Eyes a little wider; Head a little wiser?

A year ago almost to this very day, I was enjoying a few farewell drinks with colleagues in London when one stopped me dead in my tracks by asking “So… what is the probability you never return to this career?” Despite all the research and planning I had put into my sabbatical, it was not a question I had asked myself, at least not consciously, so it took a moment or two for me to reflect and respond “I guess maybe 30%”

A year on, as I pack my bags both mentally and physically, content to be returning to that same career my original estimate still somehow rings true. As excited as I am to be taking up a challenging new position and moving to a new home in Denmark, I am conscious that 30% of me remains committed to the issues and work I am leaving behind. So this week I have been thinking hard about what has meant most to me and what I might try to bring back.

My most treasured change (and hopefully the most durable) is a small but unmistakable shift in my perspective on the world. I could never claim to see things exactly as a Zambian does but I can now at least share their field of vision and feel like I have gained a new sense of how the world turns when you are looking at it from down here. At the same time, I have a new-found and deeply held respect for how many moving parts a nation requires just to function, how well they have to work together before it can thrive and how essential that thriving is to bring the majority up and out of a life of grinding poverty.

On a political level, I have learned with amazement how China is winning the latest (and perhaps last) scramble for Africa – the prize no longer her men or solely her minerals but now the resources of her arable land and water table. This is a story that has yet to penetrate the western world’s consciousness but I am sure it will, particularly as we move into an era of increasingly erratic weather patterns and with it crop production where those agricultural assets will become ever more valuable.

This is clearly not good news for Africa. Though some of her leaders may welcome those Chinese investors with their ‘no questions asked’ policies today, there will come a time when they may rue striking such bargains. Being Irish, I know just how tragically possible it is for a famine to be plaguing the land while many thousands of tonnes of food are being exported to a colonial force. I don’t view the actions of the Chinese as any worse than those of the Arabs or Europeans before them, just the sad continuation of the tragic story of this continent’s exploitation.

On a development level, my eyes are greatly opened to just what an achievement it is raise up a nascent economy. My respect for those same Chinese, as well as Malaysians, Brazilians and others who have managed to bring many millions of their people out of poverty in such a short space of time is all the more profound from observing how difficult a trick it is when you start from the base of poor infrastructure, limited industry and a rapidly expanding population. The fact that they achieved such gains with a fraction of the aid handed out countries such as Zambia is equally a truth and a conundrum that will stay with me.

On a personal level it is the stories from friends and colleagues that I will surely keep longest. Simple things such as the dinner party game we played last week where everyone in the room described their worst job growing up and all the Zambians had to explain that they had nothing to share as there were barely jobs for their parents when they were young. The frequent absence of colleagues to attend family funerals, greatly reduced in recent years I am told, remains a sobering reminder of the shadows that stalk this land.

Most stark are the painful lessons I have taken learning through Ephraim how difficult life can be without any social safety net, even when the fall is not of your own making. Accepting the wrenching truth that an orphaned child without funds for food, housing or school is nothing uncommon here and certainly not deserving of additional support in the eyes of the state or from an already overstretched extended family. It has both greatly increased my understanding of what it means to be vulnerable and made personal the horror.

Simply put, I leave with a far deeper understanding of just how fortunate I am, not only in all the obvious ways (health and wealth unimaginable to most Zambians) but also fortunate enough to have an employer willing to support me taking on this exploration and happy to welcome me back. More fortunate still to return to an industry, healthcare, that has so much to offer when it comes to solving some of this continent’s most pressing problems.

Not long ago, as an industry we were, in truth, more of an obstacle to the access of our medicines than a force for their wider distribution on the continent. I now watch with admiration leaders like Andrew Witty of GSK radically changing that attitude and I am happy to know that there are many others both within my company and across the industry with similar aspirations.

I will long remember describing the modern medicines and technologies I would be working with upon my return to a close Zambian friend. Would any Zambian be able to access such technologies in his lifetime he reasonably wondered? I am far from being in a position to influence such issues yet, but if in some small way, I can keep that challenge with me, then I think I have a healthy chance of keeping both the 70% and the 30% of my self both motivated and content.

One Response to “Eyes a little wider; Head a little wiser?”
  1. Sridhar Reddy says:

    Congrats on completing such a wonderful and humbling journey, brother. Just living vicariously through your experiences has opened my eyes, I can only imaging the profound impact it must have had on your life.

    Well done, mate.

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