- Book review: This Bridge called my back
I have been a long-time fan of the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation. Starting in 1996 I did some workshops in Northland and around for the community about Depression, while I worked in perinatal mental health. Later, I co-produced a brochure about perinatal mental health for them. So, when the fabulous Kim Higginson asked me if I would feature in a new section on their website, I had to say yes! In My Kete features book reviews and stories from people in the mental health sector sharing what they have found most helpful in their own work and lives. The word/kupu “kete” symbolises the sharing of knowledge and prosperity.
Long before social media, my family would eagerly watch the 6pm news. As new migrants to Aotearoa, we would watch with anticipation for even a tiny glimpse of the places we had left behind, that we were connected to. Goa, our turangawaewae, the home of our ancestors, or Tanzania or Kenya, where we had all been born and lived. But it was the seventies, and the closest we ever came was hearing about the famines in Ethiopia and civil war in Angola, until the Montreal Olympics of 1976. We couldn’t wait for the Kenyan and Tanzanian runners like Filbert Bayi to absolutely smash all the other athletes. We knew they were the best!
Our anticipation was thwarted by bigger events. The New Zealand All Blacks had been playing rugby in apartheid South Africa despite the United Nations’ calls for a sporting embargo. 28 African countries led by Tanzania decided to boycott the games after they had asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to exclude New Zealand from the Games and were refused. The United Nations secretary-general said he recognised the “deep and genuine concerns” felt by African countries but, “at the same time I wish to point out that the Olympic Games have become an occasion of special significance in mankind’s search for brotherhood and understanding.”
The story about the Olympics shows how keen I was to see anything of my world reflected to me through the collective sphere or mass media. But this was rare, and when I did see something, it was often a globalised reflection of famine, disease or deficit. So I turned to literature. I was a frequent visitor to Titirangi Library in West Auckland, where I discovered Ms Magazine and read every issue I could get my hands on. Through authors like Germaine Greer and Andre Dworkin, I read that white feminism was good and brown women were oppressed by their cultures. I struggled to reconcile this idea of brown men as bad. The men I knew in my community (who were very few in NZ in those days), were also struggling with racism, economic disadvantage and white supremacy. My Dad worked two jobs (as a teacher and then as a cleaner) so that my mother could study to become a teacher. He then came home and did the cooking, while my three sisters and I administered the household so that my mother could study, and our collective free time could be spent on family outings.
Reading This Bridge Called My Back was life changing. For the first time, I saw women of colour foregrounded. They were powerful, knowing, wise, and full-bodied; not deficient, in need of rescuing or pathological. I saw them navigating complicated worlds that were not built for them. I saw collective struggles and collective joy. These stories resonated with me so much I developed a desire for collective solidarities, which led to conference organising (for refugees and Indian social service professionals) and connecting and bringing diverse voices together (the Aotearoa Ethnic Network). I moved beyond exploring gender and incorporated other axes of difference including race, class and sexuality into my academic life. I still carry this work with me as I think about race and health as a researcher. I remain indebted to the solidarities that were brought together in this anthology, for giving me hope and pride in my differences, while also reminding me to always think about who and what is missing from the room, whose voices are not heard and how this can be remedied.
Moraga, Cherríe., & Anzaldúa, G. E. (eds.). (1981). Frist edition. This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. Persephone Press. ISBN 978-0930436100
Moraga, Cherríe., & Anzaldúa, G. E. (eds.). (2021). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Suny Press. ISBN: 9781438488288
- Lessons on exclusion from past pandemics
I wrote a piece for the Summer 2021/22 edition (Issue 36) of the Hive (the Australian College of Nursing’s quarterly publication). Cite as: De Souza, R. (2021). Lessons on exclusion from past pandemics. The Hive, 36, 16–17. You can also download a pdf of the article for your own personal use.
