You’re White. It’s Fine, But Own Up.

 

It’s no secret that I am not a big proponent of health camps – for all the obvious reasons.  Despite the very quantifiable benefit of a rapid delivery of emergency care in remote places, we’re working in a different space, trying to uproot transience, lack of accountability, saviorism, and the indignity that in the final reckoning still goes with things like…well, health camps in rural developing world communities.

I know this seems unrelated, but I remember a day back in 2004 when I had made my morning run to the junction at Naudanda, and a bus was just pulling up along the Bagloon Highway.  Some tourists got out and they had a collection of enormous plastic bags from which they began extracting articles of clothing.  A crowd of people gathered around, reaching for the anonymous pieces, irrespective of size or relevance or history or purpose.  Just in case something was useful.  As I stood watching, my running shoes expelling wafty dust from the dry road, there was no analysis or judgement that went through my head; I was just frozen by a wave of shame in my heart.  For the indignity, the dehumanization, the unspeakable power differential before my eyes, in which I was complicit.  For the participation we are all assigned before we’ve even arrived: savior, beggar, observer.

There was never a time in my life when I thought, you know what my passion is?  Dentistry!  Working in oral health was something that grew out of being assigned the observer role, which turned out to be very uncomfortable.  I’m more in the business of looking at casting and lines, of trying to rewrite parts of the script.  Oral health is an ideal area to be working on this because disease is so prevalent, chronic, and preventable, with services disproportionately skewed toward upper classes (globally, not just in Nepal). This is an area where it is entirely possible to create a system that does not rely on helicopter interventions organized to address the greatest volume of teeth, but relies, instead, on structural accessibility and strong public health policies.

I’ve had a decade and a half to grapple with the problem of myself as a white person working in an underprivileged country.  What I realized pretty early on is that the only way to handle that is to embrace it with all four of your limbs and hang on tight for the whole ride. Centuries of colonialism have conferred on my skin and nationality a power and predicament that none of us, in the current act, created or can do away with, which only leaves us the option to be honest about the whole clumsy issue.  The way this translates is that I think carefully about when and how I show my white face, and in fact, this is not an uncommon topic of discussion in our office when we are planning fieldwork. Over the years I have mostly built myself into a behind-the-scenes role, while Nepali people fill all the stage characters. But when it’s strategic, our team openly brainstorms over how my whiteness and Americanness (two, not one, power plays) can be leveraged to bring legitimacy to others or bend things in favor of a local agenda. That is what these privileges should be used for.  In fact, shirking that opportunity seems almost as problematic as not knowing when to stay out of the way.

So, if you are staying with me here, we have on one spoon some peanut butter (health camps, with their historic problems) and on the other some jelly (colonialism, lending power and privilege to white foreigners), and we are about to make a kickass sandwich.  Are you ready?  Welcome to the promotional community-based dental camp. We did this last year in Hansapur, almost by accident, when we arranged for fifteen foreigners to go do a survey, while six Nepali dental technicians set up a field clinic and treated 300 people. The result was that Hansapur asked us to help them start a local dental clinic and school-based oral health programs with providers of their own.

YOU GUYS, we thought. This is a good idea.  This is an excellent use of a brigade of white people.

So this year, for Nepal Smiles 2.0, we flipped the agenda.  The purpose of the camp is promotional, and in the mean time, we’ll do a survey, treat some patients, get extra supervised field training for our technicians to cap off their week of professional development.  But the primary goal is to expose a rural community to resources we can help them develop, while a large group of outsiders adds legitimacy by being part of the process.

Welcome to the village of Dhital.

In the promotional community-based dental camp, our agenda was explicitly not to save all the teeth in Dhital. This is quite a different stance than your typical health camp.  We limited patients to fifty, so that technicians would be able to properly go through the entire respectful assessment and treatment planning process they had practiced all week. We invited politicians and social leaders in Dhital to observe the treatment room and meet our field teams from other villages. All services at the camp were provided by technicians and assistants from surrounding villages while Dr. Bethy consulted on the learning from the week, lending her stature as well as her expertise. As patients came through the camp, we treated a limited number within the constraints of this approach, and then provided referrals to our partner hospital in Pokhara.  We accept these limitations because we are also laying out a pathway for Dhital to launch its own similar services.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been mulling over this quite a bit and would love to see this conversation happening out in the world.  What do you think?  How do we negotiate a racial story that has been hundreds of years in the making, and leverage it to make a more equitable world?  Surely, there are people out there ready to rip this conversation to pieces.  But we should have it.  What I see daily is that, for rural Nepali health care providers like those we train, being associated with people from California and New Zealand confers legitimacy. Hand-wringing over this is less useful than taking responsibility for these roles we’ve been cast in, and unflinchingly examining how we play them in a way that ultimately deconstructs them, chips away at the hard shell of racism and colonialism, and eventually, creates new a revised and more just theater. This is not something that happens by accident, or quickly or easily, or without mistakes.  And definitely not without calling it out in the first place.

