Finding Meaning in Relationships and Equity

I have just finished the Allies for Reaching Community Health Equity Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project. It was a powerful experience that has left me in awe of my amazing colleagues working on issues running the gambit of what defines health; mental, spiritual, physical and environmental. Learning from these trailblazers has been a truly experiential journey.

For the first time, I experienced the power words can have on healing relationships and setting examples for younger generations across continents. Alternatively, I felt empowered by a philosophy of “standing strong in your purpose,” a life lesson for which I truly owe a debt of thanks to my mentors Mary. C. Curtis and Michelle Herrera Mulligan. They are two of the strongest women I have ever met and without a doubt the most impressive women out there who believe not only in the beauty of their dreams but also of others.

These experiences have left me grateful to what I have but also knowing that to pay this forward I truly need to question what does equity stand for in my life as I practice global health. It is a pathway that forces me to face those touched by inequity on a daily basis, mostly because of their gender, race, religion or even citizenship.

In thinking through this, I come to the realization that I first learned about the concept of equity as a kid growing up in Africa, hearing the narration of how the first person to give the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) was not Muhammad (peace be upon him) the Prophet of Islam but Bilal Ibn Rabah, a freed African slave. It was the same call that my grandfather recited as the Imam (leader) of a small mosque in the cradle of mankind — the Great Rift Valley, the very same call to prayer that was first recited on U.S. soil by slaves brought from Africa.

This concept of equity in which boundaries between master and slave, color, race, language and nationality are nonexistent was something I was taught again many years later as an adult. While responding to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, I learned that across Sierra Leone, churches had dedicated space for worshipers of the Islamic faith and the mosques spaces for the Christian faithful. Therefore, it was not unusual for Christians to be seen at Friday prayers or Muslims to be seen during Sunday Mass. The power of such equity was that the Sierra Leone inter-religious council wrote sermons based on Biblical and Quranic texts to take to pastors and imams to advise the community on the Ebola epidemic. These efforts contributed to the containment of the epidemic, and challenged the scientific thinking of how epidemics should be responded to.

Equity was when my mum encouraged me to read by teaching me that the first command in Islam was the word Iqra, meaning read or acquire knowledge, though she had not had the opportunity to go to school as I had. This concept was further strengthened in me by my malim (Quran teacher), who happened to be a man and my madrassa (meaning classroom but a word hijacked by some to have a negative connotation), the veranda of my aunt’s house, covered with the bright orange tubular flowers of the Lions tail plant and decked out with a rickety wooden bench.

The very idea of me leaving Kenya and traveling abroad for university-level education was hatched in this madrassa, surrounded by my cousins and blessed by prayers from my Malim. The power of such equity was that he understood that knowledge transforms. Almost a decade later, while pursuing graduate education, my heart jumped a beat when for the first time I saw the Sterling Library at Yale University, which holds close to 4 million books on 16 floors. There, on a collegiate gothic style building resembling a cathedral complete with 60-foot ceilings, cloisters and clerestory windows, one could find the words Iqra alongside text from other scriptures adorning the entrance of this great place of learning. It was the site I took my niece to a few years later; seeing the glow in her eyes transported me back to the sunny veranda of my aunt’s house remembering the glow in my malim’s eye the first time I showed him a university prospectus.

Equity was a lesson learned every year following the community prayers marking Eid (celebration following the month of fasting) where in the midst of discussing the plans of what the family was going to do, who we were going to visit and the new outfits we got to wear was the discussion of zakat. Zakat is one of Islam’s five pillars to ensure social justice by giving 2.5% of one’s wealth each year to benefit the poor, with references in the Quran considering Zakat as more than a good deed given its power in addressing social inequity.

This Eid, being on USA soil, fresh off my fellowship, when I paid my share of Zakat in U.S. Dollars, never have I been more appreciative of the meaning of equity or the words of one of my favorite poets Jalaluddin Rumi, a devout Muslim: “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

Therefore, the next time someone asks me why does Africa matter to me? Why does global health matter to me? Why does education matter to me? The answer will be because this is my jihad against inequity in the world as taught to me by my religion of 1.6 billion people.