I have three pandemic stories about health inequity. The first is a painful family one. In July 1961 in Moshi, Tanzania, my aunt died of hospital-acquired smallpox caused by the variola virus five days after giving birth to her newborn son, who died a day later. She left behind her devastated family and a thirteen-month-old daughter. She had been immunised while at school, so we don’t know what happened. We know that some vaccinations in East Africa at that time were unsuccessful because the liquid vaccine had to be refrigerated otherwise it became inactive within three days. The smallpox vaccine was produced in Nairobi or England and it is possible that temperatures were not maintained during shipping or when the vaccine was transported to distribution centres or health clinics. It could also be that a more severe form of smallpox was present in Tanzania at the time.
Closer to home there were the smallpox epidemics of 1789, 1829-32 and the 1860s in Australia (McWhirter, 2009). Smallpox arrived with settlers fifteen months after the first fleet arrived in Australia. Macassans were originally blamed for its arrival, but there was no smallpox in Macassar at the time of the First Fleet. Smallpox was widely believed at the time to come from Asian countries because Asians were thought to be diseased and different. However, smallpox was endemic to Britain and to a lesser degree Europe. The three epidemics all had a major impact on Aboriginal populations but less so on European settlers.
Smallpox was managed in different ways in the various Australian colonies. Vaccinations became available during the 1829-32 epidemic, but there was no legislation with regard to smallpox in Aboriginal communities. Rather than having compulsory vaccination imposed, vaccination occurred in an ad hoc manner if an individual settler or doctor was concerned about an Aboriginal person. In Victoria, where I live, the smallpox epidemic of the 1860s had a devastating impact on Aboriginal people. In the racial hierarchy of the time, white settlers were seen as superior to Aboriginal people and people of color. Aboriginal people were thought to be already at risk of dying, both individually and as a “race”, and were not seen as a threat as a vector of disease or of being in need of a public health response.
Chinese people were also seen as inferior and unsuitable for integration into colonial society. However, they were seen as a threat to British dominance, by virtue of their industriousness and because their numbers swelled through the gold rush era and they were characterised as a source of disease. A smallpox outbreak in 1857 in Melbourne, singled out Chinese people as the source of the threat, despite it being traced to a sailor from Liverpool, led to demands for the compulsory vaccination of Chinese. An outbreak of smallpox in 1887 was attributed to Indian hawkers or to recently arrived Chinese. The Tasmanian Chinese Immigration Act 1887 required that all Chinese entering the colony be compulsorily vaccinated, and this was carried out by the Superintendent of Vaccinations, C.E. Barnard, even as compulsory vaccination was being challenged among the European population on the grounds of contravening individual liberty.
And now to the present. In Victoria, where I live, where the unfair structural arrangements in our society have been exposed. Nine public housing towers with high populations of migrants and people of refugee background in North Melbourne and Flemington were put in lockdown without notice (Ghumkhor, 2021). This racialised response was also seen in Sydney, where people in the western suburbs were policed heavily compared to the eastern parts of the city.
These pandemic examples from the past and recent present show that although we might be in the same boat “some people have yachts and superyachts” (Siouxsie Wiles). There’s the global inequities of vaccine distribution, which are as evident now in terms of Covid as in my Aunt’s time. At the time of writing this (December 2021), Canada had a total vaccination rate per 100 people of 155.67 while Tanzania had a rate of 1.63, compromising the effectiveness of vaccination as a public health strategy (Carey, 2021). We know that this massive disparity will have far reaching impacts. Low vaccination rates mean that the virus can continue to spread and increase the risk of new variants emerging globally. Considering health equity would ensure that the places that needed the vaccine the most could be supported with resources. This is true also of Australia where there was a lack of prioritisation of vaccine supply for the people with the most need (e.g. essential workers in precarious work, people living in high density housing). An equity lens would require targeting people living in ‘LGAs of Concern’ with early intervention to promote understanding of restrictions, vaccine uptake, and Covid-safe work practices (Reeders, n.d.).
