“I am unorthodox,” says Dr Amina Jindani, who is currently conducting a global clinical trial in the hopes of eradicating Tuberculosis (TB).
From the looks of her office, you would assume that Dr Jindani is everything but unorthodox. The office is small and located on the second floor in the far corner of St. George’s University. Amina herself is short with cropped dark hair, wearing a red sweater and sensible shoes. With over 40 years of experience in medical research, it would seem probable that life has been fairly orthodox for Amina. At the end of our interview however, I would come to realise that this is not the case.
“Sorry for the wait. I must tell you; it is quite a trek to my office,” she says while collecting me from the reception area. Her statement proves accurate. After taking the elevator to the second floor and walking through six separate doors we finally settle into her office. By now I regret my choice of wearing heels and I have worked up quite a sweat. Luckily Amina is no rush and allows me a few moments to collect myself and cool down. “I’m always rushing! Sometimes life is like that,” she says, in response to my anecdote of devouring my lunch on the way here, “try not to rush too much though.”
I heed her advice, using the moment to take in the decoration of the office. Her desk is organised with various papers piled into neat stacks. Her PC monitor sits front and centre and she is no stranger to using it. There are a few moments of exasperation with PowerPoint however, as she shows me photos of her childhood. To the left there is a small table with a kettle and two mugs. Above the table, a poster outlining her clinical group INTERTB hangs on the wall as well as a map of the world studded with tacks indicating all the countries she has visited. Behind me there is a photo of her in 2018, accepting the Ibn Sina Award for Medicine. I comment that it must have been a great honour to receive the reward and recognition from the wider Muslim community. Amina nods her head. She says she is immensely gratified but adds, “I’m not for gongs. I don’t go looking for gongs. I’d much rather do my research and leave the gongs for other people.”
The recognition is flattering, and Amina is no doubt grateful but remarks, “for one thing my English education taught me that a woman should be modest. My Indian upbringing taught me that a woman should be completely subservient, so between the two I am a mess!” she laughs. “So it took me a long time to finally put in an application [for professorship].” And although Amina may not be one for much pomp and circumstance, she is no doubt a well accomplished individual whose research in Tuberculosis (TB) is very deserving of the bestowal of professorship at St. George’s University.
Born in Zanzibar in 1936, Amina’s childhood was quite unorthodox. Her father was an aide of Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah and she was no stranger to sharing her musings with the Imam or having the honour of listening to his thoughts. As such, commitment to the Imamat has been “steeped right from babyhood” according to Amina, so much so that it even determined her future career.
“He said I should be a doctor.” Amina tells me matter-of-factly. “Usko doctor benao, he used to tell my parents. I was only seven-years old!” Naturally there was no deviating from that - it was a direct instruction from Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah himself, something one can only imagine was both daunting and awe-inspiring.
“There was one point where I even said [to my parents] ‘I don’t want to be a doctor - can I come home?’ And they replied ‘do not ever think of coming home till you are a qualified doctor.’ Now today if anyone said that to their child they would be violating their civil liberties. But not in our household, not in those days… So that’s how I became a doctor.”
After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of London in 1962, she began to explore various fields of medicine. “I practiced for a bit. Those days women could only be two things - a paediatrician or a gynaecologist. But the first time I had to tell a couple that their baby was dying, I cried more than they did. So, I thought this is not my scene. I could not bear to see them suffer. Then I thought I could do dermatology; you don’t get emergencies in dermatology.” Hoping for a change of pace Amina shifted her focus in this direction, until one day a woman came into her clinic with sulphide burns. “Her whole skin was peeled off. All of it. And I thought, my God that’s not my scene either!” Both fields of practice were not for her. “She survived. But I could not bear to see sick people. And I still cannot, which is a funny thing for a doctor to be.”
She never intended to be so deeply embedded in researching Tuberculosis. In the year 1966 she had the opportunity to work with a hospital in Nairobi (the Infectious Diseases Hospital) that looked after people infected by TB and Leprosy – an area of medicine, that according to Amina, not many local African doctors wanted to work in “…because it’s not very exciting. So, they encouraged me to go there.” This time it would be different, the work she would carry out amongst people inflicted with this disease would soon prove to be rewarding. “I could see I was curing them. I lost some, but I cured more. So, I thought okay, this is for me. I will cure people; I do not want to see them die.”
