Mar 5, 2018
Jonathan Meyer

Freedom: From Mali to Monsey

Author (holding the sign) with the survey team, in Koro, Mali, March 1985. Courtesy of Jonathan Meyer.

It was 1984, and the United States Agency for International Development was doing the kind of work with which I wanted to be involved. I was also desperate for the opportunity, having recently left my PhD program in public policy, without completing the degree work. With a child on the way, I needed to find work.

I was consulting for USAID’s Africa Bureau during the Reagan administration, back when private sector was nearly a religion. My sector was public health in what are now called low income countries. After delivering a routine presentation about survey methodology in rural areas, the health officer from a USAID Mission in Africa approached me with a gig: to measure use of health services in Mali.

Six months later, my daughter was three months old, and I was aboard a plane on my first trip to Africa.

Courtesy of Jonathan Meyer

The survey was designed to find out about what poor people with scarce access to modern medical care did when someone in the family got ill. We started from the premise that if one is sick, one doesn’t ignore it, even if there’s no physician available for 500 miles. The start of the survey required getting information on the household, in this case defined as the people who shared meals from the same cookpot.

The task was to administer a survey for 900 households in 30 villages. My plan had been to carry it out from the “suburbs” of the capital, Bamako. It didn’t turn out that way. The area where we were told we needed to work was in the Koro District, roughly 300 miles from Bamako and 100 miles from the nearest running water and electricity. My excitement turned to dread.

The unit of the survey was the household, and we needed to sample 30 households in 30 villages. One particular household was composed of five brothers who were all grandfathers. Each had multiple wives, multiple children, and multiple-multiple grandchildren. In all, there were 61 individuals in just this one household. It was a nice family, but it wasn’t small. Just getting the census of the family, including age, gender, and whether or not someone in the family was ill since a particular agricultural holiday, roughly 90 days prior, took an hour and a half.

Freedom means opportunity – access to healthcare and access to healthy foods, no matter where you live, your culture, race or economic status.

“Five grandfather brothers. This is going to take forever,” I vividly remember thinking. And it nearly did. Back then, nearly forever meant hours, but I didn’t have hours, or didn’t want to have hours. It actually took 90 minutes. I quickly did the math – with 900 respondents in the survey, with each survey taking 90-minutes, I’d be in the middle of nowhere for months. I had a newborn daughter 4,752 miles away whom I’d barely gotten to know. Finding this job had once felt so liberating. But in that moment, all I wanted was to feel free again. Roughly a month later, we finished the work. I got back to Bamako, and waited for the sandstorms to quiet before Air Afrique would be able to land. I spent the next year back in the US doing the analysis and documentation, and after submitting the report, my perspective on freedom shifted altogether: I had been free all along.

Courtesy of Jonathan Meyer

Freedom means opportunity – access to healthcare and access to healthy foods, no matter where you live, your culture, race or economic status.

Illness can be a harsh master. It can structure one’s life in ways that are often cruel and limiting. Moreover, absence of health often feels like an arbitrary result of where one was born and to whom.

What drove me into public health, back in 1971, as an undergrad at NYU, was my belief that everyone deserves the same shot at living a successful, productive, and meaningful life, including a little girl born in Dinangourou, in the Koro District of Mali. That same philosophy drives my work today as Director of School Food Services for The Jewish Education Project, where I’m committed to providing nutritional meals for yeshiva students in Borough Park and Monsey, and ensuring that dietary laws of kashrus don’t limit access to healthful foods.

Freedom has many dimensions, and when we all sit down at the seder table and learn more about how we became a people and were granted freedom, we can reflect that this process is never complete, and it’s far from simple.

Jonathan Meyer is the Director of The Jewish Education Project’s School Food Services program, his first professional activity outside public health in three decades. Prior to joining The Jewish Education Project, he had been an administrator in academic medicine, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Northwell Health. In addition, he has completed public health projects in Nigeria, India, Haiti, and Eritrea. Mr. Meyer and his wife have four adult daughters and one son-in-law.

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