The second and third examples show how race and racial hierarchies have played a part in how infectious diseases are managed in settler colonies like New Zealand and Australia. Fueled by fear, we have turned to carceral responses and policing particular areas rather than making public health responses toward equity. These responses rather than community led solutions have been traumatising and reduced trust in population groups that already are distrustful or disengaged from health services (Liddle, 2021). The lack of financial assistance for international students and essential workers spread across different contexts has also exposed how some communities are seen as less worthy of respect or care.
Bringing in an equity lens reveals the limitations of health communication during the pandemic. Firstly, health messaging has not always been accessible for people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Initial messaging did not take into account fluency in a language other than English or take into account low health literacy, or diverse work and social contexts that such communities live in, such as the prevalence of precarious essential labour, irregular shift work or multi-generational households. The pivot to digital technologies has also made life more difficult for marginalised communities. Whether for accessing online consultations, or the requirement to use apps to check in at venues and facilities using QR codes, to home schooling and working from home, the mandatory use of unevenly distributed technology has widened existing health inequalities. Once again, the assumption that middle-class, English speaking communities are the Australia public health needs to serve have prevented us from achieving positive outcomes for all. We need far more engagement with marginalised groups and to welcome their participation in producing healthy outcomes for their communities if we don’t wish to repeat the exclusions of the past.
10 January 2022 from Dr Nadia Chaves, Clinical lead and Chair of C-19 Network clinical governance committee, Infectious diseases specialist
Thank you for this article, Ruth. I just wanted to mention re your latest article – the C-19 consortium (made up of a consortium of 5 community health organisations – IPC, DPV, EACH, Star health and cohealth) was contracted by Vic gov in 2021 to specifically target vaccinations for at-risk and underserved communitiues including people in social housing, people who are experiencing homelessness, asylum seekers and refugees and people from CALD communities.
We set up vaccination clinics in all the housing towers who were locked down. This has enabled a very high double vax rate in these housing estates. It was great they were able to be prioritised- the main rate limiting step was access to enough vaccine through federal government and also the lack of staff.
I do believe there are opportunities to better engage and empower people with intersections of being underserved outside social housing as well. This includes- people with mental health issues, disabilities, people with preferred language other than English, those with low health literacy and low socioeconomic backgrounds. With Omicron, boosters and children’s vaccinations, unless we better care for these communities they will continue to bear the largest burden of COVID-19 pandemic.
Carey, T. A. (2021, November 14). The number that matters in the COVID pandemic is a relative one: vaccine inequity. The Conversation.
Ghumkhor, S. (2021, October 4). Pandemic policing in “multicultural” Australia. Al Jazeera.
Liddle, C. (2021, September 29). Get rid of curfew to restore public confidence in health leadership. The Age.
McWhirter, R. (2009). Smallpox and vaccination in Tasmania. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association.
Reeders, D. (n.d.). We ought’ve known – Bad Blood. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from
- Collaboration and care: Deborah Kelly and No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory)
When I was a nursing student I remember someone telling me “Nurses care, and Doctors cure”. Apparently, our job was the former, in the biomedical division of labor. I was shocked when I began my clinical experience to find that the health care system did not support care. I mean, nurses attempted to meet people’s needs, but the intensive and intimate labors of caring for the list of patients we were assigned were relentless and it always felt like clock time. Every shift I knew that the minute I walked through the door (particularly when I worked in hospitals) that I would need to completely forget about myself and be present for other people. I needed to meticulously account for my time in increments, scheduling when Person X would get their medication and Person Y would need to have their IV checked, when someone would need their surgical tubes removed, their catheter emptied. Somehow, I also had to show care, concern, respect, warmth in between a multitude of tasks. I’d have to make sure I had lunch at the right time to ensure that others could have their lunch. I often forgot to empty my bladder. This non-stop labor meant that there was little time to also nurture myself or my colleagues. I wondered how it was possible to care for others when there seemed to be no time to care at all. I had nothing to give anyone (let alone myself) after a shift, and thought about how I cared for strangers all day and had nothing left over to care for loved ones. A wise Charge Nurse (that’s you Lyndsay Johnston) moved me to an afternoon shift in my seventh month as a new graduate because she could tell I might burn out. Later after I had worked in community mental health and moved to the perinatal care setting, I was struck by the factory-like induction process into parenthood. The absence of joy and warmth, the tick box processing of parents- to- be through procedures that foregrounded the hospital’s interests of health and safety, but not the transition to parenthood. That’s not to say individual midwives and obstetricians were not kind, but there was something about the way the system was designed that precluded really acknowledging personhood, community and relationality.
