How the Decolonising Health symposium made me want to decolonise everything!!!

OK, so it’s World Health Day today and there is no time like the present to hand in my review of the Decolonising Health (in society, science and museums) symposium at the Wellcome Collection I was invited by the esteemed midwife and doula Elsie Gayle who was also one of the guest speakers. As a trainee wellbeing coach and a doula this really peaked my interest.
There were nine speakers all together from a variety of disciplines from health, arts, academia and the Wellcome Collection itself. The symposium was part of the conversation on the Ayurvedic Man exhibition which is currently showing at the Trust, actually it closes tomorrow.

First of all, what is a symposium? According to the internet (yes, I google!) it is a conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject or a collection of essays or papers on a particular subject by a number of contributors. That means there is no need for a conclusion – it’s just a conversation. OK then. Still I was open and excited. There were a few of the speakers who I was looking forward to hearing of course, Elsie being one of them.

Some fearless speakers with very interesting points on decolonisation

Dr Stephanie Davis, Subhadra Das and Sumaya Kassim were the speakers that made me think about the personal journeys of decolonisation. Dr Davis talked about personal health issues and dis-ease as created by the problem of health inequalities, Subhadra broke down racism, prejudice, stereotypes and bigotry in the most succinct manner and Sumaya is a courageous young woman who has taken on Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with her co-curators to exhibit The Past Is Now’, showing the role Birmingham played in the history of colonialism.

Elsie Gayle discussed the role of the ‘health professional’ in maternity services and how they really need to take an honest look at themselves if they are going to decrease the rate of maternal and infant mortality disproportionally affecting mothers and babies of colour. Elsie also ended her talk with a quote from Emperor Haille Selassie I speech to the United Nations in 1963 and made popular by the Bob Marley song ‘War’.,_1963

While the other presentations were very interesting they lost me at times. I totally got the concept of detoxing museums and taking objects out of their natural environment to display in sterile conditions. Other conversations were about how organisations such as the WHO place the enormity of health inequalities into boxes/batches numbered: 1.0/2.0/3.0/4.0 and how they bounce forward without resolving the issues in prior points. The Deputy Lead of UCL Medical School’s Clinical and Professional Practice is also having a ‘Decolonising The Medical Curriculum’ event and this is a great continuation of the conversation.

How does this relate to maternity practices and how will it help?

OK with all that background how does the conversation on Decolonising Health relate to the enormity of health inequalities in maternal health and wellbeing. How do these conversations hold significance at the point where the labouring mother, the emerging child and the professional ‘gaze’ converge and how does this intersection result in some women (particularly women of colour) having a negative experience, sometimes resulting in the death of either or both the mother and the child?

As I am writing this I am sifting through You Tube videos on Decolonising a number of disciplines. Dr Shose Kessi in her Decolonising Knowledge presentation August 2017 discussed a framework for decolonisation which looks at three questions. Her talk was on a totally different topic but I found her talk quite pertinent.

  • How has the history of colonisation shaped society? The history of (sexual) violence in the context of colonisation.
  • How do we reproduce this history? Meaning: What is it that we do every day? What are the kinds of beliefs and values that we hold that serve to reproduce (sexual) violence or reproduce the history of colonisation.
  • How do we resist? How do we find alternatives?

These three questions grabbed my attention when thinking about childbirth and the space between birth, life and death. This is a space so sacred that it should be protected, the mother labouring and the new life emerging should have the right to be safe, especially in modern western societies. Elsie Gayle talked honestly about the birth-keeper/ health professional in those moments. It is imperative that the health professional suspend all judgements which include; racism, prejudice, stereotypes and bigotry. If we are going to decolonise health especially in maternal practices and save the lives of women and babies of colour this is the first port of call.

Reflective practice, honesty and self-evaluation

It seems that there is a simple solution – honesty within the self. Letting go of the ego and working with our conscience, our moral compass. We know when something is wrong and it is in this space we should let go of our academic knowledge and bring forward the ethical medical principles of ‘First Do No Harm’ (in the human not professional context).

I believe it goes a little deeper than this still, the three questions Dr Shosse asked about how the history of colonisation has shaped society and how we reproduce this every day is important in how health professionals view women of colour during the time of pregnancy, labour and after the baby is born.

So, I guess my conclusion is this, colonialism is a legitimate reason for global health inequalities and the perpetrators and recipients of its riches (certainly not the colonised) historical and current have to be honest about their hand in it.

Decolonising anything will take a truck load of commitment, honesty and the same amount of blood, sweat and tears (that the colonised shed) from the colonisers themselves to deconstruct their damaging structures, racist rhetoric and perpetual propaganda against the ‘other’. This needs to be done first, within the ‘self’ and then they can look at the colonial structures from politics to education, law enforcement to policy in order to have real decolonisation.

I thank the Wellcome Collection for re-introducing me to the conversation on decolonising health. Now I’m going to start looking at decolonising everything in order for people of colour to feel safe, listened to and respected in the health and wellbeing system.

‘And we must look into ourselves, into the depth of our souls. We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook’. Haille Selassie address to The United Nations 1963.