There is No Time to Lose

As the fellowship year is winding down, I thought there could no better time to highlight what I consider to be one of the bright spots in this fellowship. I can’t believe the year is already coming to an end, and there is no doubt these have been among the best months in my early professional life. Each time I reflect on the whole experience, I can’t help feeling grateful to heaven for this awesome opportunity. A few months ago, I was asked to speak on my motivation for joining the Global Health Corps fellowship. Barbara Bush, the CEO of Global Health Corps, was coming to Malawi and the US Ambassador in Malawi decided to hold a reception in her honor. My co-fellow, Danielle, and I had the privilege of sharing the podium with the Ambassador, the [then] Minister of Health Catherine Gotani-Hara and Global Health Corps’ CEO Barbara Bush. As a GHC fellow, I had shared my motivation on a number of occasions. Alongside my co-fellow, I had spoken to students at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Lilongwe. I had spoken to a group of LEAD Fellows, alongside my cofellow again, during one of their workshops. At a Christmas Dinner in Lilongwe, I also gave a  brief speech together with Kaylyn Koberna, an American GHC fellow 2013-2014 with the Reproductive Health Unit in the Ministry of Health in Malawi. Naturally, I usually tailored all these speeches to one particular kind of audience: potential applicants for the GHC fellowship.  I figured Barbara Bush’s reception was slightly different as it offered an opportunity for me not only to share what had drawn me to this fellowship, but also to issue a call for action. The challenge was to do both in only five minutes or less. The following is a rough transcript of my address:

“…Thank you Helen for that generous introduction. I can’t think of a greater honor than being chosen to speak on an occasion like this one. I’d like to thank GHC for this great opportunity and also Lighthouse Trust for the opportunity to work with the best team I could ever hope for. My name, once again, is Lonjezo Sithole and, like Danielle I am a Monitoring and Evaluation Fellow working with Lighthouse Trust. At Lighthouse Trust, I am involved in reviewing and setting up sustainable and efficient monitoring and evaluation systems for two programs, one encompassing routine clinical monitoring and regular HIV screening for infants born to HIV positive mothers and the other one a pilot program on integrating TB and HIV services.

Why are you doing this fellowship? What is an economist doing in public health? These are some of the questions I get from family and friends, some of whom have been openly skeptical about the career decisions I have made in recent months.

When a friend of mine, who was a fellow at the time, introduced me to the Global Health Corps fellowship about two years ago, it instantly occurred to me this was a cause I could hitch my wagon to, something larger than myself, larger than a paycheck. The sheer idea of a global movement of talented young leaders united in their conviction that health is a human right; indignant about the conspicuous disparities in access to health care across the world; and working together to pull down barriers that impede access to health care for the less privileged among us held so much fascination for me. I have spent a part of my childhood in a remote village, and I have witnessed firsthand what it means to be poor and live in a place barely accessible to public transport, a place with a bare minimum of social amenities. I relate to the stories of women and children who have died on the road to a nearest hospital that is several kilometers away, and those who lost their precious lives at a hospital that was stocked only with painkillers. Their stories which often end up as mere statistics in some report weave into the fabric of my motivation for joining the Global Health Corps fellowship. In a sense, I decided early on I would not get blindsided by what President Barack Obama calls “a poverty of ambition”, an obsession with making a fortune at the expense of being useful to fellow human beings.

As a Global Health Corps fellow, I feel truly blessed to be in such an amazing network of talented and passionate young professionals, a network I can always turn to not only in my professional undertakings, but also, as circumstances sometimes dictate, even in my personal life.

Now I must admit, when I was getting into the fellowship, I was initially not sure what to expect. I could not help asking myself: am I not making a mistake? Is this really the best way to apply my talents? Couldn’t I do better working in, say, the stock exchange market, where I could apply those elegant models I had learnt in college about the behavior of stock prices? Well, if I had any doubt about what I could achieve in public health that doubt did not survive the intensive two week training at Yale. The series of intellectually stimulating lectures that we attended broadened my view of public health and got me to appreciate the potency of an interdisciplinary approach to issues in the global health sector. Even more, I was inspired to see so many passionate young people from various disciplines, some disciplines remotely related to health, sharing their experiences, painting a bright vision of a world free of health inequities and engaging in a lively conversation about how they could surmount the challenges that lie in the way to the realization of their collective vision. That, for me, was a huge inspiration. I left Yale feeling very much prepared for the momentous challenge that lay ahead.

Over the past few months I have been working in the health sector, I have become more and more convinced that the challenges that we face in the sector are not insurmountable. They can be overcome not only by allocating more resources to the health sector and making sure they are utilized optimally, but also by building a robust network of partnerships for health across the world. We need to build a global movement for health equity. There will be no health equity in this world for as long as there will be no solidarity. In his address in Berkeley at University of California, President John F. Kennedy-never mind, tonight I am quoting American Presidents only-told a story of a great French Marshal who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, ‘In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.’ There are some who are cynical about the health equity movement. Some say it will take even a hundred years to achieve health equity. Well, in that case, we have no time to lose. Let’s all join in the quest to build a global movement for health equity NOW. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!”