Thursday, July 21, 2005

Just another manic Monday

July 18th:

Some carry-overs from yesterday – I had met folks from the Media Team and made some suggestions to them. In true voluntary group tradition, I was asked to do the work! One of the tasks included writing profiles of children attending the conference. I met and talked to 2 children from the African delegation (profile will be posted when complete). I also talked to their delegation head, Mwajuma Masaiganah – more about her later.
Anyway, Monday dawned gloomily and we walked over to the University for Plenary A dressed for the weather. The sound system was being unloaded as we entered the building at 7.55 am – so much for starting on time! Deepa (a member of the singing troupe) and I were to leave early so we sat close to the exit. It worked for another reason, because as soon as the auditorium began to fill up, an announcement was made that we had to go out and collect headphones for translation. A group of students collected ID's and even passports in return for headsets. Finally, around 8.40 am, the plenary rumbled to a start.
First, it was the testimonies. A group from Argentina screened a film about the takeover of a factory by workers. This brought out yet another problem – the film didn't run! Too many programs running on the laptop or as one panelist tried to explain it, 'problems with the RAM of the laptop'. Well, the audio was being provided in realtime, so it continued. A doctor from Columbia talked about the struggled to keep the government hospital where he works running in the wake of militarization. The hospital employees had not been paid for months and were now living in the hospital itself. When money stopped coming from the government, the hospital tried to reinvent itself as a cultural center with health facilities and mobilize the community to keep it alive. It hasn't succeeded and is set to close. Next another film which actually ran without hitches – one from Brazil for the 'right to sport'. I had been in discussions the previous day where this 'testimony' had been discussed, criticized and derided for being 'unrealistic', 'promoting something that already occupies so many minds' and so on. The film was OK, interspersing child laborers with elite athletes training in expensive facilities to show the contrast and ending with images of children playing in their school and on the streets as they should.
More testimonies: one from Chile about increasing privatization and another from Argentina about a community struggling with high rates of cancers and gastrointestinal problems. Finally, Thelma Narayan, who was chairing the plenary, took the stage. She said that they had hope to have testimonies from other continents but couldn't get the speakers to the Assembly, so chose to have testimonies entirely from Latin America. Next a dance was presented by 2 children from Bangladesh to celebrate the passing of the torch from Bangladesh to Ecuador. The girl was confident and in control and the boy compensated with plenty of enthusiasm!
After this came the turn of the presenters starting with Abhay Shukla of CEHAT. Abhay talked about the mobilization carried out by PHM throughout India – the 'Jan sunwaais' (people's courts), trainings, reports and so on. Halfway through his speech, Deepa (of PHM Bangalore), Raman (of the government and Mitanin, Chhatisgarh) and I had to leave to join Pervez. We took a cab to Parque Calderon to find, as seems par for the course, confusion. After a few minutes of walking around, we finally figured out where we would be performing. Another group was already setting up – we had been told we'd perform first. Some more talking and negotiating with the other group led to us getting the stage. The lead singer of the other group, Diego, kindly offered to translate. As we performed, the citizenry of Cuenca gathered around - old men talking a walk in the park, mothers with children, some youth. The PHA attendees were still in their meetings, so we had a crowd that had no contextual info about us. Well, they still enjoyed it, I think, or were extremely polite!
It was time for lunch, which was being served in the Medical Facility on the other side of town. There are multiple venues for PHA-2 plenaries and sessions throughout Cuenca and none of them are within walking distance. The only time everyone is at a single venue is lunch. Even more confusing, some venues are listed differently in the English and Spanish versions of the program and others are not marked on the map. The Media center is also in the Medical Facility and I went to visit Nisha and the rest of the team there. Letchu a.k.a. Sowbhagya was talking about the huge quantities of food wasted during the meal – Cuencans believe in serving big portions. I mentioned the widespread use of bottled water in an Assembly that has taken on the Right to Water campaign. She asked me to write about it by 7 pm.

Earlier, when I was entering the building, a young woman sitting outside it had asked me a logistics question. She then wondered aloud how I had figured out all these details – she turned out to be an Ecuadorian by birth (now a US citizen). Sonia is studying health policy at Johns Hopkins and looking at issues of international health and trade. I had planned on attending the Trade and Health session where the discussion was to be on Patents. But since it was already 2.30 pm, we headed to the nearest session – that on an education and training strategy for PHM activists. After some confusion, we found the room – it was tightly packed with more people than capacity. The simultaneous translation system via earphones didn't work, so the translator had to come forward to translate. This meant that each presentation would take twice as long and presentors were asked to cut short their talks.
Lanny Smith of Doctors for Global Health went first – he talked about Liberacion Medicin, a group started in Latin America that 'promotes the conscientious use of medicine with social justice and human dignity'. The talk didn't get into as much specifics as I would have liked – I wasn't able to understand what exactly LM does. There was no round of questions after the talk. Next was David Sanders, Director of the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He presented some health statistics for South Africa. Despite public sector spending per citizen of $140/year, the country' health statistics are poor even in areas such as immunization of children (78%). He then talked about the gaps in delivery, most of which he sees as due to poor training. His School's program for Public Health aims to fill this gap with training of doctors and nurses. It does not focus on methodologies and theoretical work as much on training of health workers from the undergrad stage onwards. Thus even dieticians and physiotherapists are exposed to the Public Health perspectives.

At this point in Dr. Sanders talk, he began getting into more detail than I thought necessary (I sound like Goldilocks here!) Finally he did yield the stage. Thelma Narayan was next but now began a royal snafu. The simultaneous translation system was back on, but there weren't enough earphones to go around. Eventually, folks realized that there were more Spanish speakers than English ones in the room. So a Spanish speaker, Florence Levy, was asked to go next. She is from Nicaragua and began speaking of a University for Public Health there. By this point, I was hot and tired. Further it didn't seem like there'd be any discussion – there were 3-4 more speakers to go. So Sonia and I left to get some coffee and chill out.
Afterwards, I went to the Media Center to write out the article on water and also complete the profile on the African children. I found Mwajuma Masaiganah, the head of the African delegation, in the travel office nearby and asked her for some background on them. We talked about other issues affecting Africa. I asked her if she ever felt that the focus on HIV/AIDS in Africa was drowning out attention to other diseases and problems. She told me that in her talk earlier in the afternoon (in the Gender issues track), she had given case studies of women suffering from Malaria. She had consciously chosen not to talk about HIV/AIDS and had given her reasons to the audience – to return focus to Malaria and other diseases that kill as much as AIDS.
I finished my writeups at 7 pm and left for the hotel. Claudia wasn't in our room. At the Presidente, I found Vineeta Gupta (of AID-US, SHAI and other groups working on HIV/AIDS) She had just contacted Tawnia. Yet another tale of woe, this time hers' of having to pay $60 for 4 hours in a hotel in Gayacuil! A journalist from the Indian Express, Rajeev, was with her – he hadn't yet received his luggage. It was on a merry trip to Caracas and then Gayacuil and...
Anyway, they weren't ready to go for dinner, so I headed out to a vegetarian retaurant for a lonely meal. The fried rice I ordered was great, and the serving as usual was enormous. I asked for a leftovers box with gestures, in the stereotypical manner of every klutzy tourist out there :) Well, at any rate, the mimes worked and I carried my next day's breakfast back to my room.

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