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A Living History

By Johanna White
on June 3, 2016

I come from Aotearoa/New Zealand, so it wasn’t till I came to ITM that I heard the term “South” referenced as a synonym for Poor/ Low Income/ Developing/ Not Europe. I am from the deepest South. But unlike many other countries in the Global South, New Zealand is not a poor country. It does have one thing in common with most of the others though: it has a colonial history, and it has a post-colonial present. I’ve at times struggled to describe my country to those colleagues who have asked. We’re an island nation and we’re isolated. We tend to like rugby and have a lot of sheep and cows. Yes, we have the Haka.

Our health indicators are good -unless you’re Indigenous- then they’re not so good; likewise for education, income and incarceration rates. Maori (New Zealand’s first people) figure worse in all areas. I am not Maori- my ancestors came from England and Ireland on some of the first boats. I hasten to add- the situation is not as bad as Australia, South Africa, America or Canada! Next-door, White Australia’s determination to celebrate their national Australia Day- that which the Indigenous people mourn as Invasion day or Survival day- highlights the gulf between our nations that exists in terms of Indigenous rights and dialogue. This Australian says it very well .

This is where I start to feel pretty uncomfortable. It’s weird to have to explain yourself and your country. So in that spirit, bear with me, and read on.

The Maori who inhabited New Zealand –before it was called that – were smart and they were warriors. They fought hard after their country was ‘discovered’ by Europeans and they made a treaty with the colonizing power. The Treaty of Waitangi ensconced  the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection in Maori- Crown relations  (See here for more analysis of the Treaty as a living document). We’re the only country to have such a founding, colonial era document as far as I’m aware, and lucky we do. The English didn’t want to sign it and they did their best to fudge the translations to short-change the Maori chiefs. Ultimately, as history would have it, the Crown did steal great swathes of land (legally, mind you), and they beat kids who spoke Maori in school, and they passed numerous other pieces of legislation that institutionalized the marginalization of Maori in their own land. The damage cannot be undone. Maori remain overrepresented in early deaths, avoidable deaths, incarceration, family violence and homelessness – the violation of a society and a culture left scars. But the Treaty has given Maori a platform, in more recent history, from which to legally argue their right for full participation in policy and governance and legal grounds to challenge the Government over Crown breaches of the Treaties values. Maori are strong and proud with a rich history and culture- one that all NZers like to claim when it suits- for example in sport or tourism. Maori are represented in government, in academics, in health and law policy and in the media but there is still institutional racism. There are people in NZ who argue that enough is enough and Maori should ‘get over it’- colonialism that is. It tends to be uttered by people in privileged positions about people who have a history that has rendered them the less privileged. Perhaps by people who were taught a pretty whitewashed version of history (and let’s be honest- that is The version of history). And perhaps who don’t understand how inequity works.

Around the 90’s a tide turned in New Zealand and some schools started teaching about the huge proportion of Maori who died of the common cold when settlers came. They taught more and more children about the Treaty, the Land Wars, Maori language and culture. Our museums and institutions began the process of repatriating many of the treasures, including tattooed Maori body parts, which were seized and sent overseas to museums as items of curiosity for the European audience. The socio-political determinants of health and other outcomes became mainstream learning in our high schools, in our medical/ nursing and midwifery training. Colonization, our country’s history, and the Treaty are part of the national discourse. Most importantly- it is Maori voices that are driving the conversation in government, in the media and in the medical schools. This doesn’t mean to say that things are perfect in far away, utopian, New Zealand- far from it – but there is a conversation, and that’s important. We know our past and it helps us deal with our messy, inequitable present and plan for hopefully, a more inclusive and just future.

I guess I was naïve when I came to Europe (and let me make a disclaimer and say I haven’t actually been able to afford to go far outside Belgium), because I expected a discourse about Europe’s colonial history here as well. I expected the Congo museum and the Belvue to dig into the infamous Leopold II’s exploits in the Congo; and to pay some heed to the ongoing effects of the West’s continued political interference in the South. I thought maybe the nation’s history in the South would frame conversations about development and Global health and what it means to be a European research and education institute focused on the ‘Tropics’. I thought, surely the estimated one-fifth of the Congolese population that died under Leopold II’s reign would be referenced as one of the biggest Public Health Crises that the region had ever seen! While the experience and opinions of many both within and outside of the Institute are no doubt exceptional, I was surprised and somewhat bemused to realize that not only was this colonial history not a part of broadly accepted national discourse, it’s also conspicuously lacking from the Institute’s very History page.

I’ve been told that Leopold II’s horrific ‘track record’ in the Congo is known by quite a few people in Belgium, but one hopes that this phase in Belgium’s history makes it to the consciousness of students as well – which will require a much broader national discourse. As far as I can tell it is not part of the national history lessons at schools here yet. Perhaps there is a chance to learn from the comparatively introspective approach of New Zealand on its colonial history, or Germany’s on its more recent Nazi past. Maybe if young people were systematically educated to understand better the experience of peoples whose land the European empires invaded; whose ‘way of life’ was systematically eroded by European powers, it might help re-frame the refugee crises and other feared waves of migration into Europe in a more sympathetic light.

During the International Health courses day dedicated to cultural awareness, a comment came from a very intelligent class member along the lines of “They (the colonizers) didn’t really mean to do harm”. It was surprisingly heartfelt and amazingly at odds with what historical accounts would suggest. A minority in the class – predominantly those of us not from Europe – sat flabbergasted. Someone did say, once, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions… What followed the next week in class was a scathing analysis of PEPFAR’s abstinence programs in Africa. Well, it’s hard to say what those policy makers were thinking, but it probably could be described loosely as ‘good intentions’ or at least ‘not to do harm’. The discomfort some Belgians may feel when the subject of colonization is broached by a tactless New Zealander can perhaps compare to the discomfort many students feel when Prince Leopold’s name pops up on an ITM handout that someone forgot to update (The ITM was previously known as ‘Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine’). Or when the Institute welcomes a class of students (some of whom come from regions perpetually destabilized in part from mineral extraction and exploitation) to the City of Diamonds, with a brochure encouraging them to purchase some. This too was no doubt distributed with good intentions, but the irony was clearly lost on someone. These at times painfully awkward moments occur, not because of any malice or disregard for people – perhaps it comes down to the ‘Great Forgetting’. Wikipedia claims Belgium underwent the phenomenon after Leopold II was internationally sanctioned and forced to give up the Congo Free State. But it wasn’t just Belgium that forgot. We the West, forget every day and in every way, the global hegemony and how it reinforces the need for the North to design public health interventions for the South.

I believe we cannot afford to forget. It is part of the frank conversation we need to have as societies, and also with ourselves, before we embark on that first mission to the field. Is it a paternalistic drive to ‘help others’? Is it to fill that great big hole that some people often refer to? Is it to pay penance for the sins of our forefathers? It would be a shame for more people to go and more policies be designed with a Eurocentric or Western perspective which ignores people’s need for autonomy and collaboration. It’s an awkwardness we as iNGOs and researchers must feel when we go to countries that are not our own, armed with family planning policies, institutionalized birth, mass circumcisions etc. In light of history, that is. Perhaps it is time for the period of Great Forgetting to cease and a Great Remembering to occur.

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