Megan Wainwright writes: ‘Medical Humanities in Africa…’ What are they? Who does them? What should they be? These were some of the overarching questions that framed a vibrant two-day conference at the idyllic Monkey Valley Resort in Noordhoek, South Africa (see photo!). Having only arrived in Cape Town five months ago it was a huge privilege and honour to not only be invited to present my PhD research from Uruguay, but also to help in the later stages of conference organizing and co-convene a panel with Dr. Steve Reid called “Practice”. Conference presenters were asked to submit their “provocations” to one of four streams: pedagogy, potential, practice or paradigms. Over the two days, presenters and attendees mostly stayed in their streams to build ongoing conversations. The conference deliberately opened the door to non-traditional forms of presentations, including poetry, performance, art and multimedia. My provocation was entitled Drawing Breath: The Sounds, Stories and Images of COPD. I asked the audience to spend 10 minutes moving around the room while both listening to a podcast I produced entitled “COPD on the Air: Stories of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease” and contemplating the drawings participants in my study drew of their lungs (Chapter 6 of Thesis: Breathing and Breathlessness: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in Uruguay).
I was thrilled to be in the practice stream where presenters truly took up the creative licence and presented provocations that engaged, and even exercised, all our senses. We listened to sound art, watched video podcasts, contemplated and handled objects of art and memory, and were guided through the interpretation of life-size body maps (In the picture you see: my posters of participants’ lung drawings contrasted to medical images, Aaron Mulenga’s sculpture of interconnected hearts representing his family, and Nondumiso Hlwele’s life-size body map representing experience with HIV at a particular moment in time). From my perspective what the two days enabled was a process of deep reflection on how the creative arts in practice can be harnessed for three distinct but interrelated goals: for individual and collective therapeutic ends, for enabling rich research contributing to more systemic changes, and for activism for social change and political mobilization around critical public health issues. All the provocations were so exciting and inspiring that I highly recommend you peruse the program. Personally, I was particularly moved by Victoria Hume’s work on merging narrative and music to tell the story of delirium; by Nina Callaghan from Children’s Radio Foundation’s participatory work with kids in hospital; Damien Schumann’s activism work through photography and interactive installations to draw attention to TB/HIV stigma and their economic drivers; and Shirley Gunn’s powerful case study of her friend and fellow activist in the struggle against Apartheid, Maureen Mazibuko, and the case study’s illustration of the power of longitudinal memory work to draw a more holistic picture of one’s life, triumphs and sufferings. An overarching theme that traversed almost all the provocations was the role and power of narrative for healing, for research and for action. I came away from this conference inspired by, and in awe of, the sheer creativity and passion expressed in the work of my fellow presenters. As for defining what medical humanities is, and whether it is something different in different parts of the globe, the conference organizers and others have plenty to work with, and reflect on, in the near future.