Marine: Good afternoon Shamona, thank you for taking the time out of your afternoon to talk to me.
SK: Of course, my pleasure.
MK: I just want to start off by telling you a little bit about myself and my role during the Ahimsa Forum. I am one of 10 students whom was invited to take part in this wonderful experience. Part of Jean-François’ vision is to talk about the youth and its role in global health, social entrepreneurship and the faith communities. I am a French-American registered nurse, I recently graduated in December 2016. I’ve been to Burundi to help out in the international school in Ruyugi. I most recently took part in a medical mission in Belize last year. I have a strong desire to keep pursuing medical missions. I am very grateful to be here amongst all of you influential people.
SK: Well I can see how he (Jean-François) thought how it would be interesting to be paired with me and to have a discussion because of the work that I am involved in.
MK: Yes, from what I’ve read about what you do, I agree! He speaks very highly of you! Would you please tell me what it is you do in South Africa?
SK: I’ll start by telling you the area of study I started out in because it is at the complete opposite area of the spectrum as to where I am right now! I became a social worker in a time where democracy was starting in South Africa, around 1994. If you look at my development and my career path it has always been about helping people and rebuilding a country that was ‘burned to ashes’…
MK: You mean after apartheid?
SK: Yes, after apartheid. I was a child of apartheid. I grew up in an era that was very difficult for me to understand because I am open and embrace everything and everybody and could not understand the divisions. As we grew up, we began to understand it very quickly – you’re forced to.
I started out in social work but I realized I wasn’t able to help people to the extent that they needed to be helped. This goes with what we were talking about today (at the forum) regarding accountability, we were, during apartheid layered and layered with bureaucracy and these systems take away your creativity, your sense of integrity and responsibility for helping others and basically just puts you in a box. I studied a little bit more and then realized that you can’t help everybody, you have to help people help themselves. I needed to become a voice that would stand out in a crowd and that people would listen to. I used that as a spring-board and got into developmental work. The developmental context is about not doing things for others, but teaching others to do it for themselves. That became a passion and a drive. Although, where I am may be defined as a health space, it is more than just health. It is a space of development, human rights, progressive realization of those right, a space in which you can play with creativity and innovative solutions to bring services to the masses of people in South Africa that are poor. The vehicle through which we do this is two massive primary healthcare trains, which were built to deliver comprehensive primary health services to mostly rural poor communities, but in turn provide so much more. Both Phelophepa trains have become a symbol and the symbolism is that it is South Africa’s miracle train. People actually believe that if the Transnet Phelophepa trains come to the community, they are blessed. They wait for the train to come rather than going to a governmental hospital because of a perception that those that go to a governmental hospital never come out alive. The responsibility weighs heavily on every practitioner who is involved in this project to ensure that skills are transferred to the people in the community. We embrace an ethos of going back to basics when interacting with patients – respect, dignity and self-worth. We have students from all over the world that come to learn from us!
MK: I am sure that is why we were paired together. What advice would you give to the youth that want to be involved in the Phelophepa trains?
SK: I would encourage the youth to come on the trains. We come from a platform of learning. We have final year students from various disciplines: dentistry, nursing, optometry, psychology, health nursing and catering (hospitality). They do not have to be “top-notch” in terms of grades. We tell the universities that we work with to send us the people with heart. Send us the people that are floundering, the ones that are not quite sure why they got into the discipline they are in. Send us the ones that need to be convinced of the worthiness of their lives and their career paths they’ve chosen. Health is a thankless job. We want them to come for the experience and take what they learn back to their own communities.
MK: I can attest to that.
SK: The type of patients we would host onboard our trains present a conundrum of social pathologies. There is never a patient that comes to you with just an ache or pain. Our practitioners have to treat holistically. They have to be a friend, a confidant, a nurturer, a mother-figure. You would have to be able to engage with teenagers through to the very frail and elderly. Students are afraid when they come that they will have trouble communicating with the patients because do not speak the local language, we tell them that it doesn’t matter, practice with love, that is the most important language. The story of Phelophepa is that, the train is 19 coaches, we offer a basic package of comprehensive primary health care services. We don’t aspire to be any more than we are or any less than we want to be because of the fact of we have found what we need to be doing. Primary health care all over the world is grossly under resourced.
MK: You said just now, “we don’t aspire to be any more than we are or any less than we want to be”. That brings me to my next question. Is there anything that would help boost your work on the Phelophepa train?
SK: We need to reach more, and move forward using modern methods of practice and innovative solutions that would improve our operational efficiencies. We are seeing today that we have systemic challenges that we inherited and yes, it’s going to take a very long time to fix that. We embrace looking at what we have in our hand and work with what we have to further your reach. A couple of years ago, when I started with the company, our budget was cut substantially. I am very happy and very proud to say that although our budget may have been slashed we still increased our capacity to reach more patients. It is about going back to basics and finding those creative ways in which to engage and bring on board partners. So, it’s about spreading the word and the gospel, yes. Bringing in a third surgical health care train alleviates the burden The third train would cost us approximately 80million rand
MK: Can you share with us, your vision of the world (global or South African health) in the next 30 years?
SK: You cannot confine it to being country specific. Health rights are global rights. Health right are human rights. My vision is to make health of a standard that embraces principles of equality. There is no such thing as rich and poor, health is health, it is about humanitarianism. To ensure that health care is entrenched as a global vision for humanitarianism. In terms of health care, the care we get should be of a same standard that whether the person is from a privileged background or not. We must standardize the quality of care.
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your project and vision for the future.