Then and Now with Tamara Kwarteng

Our new Chairwoman and style guru

What were you doing in 1978?
I was in the final year of my BSc (Biochemistry and Chemistry) course at the University of Ghana. Course work only occupied part of my time in 1978 though.  University students in Ghana were at the forefront of non-violent (on our part) resistance to the military government at the time, which was much more absorbing to me than biochemistry and chemistry then!

What’s something that you are really proud of?
For my national service (all new university graduates in Ghana are required to do one year of national service), I taught chemistry to sixth form students (Year 12 equivalent) at a Boys Science Secondary School. More than two decades later some of my former students living in the United States – who had gone on to high academic achievements in medicine, engineering, architecture  – tracked me down through the internet to say thank you. I had left Ghana and teaching soon after my national service and finally settled in Australia, but I am very proud of that brief 18-month period which clearly left a positive impression on my students.

What’s your best memory?
My father gave me a box of children’s books for my birthday when I was eight years old. This was significant for a number of reasons.  Firstly, birthday presents as such were unusual in our family.  Birthdays were acknowledged by mum making a special dish for the birthday girl or boy (there were five of us).  To receive books which were not for school was very special indeed.  I had just learnt to read English (which is my second language) and I guess my dad wanted to encourage my proficiency in the language. My love of books and reading began then and continues to this day.

What’s something you couldn’t be without?
Air, water and food, I guess.  Everything else is negotiable – except perhaps a good dry martini accompanied by Nina Simone’s singing

Can you describe an amazing woman you know?
When I worked for the Burnet Institute in Melbourne in the HIV area, I had the privilege of meeting and working with number of extraordinary women that I admired for their courage and resolve.  They all did something that I am not sure I would have been brave enough to do, was I in their situation.  These women were the first to be public about being HIV+ in their countries, at a time when HIV infection was highly stigmatised and those infected faced discrimination in all sectors of society. Women infected with the virus risked physical violence or even death from their partners (although they were often infected by these partners in the first place). By being open about their HIV status, these courageous women began national, regional, and global conversations about women’s risk and vulnerability to HIV and what was needed to change this. Some of the amazing women have passed away, but many are alive and well and still working to prevent the spread of HIV. Much has changed with respect to HIV-related stigma and discrimination, but not enough for me to give the full names of the amazing women I know.  I am very grateful to have worked with Winnie, Susan, Bev, Suzanne, Maire, Tuberi, Irene, just a few of the amazing women.

What are you reading right now?
I am re-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, currently on number 20 – “Personal”.

Why is MCWH important to you?
The very focus of MCWH on migrant and refugee women is why the organisation is important to me. Many of the women who use MCWH’s services have immigrated to Australia from places with significant gender disparity that puts women at a disadvantage in so many ways. MCWH works to prevent this disadvantage from continuing in their new country.