Here’s us, having our imperfect go.

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Better Questions

 

After getting our first study with UCSF-Berkeley students under our belt last winter, this year I had the chance to work more closely with the lead student, Tanya, to help design a qualitative research project I’ve been wishing someone would do for a long time: conduct focus groups in rural areas to explore people’s lived experiences of their health care.

The reason I was hoping that Tanya would use her fellowship for qualitative research is that there seems to be a lack of rigorous investigation of health practices from the perspective of populations like those we work with in Nepal. In a talk I gave at UCSF last spring, I suggested that research agendas tend to be set by institutions that are far removed from marginalized communities, even when those communities are the target of the research (a phenomenon that is, in fact, its own area of critical analysis in human rights literature – no points to me for coming up with that).

Focus group prep with students and JOHC field staff

The result is that too often, resources are directed at research that serves the researchers instead of the development of better health care structures in places like Nepal. Worse still, whether or not we realize it, academics sitting in California or Ohio or Connecticut designing research questions about people in Rupakot, Nepal, are inevitably influenced by implicit biases about rural, non-western, non-white poor people. The result is an overage of studies on things like shamanism and use of medicinal chewing branches, and a lack of documentation on what drives people to practice inadequate oral hygiene even though, in point of fact, modern hygiene products like those in your own bathroom are widely available in rural Nepal and people already know how they should be used. This bias in research then translates to poorly conceived interventions such as distribution of free dental care products and lessons on personal hygiene, even though that’s not addressing the causes of disease. From a human rights standpoint, this result is demeaning.  And the overall dynamic preserves research institutions from the voices of marginalized communities and a responsibility to legitimize non-academic perspectives.

This year Tanya and I worked together to design focus group questions that would lead to conversation among rural residents about their actual beliefs and practices around health care. In Jevaia we’ve seen through years of trial and error that understanding people’s perceptions of their resources is as important as what those resources are. The focus groups will look at how much residents feel oral disease matters and why, and try to break down the choices that villagers make about both daily hygiene and seeking of treatment services. Knowing how little up-to-date research of this kind exists in Nepal, I am really hopeful that Tanya’s study will provide a foundation for more relevant, application-oriented quantitative research in the future.

So here you have it – our focus groups! The first was actually a presentation of last year’s study to the villages where last year’s students collected the surveys, in Puranchaur and Hanspaur. Then we had a lengthy and very informative discussion with leaders and teachers from those areas about the meaning of the study results.

The second and third focus groups were in two areas where our project has completed the two year seed cycle and the clinics and school programs are continuing in the handover phase.  We did two parallel focus groups in each location, and our Jevaia field staff took roles as facilitators and note takers, which is was a great professional development experience for them (and me!).

Bharat Pokhari

Salyan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fourth pair of focus groups was in an area where our program will soon be launching, in the district of Parbat.  Finally, the last was in an area we’ve never worked in before, called Dhital, during our promotional camp.  By this time, our facilitator Sujata and I were really in the groove…

Note taking at the Dhital focus group facilitated by Sujata

In each of these, I took a job as an official note-taker, which gave me an awesome opportunity to listen in closely to what participants had to say. I learned that there is a very high level of awareness that sweets and junk food cause oral disease, and also that parents largely feel helpless to control their children’s junk food intake. I heard some things I expected, such as that basically everyone already knows you are supposed to clean your mouth twice daily, and that products to do this are available and affordable, but that for some reason, people don’t do it anyway. Some of the groups began to get in to nuanced discussions of why that is which were totally fascinating.

Important for us, many groups talked about treatment-seeking behavior. There was categorical agreement that this only happens when there is pain that is impacting someone’s ability to function. People felt that traveling to a city was a significant burden and that proximity of services was a major determinant of what kind of treatment they would seek. There was a widespread awareness that dentistry is a vaguely dangerous and poorly regulated practice, and that you can never be certain that a provider is qualified.

A few of the groups I was in veered in to more practical brainstorming once the official “focus group” discussion was over. These conversations ranged from funding their local clinics to requesting clarification around beliefs raised in the focus group (for example, dangers of blindness from dental care). One group even asked for a proper brushing lesson, so our Sarangkot Clinic Assistant Renuka, who was acting as a note taker, got up and gave an excellent demonstration right there in the focus group!

