Changing the world from the ground up
I met Rachel in the then Zaire in 1996. She’s formidable, striking and tons of fun. It was the middle of war and Rachel and her team were in the east of the country doing all to protect people fleeing, entrapped, excluded or cut off from medical care. It was highly unstable times following the Rwandan genocide.
“Don’t Dump Doha”, Rachel outside United Nations High Level Meeting
on non-communicable diseases, September 2011, New York [Doha Declaration on
the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health]
Photo: Sunny Kishore
You want Rachel on your side. A lawyer by training, she’s a prolific humanitarian and advocate for access to medicines. Currently Rachel is President of UAEM
(Universities Allied for Essential Medicines), a group of university students internationally who believe universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to improve global access to public health goods. Rachel worked in leadership positions with Médecins Sans Frontières
(MSF) in Africa, Central America and Canada and today provides expertise to MSF on governance and patient involvement in care. MSF has projects in nearly 70 countries providing medical aid to those most in need regardless of their race, religion, or political affiliation.
Where do you live, where were you born?
I live in Montreal, Quebec in semi suburbia in a leafy white neighbourhood with neat lawns and pretty flowerbeds. We have a family van, a cat called Maxie, a bird called Alvin. Oh yeah and three gorgeous little boys. I sometimes feel like an imposter sitting in my pretty western life.
I was born in London, England to a French mom and English dad.
Tell me one of your key goals in life
To make my life one of deep happiness and love.
Tell me two of your current titles and best and hardest thing about each job
President of the Board,Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM)
Best thing: hanging out with brilliant young people who want to change the world.
Worst thing: seeing human life placed a poor second to corporate profits.
Candidate for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International Board
Best thing: the promise of being able to be part of making MSF even greater.
Worst thing: competing against fantastic people.
UAEM at World Health Assembly meeting, Geneva, June 2013. (Rachel on
You wear like 10 hats in your work. You wear them elegantly, how do you organise your ‘hat boxes’?
The only way hats can stay on is if they are in order of size. For me that means biggest first. If I see my hats as goals, I try to organise them in order of importance. I try keeping my eye on the big picture, that’s the big hat. Then I have some values that I bring to achieving that goal which is the next hat. From there the hats become varied and colourful depending on the time of year but they generally keep in the order of impact of the goal. Sometimes I can’t choose between two hats that are both elegant and novel solutions to a problem. Then, well I juggle for a while but eventually I have to choose. That is really hard. That’s why I have so many hats. At some point, I have to give one away to someone else who looks better in it. That is where I am now.
You worked in Rwanda during the genocide. What was your job and what is your strongest memory?
I was the head of mission for MSF in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) when the genocide broke out on April 6, 1994. I soon became the emergency coordinator. My strongest memory was of three little boys crossing the border north of Goma. One had his arm and back sliced with machete wounds, another had a shoulder gaping open. The youngest’s foot was dangling from his calf. They cried as they told me how they had seen their parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and sisters massacred with machetes in front of their house and how neighbours had run after then with machetes. The two older ones had carried the youngest one in their arms and hidden in the forest for days. The youngest boy died that day. I never saw them after those first two days because the next day they had fled with the other 60,000 refugees that crossed the border a few days before them. I dream about them, those three little boys. Little did I know I would be the mother of my own three little boys. It gives pause for thought …
How did your international human rights and humanitarian work change and inform your life?
Indonesia was my political awakening and my activist soul was liberated. I owe my passion, my political awareness and my compassion for people, wherever they are from, to the brave Indonesian activists who struggled against the Suharto regime and risked their lives for the East Timorese. This was hard back then because Indonesians did not sympathise with the East Timorese and were led by the authorities to believe that the East Timorese struggle for independence threatened the Indonesian way of life.
Rwanda taught me a really hard lesson. All people have evil in them. It is a sad thing to say but I saw it. Ordinary, simple kind people turned into evil monsters in a group madness that allowed them to abandon any human principles to murder and kill their families, neighbours and friends. While evil usually, thankfully remains dormant, some extreme circumstances I have lived through have shown that it can be awoken with horrifying consequences.
The Congolese taught me about human courage, the importance of today and the importance of happiness and love. And how to dance!
Pumpkin picking on Ile Perrot, Quebec. Rachel with her mom, Joshua
and Samuel, 2011 Photo: Jasper Monroe-Blanchette, 2011
What’s your favourite thing to do with your boys?
Cuddling in the evening in front of the fire when it is raining out and feel their energy and warm hearts and bodies near me; to see their smiles and feel their love in those moments of peace and joy. It is an almost overwhelming love.
I still haven’t changed the world! I have this sensation of being half way through my life. The first half was full of exploring, learning (the hard way), eclectic experiences and hundreds of chance meetings that changed my path. The second half will be dedicated to building on those experiences and bringing them together to make a real difference. I am dabbling at global level of change trying to flatten out the hierarchy. Before I reach the last quarter of my time here, I want to go back to where I began – to the ground level to share my solidarity as a human being.
Carol Devine – Activism + Culture
Carol is a Canadian writer, researcher and humanitarian with insatiable wanderlust. For Doctors Without Borders she defended humanitarian principles in Rwanda, Sudan and East Timor. For the Diplomacy Training Program, University of New South Wales, she co-trained Aboriginal, Tibetan and Burmese youth. Carol also led the first Antarctic civilian volunteer ecological expedition. Carol is currently trying meditation, to learn more physics and get back on her skateboard. Carol can be contacted at: www.theantarcticbookofcookingandcleaning.com
Life Balance = Run. Explore. Laugh