“People have been set with the expectation that the traditional knowledge systems of people from non-western cultures is naturally inferior.” – In Conversation with Dr. Chisomo Kalinga

Dr Chisomo Kalinga is a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities postdoctoral fellow at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her current project examines literary traditions and health narratives in Malawi and its border countries. She is also collaborating with the Art and Global Health Centre Africa and the University of Malawi to launch the first medical humanities network for Malawiana studies. She was most recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD was completed at King’s College London (2014) and offered a comparative study of Malawian and American AIDS fiction. Her research interests are disease (esp. sexuality transmitted infections), biomedicine, traditional healing and witchcraft in African writing and narratives.

ResearchRound
We’ll like you to introduce yourself.

Dr. Kalinga

I just want to thank your team at ResearchRound for inviting me. We’ve been exchanging back and forth. It’s so nice to finally connect. As I’ve been introduced. My name is Chisomo Kalinga and I am a researcher in medical humanities at the University of Edinburgh, but I was originally born in Malawi, grew up in the United States and I am now in between Scotland and Malawi as I conduct my research. So my field in medical humanities specializes in the intersection between health and storytelling, and I’m particularly looking into the ways that ordinary citizens in Malawi use storytelling in the traditional sense but also the modern practice, in navigating issues of health and wellbeing. How they share stories about healing, treatment, illness, rumors, myths and everything in between. That’s what’s keeping me busy at the moment. 

ResearchRound

So I’m curious to know how you evolved; someone who studied in humanities and now you’re in medical humanities. What is the link between medicine and the humanities, because it’s strange for someone to hear about medical anthropology or someone in medical humanities, especially here in Africa, where most of the disciplines are usually streamlined? Also, what inspired your career trajectory?

Dr. Kalinga

Thank you. This is a conversation (that’s) very organic, and thank you for adding that because it actually was more- it’s less an academic reason why I got into it. It was very personal actually. At the time that I was deciding to do a PhD, I was working in New York City and I had met quite a lot of men who had survived the HIV/ AIDS crisis. Some of the writers are gay men living in New York City and I looked at the writing that they were doing, and I saw that the way they had mobilized really sparked, sort of, the first round of activism in the United States to bring drugs and medical treatment for people living with HIV at the time. 

So at the time in the 90s, my own community in Malawi was highly affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and it was terrifying. And so there was a kind of…this organic desire to understand. Well, how did my community respond? I ended up going through Malawi and did a bit of investigative work in 2008. Just going to the archives and asking do we have literature about HIV and AIDS? Are people writing about this complicated stuff? How do I even combine literature and medicine? Is this even a thing? And I started. It was just one Google search one day at work -I’m going to admit I was at work. I decided to just type in literature and medicine and then there was one program in the United Kingdom that was offering an MSc in literature and medicine and it was run by a physician and an epidemiologist who were both professors of English and I said, ‘okay, I think I have found my thing’. I think this is a real thing that people are doing. So in that sense, it was really just by chance that I found an institution that was looking at this topic, but it was driven by a personal desire to understand how people in Malawi living with HIV communicated these very top ideas in this rapid and massive social change, through writing and poetry. 

ResearchRound 

Thank you very much for that answer. It takes me to the next question which is about your research interest. I read the piece that you wrote about the ethical dimensions that researchers face, especially when their junior partners in research are between the rock and the hard place. But before I get to that one, I’m curious about what exactly is the intersection of culture and medicine, and art. For you, how have these themes evolved?

Dr. Kalinga

It ties in nicely with your previous question. As you were saying that in Africa, the disciplines are compartmentalised. You know, they’re very clear. There’s medicine, there’s humanities, there’s art. What I found is that when you’re actually studying -why I needed to get away from the archives of the books – our customary traditions, in our villages, in our home, education is not compartmentalized in the same manner. We come from an oral tradition, an oral culture and virtually everything that we were taught was oral. Actually, most knowledge that was shared and disseminated was done through performance. So everything from learning about plant culture to herbology to animal tracking and behavior, there were already mechanisms inside the educational systems of our culture that accommodated this. So for me, it was actually an organic transition, and it’s what inspired me to get, to answer your question about rock and the hard place, to begin examining decolonial approaches to investigating my work. And that’s what inspired the rock and the hard places; I find myself in a sense of conflict when I’m working with research participants who aren’t engaged or who don’t care about the research framework that we have been taught to do. So I wanted to study more about the participant side, to the end user side, the patient side and the human side. What are the expectations that they have when working with researchers and what are the struggles in these contradictions? I decided there has to be a medium in beginning to use some of the traditional ways that have been used in the past to negotiate these spaces so that we have a more ethical framework.