All around, this was a GREAT learning experience for all of us, and I hope it will produce some pretty solid qualitative data on health beliefs and practices in these areas.  Super proud of our whole team, especially Muna, Gaurab and Rajendra in the office, who organized an insanely complex tapestry of logistics to to make this happen.

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Waiting Out Rain

 

I’ve just arrived in Nepal, and the dust and diesel is shining on the streets of Kathmandu, stilled by summer rain.  Honestly for a whole decade I didn’t want to be here during the hot and buggy monsoon, but last summer I discovered that of course, like any season, the rainy time has a unique and indispensible magic.  The water clatters and pounds, washing everything and making us wait.  It comes down too hard to walk around or do anything.

Just wait.

It’s strange to re-enter this season which was so intense last year, when I arrived to a stunned and grieving city dotted with blue and yellow tents.  It seems that this country has basically just plugged on, absorbing the earthquake on to its pile of other messes, the unlucky people who lost the most – possessions, limbs, relatives – doing what people do: surviving.  The next day just keeps coming, and for anyone whose life wasn’t irreparably altered, that catastrophe isn’t the topic of conversation any more.

Things for me, however, have changed a lot.  When the earthquake threw us in to the ring with the big multinational agencies, it helped show our tiny staff the value of our community-level expertise.  This spring we launched our dental project in Lamjung district where we did earthquake relief.  

In the fall I also started a Master’s Degree in social work, and I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I’m learning in to our program right away.  Guys, seriously, a lot of this stuff I’ve been trying to explain has an entire body of theory and practice associated with it called human rights!  People are doing rights-based health care at the United Nations!  I found out I am basically an expert on rights-based dental health care in rural Nepal…WHO KNEW?!  (Who becomes an expert in that by accident?)

Ok, just wait.

Also, a few years ago, we thought we should do some baseline surveys in our villages.  Not too focused on the concept of sample sets, we thought we’d survey ALL the households…3,374 of them distributed over various hills and more hills, actually.  Because as long as you’re doing it, do it, right?  I wrote a survey with input from various people, we trained some high school students as surveyors, and just last week – 2 years later – we completed a 58-page report on this survey (thanks, Sarah Diamond!).  Come to find out there’s very little current research of this kind in Nepal, and this report is a thing.  I am taking it around like my visiting cousin and introducing it to everyone.  Here is a picture of our report.  Let’s call her Cousin Mae.  She’s in color, with pie charts and clones and everything.
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All this has come together in a very cool way.  Over the course of this year, three major U.S. Universities have developed a potential interest in partnering with us for research or medical collaboration.  It feels awesome!

So with all that in mind, this summer, I’ll be doing a few things:

  1. Visiting each of our ten clinic locations (past and present).
  2. Establishing a Rural Dentistry Coalition in Nepal to advocate for policy level recognition of our model, so that rural dental clinics can be established systemically for all villages through the national health care system (eventually).
  3. Laying groundwork for future research partnerships (hey, positive thinking!)
  4. Revisiting some of the places we did earthquake relief  (unforgettable)
  5. Planting rice with Aamaa and getting myself in to as many embarrassing situations as possible (inevitable, really).

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I am very ready for all of this following knee surgery in February.  At physical therapy, I do a warm-up each day where I put the treadmill on “maximum incline” of about 20 degrees and walk for 10 minutes.  Yay!  Now I am here and our newly launched Sindure Clinic is reached by a 5 hour hike.  That means physical therapy + dental clinic supervision at the same time.  This is not a deal you can find just anywhere, people.  Take note.  It’s not even a limited-time offer.

I’ll sign off with a few lines from a recent article in the Guardian that I really appreciated.  It can be very hard to stay motivated doing this this kind of thing, even though it’s true I sometimes get to pretend my iPhone is a grain-sifting woven pan and put it on my head, and we can reliably say it’s not a cubicle job.  But the pervasive story of the American (Social) Entrepreneur is hard to see past, with its celebration of saviorism, speed, and simplicity…as if there’s an equation to solve or a prize at the end.  But society doesn’t work that way, and often building things is just hard work.  You only stick out when you screw up; most of your ideas are 78% wrong the first 8 times, but there’s something good in there; when you disappear, that means it’s working.  If being humbled isn’t exalting, you’re in the wrong business.  I decided to tape this bit up on my door:

“I understand the attraction of working outside of the US. But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult. Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

And then…just wait.

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