60 seconds with Susan Kasedde

October is Black History Month in the UK, an annual observance that celebrates and reflects on Black history, arts and culture, as well as recognising the achievements and roles of Black people in shaping history. LSHTM is committed to fostering a supportive, enabling and inclusive environment, where all individuals are treated with dignity and respect, and where there is equality of opportunity for all regardless of characteristics or background.

Susan Kasedde (Doctor of Public Health, 2008) works as the UNAIDS Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To celebrate Black History Month, we asked her about her role and projects, what black history month means to her and some quick fire questions!

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am working currently as the UNAIDS Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I am responsible for leading and coordinating the UN Joint Programme Response to HIV in the country. My role is to ensure effective engagement with the government, civil society, private sector, academia, and international partners. This means the national HIV response and partners benefit from the best technical and financial assistance and guidance available from the UN system to facilitate a strategic, effective response to HIV with sustainable impact in the country. Therefore, I work closely with a technical team of specialists from multiple agencies of the UN system and with all the partners to ensure that I can advocate, mobilise and guide effectively based on a broad understanding of needs, opportunities and available resources.

The DRC is a large country of close to 100 million people with multiple health and development challenges as well as significant valuable experiences arising from the technical efforts around public health and human development. It is one of many countries dealing with an ongoing HIV epidemic sustained through multiple underlying factors. Hence, another important aspect of my work is to ensure that the UN Joint Programme on HIV and our partners in DRC play our part in contributing towards high quality documentation, evidence-generation and dissemination to support ongoing improvements in global public health.

How long have you worked there (and what was your previous job)?

I started in this role at the end of August 2020. Prior to this, I served in multiple Public Health and development roles including UNAIDS Country Director a.i. for Guyana and Suriname; UNICEF Country Representative and Designated Official for United Nations Staff Safety and Security in Belize; UN Resident Coordinator a.i in Belize; Senior Advisor on HIV and Global Team Lead on Adolescents and HIV at UNICEF Headquarters in New York; UNAIDS Country Coordinator a.i. in Namibia; Regional Advisor, HIV and AIDS for UNAIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa. However, my professional career started in biomedical research when I served as a Research Assistant at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a team investigating the genetic predictors of common cancer in children.

What is a typical day for you?

A typical day for me starts really early (between 4 am and 5 am) as I enjoy reading quietly and orienting myself for the day ahead. I catch up on news from my family, news in the country and around the world, then turn to work-related communication. This helps me prioritise and manage my time during the rest of the day. I like to settle into work early each morning, check in with the members of my team and then follow the activities set out in my calendar. These include one-on-one and group meetings or workshops, many of them virtual now but many also face-to-face. My day always includes some time with staff within my team to work together on programme or operational priorities.

In addition to meetings, I have various reports to write and review, so I block some time through the day to work on these and follow up with my colleagues and partners as needed. I check on staff within my team and I like to do this throughout the day by walking around and chatting. Thanks to easy contact with phone and video-conferencing options, I can check in regularly on staff working from home too. I like to go to bed early and at a regular time (9 pm) as I find I’m most energetic and well-rested when I do this.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on?

I arrived in the DRC after the country had just developed a new multi-year HIV strategy, the national framework to serve as the basis for coordinated partner engagement, monitoring and resource mobilisation. The strategy aims to address continuing challenges such as the disproportionately low coverage of antiretroviral treatment among children (about half the level in adults), limited access to viral load testing to ensure effective management of antiretroviral therapy, stigma and discrimination, and sexual and gender-based violence. The strategy identified organisations representing communities as crucial partners in tackling these challenges and ultimately for accelerating progress towards the national goals.

I am currently working with the UNAIDS team and partners to develop an engagement and support strategy for civil society to ensure that these actors can effectively deliver on their role in the response – facilitating community monitoring and data collection, greater community level awareness and buy-in, improved knowledge and demand for service, more effective engagement of families to enhance linkage to and retention in care, and long-term attitude, social and behavioural change.

What three words would you use to describe your role?

Influential, technical, political.

What is your favourite thing about working there?

I love working with the team here because they are highly talented and deeply committed and I find the same attributes mirrored among our partners, it’s very motivating. The work is urgent in DRC and it’s extremely uplifting to have the opportunity to work alongside a team and partners that bring such a high level of personal investment, capacity, determination and resolve to work every day.

Where are you from?

Uganda.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

It’s a wonderful way to re-educate society about Black History, culture and contributions and to reframe our collective story.

What three words would you use to describe Black History Month?

Insightful, long overdue.

Are there any influential Black role models in your life?

My parents and family, particularly the women who cheered and pushed me on at every stage as my dreams took shape. We grew up facing so many challenges living through wars, violence, displacement, repeated interruption of school, total breakdown of the most basic social services and a sense of shame at the seemingly unshakeable dysfunction of our country.

As I grew older and became more aware of the extent of the additional layers of hazard that I faced as a black, African female, a true sense of fear and dread started to set in and I have my family to thank for helping me to deal with this so effectively. The logical reaction for any child would have been to despair but my parents, my family and particularly the women in our family who kept speaking to us constantly during simple chores, walks to the market, in the neighbourhood or quietly over a meal, would not have any talk of despondency. Instead, they challenged us to think constantly about what we would do to change things once we had the opportunity – for women, for Uganda, for Africa, for Black people everywhere. They insisted that we would have the opportunity to change things so they would insist on our engaging most seriously in these conversations. They would use these as the basis for a contract, reminding us at every opportunity over the years that we needed to push ourselves constantly further in our learning and self-development to do as we had intended.

Who is someone making Black History today?

I’d have to say, black children and young people. Confronted with stereotypes and narratives about them that they do not recognise in their lives, they are using every talent and tool at their disposal – from music, art, literature and drama to science, sports and social causes – to write their own story, a truer story about who they are, what they can and wish to do, what they care and dream about, what they love and how they relate. They are pushing back and right out of limits assigned to them by a society that has for too long sought to paint boundaries within which black people should grow, aspire, work and remain. The beautiful result is much greater visibility and recognition today of black people and our stories – told in our voices and words everywhere, recognition of our talent and contribution to society in ways that far exceed those told in the third-person narratives that have formed global perspective on our history, culture, contributions to our global human experience.

“When I’m not working I am…”

Cooking, baking, eating, reading, listening to music, spending time with family and friends.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

My dreams evolved: a writer, a politician, a scientist, a veterinarian, a doctor, a leader that would make a positive difference.

What is your most treasured possession?

Life.

What is your favourite joke?

I can’t tell it because you’ll publish it. It’s really funny though!

What is your favourite place?

Home. Specifically, the veranda of my childhood home in Jinja, Uganda where I spent many hours as a child staring out at the sun reflected on the River Nile, gazed up with my Dad at the stars in the sky at night as he pointed out constellations and reflected on the world and politics, read quietly or celebrated birthday parties with friends, and held parliamentary sessions with my cousins and friends as we plotted how we’d minimise the certain trouble that lay ahead of us after whatever ill-advised activities had led us onto a certain collision course with trouble (corporal punishment was not illegal in those days).

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I love to cook and I’ve actually written a book of recipes.

If you are an alumnus and would like to be highlighted in Black History Month, please email alumni@lshtm.ac.uk.

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