Exploring ways to improve rural health
U.Va., Africa officials collaborate on international initiative
|Some of the participating members of the rural health assessments workshop include (left to right) Jeffrey Plank, U.Va. Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies; Barbara Ngwenya, University of Botswana; Hank Shugart, U.Va. Department of Environmental Sciences; Claudia Ford, University of the Witwatersrand; Vhonani Netshandama, University of Venda; Keitseope Nthomang, University of Botswana; Sophie Mahoko, University of Venda; Wayne Twine, University of the Witwatersrand; and Sarah Farrell, U.Va. School of Nursing.
By Fariss Samarrai
Six officials from three universities in southern Africa held a multidisciplinary workshop with 13 U.Va. colleagues March 7-11 in Charlottesville to discuss ways in which the four institutions could work together to conduct health assessments in rural communities in South Africa and Botswana.
The officials are hoping to develop protocols for working directly in partnership with the communities, and have agreed to develop a regional infrastructure to support a range of university-based community assessment programs.
The African delegation included specialists in social work, anthropology, nursing, economics and environmental sciences from the University of Venda and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and from the University of Botswana.
The U.Va. team included representatives from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the departments of environmental sciences and anthropology, the Center for Global Health, the schools of nursing — including Dean Jeanette Lancaster — and medicine, and the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life.
U.Va. has maintained a 31-year association with environmental researchers in southern Africa, led by its Department of Environmental Sciences. During the past few years, collaborations have expanded to include a range of disciplines and approaches to conducting research and education in the region.
“We are in the midst of an expansion from environmental sciences work in Africa to now including a range of human sciences,” said Bob Swap, an associate professor of environmental sciences.
Swap, a “triple ’Hoo” (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from U.Va.), first visited Africa as a graduate student in 1992 and became fascinated with its natural environment and cultures. He has returned as a researcher and educator ever since. “Over time, through my partnerships, I’ve come to see that a multidisciplinary approach to research and education is crucial to understanding the relationship between community health and ecosystem dynamics,” he said.
With the support of his African colleagues and U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the team has broadened its vision to include colleagues from across Grounds and a variety of disciplines at the African universities.
“Our work is predicated on developing trust with our partners and the communities they serve,” Swap said. “We are building on our friendships and institutional knowledge, and we’re developing new ideas and seeking new opportunities.”
Claudia Ford, an economist from the University of the Witwatersrand, said that U.Va.’s long-term commitment to southern Africa is key to bringing the group together and ensuring lasting success for its initiatives.
“It is this development of trust that is so essential to the ethics of these growing relationships,” she said. “We can use this same model to build trust with the communities we hope to partner with in Africa, and this too is built over time.”
During the week-long workshop, sponsored by the vice president for research and graduate studies’ office, the participants agreed that they will use a “bottom up” — rather than top down — approach to working with African communities on health assessments and intervention.
“We need to go into the communities and ask them what their needs are rather than tell them, ‘this is what you need,’” said Sophie Mahoko,
executive dean of health, agriculture and forestry at the University of Venda. “We cannot impose our wishes on the community, but we can make suggestions.”
Wayne Twine, director of the Sustaining Natural Resources in African Ecosystems program at the University of the Witwatersrand Rural Facility, said community-based research should be conducted based on the principle that the research is “needs-driven,” conducted in full partnership with the community, without exploitation. “We must seek African solutions to African problems,” he said.
Most of the participants agreed that poor communities in Africa are capable of improving their conditions, on their own, with facilitation from universities and governments.
“International research and education are high priorities at the University, and the Africa initiatives are a great model to build on,” said Jeffrey Plank, U.Va.’s associate vice president for research and graduate studies and the workshop organizer. “We are now integrating faculty and students from across Grounds in these international collaborations.”
Plank added that the community assessment project “will provide opportunities for innovative interdisciplinary research, and it also will build capacity in-region and strengthen rural African communities.”
The group discussed several possible initiatives as the collaboration develops. They will seek funding from government agencies and foundations in the United States and in Africa for research and education projects, such as courses on fieldwork techniques, teleconferenced courses and possibly establishing a staffed field office in Africa for use by all consortium members.
In addition to Ford, Mohoko and Twine, members of the African delegation included Barbara Ngwenya and Keitseope Nthomang, from the University of Botswana; and Vhonani Netshandama of the University of Venda.