Excerpt From Interview with Magdi Yacoub

I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview the world’s leading Heart Surgeon Magdi Yacoub in 2012.  He pioneered several medical procedures – most notably ‘the Ross Procedure’ – which he pursued through a period in medical history when it looked like artificial heart valves would  surpass procedures like the Ross procedure, which used natural tissue/grafts to make repairs to the heart.  It wasn’t until decades later (once the patients have lived with the repairs for years/decades) that it became obvious that Yacoub’s intuition and served him well and results showed the Ross Procedure was in fact more successful than the use of artificial values.  Both still maintain their place and continue to be used and developed.

This question I asked in reference to his development of the Ross Procedure:

Misha Somerville:  Ehhh, I mean this field is obviously lead by science, but looking back at seminal figures in history it almost seems like the great scientists are explorers, the great exporers are athletes and the great athletes are mathematicians.  This might be science, how often do you work with your instinct waiting for the science to catch up?

Magdy Yacoub: I think that is an excellent question  ..ehhh… in science you have to be guided by instinct as well, because the progress in science, which is defined as the search for the truth, starts as a leap of imagination  …and these leaps of imagination, called theories or conjectures, and that’s, that’s where things start – it’s like a leap – and then the reasoning starts to either prove it or refute it, and if you can’t refute it then you are are nearer to the truth and science advances   … what does science do?  it is in service of humanity, and the difference between science and humanity is ill defined if you like – science and humanity are intermingled.


People of the Earth, Wind & Fire*

In some places in the world you get the impression there is an extra force at work,  something you can’t quite put your finger on, a special magic in the air.

South Sudan might be economically one of the poorest countries on earth, but what it lacks in money, it makes up for in Cultural treasures.  This is a colourful land indeed.

For decades people have marvelled at how a place could be home to peoples with such ingrained and distinct characters – studies of which have produced some of the most ground breaking revelations in anthropology and human studies.   There is a rare beauty in how these people have evolved, but like with so many things that display extreme tendancies there are also inherent flaws.

This is a country with hardly any tarmac roads or infrastructure at large.  It is a bare land, within which life itself stands in such stark contrast to it’s surroundings, that it somehow seems more impressive here.

Dirt tracks criss cross over tribal lands – a maze joining village to village.  On visiting the cattle camps in Bor district, you can see nomadic humans co-existence with cattle has synergised into a way of life which has evolved through the centuries.  People and cattle.  They eat, drink, live and breath with their cattle – their co-existence and co-dependence goes right down to their fiery orange hair – which gets it’s colour from being dyed with cow urine.  Their existence is almost completely communal, their day, from start to end is based around communal activities- wrestling, herding, eating, singing, dancing.  Sharing any of it with them, you feel closer to the earth, the wind and fire.

Their lives might be admirable and incredible, but they are far from idyllic.   Without sanitation, healthcare and education the cattle camps are centres of disease and malnourishment.  It’s an assault that means it’s survival of the fittest – from before they are born babies must have or develop immunity, or not make it through infancy.  Some though, do make it through, and for them our arrival offers some hope – hope that we’ll bring medicines and treatments for their family and their cattle.     But even without medicines, education derived from modern science would say the first step would be to limit the spread of disease by separating them from their cattle.  And so the process immediately starts to erode the character that makes these people so remarkable.

It reminded me of a story relating to the expedition that first conquered Everest in 1967.  After the expedition , Urkien Sherpa, who had lived next to the mountain all his life, was asked by a member of the team ‘If there was one thing we could do for your village. what would it be’.  He paused for a moment and replied ‘With all respect, Sahib, you have little to teach us in strength and toughness. And we don’t envy you your restless spirits. But knowledge for our children!   that we would like to see’.  He had highlighted a fundamental difference that separated peoples around the world.  As some sought the illusive idea of ‘progress’ – pushing science, developing medicines, building structures that reached into the sky and launching rockets that went into space – others simply believed in being and being together.

There can be no right way or wrong, but here in the cattle camp, I stood in awe looking at the people, and they stood in awe looking at me.

*notes: this is a second draft of a script for a sound slide that has been lying dormant a while.  The original is here. I started reworking it last night after a showing a horse Vetinarian I met in Egypt the photos.  I sweated over it a little last night and had a spurt of creativity today listening to this music.      

