GBHI in Africa: Journeys in Partnership to Advance Brain Health

In this perspective, Helen Murray—Communications Officer, GBHI, Trinity—describes the enriching experience of taking part in the GBHI Annual Conference 2024: "Journeys in Partnership" and the AAIC Satellite Symposium in Cape Town.

2024 Annual Conference Group Photo DSC08465.jpg (454.95 KB)

Above: GBHI community members in Cape Town. Photos by Mik Motala Photography

This year, we were delighted to host the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) Annual Conference in Africa for the first time—in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. It was a week filled with camaraderie, collaboration and learning as we explored the theme “Journeys in Partnership” to advance brain health globally. 

Our first journey was a relaxed walk along the coast from Sea Point to Green Point. Walkers in bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with “Protect your brain health…. it’s a no brainer” inspired questions from the public like, “I’m 76 years old, what can I do to improve my brain health?” and “I’m a theater-maker interested in developing a performance about dementia, can we connect?” A spectacular life sized elephant puppet created by Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective joined us creating quite a stir, but more about the puppet later…

Atlantic Fellows on brain health walk Cape Town
brain health walk t shirt  with qr code

Above: Atlantic Fellows Swati Bajpai, Regina Paradela, Paulina Ruíz and Lucía Pertierra enjoy the walk.

The formal conference program kicked off the following day with a poignant introduction and rich insights into South Africa’s history and the legacy of colonialism and apartheid from Kirti Ranchod, Atlantic Fellow (2018). Remarkable speakers from the University of Cape Town, Ubuntu Global Philanthropy, Tekano and the Association for Dementia and Alzheimer’s of South Africa shared their leadership journeys in the context of South African society, culture, and history. Topics ranged from the challenges faced by people living with dementia and their carers to the need for authentic community partnerships and a whole-of-society approach to addressing the intractable problems of today.

In the afternoon, the leadership journeys of Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health took center stage. Fellows from the 2017 to 2021 cohorts shared firsthand experiences of undertaking their Pilot Awards for Global Brain Health Leaders projects—providing invaluable guidance to the current fellows as they prepare for this important leadership development journey. The baton was then passed to the current fellows who led a session on “Hopes in harmony” which saw conference attendees jointly compose a song for brain health. The result was an epic ensemble of languages, energy, and brain health hopes!

On the second day of the conference, we traveled to the Centre for Humanities Research at University of the Western Cape (UWC) which is home to Ukwanda. Here we found out more about the elephant puppet that walked with us and the exacting field research, experimentation and prototyping involved in creating this beautiful creature. We learned about the affirming transformative power of the arts and humanities and the annual Barrydale Puppet Parade and Performance which brings together artists, scholars, researchers, and the public to re-imagine a post-apartheid world. We also heard about the role of Ukwanda puppeteers in the little Amal project—a giant puppet of a Syrian refugee girl which has journeyed through 16 countries—which has become a global symbol of human rights. We were privileged to get a preview of their latest project, the production of a herd of animal puppets which will trek 20,000km to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis. A thought-provoking panel discussion followed which spanned community arts, sound and the human, health equity, and child well-being. It was an enriching immersion into the work of UWC in exploring creative solutions to global challenges. 

Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective

Above: Sipho Ngxola and Luyanda Nogodlwana of the Ukwanda Puppets and Design Arts Collective.

Over the next two days, GBHI and our Atlantic Fellows were among the African and international brain experts who convened at the AAIC Satellite Symposium, to discuss emerging research and local applications of brain science and dementia risk reduction in Africa, the home of extraordinary diversity—participating in plenary talks, panels, posters, and the energizing and engaging “Brain Boost” interludes between sessions. Huge congratulations to Atlantic Fellows Alex Kornhuber (2018) and current fellow Geeta Dorkhy who received the best lightning round and best poster presentation awards for their work on a photographic perspective on aging in Peru and community-based interventions for the prevention of cognitive decline in Mauritius. Another highlight was the fellow-led panel on “Advancing Brain Health in Africa: How do we do it?” which touched on the myriad of issues discussed over the preceding days, and pointed to potential ways forward to protect brain health in Africa.

Geeta and Alex AAIC Satellite Symposium 2024 presentation winners with Brain Lawlor
GBHI panel members at AAIC Satellite Symposium 2024

Above left: Brain Lawlor with award winners, Geeta Dorkhy and Alex Kornhuber | Right: Atlantic Fellow panelists Kirti Ranchod, Ayda Tefera and Mohamed Salama.

And so, the GBHI Annual Conference came to an end with a symposium on Developing Collaborations on Healthy Brain Ageing and Dementia Research in Africa, co-hosted with the University of Cape Town Neuroscience Institute and the Aga Khan University Brain and Mind Institute, Kenya. Great connections were made. It was a fitting close to an impactful week. A journey which would not have been possible without partnerships—between GBHI’s founding sites at UCSF and Trinity College, with both long-established and emerging partners, the Atlantic Institute, Alzheimer’s Association, and academic institutions in Africa, as well as the vital partnerships and collaborations between our inspirational Atlantic Fellows—a network that now includes 40 fellows in Africa. We look forward to continuing these “Journeys in Partnership” and more as we strive to create a fairer, healthier, and more inclusive society and advance brain health around the world.

The mandate of the Atlantic Fellows community is so important at this moment in time.

No one sector, community or country can solve the complex systemic problems we face—we need to connect.

— Nicolette Naylor, Ubuntu Global Philanthropy Founder and Atlantic Institute Governing Board Member, during the GBHI Annual Conference