Andy Baxter |
My PhD project doesn’t inherently seem like it involves a lot of travelling, so when I was given the opportunity to travel to Tanzania it was quite exciting. It’d be my first trip across the equator. It would be summer. I’d also be right next to Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d also be the first from my family to visit Moshi in 57 years. Intimidatingly, but excitingly, I’d be working alongside some experienced academics there to adapt and develop a course I’d valued doing, and subsequently helping deliver in Glasgow. What’s not to love about such an opportunity for international collaboration?
So, towards the end of January I arrived at the Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute with some Glasgow colleagues and a team of East and Central Africa researchers to help deliver a nine-day workshop, reviewing the material from our existing course, adapting and practicing with the view of them launching courses in their own institutions. A great chance to travel, to learn, to meet professionals, to work internationally.
The course we delivered is a novel, and crucial, overview of each of the steps that should be taken in planning and delivering a programme, policy or campaign, aimed at some area of health improvement or other social change. Intervention design is traditionally based on the ISLAGIATT principle – because ‘It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’! But, interventions are better (and less at risk of harming people) if you use evidence, test hypotheses, refine and form a programme along the whole path, from literature to rollout, to give a better view of the effectiveness, costs, key mechanisms and risks of your idea. If you are designing a drug, there’s a lot of research to determine what goes into the capsule even before you start your clinical trials. There are plenty of examples of health and social interventions which would have benefited from such an approach.
The group that came together for the workshop had been doing social and public health research across Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi for many years and had a wealth of experience studying health and social problems and interventions. The proposal for the nine days was to work with our African colleagues to adapt the course for the African context and to help them develop the knowledge and skills needed to deliver the course to researchers and practitioners through their own institutions.
Of course, as a PhD student fairly fresh into the academic world it was ever-so-slightly intimidating to be part of the team delivering the workshop. In the room of professionals, I was certainly the most junior in the realms of researching and lecturing!
However, the whole workshop turned out to be an incredible opportunity for learning, sharing and taking part in some international collaboration. Starting the PhD I’d not thought much about traveling overseas and working in such contexts. But it was great to realise how the diversity of research experiences and specialities can combine to produce innovative and quality research.
Part of the excitement in visiting Moshi was the chance to retrace a little family history – of travelling, teaching and international collaboration.
My Papa and Gran, Andrew and Martha Miller, arrived Moshi in Tanganyika in 1956. After fighting in the Second World War, Andrew returned home to Ayrshire, took up some university courses, married the girl who had worked in his dad’s shoe shop, then took up a teaching role at the newly opened College of Commerce, as part of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union of coffee-growers (KNCU). A year later he took on the role of Principal.
It was a fascinating trip to try and follow some of my family history there as well. My mum and brothers were born there, but after all leaving in 1962 no-one has been back to visit. Papa, still alive, had always told us stories of his time there, and sent me with pictures and place names to hunt for and try to link to their home and life 60 years ago.
Picking apart truth from creative embellishment amongst the stories one receives from one’s grandparents has always been a fun task (akin to watching ‘Big Fish’). But encountering the buildings, the streets and the places my grandparents walked, worked and raised kids, translating from aging black, white and sepia photographs to the scorching, verdant and lively Moshi presented to the eyes was a stunning experience.
What became palpable to me though, throughout this process was of course the mind-set of the colonialist generations of earlier centuries, arriving to teach in a manner that assumed authority and demanded unearned respect as the wise Westerner. Even if you could excuse the naivety of the best-intentioned Brits travelling to seek the welfare of the peoples of these countries, with what attitude had I arrived here myself? Was I jumping enthusiastically at the chance to travel, but overestimating the value of what I had to give?
Certainly, the workshops themselves felt like an immense privilege – the impressive volume of collected experience in the room gave a rich vibrancy to the discussions that I’d struggle to find elsewhere. The specialisms and in-depth knowledge of theory and research practice were also eye-opening.
However, it’s still not quite automatic that arriving with good intentions and admiring the specialist knowledge of the professional researchers necessarily translates into communicating the respect which is due.
I did encounter a quirky story about my grandad’s time here though, which did ennoble his character in my mind somewhat. During his time as principle in Moshi, a passionate young political leader called Julius Nyerere was touring the country, campaigning for his anti-colonialist opposition party and winning a lot of support. Andrew Miller invited him to come and present at the College graduation ceremony in 1959, which Nyerere accepted.
In the following years Nyerere was to be elected president and win Tanzanian independence. As I went around Moshi his photo was up in many buildings. He’s seen as the father of Tanzanian freedom and democracy.It was great to be able to show the photos of ‘when my grandad met Nyerere’ – with a little pride that I had indeed some meaningful connection to the country and the area. But also heartening that Papa even back then had shown some of the respect of an international collaborator, rather than a colonialist, towards those acting for the improvement of society.
Doing a PhD gives a lot of opportunities to develop skills, outlook and direction of academic work. The Moshi project was a boost to all three for me. As work towards a career looking to impact and improve population health, I hope these lessons stick with me. In particular, I will remember the immense privilege of working with top researchers all around the world.
Andy Baxter is a current PhD student at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow. His project is looking at using Natural Experiment methods to give better analyses of the impacts of policies. In particular to see what could explain recent drops in teenage pregnancy rates.