Meet the Zimbabwean Lecturer at University of Oxford (from medicine to social sciences)

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Simukai Chigudu started out in Oxford by doing an MSc African Studies, then progressed to a DPhil in International Development. Now, he has just been appointed Departmental Lecturer in Development Studies at the Oxford Department of International Development even before submitting his final thesis. He is an honorary member of St Anne’s College.

Before Oxford, Simukai was a practising medical doctor. We caught up with him to talk about his academic journey so far, his reasons for switching from a lucrative career as a medical doctor and much more.

AfOx: How did you come to do a DPhil at ODID and Why?

Simukai: My path toward studying at ODID has been a meandering one. I first moved to the UK from Zimbabwe to study medicine as an international student at Newcastle University. During the course of my medical studies, I became interested in global health – the area of study, research and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide.

As such, I endeavoured to take a range of overseas placements to expand my clinical training and inform my understanding of the wider determinants of health inequality. For example, I interned at the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco where I wrote about rights-based approaches to sexual and reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa. I spent two months in South Africa working in both rural and urban hospitals and was involved in the treatment and management of advanced infectious diseases and major traumatic illness. And I spent four months working as a research assistant for an epidemiological survey of epilepsy in Tanzania, which was the largest scale project of its kind at the time. Upon graduation from medical school, I completed the 2-year-long Foundation Programme – the mandatory training programme for all newly qualified doctors in the UK. I then spent a year as an Academic Clinical Fellow in Public Health at Imperial College London, supported by the National Institute for Health Research. As part of this role, I completed a Master of Public Health and also spent six weeks researching the role of leadership in strengthening the Gambian Health System

Through these experiences, my intellectual interests gravitated towards deeper study of the socio-cultural and political-economic aspects of disease and health inequality in Africa. I was awarded a Weidenfeld scholarship to study at Oxford University. I read for the MSc in African Studies, which gave me a solid grounding in interdisciplinary social science. Moreover, the course complemented my medical and public health training by introducing me to the most salient debates in the study of African politics, history and current social issues. My research on the course took me into the realm of feminist social movements as I studied the politics of women’s peace activism in Northern Uganda. I so enjoyed my career change into social science and academic that I decided to pursue my doctoral research at ODID.

AfOx: What are your academic/research interests?

Simukai: My academic interests lie at the nexus of global health, international development, politics and anthropology with a regional focus on Africa.
I explore themes such as the political economy of epidemics, health security, global health politics, and gender and development. My work has been published in several leading health and social science journals including the Global Health Governance; International Feminist Journal of Politics; Health Economics, Policy and Law; The Lancet; Health Policy and Planning; Feminist Africa; and Seizure: The European Journal of Epilepsy.

AfOx: What’s your current research about?

Simukai:My research examines the politics of a catastrophic cholera outbreak that occurred in Zimbabwe in 2008/09. The epidemic was unprecedented in scale, resulting in at least 98,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths. At face value, the outbreak can be explained by the breakdown and cross-contamination of the city’s water and sanitation systems. Such a reading, however, belies the complex interaction of political, economic, and historical factors that initially gave rise to the dysfunction of the water systems, that delineate the socio-spatial pattern of the outbreak, and that account for the fragmented and inadequate response of the national health system.

Taking this broader view then the cholera outbreak was not only a public health crisis; it also signalled a new dimension to Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis in 2008. I look at the cholera outbreak as a socio-political phenomenon. From this perspective, I study how cholera maps onto wider themes of livelihoods and inequality, humanitarianism and citizenship, and, crucially, the relationship between the state and society.

I seek to understand three key issues:
i) The political-economic factors that allowed an easily preventable and eminently disease to become such a massive calamity;
ii) How different agencies and institutions responded to the diverse crises that cholera engendered; and
iii) How people come to make meaning out of a disaster in a politically contentious and polarised social environment and where illness has shattered their daily lives.

I have a very personal relationship with my doctoral research project. It was in December 2008 when I first stumbled upon a startling article in the New York Times about a cholera outbreak ‘sweeping across a crumbling Zimbabwe.’ The piece began by recounting how the disease had just claimed the lives of the five youngest children of the Chigudu family with ‘cruel and bewildering haste.’ I quickly worked out that the children who had been killed were not members of my family but it was a chilling moment nevertheless. At the time, I was a medical student in Newcastle. I felt helpless during this calamity and fearful that the medical training I was receiving would ultimately leave me ineffectual in the face of the health challenges that obtained in my home country. It was clear to me that the devastation caused by the cholera was so great because of factors situated far beyond the clinic. Thus to grasp fully the origins of the outbreak, to trace its effects, to make sense of its politics, and to illuminate the true extent of its injustice demanded skills and training in the social sciences. Studying the politics of the cholera outbreak ties together the diverse strands of my intellectual interests, social concerns and academic skills.

AfOx: What was your experience of getting this job like, and what advice would you give other African PhD students looking to enter academia in this way – especially seeing as you secured this job even before submitting your thesis?

Simukai:I have been very fortunate to be appointed to a prestigious early career lectureship before I completed my DPhil.

My advice to African PhD students wishing to do the same is threefold. First, put your work out there. Publish as early and as often as you can. Present your work at conferences and workshops. Give lectures and seminars on your material. This will create a virtuous cycle of receiving both exposure and feedback, which will enhance your reputation and improve the quality of your work. Do not worry too much about not being good enough, all academic work can and should be subject to criticism. The sooner you are comfortable having your work critiqued by others, the faster you will improve it.

Second, build your teaching experience. Show that you have a breadth of knowledge that extends far beyond your area of specialisation and that you can communicate this knowledge clearly and effectively to novices in your field. This will make you very attractive to departments who need lecturers who can comfortably teach master’s students and undergraduates. And third, participate in university life through things like welfare support and academic administration. This will show your professionalism and ability to contribute to the smooth running of a department.

Academia is a competitive job market to enter and, in its early stages, it is not as well remunerated as fields such as finance, medicine or law. However, it offers incredible room for expansion and growth; it can be almost limitless in the creativity that it gives you; it is rewarding both intellectually and inter-personally; and it can make a profound difference to how we understand the world and how we imagine the future. So maybe my extra piece of advice would be to persevere!

Courtesy of Africa Oxford Initiative.