 I found there was a lot of resistance in a lot of funny ways. It’s a paper I’m writing now. Even if people are lying to me or being silent in the fields, you know, I’m writing about this as an act of resistance. People have great distrust for what mechanisms in research are, why we’re doing it, and what benefit will come to them. So I found that this decolonial approach is actually quite important in sort of bringing the community in line with some of the objectives of the research world. And saying you know what? We have to begin to make concessions and begin to understand that there’s no one way to knowledge. And the colonial order was very specific to try and destroy specific types of knowledge production. So how do we tap into that? How do we resurrect that? How do we align or how do we accept that there’s always going to be contradictions? Those are some key questions that are coming up as I develop my work. 

ResearchRound

Regarding medical anthropology, what are the peculiarities of research you have noticed, and has made all the difference between Malawi and the UK?

Dr. Kalinga

I’m actually quite new to medical anthropology and it’s a bizarre position because I came into it, having switched from doing my three degrees in English literature. So my entire practice as a medical anthropologist has been through a decolonial praxis, which is actually quite hard. I didn’t go through traditional medical anthropology, meaning I did my training in the fields using these new… I guess ways of looking at things in that sense that I came up from researchers who were living in Malawi at the time who are quite good at making themselves available to me and teaching me a lot about the field and practice of how traditional storytelling was. So in that sense I think it’s one of those things that we’re really trying to deconstruct; some of these boundaries that we have in understanding what anthropology is in the Western concept and what observation means in a local concept.

I have this discussion all the time with some of my colleagues that, being a Malawian, going into my communities and telling them ‘okay, I’m gonna observe you’. They look at me and go” for what? What is this that you’re doing?” Yes, it’s such a bizarre practice, but it’s something that in medical anthropology in the UK, taught as normal. So I’m always in this kind of odd place of trying to figure out exactly how the space is evolving. But in that sense, I would say that one of the things that ties them together actually is, Malawi was a British colony and we adopted our education system from the British. So in our schools we are taught the standard ways of understanding anthropological approaches to working in the field. So there’s not that much difference in terms of the texts that we use, the methodology we use, the research we use. I find what’s actually different is when we get to the field. Our experiences are so different because we are local citizens going into our own communities. And our communities are asking us much different questions than they ask foreign researchers. And that, in its sense, requires the re-investigation of our own position, as you know, anthropologists in the field -like why are we still clinging to terms and definitions that real people are pushing against as we do our work? So I’m more than in an ambivalent space and working through some of these questions so I don’t necessarily have definite answers as I’m trying to begin to understand how to address them myself. 

ResearchRound

Your answer, Doctor Kalinga, reminds of James Scott’s Hidden Scripts. The fact that sometimes people behave differently when they see that they’re under observation. And the answers that they give, for example, even in political anthropology, which is a field that I am more familiar with, people behave differently when they see that they are being observed. That’s why I usually always have a caveat about pollsters. You can make all the polls in the world but eventually, one minute alone might change all the answers. Which also gets me into the current way about decoloniality, about different methodology and since you’re in the UK, I would imagine that you are having a much harder time. To be honest with you, even here in Africa, in South Africa where I did my Masters’ Degree, there’s a lot of war and defense “what do you guys mean by decoloniality?” You would imagine that even here in Nigeria, people would embrace the fact that there are different ways of knowing and people should embrace it. But decoloniality is really deep. So I’m curious to know what your experience has been in these sorts of methods, in Malawi, in the UK and even in the US, if you have any experience there. 

