Beth Ahlberg: A journey through Science and Cultures

  • #4 Ahlberg _ photo1

    Ms Beth Maina Ahlberg and grandson. Photo: David Nilsson

  • #4 Ahlberg _ photo2

    Wedding photo from Ms Beth Maina Ahlberg´s wedding. Photo: Photographer unknown.

Knowledge is not sufficient for development, public debate is also needed to ensure equitable progress. Professor of International Health Beth Ahlberg talks about health research, the collaborative creation of knowledge and – no less fascinating – her own personal journey from Muranga to Uppsala.

Beth Maina Ahlberg plays with her little grandson on the porch of the small red summer cottage. The scenery, with old farmsteads nestled in the lush greenery in the heart of Sweden’s historical mining area near Skinnskatteberg, could fulfill all the traditional Swedish idioms. It is somewhat hard to imagine that when Dr Ahlberg was in her grandson’s age, the Mau Mau rebellion was just about to explode around her in her native Kenya.

”I was born on Christmas Day in 1949. My mother thought she was giving birth to Jesus!”, Dr Ahlberg jokes. But growing up in the Muranga district, in the heartland of the uprising led by the Kikuyu people, was tough. ”We lived through the difficult times of the Mau Mau. There was fighting everywhere, even right there in my home. Our houses were burnt down. All the men were either in the forest or had been thrown into detention camps. So we grew up without fathers.”

Their village in Kangema Division had virtually been turned into a concentration camp by the colonial administration. People had been forced to dig a deep trench around it to control all movements. Just like the other able-bodied women in the village, Dr Ahlberg’s mother was forced do “communal work” and was only allowed to tend to their small farm for an hour per day before returning to the village. Those mothers who defied the curfew by not returning before 6 pm faced the risk of spending the night in a cell. “So in practice”, she recalls, “we lived without fathers and mothers. I was the eldest girl in the family and had to take care of my siblings. This was life in extreme poverty. We were always hungry.”

Things were a bit better by 1957, when Beth Ahlberg’s father was released after four years in detention. People were allowed to work on their farms again and getting enough food was easier. Formally, Dr Ahlberg was too old to start school but her parents insisted. They were convinced that education held the key to the future. After finishing primary school in 1965, she moved to a boarding high school for girls, and then on to university.

”In those days, the East African Community encouraged exchange between countries. A group of students, myself included, were through government sponsorship sent to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Since I was not very good at mathematics, I thought social sciences would be a good choice”, Dr Ahlberg laughs.

 In 1974, she moved back from Tanzania for a job at the Medical Research Centre at the Kenyatta National Hospital. “In the early 1970’s, there was little competition; anyone with a degree got a job!” Dr Ahlberg recalls. 

While working at the centre, Dr Ahlberg found herself making new friends from a far-away country: Sweden. Through her brother-in-law, she met Olof and Gunilla Hesselmark, who had come to Kenya to work with the Swedish agricultural assistance.

Beth recalls: ”Big parties were common on the Nairobi social circuit. Kenyan and expatriates mingled. I particularly remember one of the events, organised by a Swedish lady Marianne Ouma. Marianne had also invited her neighbor...”

The neighbor was Pelle Ahlberg, in Kenya with the International Labour Organization. That was how she met her husband.

One thing that struck Dr Ahlberg during her first encounters with the Swedes was their drinking habits, which she found rather odd. ”In particular, this practice of putting a coin at the bottom of a cup, adding coffee and then liquor until the coin is visible before drinking... It was so strange! But we had a lot of fun…”

Beth and Pelle Ahlberg were married in 1977 and she took up a new position at the Women´s Bureau, a Government agency established during the United Nations“Women’s Decade”. The Bureau was also funded by Swedish SIDA. A few years later, Beth was accepted for doctoral studies in Uppsala, and in 1982, she, her husband and their two sons moved to Sweden.

Living in Sweden was a new experience:
”One thing that really struck me was the silence. Everyone just ran along, minding their own business – never taking the time to stop for a conversation! The same thing when queuing: people formed orderly lines and waited in silence. I missed the ’round queues’ of Kenya, where everyone would mill around in a crowd, chatting and talking and elbowing.”

But a year later, back in Kenya for her field work, Dr Ahlberg discovered how cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic the process of securing permits and gathering the necessary paperwork was.

”So it didn’t take long before I missed the Swedish efficiency and the orderly queuing”, she admits.

In 1989, Professor Göran Sterky invited Dr Ahlberg to join his research team at Karolinska Institutet. SIDA had made a special allocation for HIV research and Karolinska started up a programme in Kenya and Zambia. The project focused on how to communicate on matters of sexuality with young people.

“We found that silence prevails. There are many taboos, often with religious, cultural and existential connotations. These ideas govern our actions in sexual behaviour, like a cultural programming. Changing this programming is not just a matter of providing information.”

For many years, Sweden supported research activities within Kenya´s main health sector. Gity Behravan is the regional programme officer for the research portfolio at the Embassy of Sweden in Nairobi.

”There used to be research cooperation as part of the now closed-down support to the health sector. But there is still a partnership collaboration between Linköping University and a Kenyan counterpart.”

Today, Sweden supports mainly regional research collaborations, something which also benefits Kenyan researchers.

“On the whole, Kenyan researchers are at the forefront and they often take the lead in regional collaborations”, Behravan adds. 

For Beth Ahlberg, cross-cultural collaboration is key. She and her colleagues followed up the sexuality study in Kenya with a “mirror study” on youth sexuality and HIV transmission in Sweden. They found one interesting similarity between Kenyan and Swedish youth. In both cases it was more culturally acceptable for a girl to take the initiative to use condoms. Such cross-cultural research can be very innovative, but requires a shift of attitude.

”The traditional one-way model for transfer of knowledge from north to south needs to change to become truly collaborative”, says this Uppsala University professor.

Dr Ahlberg and colleagues at the Africa Population Health Research Centre are investigating ways to improve knowledge transfer. One method being tried is the ”sandwiching-method”, where African PhD students combine research with work and on-the-job-training with qualified supervisors.

But knowledge is not sufficient for development, public debate is also needed, says Dr Ahlberg:

”One problem is that the politicians tend to not put the interest of the country first, and corruption has sharpened. But now at least the leaders – starting with Mwai Kibaki – have allowed people to talk.”

Also academicians could take on a more progressive role:

”The academia in Kenya has often been used as consultants, as a way for scholars to make extra money. But at least in medicine and agriculture, there are innovative researchers that provide important leadership for development.”

Beyond doubt, research and knowledge will continue to hold the keys to the future. Beth Maina Ahlberg´s story is a strong testimony to that.

Text: David Nilsson.