Through Interviews and Cameras, Harvard Student Tackles Liberian Poverty

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Hemali A. Thakkar ’11 spent the summer in Liberia, where she helped chronicle the experience of patients suffering from depression and worked to create the Liberia Social and Economic Empowerment Center.

It was her first time in Liberia, a country still suffering from the aftermath of the bloody civil wars nearly a decade ago. For Hemali A. Thakkar ’11, her summer trip began as senior thesis research and evolved into a larger community project with the potential to touch hundreds of lives.

Thakkar spent the first half of her trip in Zwedru, Liberia—a city that “hardly had any buildings over two stories tall”—traveling from house to house conducting interviews with patients suffering from depression.

In addition to interviews, Thakkar ran a project called Photo Voice, where she handed 15 patients a digital camera, asked them to take photos of anything that reminded them of the war, and then recorded the narratives behind the photos.

The idea behind the project is to provide an open-ended way for the patients to share their tragic experiences and to learn about the social and economic effects of the war. One photo shows two graves side by side, telling the story of a son who chose to remain behind with his crippled father even though rebel forces were arriving, recalled Thakkar.

“For someone who lives on two dollars a day, to be handed a camera and then personally trained how to use it meant a lot to them,” Thakkar said. “It was really amazing how resilient the population is, in terms of moving forward with their lives and trying better to provide for their kids.”

Thakkar’s project was conducted under the auspices of the NGO Tiyatien Health, founded in 2007, which runs rural community health centers in Liberia, including the largest rural AIDS center in the country. A sister organization to Partners in Health, Tiyatien “seeks to advance health care and fundamental rights of the poor, in partnership with the government and local communities,” said Rajesh R. Panjabi, the co-founder and executive director of the organization and currently a fellow at Harvard Medical School. “There is tremendous opportunities here to do something meaningful for the people we work with,” he said.

Thakkar said working with patients was one of the most rewarding aspects of her project, inspiring her to do more for the Liberian people.

“[The patients’] houses leak every time it rains, their kids can’t go to school, they don’t have a job—all these factors contribute to their depression…What I learned from the interviews is that just providing someone with antidepressants or some medicine isn’t enough,” Thakkar said. “It’s not a long-term solution to actually helping them improve their lives.”

With the lessons fresh in mind, Thakkar decided to become involved with the social and economic programs at the Tiyatien regional office during the second half of the summer. She is leading efforts to create what will be called the Liberia Social and Economic Empowerment Center, which will teach skills to help raise people out of poverty, including traditional trades such as soap-making and baking, and also newer concepts such as computer skills, business management, and accounting.

The 60-by-80 square-feet training center is currently under construction, using initial funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Thakkar said she hopes it will be finished within the next few months so she can return to Zwedru during J-term to launch the programs.

Thakkar also said she plans on taking a year off before medical school and spend a portion of that time working at Tiyatien to make sure the programs are running smoothly.

“I think of [the center] as a pilot. If we are in fact reducing poverty, we can present it to the Ministry, and we can expand it throughout Liberia,” said Thakkar.

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at hxyang@fas.harvard.edu.

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