Botswana Harvard Partnership Revisited: Remarks by Soon-Young Yoon

Botswana Harvard Partnership banner carried by runners.

Dr. Soon-Young Yoon is an anthropologist and advocate for women’s human rights. She made the following remarks at the Botswana Harvard Partnership’s 20th anniversary celebration in Gaborone on January 26, 2017:

His Excellency former President Ketumile Masire, Honorable Minister Dorcus Makgatho, H. E. Ambassador Miller, distinguished speakers and guests.

Ambassador Earl Miller & Dr. Soon Young Yoon
Ambassador Earl Miller & Dr. Soon-Young Yoon

In 2001, I was honored to represent the Harvard AIDS Initiative’s International Advisory Council when we presented His Excellency former President Festus Mogae with the Leadership Award for his inspiring response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On that occasion, he said that we all live with AIDS because everyone has a relative or friend whose life has been changed by the disease. I remember thinking how fortunate this country was to have a leader who was willing to go against the tide of fear and doubt and express compassion instead of blame for AIDs patients.

During that same visit, Unity Dow, current Minister of Education, invited me to participate in the funeral rites for her cousin who had died from AIDS. For one day, I felt like a member of her family. I shed tears for someone I had never met and sang a hymn for a woman whose voice I had never heard. We shared a feast that gathered large clans, weary of so many funerals and grieving. I also saw the strength of kinship bonds in this country that helped families face death with a unity of spirit that would impress my Korean kinsmen.

Way back then, we also inaugurated the Lab. The building was so new that workers were still installing the nameplate. We walked through empty corridors into bright rooms that didn’t have any equipment or people working. Even so, we could imagine a vibrant facility that might contribute to ending the AIDS epidemic in all of Africa. What we could not anticipate was how well the research teams would help to build bridges across cultural and scientific divides and between countries and entire continents.

Lab technician processing blood samples
The Botswana-Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory today

As members of the Harvard AIDS Initiative’s International Advisory Council, we have followed the progress of the Botswana Harvard Partnership from afar. At our council meetings in New York, Max Essex—along with Richard Marlink and Harvard staff—has brilliantly decoded the science of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment for us. We saw photos with tangible evidence that the lab equipment had arrived. More and more researchers were trained, and young bright scientists of many nationalities showed their faces on screen.

Today, I am overjoyed to meet you in person. I am grateful to see for myself the progress that has been made because of Botswana’s strong leadership, and dedication of medical researchers and health care providers in this room. This afternoon, I look forward to seeing the Lab in action at your “science fair.”

Botswana Harvard Partnership exhibits, photo Scott Dryden-Peterson

I came from New York to express my congratulations, but also to thank you for the knowledge you give—not only to the people of Africa—but to the international community. It may seem that your stories are told mostly in local newspapers or reported largely in scientific journals. You may be less aware that this Botswana-Harvard partnership is giving the gift of political and scientific knowledge to many others. It is also teaching us how to build stronger partnership between countries.

Finally, I could not leave you today without alerting you to the coming of the Chinese New Year on January 28. According to Korean calendar, 2017 is the Year of the Chicken—a fiery, golden, female. (Incidentally, if you are wondering about what happened in the U.S. elections, last year was the Year of the Monkey.) What does the future hold? Chickens are known to be very, very busy. They produce rich resources and are ever energetic. I hope that this Year of the Chicken will bring you all these good things, an abundance of wisdom and wealth—and most precious—peace in Africa, peace on earth.