I have moved away from clinical practice these days to research and teaching, but I know the advent of electronic health records has reconfigured how work gets done. Some have argued that technology and platforms dictate how care is provided, rather than the recipient of care or their family. While others claim that our technocratic business models are contributing to the loss of hope, and what some call “callous indifference”(Francis, 2013). So, although we come to work in health because we care, something happens to us. We who work in healthcare, we who come to health to make a difference. We, who come with tender hearts as Mimi Niles points out, sometimes end up contributing to a crisis of care in healthcare. This happens to our tender-hearted young quickly, the longer nursing students are in the practice world, the more their capacity to empathise declines. There is evidence of endemic horizontal violence and attrition from the workforce. Putting in place patient-centered care and cultural safety are suggested as ways in which empathy and compassion in health care can be embedded particularly for people for whom these services were never imagined.
How is it possible that harm is done to people while in the ‘care’ of institutions? Serious failings in hospitals and the absence of care (including those at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Hospital in England) have led to calls for the urgent transformation of health services. Two inquiries (2013 Francis Report) found that basic elements of care were missed, patients were left in soiled beds, had water placed out of reach and received inadequate support for feeding and other activities. Most recently we’ve had Royal Commissions into aged care, disability, and mental health. Could it be that the failure to care is not exceptional, but instead that poor quality is embedded in the structures and processes of the healthcare system? (Goodwin et al., 2018). Not only hospital-acquired infections or surgical errors or medication errors, but also neglect and missed (where an aspect of required patient care is omitted or delayed) care? (Kalisch, Landstrom, & Hinshaw, 2009). How do we strike a careful balance between thinking about the failure to care as a systems-level issue, while also thinking about health professionals as individuals who are a part of systems? (Tierney et al. 2019). We are a profession that cares and we take caring very seriously, but how can we care when caring itself is marginalised? How can we care for those who are marginalised when we ourselves might feel marginalised and unresourced, when we feel overwhelmed? I think unless we seriously think about these questions, we are at risk of reproducing exclusionary practices and unsafe care.
This leads me to the purpose of this blog. Thinking about an experience of caring and being cared for. My portrait is being exhibited at the Being Human exhibition at Wellcome Collection in London, as a part of the No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory) artwork. It’s one of two life-sized nude photographic portraits going on display for a year from a participatory collage work (see the write-up by Tania Leimbach in the Conversation) made for the controversial 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) ‘You Imagine What You Desire’. 28 Australian and international artists led by Matt Kiem (in response to a call by refugee and ex-detainee organisation RISE) wrote an open letter to the Board asking them to abandon major funder of 41 years, Transfield, who were complicit in Australia’s brutal asylum deterrence and indefinite detention regime. The Board were also invited to engage in further discussion about other sources of ethical funding. There is of course much more to say about the ‘boycott’ which you can read on the xBorder blog and xBorder Working Paper by Angela Mitropoulos, Guardian article by Alana Lentin and Javed de Costa or this piece from Danny Butt and Rachel O’Reilly about art and detention abolition.
I learned a lot from the amazing collective process for the No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory) artwork. I was one of 20 subjects chosen out of 279 people who volunteered themselves as subjects. 50-70 collage participants took part in the intensive collage workshops (thrice-weekly workshops for nine months) to make the portraits. Participants chose materials from Deborah’s extensive library of resources, including books, encyclopedias, reference materials, magazines to make a collage portrait that reflected the subjects’ interests. I was able to share my writing and theoretical and political commitments and actually visit the workshop setting in Sydney to talk to the participants. This project embodied care from conception. Collective decisions were made and I was asked for consent every step of the way, with every iteration of the process, with every travelling exhibit.
