Helen Parsons, alumna, MSc Occupational Health and SafetyHelen is Service Manager, Occupational Health and Wellbeing at King’s College Hospital. She aims to improve the lives of people in South Africa
The chance of South Africa
“When I enrolled at LSBU, I was working for Virgin Atlantic. Anne Harriss, who ran the course I was on, is an aviation nerd, so that’s how we first got talking. When she found out I was also a trained HIV specialist nurse, she asked if I’d like to join her in South Africa, teaching basic healthcare as part of the Mogalakwena project. Mogalakwena was set up by a South African philanthropist, Dr Elbé Coetsee, with the aim of improving the lives of people living in Limpopo province. The work that’s going on there is amazing, and I jumped at the chance.
That was five years ago, and since then I’ve been back every year. Each time we add to our basic programme and adapt it to what the delegates tell us they need. Working for Virgin, I developed a good knowledge of tropical medicine, so we’ve added a strand on how delegates can protect themselves from common waterborne diseases such as bilharzia.
This is a society that really does value education. Sometimes people will walk two hours to get here and two hours home again. That’s very humbling. It’s also wonderful to see how the delegates support each other. We have everything from high school students planning to go on to study medicine, to people who are completely illiterate. But it works. We make use of a lot of visual teaching techniques, as well as hands-on, practical exercises.
In terms of my own teaching, it’s definitely made a difference.
I’m really careful now not to assume a baseline level of knowledge, and to tailor what I’m doing to the needs and knowledge of the person I’m teaching.
It’s also vital to remember that just because someone says they know something, it doesn’t mean they do.
I always try to get across the idea that clever people ask questions. That’s particularly challenging in South Africa, where rote learning is still the norm in schools. But it’s relevant here in the UK, too.
And I think I’ve got better at spotting the person that’s sitting back and not interacting and drawing them in.
The ripple effect
It’s been incredibly rewarding. One woman who I taught in my first year came back again for a refresher because she got a job, and part of the reason she got that job was the certificate she’d gained from us. Now we see her friends coming along too. That’s the kind of ripple effect we’re aiming for. Would I go again? Like a shot, if Anne asks me! Just try keeping me away.”
Find out more about the work of the Mogalakwena Development Foundation