Dr. Kalinga

Yes, well, absolutely so. Not so much in the US because I know that was a place where I was raised, but I never studied anthropology there. So I’ve done most of my doctoral education and field work in either the United Kingdom or Malawi. So in that sense, you raise such an interesting point. In fact, just this morning a friend of mine sent me a message, in address to some people who were a little bit angry at a colleague of mine who was talking about decoloniality in Australia. And she posted online “if people aren’t angry at the work you’re doing then you’re not doing your work right.” And I felt that was very telling, in that sense of viewing the resistance that we face, after all, we once went through the phase of being ignored. And people just kind of let us have our events on the side because this was supposed to be a discussion that would go away. Every 15 to 30 years. There’s this kind of resurgence of decoloniality. It’s always kind of suppressed again, but I think with the global rise of discussions across multiple and different platforms; Black Lives matter in the United States, the discussions about police reform in Nigeria, Haiti, the demonstrations that are taking place in the streets right now, people are beginning to see connectivity between black Diaspora and African continent-based people and discussing what these legacies are and how they’re still impacting the lives of citizens today.

 And so I think for the first time, there are a lot of people who have been  ignoring this round decolonisation discourses who are now actively threatened by it, because it’s meant to destabilize some of the lingering systems that were meant to keep people under a state of oppression. I work a lot with medical doctors and medical doctors will say to me “look, we’re the ones saving lives. Your people were trading each other as slaves. Our culture just picked up on what your people were already doing” and I have to explain to them how ahistorical that is. And how that legacy of anti-blackness developed into law, developed into policies, into economic trade, just of a human chattel of slavery and of production, and of dislocating populations from land, creating police states to make sure that people were controlled and monitored. And so I say, decoloniality is looking at a lot of this with a very critical lens and seeing that a lot of this was done intentionally as a means of power, as a means of asserting white supremacy, as a justification to oppress African people, people of African descent in Latin America and North America. And on the continent itself. So yes, absolutely, it’s a very difficult work, and it’s become a lot harder now that people are beginning to realize what its objectives are.

ResearchRound

You grew up in the US, by the time you had to go back to Malawi to begin research, was there a sort of disparity. Did some of the people you work with treat you like a stranger? Like you did not grow up here. Was there a sort of resistance and how did you navigate it, research-wise?  

Dr. Kalinga

I would say there was more mistrust than resistance. people would always say to me, “your face is one of us, but your tongue is different” because even when I speak in the local language, it was with the heavy American accent and this is something that gives itself away the minute I open my mouth and it’s something that I just had to be honest about. I found that just having an honest approach has helped me to navigate that. Because of that, it has taken me a bit longer to gain the trust of my research participants. I have to bide a bit more time to begin so that we get to know each other. So they begin to get to know me, get comfortable with me. The concept of people migrating is not strange at all in the indigenous language. It is mashona. I moved when I was very young with my parents. So people understand that this one was with her mom and dad abroad and they have now come back. There is an element of distrust which is very valid in the sense that people have this concern that you’re coming to enrich yourself off of their knowledge. That has been the most difficult thing, because there is an element of truth to that. The relationship that we have is, I’m gaining knowledge on a structural level which is keeping me employed in the University. So in a sense, the way that they’re thinking is valid, and I think that that’s something within the research framework that I’ve had to build trust by making sure I build in an ethical practice. I make sure that I try to understand what the local needs are, what their expectations are, and that if I’m having a project that involves working with a community, I have to make sure that they benefit from it too, or that they get something tangible so that they can see that they actually produced something as well.

 So the expectations for me as a researcher as someone who has lived abroad with a very funny accent but has the same skin color is different, so it just takes some new level of navigation. It took me several years to not only learn the way these fears are articulated in the language and understand what their worries were with their fears, but also ways in which they did embrace me after having invested time. So yeah, it’s unique. But it’s not abnormal. As I said before,  in order to survive, people have to move away, and so there’s the understanding that that happens.

ResearchRound 

You as a person, a Malawian researcher, going back there and looking at things from your lenses, personally, were there aspects of the culture that you rediscovered on the job while doing research that intrigued you and you had a dual opinion about it? Then as a researcher, having to look at the same through academic lenses; how did you navigate this?

Dr. Kalinga

If I even focus on one aspect, storytelling. On a personal level, how I became affiliated with storytelling was through my grandfather, my father’s father. He made sure, fortunately, that I wasn’t disconnected from Malawi my whole life. So when I did go back when I was younger, he was someone who made sure we went back and stayed with him in his village in northern Malawi, and he shared every single story. He wanted us to understand every aspect of how things were done in his life. How he became a teacher. How he became a farmer. His knowledge of the fields, and you know, he wanted his grandchildren, not just me and my sisters, but all of his grandchildren to have this connectivity to storytelling. So that was an aspect that I had lost when he passed away in 2001. So something that I was quite disconnected with as I didn’t really have anyone to share that with. Even when I was in America, we wrote letters to each other all the time. So the last letter I received from him was written the year he died, but I got it in 2003 and I never let go of that. But at the same time, I realize that I’ve been disconnected from this aspect of my culture. So absolutely when I went back as a researcher and I started rediscovering storytelling, I started learning the terms and understanding exactly what it was my grandfather was trying to accomplish and understand that he was, you know, trained as a teacher, and so definitely a lot of the way he communicated.