Having traveled around New South Wales, Queensland and VIC, it has now made its way to London and is a part of the Wellcome Collection. Wellcome is a global charitable foundation with a free museum and library that encourages “new ways of thinking about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art”. Deborah Kelly the artist who was commissioned for the work is based in Sydney. Her works have been shown around Australia, and in the Singapore, Sydney, TarraWarra, and Venice Biennales. You can read more of her extensive biography here. You can also support her latest work by purchasing a set of holy cards The glorious Liturgy of the Saprophyte by SJNorman.
Here’s Deborah’s recollection of the process of making the work (you can also listen to Deborah’s beautiful voice by clicking on this link:
I do want to say, I feel like that the care with which the work was made, the work is constituted by that care. It’s not an add on. That’s what the work is. Your portrait is extremely complex. You came and talked to us and people all took notes. You actually came to the studio, right? Where we were working…and everybody took notes, but everybody’s notes were different. And so we really, really struggled over how to reconcile them. And then we realized we didn’t have to reconcile them. In fact more is more so we can, we could just do everything. Yes, so that’s why it ended up being so abundant, because we were trying to represent as much as we could of what you told us, which is pretty exciting. So the bubbles around you represent both ocean effervescence and champagne.
And inside the bubbles, images that represent various of the things you told us. So inside one of the bubbles is a very cute image of a man and a woman in a typically romantic situation. And that was to honor your relationship with Danny. Yeah, and there’s stuff that represents your life as a nurse, your life, as a nurse in maternal health, your early life in Africa. I think we even represent the car accident somewhere in a quite lateral way. Your relationship with the Catholic church. So the bubbles are all full of all different aspects of things that you told us, but the actual portrait of you, was our interpretation of your own effervescence, body pride, sexiness, love of adornment and color.
So that’s what we were doing, we weren’t hiding you. We were celebrating you. So some people like my Dad, for instance, we were hiding him, and making him modest, a few people needed to be modest. But we wanted to make yours a portrait of glorious shamelessness. And remember you left your leg hair unshaven for us . And we really, really loved that. That’s why there’s nothing covering your legs.
You’ll remember we gave you twinkle toes and all of those shells come from Arthur Henry Mee (1875-1943). A very beautiful children’s encyclopedia from the 1930s. They’re printed on this very old fashioned clay coated paper, which is incredibly durable, which is why they’re a hundred years old, but they are still very beautiful in color.
Then we gave you that cloak of leaves, to represent you in the natural world. As a kind of queen, and we gave you that pubic tiara, and that was a nod to queenlinness, and adornment for shamelessness. Although we realized once we’d cut out those thousands of leaves, what a giant task we had set ourselves. On the day we finished, people stood on chairs, cheering themselves.
We also gave you some jewelry made out of gold and silver beetles, these were cut out with extraordinary finesse by XXX who hadn’t done collage before, but turned out to be a person of unbelievably fine motor skills. And he was very, very proud of working on that portrait
I really remember all the people in the workshop, who couldn’t bear to be photographed in the nude, saying, oh, I wish this was me. Everybody was like, oh my God. It’s like, we’re just giving this person a big long cuddle!
