Global Humanities: On Being Invisible


Ines Ongenda – A Personal Reflection


In September 2015 I started a Master of Science in Global Health and Development at a leading UK institution. My background was in biological sciences and I was your typical aspiring medical doctor who had a strong interest in global health and wanted to explore and learn more about the field and whether I could fit in there.

Two weeks in and I wanted to quit the programme. I felt inadequate, ignorant and with nothing to bring to the table. Nothing to say. Nothing to share. Nothing to give. I was embraced by a group of African students who were all brilliant and experienced. Those were individuals who not only walk the talk but were grasping this opportunity with both hands. It was humbling. Not only because it was my first time studying with so many people from my continent but also with many from different countries within it. They were my rock and nudged me to stay and to make the most of this opportunity. I am not sure I did, but I recently completed my degree.

At the time, when I looked around me, the cohort was incredibly diverse: people with different nationalities, different languages, different religions, and different professionals at different stages in their careers etc., but very few felt like frauds. From those I approached, there was excitement and awe, people being inspired by their fellow students, people eager to grasp that different perspectives and people eager to share their own, to confront their ideas.

I looked at other students who “only” held bachelor degrees and came straight from those undergraduate studies, like I did. I talked to them to understand their position and very few echoes my sentiments. At that time, I did not think much of it. I felt like a fraud, I did not want to talk during lectures or tutorials. I wanted to be one with the walls and be invisible. It was something that had always been true in my upbringing as a daughter of a Congolese (DRC) father and a Burundian mother. I was taught to not make waves. I was told to always be very discrete. This was in sharp contrast to those from other nationalities. Most Americans students were bold and outspoken, happy to share their opinion, unapologetic in their way of presenting themselves and their ideas. The first few weeks, they truly dominated the narrative.

Only recently have I been interested in asking myself: why? Why is it that my upbringing does not foster that confidence? Why is it that the cultures I grew up in do not reward that free spiritedness I encountered in my Americans counterpart? I specifically do not want to make a generalisation to the entire continent. As we were often joking with other members of the diaspora, Africa is a continent not a country, there is no one Africa. My experience as a half Congolese, half Burundian former political refugee partly raised in France is of course different from that of a Yoruba from Nigeria.

To answer those questions, one of the components could be religion, or should I say superstition. In my culture, one does not make himself known/seen too much because one must fear jealousy, and gossip. One does not want his life spread out in front of others and risk spoiling it. What is the link with Global Health? I was not supposed to share my opinion as it might attract ridicule. What if people questioned my legitimacy? After all, I was just at 24-year-old who flew from genocide in Burundi as a small child. What does she know? What is her authority in these matters? This crucial idea of legitimacy. This idea that only people with a vast amount of experience, people who are legitimate due to their achievements, can speak out loud. The idea that only the one who “knows” can talk probably hindered my ability to learn. This led me to dismiss my own opinions, my own ideas. I took it as a given that they knew what was right and that I was as a result wrong in my own thoughts and views. My opinion was not valid because I did not have that a true global health background.

As the year progressed and I was ready to work on my thesis, I truly went against a wall. Every idea that I dismissed where the ones that my supervisor nudged me to stick with. Any opinions, any criticism that I had, I had to develop and research. It started to weigh on me that I was the only mixed Congolese and Burundian of my program. I was the only one able to share my perspective and to tell my story. I was the only ‘me’.

Global Health Humanities to me is about my coming into my own truth. It is about respecting my origins and looking at them as an asset and not as a point to dismiss because it is not the ‘right’ background. Global Health Humanities is about exploring my own humanity, my own identity in order to better raise my voice, and thus carry the torch for sharing this story, ultimately our story. Global Health Humanities represents a window that will serve to ensure that we no longer need to be ‘mindful’ of other cultures, but can instead truly integrate those cultures and facilitate an authentic sharing of stories.

This process is ongoing, and progress is being made – there are increasing opportunities for sharing stories through art (from writers to musicians and filmmakers), through the businesses that are being created from fashion brands to travel companies to magazines and healthcare startups), and through research.

Africa is rising.

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