 But then as a researcher I also have to understand what he was trying to do. It does require some second level personal reflection, my own personal experience and trying for it not to cloud the research objectives as well, but understanding that he actually was my first teacher in the subject. So it was especially great when I did research in his village. I spent a couple months living there as well. It was so transformational for me to begin to now connect with the area where my Grandfather grew up and understand exactly how stories are told, how they were shared on a community level. Because for me growing up abroad, it was just a one on one thing and I didn’t understand how it fit into a wider structure, so that was really important. I will always be grateful that I was able to get an opportunity to do this.

ResearchRound

I find the connection to your grandfather very moving and it reminds me now about just some months ago when I just discovered Maryse Condé, a Caribbean writer who tries to connect the diaspora in the Caribbean and continental Africa with storytelling. Which is a background for my next question to say that what is the most interesting paper or people that you have encountered while you have been on your research? 

Dr. Kalinga

Dr Chisomo Kalinga

It’s funny you say that because just yesterday out of the blue, I had identified two scholars who I’ve gotten in touch with on social media because they have been so formative in everything that I’m doing. we have kind of discussed the difficulty of discussing decoloniality. And of course I would love to have a conversation with you about this more to hear more on your experiences in South Africa as well, but these two scholars have begun to shape my world in ways I never would have understood. 

One is an indigenous scholar from Canada and her name is Doctor Zoe Todd and her specific work is looking at freshwater fish and the colleges of indigenous knowledge amongst indigenous communities. The other is an Australian Aboriginal global health worker, Doctor Chelsea Watego, who also uses indigenous methodologies to connect with Aboriginal communities in Australia specifically in community health. And I have never interacted two people who have dealt with incredible resistance to the work the way they do, and I began to see something about the way indigenous decoloniality has had to develop a different fight because it’s situated within settler colonies unlike other places like India, or Malawi, or Nigeria, which achieved independence. We’re talking about ongoing fights and oppressions of communities of people who were the original inhabitants of that land and the ‘Land Back’ movements. I think that the way that decoloniality has developed across colonial states is something that has completely inspired me to begin to do work differently in my own construct. 

They are absolute fire brands in that sense of taking authority over the production of knowledge and having historical reflection on the way that has been systematically oppressed and the way that it still affects, in the case of Doctor Todd’s work, relationships between animals and humans. And the different ways in which indigenous people approach animal health and well-being. And Dr Watego’s work, how it affects the health of Aboriginal citizens who are still living under a settler colony in Australia. So to me those have been the two scholars who have changed so much of my approach and have come under intense fire within their own academic circles for daring to insist that their cultures have knowledge worth sharing. So it’s something that I always keep in mind in terms of knowing how deep the resistance against the work that we do can get the more we dig into it. 

ResearchRound 

So I guess this is a softball. What is that thing everyone else thinks is true, but is not in your field. 

Dr. Kalinga

That’s not a softball. I would say that people outside of the work that we do- when I go to a conference, a lot of people think that the work is easy, softball knowledge. They don’t think that there’s a structure to indigenous knowledge at all. So they go, “that must be easy just learning a bunch of poems.” I’m like, it’s not just a bunch of poems. I mean we have structures in the way we construct our language, get people to think about very difficult concepts that are so different from the way that they’re thought. like one of my favorite riddles – riddles are used a lot in education in parts of northern Malawi, because they’re meant to get people with the way certain things work. So one of my favorite riddles is so simple, and it’s so short, you know, people would say “what is a house without a door?” and you just go, “I don’t know”, and they go “an egg”. And then, when you hear the answer, you go “how!” and it requires you to start thinking differently, about the reproductive processes in eggs, even chicken eggs or you know, the cell, and everything about what a home is. It’s so deep, and from that riddle you then get into the different types of discussions about what this riddle means and why it’s important education, and so when people hear stuff like that, they go oh, that’s easy. I say absolutely not! It is a complex system, a web of knowledge. 

