This month’s History’s Hidden Heroes is absolutely heartbreaking. Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, a doctor from Sierra Leone who led the fight against the Ebola virus in that country, died on July 29, 2014, of the virus. Dr. Samuel Brisbane, one of the top physicians in Liberia, died of the disease on July 26, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, from Uganda, died on July 2.
We’ve all seen movies and TV shows in which there is a crisis in a foreign country, usually Africa, and white doctors from America and Europe rush in to save the day. Health workers from all over the world have come to Africa to fight the Ebola virus, at enormous risk to their own lives. As of this moment, American doctor Kent Brantly is in grave condition in Liberia. The heroism of doctors, nurses, and aides who come from overseas to assist other countries in times of crisis absolutely cannot be overstated.
But I want to highlight the efforts of the West African doctors Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, because I think that we like to tell ourselves a story about Africa. It’s a story about a place with no resources of its own, no universities, no people with knowledge or competence. It’s a colonial story, one in which “The White Man’s Burden”, as described by Rudyard Kipling, is to help the helpless and ignorant people of The Third World. It’s a story about a helpless princess who needs a white knight. The lives of these three doctors suggest that a more accurate story would be about a knight who has incurred an injury (let’s face it – a really, really awful injury) in battle and who needs assistance from a comrade.
I hope that the visibility of doctors, nurses, and aides who are African residents and who are of African descent will challenge us to change our story. Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza were not only competent – they were highly regarded experts in and out of their countries of origin. They were leaders in their fields. They weren’t ignorant or helpless. West Africa needs our help. But I want our future stories to reflect that regions like West Africa also have competent people who know stuff – who are experts.