Four Weeks in Africa, A Lifetime of Learnings

I just returned from the trip of a lifetime—four weeks in Africa to see a few World Cup matches and travel in South Africa and Namibia.

It was an amazing trip – I was captivated from day one. Aside from spectacular scenery, amazing wildlife sightings and thrilling matches (the stadiums were all built in time), the people of South Africa could not have been nicer or more accommodating. Every interaction and conversation equaled making a new friend and learning something new.

But I was also struck by the various healthcare challenges facing the entire continent. It became apparent over the course of my four weeks of travels and interactions with people from all walks of life—from hotel owners and taxi drivers to other travelers from around the world and South Africans we met out on the town—that Africa had a myriad of technology problems, cultural sensitivities, prejudices and infrastructure challenges to overcome in order to enable better access to healthcare and education. Hopefully some of the transport upgrades put in place for the World Cup, such as more paved roads and newly purchased buses, will translate into more services for the underprivileged, but time will tell.

Traveling between cities like Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town revealed how expansive and underdeveloped many parts of the country are. Roads are luxuries in some parts, so we heard stories of people walking half a day to see a visiting doctor who examines patients and takes a blood sample for testing. However, when the doctor returned a few weeks later with test results some people didn’t or couldn’t make that same half-day walk to learn what the doctor had discovered.

Quite simply, without a robust and effective transportation infrastructure inhabitants of remote villages and even the townships, the slums that non-whites were forced to live in on the edge of towns during the Apartheid Era, have minimal means to access healthcare. It should also be noted that South Africa is probably the most developed country in Africa, so other nations on the continent are facing even more monumental infrastructure challenges to help their people.

Obviously, one of the major healthcare concerns facing South Africa, and the African continent as a whole, is educating the public about HIV and AIDS. Experts estimate that South Africa has one of the largest HIV/AIDS populations in the world, with around 5.7 million affected. Yet, old cultural prejudices and sensitivities about even discussing health topics, such as HIV/AIDS, hinder healthcare professionals from making inroads to combat this disease.

While walking through the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I learned that Nelson Mandela criticized himself for not doing more to lessen the taboo of HIV/AIDS during his presidency. In 2005, the venerated Mandela announced that his son had died of complications from AIDS. He did this because he wanted all Africans to speak openly about a subject that affects too many people in Africa. This courageous gesture openly challenged the cultural sensitivities shared by most Africans. Of course entrenched social stigmas won’t change overnight, but Mandela’s frankness has begun to help individuals, families and communities from ostracizing patients, as often happen.

Our guide in the sprawling Soweto township outside of Johannesburg told us that the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest acute hospital in the world with 2,964 beds, is also trying to educate people. He said that healthcare workers at the hospitals were trying to put the disease in the proper context, noting that getting tested and treated for tuberculosis or other ailments is commonly accepted, so HIV/AIDS should be no different.

I must admit that I was slightly wary of the trip and intimidated by the prospect of traveling through Africa. I didn’t know what to expect, if I would be welcome, whether I needed to fear for my safety. Well, nothing even close to those scenarios happened to me.

Now, having been there, met the people and learned more about the cultures and uniquely African challenges, I can’t stop thinking about it. It is a great land, filled with tremendous people, and they deserve more from all of us—from business investments to healthcare innovations that help solve the obstacles facing the continent.

Simple investments in buses, mobile health clinics, and supply line solutions to rural parts of Africa will help bolster education, engage the population to get treated and promote healthier lifestyles. Advanced technologies that enable immediate blood test results would greatly help individuals learn about their HIV/AIDS status on the spot, and not require them to make a long return journey when the doctors come back to their area. These patients could then work with the healthcare professionals to manage and treat themselves, hopefully also sparing the spread of the disease by someone who doesn’t know their status. These are the types of steps needed to keep Africa great and propel it forward. I hope to one day see it happen.