That is literally just one example, but I’ll say that the thing is people have been set with the expectation that the traditional knowledge systems of people from non-western cultures is naturally inferior. So it’s something that is rooted in racism but it’s something so pervasive. And when you tell people that it is racist, they’ll go, “no, I’m not a racist. That’s so offensive.” Then you start to understand that so much of what we’re trying to do is to reconstruct knowledge that was actually very important in shaping society together and so a decolonial project is absolutely important to destroy them so that we can begin to divide and conquer. So I’ll say that to me, the most frustrating thing that I deal with is people assuming that everything I encounter is just super easy to figure out because it’s elementary.

ResearchRound

In palliative care medicine, spirituality takes an important part. Researchers realize spirituality helps people deal better when battling chronic conditions. Have you in any way discovered how storytelling helps people manage palliative care? 

Dr. Kalinga

It is such a brilliant question. Absolutely, I think that spirituality is one of the aspects. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church. It was very different from the experience that I have in the field when I’m watching people implement aspects of spirituality, not just in their own healing, but in the healing of other patients as well. Absolutely, there have been studies about prayer and I mean that in a wide sense of spiritual and body connection or recovery outlook. Its focus is not about scientific healing but about improving patient outlook and it’s something that has been organically adopted as part of the palliative care process in specific areas in Malawi. So the clips I’m about to show you, is an actual group of women in northern Malawi in a church group who use singing. You know, they are part of the group where they’ll go and document all of the people who are post-released from the hospital. They ‘ll provide cornmeal flour or some vegetables, healthy foods and at the same time, also provide a social service. They’ll sing with the people, they will pray with the people, they’ll listen to the stories and testimonies. They come prepared with specific passages from the Bible in terms of helping people to understand faith and healing. This clip is just a woman singing, trying to alert the patients that they are arriving. So I’m just going to find the clip very quickly. (Yeah, so the clip that I’m about to show you is that’s palliative care in action. Go. Can you see a video pop up? Yes yes.) 

So this is a group in Malawi. The Presbyterian Church, they are called the Umanyano, which is the Women’s Guild. This Guild is quite important because they organize themselves in a manner that they actually have structural care for patient outreach. They incorporate the traditional hymns with religious hymns, and it’s quite a self-organized organic method of reaching out to patients. And it’s something that I find so important and intriguing. Because the patients really look forward to this part. So it is part of their healing process, you know. And when I’m talking with some of the patients who are the recipients of visitors from this Women’s Guild, they actually say that “when they come, when they start singing, I feel much better because I know that there’s food coming, that they’re coming to listen to me,” and so I think it’s something where there’s so much research that can be done -this kind of community self-organized means that people have created that is so crucial, especially in you know, I hate to use this term, resource-poor settings — what does that mean? I don’t like saying resource-poor, we are resource-rich in Africa, actually. Perhaps, what we should say instead is badly-managed resources that we have? Anyway, in that sense, so much can be done with existing structures of support to make sure that there’s a lot more funding going to these places, because our hospitals just don’t have the capacity to do the sort of post-operative or post-release care that many of these groups have organized themselves to take on. 

So absolutely, it exists. I wanted to show you that clip because even for me just listening -when I listen to hymn- I feel a sense of peace. 

There are also some scholars in Malawi, one of them is Dr Moya Malamusi, who is an ethnomusicologist, who collects a whole range of traditional instruments. Some of whose sole purpose was to relieve stress so that kalimba, a little hand-held organ the people play with iron sheets makes a very soothing sound and the whole point was just to engage with the music in silence. Everybody listening to stop talking as a way to decompress. I think that there’s already a wealth of existing materials and maybe what we need to do is begin to look at things differently in terms of not seeing it as how resource-poor people hope, it’s not that at all. I actually think that this is a very important structured means of engagement that is being overlooked. So there,  a very long-winded answer to your question.

ResearchRound
Thank you for your answer. I have found that the women’s guild in Southern Africa is a very formidable social organization, that a lot of women even aspire to this status. So I’m curious, what is the most interesting thing you have done while researching yourself.  

