Anne B. Wallis, PhD, departments of epidemiology & population health and health promotion & behavioral sciences faculty, recently returned from Gambia as part of the Fulbright Specialists Program. For six weeks she worked at the University of the Gambia, School of Medicine & Allied Sciences. Wallis spent time mentoring graduate students, giving lectures, and working on specific research projects in the areas of maternal and infant health and infectious disease.
Q&A with Dr. Wallis
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM YOUR FULBRIGHT EXPERIENCE?
So much. I learned about people and how resilient and resourceful they can be even when they have very little. I learned about how hard students will work when they really want to understand public health issues and when they want to help their country and the world. I learned about generosity. I learned to cook yassa and benechin. I learned how to barter for fresh fish. I learned words in Mandinka and Wolof. I learned how the Gambia used basic public health surveillance and prevention methods to remain ebola-free. I learned that with a little bit of input, Gambian people change the world.
HOW DID THE EXPERIENCE BROADEN YOUR PERSPECTIVE AS IT RELATES TO PUBLIC HEALTH?
I have a much better understanding of many issues of public health, but particularly reproductive health. I have worked with students in the Gambia in the past to study things like obstetric fistula and to understand how prenatal care works, but I learned much, much more about the day-to-day issues of reproductive health.
I know that many women, even in urban areas, cannot get to a clinic or hospital to deliver a baby during the rainy season because the roads are impassable. This means that babies are delivered at home, in sub-optimal conditions, and often without midwives or well-trained birth attendants. Babies and mothers die of infection, hemorrhage, or from the effects of prolonged labor. Many of these deaths remain unregistered – they are invisible.
I also learned directly from adolescents about their lives – about sex, unintended teen pregnancy, their fears, STDs, and how they think they can better inform their peers about appropriate sex and contraception.
I was asked to work with the climate science masters program and, in so doing, I had to think much more deeply than I have in the past about the effects of climate change on public health in a country like the Gambia – effects that may include the spread of new infectious disease, more chronic disease related to diet change, famine, and livelihood. I now firmly believe that we must work with Africa from a place of resilience and strength rather from a perspective that suggests only need and deficits. Young Africans are optimistic about their world and brilliant – they need better education and some technical support, but with those resources, they will be able to conquer the problems their country faces.
WHAT WAS THE BEST ASPECT OF YOUR EXPERIENCE?
Without any question, the best aspect of my experience was working with my graduate students in the classroom, individually on their thesis projects, and in the field. I absolutely and positively fell in love with the Gambia.
About the Fulbright Specialists Program: The Fulbright Specialists Program, created in 2000 to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program, provides short-term academic opportunities (two to six weeks) to prominent U.S. faculty and professionals. The program supports curricular and faculty development, and institutional planning at post-secondary, academic institutions around the world.