Dr Steve Allen, the man with the worst sense of direction in the world, is leading the scoping visit by members of the Swansea team in The Gambia this week. He’s well known as having spent a lot of time in Africa, so we asked him a few questions about how it all got started.
When did you first come to Africa?
There must have been a good reason for that.
What did you hope to achieve?
Just a good experience, just to do something different. Travel is addictive, but better than travel go somewhere and live there for a while. You begin to feel part of the place, and that’s a privilege.
So when you first came to Africa what did you do?
I worked in Farrafendi in the Gambia. It was a job that was advertised. I was supposed to go and work in Zambia but the post fell through for some strange reason. I applied for the job in the Gambia, and only got the post because the advantage of appointing me to the post was that they’d also get my girlfriend (who is now my wife) to do all the laboratory work.
The aims of the link with Gambia are clearly different to your aims with the MRC. Why do you keep coming back to the Gambia? What are your current aims?
Because, at the end of the day, the world is an unfair place, because people that live in poor countries don’t get a fair deal. It’s not their fault, but they live in poor countries and under certain regimes and they suffer.
They suffer at least in standards of living and in standards of health compared to countries in other parts of the world. At the end of the day there is no reason for that. It’s a rich world, there’s plenty of wealth around. It’s just unfair.
If you can contribute to making it a bit more equal and to improving health for poorer people then that’s a privilege. What else do you do in your life that’s so good? It’s a very good thing to do. It gives you self-satisfaction. It’s just something that gives you pleasure to do. You know, if you like fixing cars then that’s great, go and fix cars.
I think it’s just worthwhile to try and even the balance a bit and to make the world a fairer place.
With what you’ve seen in the Gambia over the last almost 20 years, do you think that the aims and plans being made by the current link are plausible?
Absolutely. I think our approach is absolutely right. The approach was developed by people with great experience working in developing countries such as Professor Parry who set up THET (the Tropical Higher Education Trust in London), and the approach is that we partner, and that we address the needs of the developing country partner.
We don’t have any agenda; we’re not here to achieve anything necessarily in our own right, but we’re here to try and help. I think for too long westerners have been involved in the tropics and in poorer countries for their own agendas, at the end of the day, and that it’s high time that people came and addressed the needs of the local people.
Clearly, if there are improvements to be made then it’s up to the local people to make those improvements. It’s Gambians who are going to fix Gambian problems. Hopefully we can have a role in facilitating that, in helping Gambians fix Gambian problems, and it’s a privilege to be able to do that.
We’re in for the long haul. If we don’t achieve much in the first or the second years then that’s fine. All we have to do is maintain an interest and be responsive to the demands of our colleagues in developing countries, in the Gambia in this instance. Of course we have to do things that we enjoy, that we benefit from, otherwise it’s not going to be sustainable. It’s a two-way deal this, it’s business. You help me and I’ll help you, and that’s very important, otherwise it will peter out. People in Swansea will get fed up unless we get something out of it. That’s not a problem. It’s a fascinating environment from a medical point of view and from a cultural point of view, and we can’t fail to get things out of it. So it’s a good deal. As long as we maintain our interest we can’t fail but to be successful.
What do you think that the effects have been upon the team that you’ve brought to the Gambia this week? For many this has been their first visit to Africa.
I’ve been very impressed by how interested the team has become in what they have seen and how they’ve engaged with that and begun to think deeply about what’s going on and how they’ve come up with ideas as to what we might do.
So I’m really delighted with the reception that we’ve had from our colleagues in the Gambia and how welcoming they are, how obviously keen they are. They’re spent a lot of time with us. They’re senior people, they’re busy, and yet they’ve made time to talk to us and explain things, and to relate to us.
I’ve been very pleased with the response of the team, how they’ve engaged and said, Yeah, we’re onto something here, this is something we’ll enjoy and this is something we should pursue.