Dr. Kalinga

I thought about this. I don’t have an answer because a lot of this stuff is just the random stuff that happens on the road. But I think one of the things that even my own people who are close to me accuse me of is, they say “you will never be able to shake the western framework from the way you think.” And  maybe they’re right in that sense. I grew up in a certain way. I’ve grown up in a certain world where sometimes I look at the things that I’m seeing in this field and doing, this stuff is so natural and gorgeous and I wish it is appreciated how it is. And then they’ll say to me, like, “what do you mean? We appreciate it for how it is. That’s your western framework imposingly showing that you’ve dealt with the racism of the west.” They are like, “we’re not concerned with how people over there are thinking about us, you are” and I think that’s always the most interesting thing; kind of having that reality check, especially for someone who is a decolonial scholar. And what they’re saying is not that racism doesn’t exist. They’re just saying “we already validate our lives and that’s enough.” 

And everytime that comes up, I’m always thrown into this conflict, I’m going, ‘oh they’re right’.

I know it’s a weird answer, but it’s something that will always be in conflict, especially having grown up in the United States, the southern states where you just…a place where you’re walking down the street and someone just spits at you. That doesn’t happen to me in Malawi, ever. Why would someone do that? It does shape you when you grow up with that, you know. So I think it’s something that always should be in conflict, and especially when I go back to my own environments, but I’m not saying that white supremacy doesn’t shape African people, that’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, it all changes when a white person enters the village. everyone’s behavior changes. So it is something I will call a phenomenon. It is, really -a phenomenon of how whiteness and white supremacy have in fact shaped so much of the way we perceive ourselves. I’ll always be in conflict about this and I’m trying to understand more about it and how it informs my work. 

ResearchRound 

What’s your proudest moment as a researcher?

Dr. Kalinga
I’m almost at my proudest moment. I have compiled a book. We’re supposed to publish quite a lot in terms of our own research but the book that I’m about to publish -hopefully I’m sending it out to publishers- is entirely written by my research participants. It’s a book that’s going to be published in both English and the indigenous languages, and it really is a catalogue of some of the key beliefs about health and the body in Malawi. And for me it’s a sense of pride, because if it is, if it does come out, it will be one of the first books that is almost exclusively of the writing of the research participants themselves and not me as the researcher, you know, taking their words and interpreting them. So I’m deeply proud of this project in that sense that I’m hoping that it can be kind of a model for reversing some of the extractive processes that we do in research. And, hopefully the first 150 sales -I’m trying to see if I can get each of my 150 participants to get a free copy of the book as well. So that’s my proudest moment that has yet to actualize, but when it does, it will definitely be my proudest moment as a researcher forever.

ResearchRound

We look forward to it and we can’t wait to share the moment with you. 

You made mention of something relating to the Western framework and I think I sort of get it; the conflict that has to come up regularly and the way you see the world sometimes, and you speak to someone in Malawi and they don’t see the world like that. Does  it bother you that it makes you less Malawian than this person?  Does it bother you that the society that you grew up in shaped your ideals, shaped your world-view? Does it bother you that you know that our society makes us, yet, you have been made in a different society, but it’s different coming back to this society that you sort of originated from biologically; the western framework in quote?

Dr. Kalinga

It used to bother me. Really, it used to bother me from a very early age and sometimes it’s envy because you want in. You want to be able to go to any place and say I fully get it, but then I never fully did. Of course, obviously I am Malawian, and my parents are there,  my grandparents were born and 3 are buried there. But then, yes, I did grow up in the United States and it used to frustrate me a lot especially when I didn’t understand- like one of the things I still struggle with, even in the languages is- metaphors. I’ll start immediately translating things quite literally. And I’m like’ the monkey did what?’ No, no, no Chisomo. It’s not about what the monkey did. It is the actual expression you need and I used to beat myself up for not picking up on those things, and then I just decided one day that it’s okay. It’s okay not to know everything. And it’s made me a better and more patient researcher to just accept. I don’t know everything about any culture and it’s fine. As a researcher, I have a different set of responsibilities to make sure that what I do come across, I understand and write about it well. But on a personal level, I was consumed by it for most of my life. I think a lot of diaspora will reject going back because of that sense of rejection. And the fear that “oh, it’s too tough, I don’t want to carry water on the weekend then… no, no”

 It really is just about dealing with a sense of rejection, or dealing with a lack of belonging because it’s not even that you belong in the West. I think one of the interesting things is that growing up, you’re kind of pushed to study your own heritage because you’re not really part of that culture. So while you’re studying history, you study Malawian people. That’s your people, you’re not from here. And so I feel that sometimes a lot of people in the diaspora take it the wrong way. And it’s taken me a lot of unlearning to just be okay with who I am and not to impose my insecurities upon other Malawians.


