Anil Das Gupta
The afternoon was falling down. It was a red and humid afternoon. I could hear the murmur of the sea and the voices, laughter and music of the crowd in front of the terrace. Pedro went upstairs and to his side, a tall, elegant man, with dense gray hair appeared to his side. We sat down in wicker chairs, and we drank some Cucas. It was 2005, we were in Chicala, the coastal district of Luanda, Angola.
The conversation flowed like a river in a valley. Accelerated bends, expresses and slow backwaters. Angola, Africa, art, health, information systems, justice, crabs and trips… It was absolutely hypnotic to connect with his curiosity, his kindness, his intelligence, and his humour. That’s how Anil was: someone you could feel was your family because of their fascinating humanity. In the city with the greater force of expulsion than I have known in all my life, the feeling became reality, and the family, rather, the tribe, was being developed.
Beginning of the construction of a Maternity in Viana (MMMed)
An independence war and later a civil one, more than 27 years of conflict, had left the country in ruins. A city, Luanda, designed at the time of the colony for 400,000 people, now appeared as a formless entity, made of mud, sheet metal, rubbish and more than 9 million lives. A state focused on gobbling up natural resources to feed thousands of barrels of oil a day for export, plus the largest diamond mines, timber and fisheries. Hellish health indicators that are dehumanising in their unbelievable magnitude. Extreme inequality, which I have never seen again in my life, confronted me with unreal situations: to pay 5,500 Euros in rent for a house that was falling apart, more than 10 Euros for a kilo of onions, or 100 Euros for a packet of nappies.
We worked in a municipality, Viana, which according to the estimated census (always underestimated) had more than 1 million inhabitants. There was only one doctor, Dr. Ana Generosa, at the Ana Paula health centre, where more than 400 women gave birth every month, among other major challenges. Since 1992, at the height of the conflict, we had been building and supporting the creation of a public health network, primary care in its purest form, in the midst of a chaos that makes a mockery of the most eccentric and dystopian scenes from Mad Max.
Health Centre in the Municipality of Viana
Working hard, building bridges. Working hard, and building bridges. Year after year, struggling against the tide of people who kept arriving from the provinces to the capital, we tried to lay the foundations of something sustainable in a magma of instability. You had the feeling that nothing was getting through, that everything was insufficient. There were surreal situations: we had not finished cutting the ribbon to inaugurate a hospital we had recently built, when we were already hearing cries of newborns in the maternity ward. The demographic pressure was suffocating, and most desperately, the lack of data on what was really happening at the health level in that population made you live in a constant state of emergency and urgency. In some provinces where we worked, even the local authorities were not aware of the number and type of health centres that existed. Vast plains of savannah, desert or jungle were the setting for a sparse and unknown network that was the only starting point for building an entire health system.
In that context in which the urgent was surpassing into the necessary, it was very difficult to look up from the red dust of the streets and have the courage to bet on the structural changes. Now that I see it from a distance, I suppose that only someone who knows India very well can relativize such a huge crowd and propose, with an overwhelming logic, what that health system needed: information and management. This was one of Anil’s projects: to build an information system adapted to the reality of African countries. Passionate about training, he was aware of the limited technical knowledge that the vast majority of health personnel possessed, and he worked for decades to create information management systems that could, by simply typing in some data, extract health information that would guide managers in their challenging task of providing health care to the population. All this with maps, images, visual elements that would compensate for the difficulties of traditional information analysis.
From right to left: Anil das Gupta; Enrique León; Pedro del Campo; Ivan Zahinos
Mula, Murcia, July 2020
A few days ago he called me and told me about his frustrating experience working on humanitarian projects. I guess that after going “leapfrogging” he had no other choice but to go to the root of the problems. He saw it as an act of justice. If we know that health systems that are halfway functional have to be public, well-structured, with data, logistics and competent human resources, why not start building all this now in the heart of Africa? As long as it takes. But, isn’t it better to stop patching things up? The essence of development ran through his veins, that which many of us defend in this world: excitement, commitment, justice and a lot of utopia.
At his side, at Pedro’s side, the logic of long-term investment and, therefore, of commitment began to take root in me. I tried, as if they were communicating vessels, to pour all that learning into the projects I drafted. This led us to work together for years, in different parts of Africa, designing health maps (geolocation maps and descriptions of hospitals and other health units), health development plans, winning investment in health, fighting to open the minds of donors and leaders to go beyond electoral periods and win their commitment to do what we always dreamed of, to make health a right.
From right to left: Anil das Gupta and Pedro del Campo
I could write a book about the feelings that are welling up in me these days. Anil died last Wednesday, unexpectedly. On Monday, he called me:“I invite you for the summer, come to Mula, I would like to teach you how to use QGIS, so you can accompany Pedro to make health maps all over Africa. In the morning training, then we could go to the beach, paint and have sybarite dinners with lots of chatting. And the rest can fuck off”. I still can’t believe that won’t happen. His eagerness was to leave knowledge and ideals as the engines of transformation in the world.
On a recent visit to Mula, I discovered that the best teacher is the one who doesn’t seem to teach you. I don’t even know if Anil was aware that he was changing lives and mentalities. In the shade of a chambao, we talked about these notebooks, about the mestizo, about the need to unleash the potential of who we are as humans, to be free. To not pigeonhole ourselves, to learn and learn, to expose ourselves, to travel. To explain public health through a painting, a documentary, or a song. To the need to transmit justice through art to the visitors of a museum. Looking at him, I realized that, if I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be the way I am, nor would I fight for the multi-faceted projects I fight for, nor would I write these impure texts with the pride of mixing as the ultimate aim and transmitting that we need more justice, more love, more rights and, in short, more humanity. He was the living example of this way of living: art historian, health worker, painter, traveller, companion, husband, friend, friend and friend.
He gave me a painting. A huge blue painting. He told me it was called Patria. I want that blue to be his forever.
Thank you, teacher.
International Relations Coordinator
*Translated from Spanish to English by Susanna Pujol Clivillé
 Pedro del Campo– Doctor, Painter, Humanist and soul-friend. We had thousands of memories together in Africa.
 Mula, Murcia.
 Geographic Information Systems management software used, among other purposes, to produce health maps.