Simukai Chigudu

What were you doing before you came to ODID?

My path toward studying at ODID has been a meandering one. I first moved to the UK from Zimbabwe to study medicine as an international student at Newcastle University. During the course of my medical studies, I became interested in global health –  the area of study, research and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide. As such, I endeavoured to take a range of overseas placements to expand my clinical training and inform my understanding of the wider determinants of health inequality. For example, I interned at the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco where I wrote about rights-based approaches to sexual and reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa. I spent two months in South Africa working in both rural and urban hospitals and was involved in the treatment and management of advanced infectious diseases and major traumatic illness. And I spent four months working as a research assistant for an epidemiological survey of epilepsy in Tanzania, which was the largest scale project of its kind at the time. Upon graduation from medical school, I completed the 2-year-long Foundation Programme – the mandatory training programme for all newly qualified doctors in the UK. I then spent a year as an Academic Clinical Fellow in Public Health at Imperial College London, supported by the National Institute for Health Research. As part of this role, I completed a Master of Public Health and also spent six weeks researching the role of leadership in strengthening the Gambian Health System

Through these experiences, my intellectual interests gravitated towards deeper study of the socio-cultural and political-economic aspects of disease and health inequality in Africa. I was awarded a Weidenfeld scholarship to study at Oxford University. I read for the MSc in African Studies, which gave me a solid grounding in interdisciplinary social science. Moreover, the course complemented my medical and public health training by introducing me to the most salient debates in the study of African politics, history and current social issues. My research on the course took me into the realm of feminist social movements as I studied the politics of women’s peace activism in Northern Uganda.

I so enjoyed my career change into social science and academic that I decided to pursue my doctoral research at ODID. The Weidenfeld-Hoffman Trust has generously continued to support my graduate studies.

Tell us a bit about your research

My research examines the politics of a catastrophic cholera outbreak that occurred in Zimbabwe in 2008/09. The epidemic was unprecedented in scale, resulting in at least 98,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths.  At face value, the outbreak can be explained by the breakdown and cross-contamination of the city’s water and sanitation systems. Such a reading, however, belies the complex interaction of political, economic, and historical factors that initially gave rise to the dysfunction of the water systems, that delineate the socio-spatial pattern of the outbreak, and that account for the fragmented and inadequate response of the national health system. Taking this broader view then the cholera outbreak was not only a public health crisis; it also signalled a new dimension to Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis in 2008. I look at the cholera outbreak as a socio-political phenomenon. From this perspective, I suggest that cholera maps onto wider themes of livelihoods and inequality, humanitarianism and citizenship, and, crucially, the relationship between ‘the state’ and ‘the public’. The key question that I seek to answer in my thesis is: In what ways was the cholera epidemic linked to broader trajectories and interpretations of socio-economic, political, and institutional change in Zimbabwe?

What drew you to your field of study?

I have a very personal relationship with my doctoral research project. It was in December 2008 when I first stumbled upon a startling article in the New York Times about a cholera outbreak ‘sweeping across a crumbling Zimbabwe.’ The piece began by recounting how the disease had just claimed the lives of the five youngest children of the Chigudu family with ‘cruel and bewildering haste.’ I quickly worked out that the children who had been killed were not members of my family but it was a chilling moment nevertheless. At the time, I was a medical student in Newcastle. I felt helpless during this calamity and fearful that the medical training I was receiving would ultimately leave me ineffectual in the face of the health challenges that obtained in my home country. It was clear to me that the devastation caused by the cholera was so great because of factors situated far beyond the clinic. Thus to grasp fully the origins of the outbreak, to trace its effects, to make sense of its politics, and to illuminate the true extent of its injustice demanded skills and training in the social sciences. Studying the politics of the cholera outbreak ties together the diverse strands of my intellectual interests, social concerns and academic skills.

Why did you choose ODID/Oxford?

There are two main reasons why I chose to study at Oxford for my doctorate. First and foremost, I wanted to be supervised by Professor Jocelyn Alexander. Professor Alexander has a trenchant and critical mind, she offers rigorous support and mentorship to all of her students, and she commands an unparalleled understanding of Zimbabwe history and politics. Furthermore, she has been very excited about my project since day one. In all our discussions she has opened up many new vistas of thought for me as I tackle this topic. Secondly, Oxford provides a unique and highly diverse intellectual community of which to be a part. I have friends and colleagues in the department, at my college and on my scholarship. Each arena is stimulating in its own way. In the past three years, I have been stretched and challenged by my fellow students even more so than the faculty. At Oxford, much learning occurs in its cloisters and coffee shops where students enthusiastically debate everything from Freud to feminism, from anarchism to the African renaissance. It is an extraordinary place for learning and intellectual growth.

What do you particularly value about ODID?

ODID is the most cosmopolitan department in the university and also boasts a great degree of community and friendship among the staff and the students. I thoroughly enjoy sharing a beautiful office space with doctoral students from around the world. My friends and colleagues from ODID are all breaking new ground in their research areas and they are constantly pushing me to raise my game! I also value the ethos of critical thinking that prevails at ODID. We do not treat the notion of ‘international development’ as a self-evidently good or desirable thing. Instead we examine its history, interrogate its assumptions and expose its hidden power relations. This rigorous way of looking at the world has been richly rewarding for me as I find my identity and voice as a scholar. Finally, I think that ODID encourages all of us as students to immerse ourselves deeply into theoretical innovation and empirical research. I see this in how capably my colleagues bring insights from their field research to bear on major and abstract debates in social and political theory. As such, the knowledge we produce meets the highest academic standards based on solid analysis of realities on the ground.

What would you say has been your best experience at Oxford?

One of my best experiences at Oxford has also been one of my toughest. Towards the end of my second year I became involved in the student activist group, Rhodes Must Fall. Under the umbrella term of ‘decolonisation’, we pursued a threefold agenda at the university. First, our aim was to critique Oxford’s celebratory iconography of colonialists and slave owners. Second, we opened up a discussion about the curricula in many social science and humanities disciplines and asked to what extent the voices and ideas of people of diverse genders, races, class backgrounds and so forth are represented. And third, we pressed the university to take further in action to recruit students and faculty of black and other minority ethnic backgrounds. Our work was met with both praise and ridicule as we shone a light on how legacies of colonialism express themselves in Oxford and sometimes does so the expense of the university’s global character. Importantly the debates that we started have led to fruitful discussions in the History Faculty, the Department of Politics and International Relations, the African Studies Centre and at ODID about the curriculum and diversity and how the university should be engaging with and responding to such issues. Furthermore, owing to Oxford’s high profile, I was invited to speak at University College London, the University of Edinburgh and the School of Oriental and African Studies about these issues and about other universities can also engage with debates about colonialism and its legacies with a view to making the academy more diverse, inclusive and progressive.

Find out more about the DPhil in International Development.

View Simukai's profile.


My friends and colleagues from ODID are all breaking new ground in their research areas and they are constantly pushing me to raise my game!