I’m finishing off this blogpost, reflecting on the challenging year 2021 has been for most people, with uncertain times still ahead, putting the concern with care front and centre. To me, care has an element of attunement or engagement, of generosity. Nurse ethicist Joan Tronto (1993) defines care as: “a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web’ (p. 103). Tronto sees care as a practice that requires attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness. It involves caring about, caring for, caregiving and care receiving. The inclusion of the latter recognises that at some point we might also be vulnerable and require care. it’s been a lifetime inquiry for me, the question of how can we be invigorated or returned to caring? In my dreams I wish everyone that we cared for, felt secure, cared for and loved. Yet, this isn’t an individual task, it is collective. Feminist academic Alison Mountz and colleagues (2015, p.1239) frame care as warfare in the tradition of Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed. That is: “cultivating space to care for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students is, in fact, a political activity when we are situated in institutions that devalue and militate against such relations and practices”. In academia, as our summer break approaches here in the Antipodes, I am inspired by the words of Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer (2021, p.9) who talk of their collective work and write “We are fuelling our creative and collective capacities in ways that are expansive, collaborative, pleasurable, and collectively advantageous”. I wish at this seasonal time of contemplation and rest, that this invitation to collectively flourish activates all those who care about, care for, give care and receive care. Rather like I was fed during the making of an exquisite collage work by Deborah Kelly and participants.
- Translating research creatively: Older adults from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities, social inclusion, and technology
A common critique made by Indigenous and racialized communities is that academic research is extractive. Researchers come to communities or individuals, take the information that they want and folks never hear from them ever again. They don’t get to decide on the questions, how the research will take place, and with whom. The benefits appear to be overly in favor of the researcher and their career than the community. Yet, I also know what it’s like to be an academic. Short time frames, funding cycles and crushing workloads workloads can make it hard for the researcher to do more collaborative work because the system does not always make it easy to do so.
Despite its imperfections and limitations, I’m really interested in how knowledge developed from academic research, can be disseminated to end-users and other non-academic audiences that could benefit. I want my work to have an impact, and speak beyond ‘stakeholders’ and my own intellectual communities. To that end, I’ve typically done inter-disciplinary research in partnership with community organizations. I have written elsewhere about the importance of going beyond “community as participants” to also being involved in developing research questions and methods, being supported to develop research capacity and capability, as well as developing meaningful outputs. In terms of the latter, I try and communicate research findings “back” to participants and their communities in ways that are meaningful and accessible, so as not to further compound inequity. Traditional academic dissemination pathways like reports and peer-reviewed journal articles meet the requirements for rigor by academic communities and stakeholders but can be inaccessible due to paywalls and complex writing. My efforts to disseminate this knowledge have varied from presentations to developing alternatives to peer-reviewed publications. For example in a project with Refugee background women who were sole heads of the household, we produced both a report and a pamphlet. The hope was that the report could be used by policymakers, practitioners, and community members as a way of demonstrating accountability for using money to do research and that the pamphlet could summarise the findings in a less text-heavy way and make it accessible for advocacy and application. On a related note, the project took place after a year of consultation with Refugee communities in New Zealand and reflected our team’s interest in engaged scholarship and collaborative inquiry where we valued diverse perspectives especially lived experience.
Presenting findings in an accessible and appealing way, particularly in ways that are not premised on high levels of health literacy and language proficiency was important for the Alone Together project. I chose to use graphic narratives with a visual emphasis, and as little text as possible. Comics can help pose multilayered questions, challenge stereotypes, humanise participants and provide a call to action for members of the broader public to be allies for this group. I was motivated to find a widely distributed medium where participants could see themselves and where the comic could used to facilitate change and improvement and engage a broader audience, including education, practice, policy and community. Ultimately, I was hoping that the comic could be a vehicle to facilitate empathic engagement, reflection and dialogue by readers from within and outside their communities.
A very moving and heartfelt piece.
Oh Ruth. This is such a powerful and beautiful piece.
There are so many voices that are yet to be heard in this COVI9 journey, and I am so grateful that you are able to share them, and in such a respectful way. Thank you for the work you do, and it is incredible to see this translated like this.
Such an outstanding project; including the role of creative practice front and centre. There is much we can learn from this example.
It’s a great example of how creative forms of research translation can engage publics in alternative and powerful ways.
This piece is beautiful, visually and textually. Such a great way to convey profound truths.
