that African efforts to seize control of destiny lead towards poverty, instability and decline or that it results in abundance, innovation and pride.
It takes courage to be the first to stand up and be the example that inspires greatness in others, and make no mistake, those that would enslave you will throw all of their most sophisticated obstacles in your path, but imagine if Nehanda had not risen to that challenge. Reader, thank you for entertaining some of my reflections here. Let’s get free!
Dr Christopher Zamani has a Bachelors degree in Integrative Biology and African American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a Doctorate of Medicine from Meharry Medical College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org