Her work has culminated into two major projects, the first are her series of clinical trials that started with the East African and British Medical Research Council in the 1960s and the creation of her research program entitled International Consortium for Trials of Chemotherapeutic Agents in Tuberculosis (INTERTB). The current focus of these clinical trials is to reduce the length of treatment time for those infected with the bacterium. TB is a bit more complex to treat. In the past, treatment times ranged anywhere from 18 months to two years. Amina’s first set of clinical trials reduced the time to six months, “but still that is too long for people.” Her hope is to eradicate TB all together but “that won’t happen in my lifetime.” I ask why.
“It’s the nature of the beast.”
What is left is to reduce the duration of treatment. With her next set of trials Amina would like to reduce the treatment time to four months but the ideal window would be one month. TB is a tricky disease, and Amina has worked hard to understand its complex nature. Her hard work and dedication has been funded entirely by the seeking of grants and donations. In 2006, she registered World Without TB, an NGO to strengthen research capacity globally to conduct clinical trials. In February of this year Amina raised enough money to donate a new centrifuge to a hospital in Guinea that was carrying out treatment and research on TB.
However, this is simply not enough for Amina, “our mindset needs a modification” she says, referring to the ever growing materialism of our world. The rate of TB is not decreasing – it is increasing. And although there are some contributing environmental factors such as population growth, the rate of increase for this disease is disappointing. “TB is a poor person’s disease. You don’t see rich [people] getting it.”
Has it always been like this for Amina? One can only imagine that being the only ethnic minority girl at an all-girls boarding school in 1950s England could prove to be challenging.
“I’ve been very lucky in that respect,” she tells me. “There was not really any racial prejudice amongst these British girls. They’re funny [English people], if you speak like them your colour doesn’t matter… and converse with them at their level like Shakespeare or Jane Austen, your colour doesn’t matter.” In fact, during holiday breaks when most of the girls would go back home to visit family, Amina was always invited along. “Looking back, I think I have been really lucky in that respect.” But how about in her professional life? Amina did not hold back when speaking about her inauguration as a professor.
“The patriarchy still exists. I mean… after all this time and I am [only] now getting my professorship.” This does not mean she is not grateful for the recognition, but she explains that in the end these are all just trivial labels and what really matters is her ability to continue securing funding for her research and clinical trials.
“I am not on the payroll,” she says as we discuss the issues of ageism, retirement ages and the paradox between young people struggling to find a job while the older generation continue to work well past retirement.
“When you talk about ageism, you must admit that an 83-year-old woman should not be working. I mean I started a piece of knitting 20 years ago and I still haven’t finished,” she laughs. Yet, age doesn’t seem to be hindering Amina, nor does she plan on stopping. “You’ve got to keep going! If you’ve got something to do, pursue it with everything you have.”
“All this,” Amina notes, pointing around the room, “They’ve given me this room, now the rest is up to me.”
None of this seems to faze Amina, nor slow her down. She continues to reiterate that labels — and even salaries — are trivial matters in the grand scheme of things. “Do we need to be rich?” she asks me. “What we need is a roof over our head and one meal a day, seriously.” It appears that her years of traveling and aiding poor communities around the world has shaped the way Amina perceives wealth and charity. “Because whatever we have, one day we will leave it behind.”
Her approach to a charity and her overall world view is collectively situated rather than individually based. Amina tells me that we need to “…look at what we do on a planetary basis.” This extends beyond her research in TB and we start to talk about the current state of the planet and climate change. “You know I even take [public] transit now, to keep my carbon footprint low.” At 83, Amina’s worldview is not stuck in the past. She is constantly examining her actions and the impacts they have on others.
Amina shares with me a small example of charity that in her mind speaks volumes. “One example, and it is a very small example, but to me it is astonishing, is young men getting up at three or four in the morning to drive groups of elderly ladies to Jamatkhana. That may be a small thing but to me, it is a huge thing.”
Dr Amina Jindani is an honorary lecturer and researcher at St. George’s, University of London. She heads major foundations, a research programme conducting clinical trials for TB treatment (INTERTB) and an NGO that raises funds for TB treatment (World Without TB). In addition to her recent Professorship, Dr Jindani has also been awarded the 2019 Princess Chichibu Memorial TB Global Award in recognition of her achievements in the field of global tuberculosis control. The Award is granted by the Japan Anti Tuberculosis Association and will be presented in Hyderabad, India on 2 November 2019.