White Man Driven to Destruction by Selfish Ambition

Having written about it before here, recent events on Everest are sadly fullfilling that gloomy prediction.    The German climber, Ralf Dujmovits’, recent image of cues of climbers is striking and made more poignant with the news that that very same day 4 people died on the mountain [I would have used the word 'people' rather than 'climbers'].   As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s like a kind of natural selection, and perhaps a metaphor for things on a larger scale  - white man driven to destruction by his greed and selfish ambition.

Photo by Ralf Dujmovits

Some Progress in the Cycle of Famine?

It is good to ask questions when things go wrong, but it’s difficult to answer them unless you have the full picture.  What makes me think of this is recent coverage of the Famine in the horn of Africa and a recent post by media theorist / conceptualist David Campbell about the reporting of such events.  The tragic truth is that coverage of such events while completely neccessary, seems to reinforce the misconceptions people have of Africa as a continent and in doing so contractict its intentions of providing information to people to make balanced judgements.  A disaster makes news but longer term efforts to avert disasters all too often go unreported.

It made me think of one of the projects I came across while in Ethiopia earlier this year, although this is by no means the only example I’ve come across in Africa.  In an area hit very hard by the 1984-85 famine, a Canadian Aid organisation has been working with local populations on a scheme to make best use of the available rainfall.    On a massive scale the hillsides have been terraced to help retain soil so that vegatation can grow and moisture is retained.  This is all fine and well in Ethiopia, where the politial stability makes it possible to work with the government to ptovide long terms solutions to famine caused by drought.  Somalia, for example, is a very different case, but at least it goes a little way to deciffering where the problems are.

Perhaps at some point I’ll go back to make a more complete record of the work – these were taken in passing with the significance only being realised in retrospective.


Realisations Out of the Comfort Zone

Travelling in Africa is a bit like going for a jog – sometimes you wonder why on earth you’re doing it.  It’s not like ski-ing in deep power, bombing it down-hill on your bike, catching the perfect wave, dancing your titties off to your favourite band or playing an amazing solo on stage – the enjoyment  isn’t that tangible.  And as you’re crammed on some hot, sweaty and dusty bus chugging along at 30kmph through the dessert,  or trying to force down some terrible local staple, I do spend time wondering why I’m doing it.

Similarily, as I’m jogging along and my body’s screaming at me to ‘stop, STOP!’, it’s easy to wonder why you do it – I’m never likely to win any medals running, I eat too much cheese and drink too much beer for that, and you pretty much always end up right back where you started.  It is true however,  once you go through the barrier, then the running itself is an amazing experience, but more than that it’s what it brings to the rest of your life.

I’m much like most other people out there with a ‘modern’ lifestyle – I spend too much time at a computer and I don’t do enough excercise.  Running galvanises my life so I don’t feel quite so bad about sitting down and getting on with something in front of the screen.  Somehow travelling in the developing world does the same for my life –  seeing, breathing and feeling it somehow restores my faith – knowing that corporations are not taking over the world, everyones’ not obsessed by owning shit and there are people out there who smile a lot more than we do.  A journey to the flip side always makes me think and realise.

Working away on  my own ideas in my own time I live a privileged life – for which I am extremely grateful.  In other parts of the world people just don’t get such an opportunity to pursue their own dreams, and many people here who get the opportunity don’t take it.   But at the same time the stresses of modern life are inherent in my own life, and the material selfishness laced through our culture erodes a sense of community, which is ever present in other less ‘prosperous’ cultures than our own.  To put it bluntly, I believe we’ve got a lot to learn from other cultures including those in the Third World.  I’ve suggested this before, and, even some people who spent time travelling in the Third World pointedly disagree – they say Africa is a ‘basket case’.  But the Africans haven’t yet cut down their trees and been sucking oil out the ground like there is no tomorrow.

The World Press Photo

Every year the World Press Photo celebrates some of the best photojournalism from around the world.  The exhibition of the selected work is on constant tour passing through many of the world’s cities – they were in Edinburgh earlier this year and are currently in London from the 12th November to the 5th December. See a full list of the tour schedule here.  As well as the exhibition they feature some of the finest work online as part of multimedia media library.

Get yourself a cup of tea and check it out these interviews with some of the photographers.

Some highlights :-

2008 – Cristina Garcia Rodero [Spain] on Maria Lionza Rituals, Venezula

2010 – Elizabeth Kreutz [USA] on Lance Armstrong