Dear Ruth, we met years ago and I will always remember your vivacious energy and sharp mind. Just wanted to let you know that I shared your recent article about older immigrant experience of COVID with the Cert III and IV aged care students at Victoria University. Great feedback. You’re a star. Thanks for your continuing communication of these important issues.
- Going Without: Migrant Mothers, Food, and the Postnatal Ward
I have long been interested in the significance of food for migrants. As a child whose family moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand in the 70s, I remember the singular pursuit of ingredients. The long-grain rice we tried to buy from an importer, the coriander we grew in the garden, my mother purchasing olive oil from the pharmacy (that’s another story), and the trips to Goa which had us return with dried kokum, dried shrimps, Goa sausages (confiscated) chilies and other spices, much to the bemusement of customs. I also remember the longing: for pickles, chevda, samosas and much more.
On a scholarly note, I am also interested in what happens when food (and the people attached to said food) encounter institutions. Whether it’s the sign on the wall in the motel that says ‘no smells thanks’ or public institutions that we expect in an age of consumptive diversity to also accommodate people’s preferences and lifeways. In 1994 I worked on a postnatal ward and became interested in how the public health system accommodated the dietary preferences of diverse populations. Food choices were primarily oriented to the dominant culture, so people often brought in food for their family members. Yet there was only one place where food could be warmed and it was the staff meal room. The different smells led to complaints from staff.
Later, in 2001 when I was researching the experiences of Goan women in New Zealand around birth, it became apparent that food played a crucial role both in settlement and at special occasions. Lorna for example said: “Goan things like moong, godshem and other lentils, millet, tizan, and things like that, you know”. For Rowena, the absence of family meant that she had to prepare her own meals and did not eat anything special. While Greta, had maternal figures taking care of her: “Fenugreek seeds and jaggery and coconut milk [Methi Paez] and she kept giving me that and I found that quite nourishing”. The importance of food extended also beyond postpartum health to inducting the new member of the family into the community at the christening. Flora spoke about how according to Goan tradition, coconut and boiled grams (chickpeas) had to be served. “My aunt was going around to all the Kiwi guests saying …chickpeas are the food of the soil, and coconut is also a food of the soil.”
This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. In my PhD, I spoke with birthing people about their experiences of cultural safety and services. It has taken a while, but from this work, I’ve written a book chapter that is about to be published by Demeter Press.
Hospital admission signifies the induction into a distinct patient subculture in Western medical healthcare systems (Yarbrough and Klotz). Clothes, belongings, and identity are relinquished, and autonomy over everyday activities and routines is ceded to health professionals and institutional processes. The dominant mode of biomedicine emphasizes the individual and the physical body, shifting a person from a socially integrated member of a community into an object who receives care. Food structures both our daily lives and life transitions, such as maternity, and is an arena where powerful values and beliefs about being a human are evident. More than sustenance and nutrition, food has social, cultural, and symbolic meanings. Practices relating to food demarcate cultural boundaries of belonging and not belonging on the basis of religion, nation, class, race, ethnicity, and gender (Wright and Annes; Bell and Valentine). Being unable to access one’s own food can result in cultural disadvantages, in which a person is separated from their own cultural context and cannot provide for themselves within an institutional environment (Woods).
Examining the significance of food in the institutional context of health highlights how people are racialized by the foods that they eat and how institutions and staff working within them regulate migrant bodies. This chapter analyses literature related to food and provides an excerpt from a study of migrant maternity in New Zealand. It shows how food habits are shaped by everyday institutional practices, which maintain order and simultaneously impose disciplinary processes on migrant bodies. The preparation of food represents the continuity and affirmation of tradition and culture, a mechanism for promoting wellness within the physical, emotional, and social transitions of birth. Food as an analytic shows how ethnic identity is performative and processual—that is, it reacts and is reacted to by the host culture. I propose that health services can provide care that is more culturally safe by developing a better understanding of the importance of culture and food in constructing, maintaining, and transforming identities and by providing facilities and resources to facilitate food preparation during the perinatal period.