We had the pleasure of attending the first ever medical humanities conference in Malawi. This conference explored the hybrid space of humanities and medicine. We learnt so much and met a lot of people who are doing interesting work in medical humanities. The wide array of interdisciplinary papers presented tackled historic and contemporary issues in medicine from a humanities perspective. They also tried to pave a way forward in the African medical humanities scene.
The presentation panels were grouped according to common themes and disciplines. This grouping was not well-thought which resulted in papers clumped together according to superficial similarities; had the programming been based on scrutinisation of the abstracts, they would have been grouped using deeper similarities that transcended discipline. If we were all attending the same session, this would have been appropriate but because we were spread out in two panels this hindered interdisciplinary discussion because attendants went to panels grouped according to their discipline. For instance, they were three papers on mental health; one was in History, the other in Literature and one in Theology. These papers could have been grouped together instead being put in panels according to their discipline.
The casual vibe of the conference made it a good environment to foster ideas. The keynote speakers were masters in their fields and good orators which made their long presentations interesting and thought provoking. We, two recent graduates, rubbed shoulders with professors and academic masters in their field but we were able to speak as and ask questions though they were our equals. The audience was attentive during our presentations and gave us criticism that we could use to improve our papers. The opportunity to present our papers at an international conference was amazing and we would love for such opportunities to be found more often. However, as fledglings still finding our footing in the world of academia, it would be nice to have more rewards for our efforts. Young people in other ventures such as entrepreneurship and those starting NGOs are given more rewards and incentives as opposed to young researchers.
In the recent years, there has been an exponential growth of artists, NGOs, academics using humanities to solve problems in health. If the conference had been well-advertised we would have had more papers from Africans, and more Malawian attendees (who were not presenting) who were interested in the discussions because it connects to work they are already doing.
Writing the papers was hard because both of us have studied close to nothing about medical humanities in our degree programmes. There is little knowledge of medical humanities in a Malawian context so it felt like we were groping in the dark. But also, individual unsupervised research is something new to us. As a recent graduate, to present in front of professors, doctors and other highly success people and get such a positive feedback was amazing. We are grateful for this opportunity.
Bongani Khoswe (right) presents her paper on the role of the church in mental health in Malawi
The papers we presented, one looked into how the church in Malawi has dealt with depression amongst its members and the other on how women with disability are portrayed in Malawian folklore; both fit into current debates in medical humanities. For some time now, NGOs and government have tried to explore the role existing structures, such as the church and community leaders, can play in solving problems in medical practice; this was reflected in the paper on depression. Though within this debate, this paper went in an unexplored direction which was the Church’s role in mental health.
Wongile Mbano (left) presents her paper on the disabled women in traditional folklore on the literature panel.
Due to the recent increase in attacks on people with albinism, NGOs and the government have tried to change the societies mind-set on people with disability by trying to get it to see them as people instead of “the other”. This paper scrutinises society’s attitudes on disability by dissecting their oral literature on disability. We hope that in future there will be more training opportunities in medical humanities in Malawi, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
– Bongani Khoswe (Chanco graduate, theology) and Wongile Mbano (Chanco graduate, English literature)
On 24 August 2017, our hosts, The Department of English at Chancellor College, opened the doors of the Great Hall and welcomed guests from across Africa and around the world to attend the first Wellcome-funded medical humanities conference in Zomba, Malawi. The conference offered keynote speeches from esteemed 2 esteemed scholars, Dr John Lwanda (NHS Scotland/Dudu Nsomba Publications) and Professor Ama de-Graft Aikins (University of Ghana), who spoke about healthcare challenges in Malawi and Ghana, respectively. Both addresses cultural approaches to health and innovative methods to address them. Guests also participated in roundtable discussions offered by Victoria Hume (musician/University of Witwatersrand) and Professor Catherine Burns (University of Pretoria).
Dr John Lwanda offers the opening keynote on Thursday, 24 August 2017.
This gathering was truly an international and multidisciplinary affair. It hosted participants from nations including, but not limited to Ghana, Greece, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, United States of America, United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe. We were greeted by participants based in Malawi and the diaspora as well.
The 40+ paper presentations covered a wide-variety of topics ranging from drama and arts-based health interventions, malaria controls in the lower Shire, the history of tsetse fly prevention, art murals from Dedza hospitals, indigenous perspectives in the social science teaching, the effects of globalisation on Malawian herbal clinics, the prevention of violence against persons living with albinism, the film screening of a short documentary titled Make Arts Stop AIDS (MASA), storytelling and mnemonics, representation of disability and people with disabilities in Malawian films and folktales, communication in health and illness in the Bible. The full list of papers can be found on the official conference website.
Visitors also had a chance to view a collection of artistic productions that were contributed by panel presenters.
Along the wall were three paintings by Kudakwashe Munyikwa from her Fruit of Life exhibition which explored the fragility of the human condition by conceptualizing fruit as organs within the body.
Outside the Great Hall, tables were set up which also featured publications from Jo Vearey and Thea de Gruchy from their project titled ‘MoVE methods:visual:explore”.MoVE focuses on the development of visual and other involved methodologies to research the lived experiences of migrants in southern Africa.
Dr Jo Vearey and Thea de Gruchy (University of Witwatersrand) shared posters from their project MoVE methods:visual:explore
On the first day of the conference, the Department of Fine and Performing Arts provided a lunch-hour Malawian jazz band comprised of Mr Faria, Andrew Kholowa, Danny Mphitha, Steve Khabili, Glory Shuga, Pricilla, Mr Kamanga, Mr Silungwe, Mr Gondora and Mr. Tepeka. This livened up the mid-day sessions as guests dined on food prepared by the Human Ecology department. The Make Art Stop AIDS documentary participants surprised the audience with song and dance and testimony of the lived experience with HIV/AIDS and testing. On the second day, also contributing to the entertainment was Paul Sezzie, the founder of the Land of Poets festival, who shared 2 Tumbuka language poems about health and the body during one of the first health breaks.
The Theatre for Development actors from the Mpwelembwesu community prepare for their performance.
On the final day of the conference, Sharifa Abdulla, Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, organized the Mpwelembwesu Community-based Organization to perform a piece they developed about AIDS, witchcraft and community interventions as part of their Theatre for Development (TfD) project.
Following this performance, the participants celebrated the close of the conference. Overall, the organization of the conference could not have been achieved without the help and coordination of the Department of English at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. We thank them for opening their doors and welcoming us with such warmth known to Malawi.
The conference participants gather for the closing reception
Lastly, we would like to thank our funders at the Wellcome Trust, and our partners at The University of Edinburgh, University College London, Art and Global Health Centre Africa and the British Society for Literature and Science. Without your support and funding, this successful conference could not have happened.
Conference under development, more details to follow…
The Malawi Medical Humanities Network is pleased to announce a forthcoming inaugural conference tentatively titled “Medical Humanities in an African Context”, which will be hosted by Chancellor College, University of Malawi on 23-25 August 2017. Please check back with us for updates and a CFP in upcoming weeks.