Feature Christmas 2015: Professional Considerations

Three weeks among the Korowai people

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6469 (Published 14 December 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6469
  1. Maryke J Nielsen, specialist trainee year 4, paediatrics 1
  1. 1Mersey Deanery, Liverpool, L18 0HA, UK
  1. maryke.nielsen{at}gmail.com

In 2014, I was offered the chance to join an expedition to West Papua, Indonesia, to assess the healthcare needs of the Korowai people. Reported to be the world’s only tree dwelling people, their first contact with the Western world was in the 1970s. Because of the inaccessibility of the rain forests where they live, they have retained their traditional semi-nomadic way of life. The expedition was commissioned by Tribal Survival, a new charity established to promote the health and wellbeing of remote indigenous tribes.

Although excited by the possibility of venturing into the medical unknown, I had reservations. During previous experiences volunteering in resource constrained settings, I had observed the risk of causing inadvertent harm while trying to do good. I debated whether any benefit could be achieved by such a short trip and what role there might be for this well financed but inexperienced organisation.

Sustainable intervention

As medical students in the early 2000s my generation had unprecedented opportunities to explore global health. Riding high on the optimism of the millennium development goals and record levels of philanthropy, I found this a charismatic and captivating area of medicine. I fundraised hard during term time to spend my summer holidays volunteering with a student charity in Kenya, returning to the same area three times over four years. Over that time, I saw many successful projects established in partnership with local non-government organisations (NGOs). Yet the effectiveness and sustainability of some of them seemed doubtful.

Over the years, the former medical student charity has evolved into a successful and innovative organisation (child.org). Grass roots organisations, I concluded, can have a vital role, firstly, by identifying and highlighting unmet needs and, secondly, through innovative programmes that, if successful, can be scaled up. The trustees of Tribal Survival assured me that the Korowai people …

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