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You don’t have to listen for long to Andre Renzaho’s lilting baritone to learn he is a man of deep passion — for his Africa, for Australia, his research at Deakin, and the people who will benefit from it.
“I love Australia, and I love Africa too,” he says. “Africa is my home, Australia is this wonderful place I have been able to come to in order to further my work.”
Andre’s work is as a Public Health Nutritionist. He did his undergraduate studies at Bukavu University in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the old Zaire.
For most people, completing undergraduate studies is a challenge enough, doing it in a part of the world that could often become a war zone adds enormously to the degree of difficulty, and the merit of the achievement.
Andre used his hard won knowledge to help other Africans, working with a number of aid agencies on the continent before in 1997 coming to Australia — already a favourite holiday destination — on a permanent basis.
His capacity to over-achieve didn’t stop there though. Before he could begin a Masters of Public Health, he first had to get his English up to speed.
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo is French speaking,” he said.
“In fact, I speak many languages, French, and many African dialects, but with my English, when I was working with aid organisations, I had interpreters.
“When I got to Australia and wanted to study, I needed to be able to speak and write English more fluently so I did a three month intensive course at LaTrobe Language Centre.”
Andre now has not just his Masters, and not just a PhD - one completed while he also ran a small business — but he has written two books based on his work; one called “Migrants Getting Fat In Australia” and the other called “measuring effectiveness in humanitarian and development aid”.
The first book is dedicated jointly to his late mother, Pilcherie Mutarataza and “the victims of poverty, deprivation, wars and upheaval”.
And this is where Andre’s passion for his research kicks in. He wants to use it to make a difference for those refugees who have been fortunate enough to escape the world’s war zones, particularly in Africa, for Australia.
“For a lot of people, the experience of coming Australia as refugees is not working out as well as it should,” he said.
“Certainly, they are much safer and that is a good thing. But a lot of dietary changes that are part of moving countries, particularly from Sub Saharan Africa, have left them susceptible to weight gain and chronic disease.
“They find it hard to find their traditional foods like plain maize, African vegetables and camel’s milk.
“They have been replaced by a lot of fast food like pizzas because they are easy to get. They are everywhere in Australia.
“Additionally there is a lifestyle change caused because rather than walking everywhere as they did in Africa, they travel more by car.
“This acculturation, in which the refugee’s culture is taken over by that of the new nation, is not the right way for us to go if people are to become successful members of the Australian community.
“We need to develop an understanding of their culture so there can be a meeting point between the two for everyone’s benefit.
“There was an example recently of a girl who was snoring so badly she kept the whole house awake.
“The mother took the daughter to the doctor and asked for something to cure the daughter. The doctor said that the daughter snored because she was obese and told the mother that no medicine was needed instead referred the daughter to a dietician so she can be put through a weight loss program.
“The mother was offended by that because not only she did not know what a dietician is but also in her community in Africa, the size of a woman makes her more attractive and brings a bigger dowry.
“If the doctor had known that, she would have been able to take a more sympathetic and informative approach to the problem, rather than just dismissing the mother and the daughter.
“Fortunately, I was able to become involved and because of my background and expertise, I could explain to the mother some of the issues and we have been able to resolve things so that everyone is happy, especially the rest of the family who can now get to sleep.
“Something we need to do much better in Australia is to have a refugee health framework/program that accepts both sides of the story. People just can’t be expected to assimilate, they have to be provided with the information that allows them to seek out of the benefits of life in Australia, and they need to be educated in a way that is sensitive to their own cultures.
“I have been researching African migrants in Australia since 2000 examining the relationship between acculturation and health outcomes. Our findings suggest that integration (bi-cultural) provides superior health outcomes and the worse outcomes were observed among the assimilated and marginalised clusters.
“In a lot of parts of Africa, the water is not fit to drink, so when people come here, they drink soft drinks instead, damaging their teeth and their general health. Most importantly, back home unhealthy foods by any Australian standards such as soft drinks, pizza, most of the takeaway foods are culturally constructed as “foods of white people” and thus seen as luxury foods.
“Often these food items are very expensive, but are known to assist with reaching a culturally desirable weight, that is, large body size. In this sense, large body size is attributed to economic advantage and is symbolised in its close relationship to wealth icons. Thus, fat equals wealth equals power.
“If we have a good health and public awareness program that says to people you can drink the water in Australia, it is good for you, it will make your teeth strong and it won’t make you fat, then these new people won’t become a burden on the health system.
“Refugees from Africa want to embrace Australia, they want to be industrious and to contribute to the community. By providing them with the right information and tools we can make it so much easier for them to achieve that.
“That is what my work at Deakin is about, making a real difference, not just for the benefit of the immigrants, but for Australia generally. Fit, healthy people work harder and aren’t a burden on the health system.”
Andre Renzaho not only believes that passionately, he will apply to making it happen the same drive that took him from his undergraduate, French-speaking days in Bukavu to being a highly respected researcher in Australia.
“I don’t know if I want an Aussie accent,” he laughs, “I am very proud of my African heritage, but I am also very happy and proud to be living in Australia, and to be able to contribute to the community through my work at Deakin.”
For further information about Andre’s work, please contact him on + 61 3 9251 7772, mob: 0401 807 249 and email: firstname.lastname@example.org