ResearchRound
If you could change one thing about research in Africa, what would it be?

Dr. Kalinga
Dealing with the research and ethics committee, I think we’re very procedural. There’s a big difference between when I email them something and when I go to the office and sit down. You know, and I prefer to go in the office and sit down because it’s so cool, but I think sometimes, and I think this is not just a Malawi issue, we can be so tied to the rule book that we’re not actually thinking about some of the bigger issues, especially when we’re dealing with Western institutions, which a lot of them do, because much of the funding comes from Western institutions. That’s something where I say one day, I will have this conference on decolonizing research ethics in Africa. We will do it.

ResearchRound 

I found myself facing a lot of challenges with the Ethics Committee, sometimes they’re a stumbling block, other times they’re just a nuisance. But moving on, if research were a sport, what sport do you think it will be? 

Dr. Kalinga

I started Googling sports. Is it archery? I don’t know. There’s a target and you shoot at it. I don’t know enough about sports to make comparisons.  I have to change it into two answers. I love research so much because it’s individual for me. It can be collective, but it’s so deeply personal for me. I don’t consider it sports because I like it and I hate sports, okay? 

I love watching sports. I just … I don’t know. All I know is if I’m talking about academia, it would be one of those brutal gladiator sports where everyone is trying to kill themselves to survive. In terms of research itself, I think it’s definitely a much nicer thing, so I would say chess or billiards. Yeah, it is strategic and it’s so satisfying.

ResearchRound

If anyone that is in the Arts is watching this and wants to get into medical anthropology. How would you advise they start inclining themselves from the undergraduate and what are the important things you think they should do?

Dr. Kalinga

Okay, number one is don’t be afraid to push boundaries. But if you are going to push boundaries, you have to understand that you have to explain your way to people. We talked about interdisciplinary work. We talked about multidisciplinary work. The work which I didn’t know existed until I started doing it was transdisciplinary work. Transdisciplinary means it’s interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, but instead of just combining several subjects, it’s actually combining them with a specific goal, to say I have a problem and within the canon of whatever field of studies I’m in, we don’t have an answer, so I have to create a new system in order to answer it. And that’s the key difference of transdisciplinary work. How do we address issues like you know, I’m using my work in medical humanities? How do we address things like compassion, fatigue or palliative care methodology? Is it music? We have ethnomusicology, we have public health, but they’re not together. So a lot of the work that we do, it has to be new and we have to explain to people why that work is necessary. And it’s scary anytime you’re creating something new. It is terrifying, but I would say that every new form of discipline is because someone decided it wasn’t good enough on its own, so they needed to merge with something else and create a new form of study. 

And so I would say that kind of boldness and innovativeness is necessary, especially when you’re doing decolonial work.

 Decolonial doesn’t mean returning to pre-colonial and I think that’s one of the things that a lot of people get wrong. It’s not about reestablishing the way in which things were before there was colonial contact. It really is a practice of dismantling systems of oppression to allow for ingenuity to happen. And so I think that that’s one of the key things which I’ll tell people. I should say that anytime you’re doing something new, you’re going to get resistance. Anytime you’re doing something decolonial, you’re going to get even more resistance, but I think there is enough scholarship and literature to show how it can be done. And just be very meticulous in how you document this. And don’t be afraid to look up to people and to ask what exists for you to explore this new world that you are exploring.

ResearchRound

This has been very insightful for us. We have enjoyed every bit of this. Thank you very much for coming on ResearchRound, Dr. Kalinga.

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1 thought on ““People have been set with the expectation that the traditional knowledge systems of people from non-western cultures is naturally inferior.” – In Conversation with Dr. Chisomo Kalinga”

  1. This was a very interesting interview with very incisive questions and thought provoking responses. Reading this in the middle of the pandemic forced me to think of what Dr. Kalinga would say about vaccine apartheid but also more importantly, the production of misinformation about the virus and indigenous methods of survival in the age of a global pandemic. Looking forward to reading the book. Please let us know when it is published. Thanks

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