Headshot of A. Kayum Ahmed with words Faculty Q&A and photo of apartheid-era restrictive signage in South Africa

An ‘Activist Scholar’ with a Global Health Perspective

In a faculty Q&A, Prof. A. Kayum Ahmed says he is committed to social justice in research and the classroom, with a focus on the “decolonization of human rights.”

March 20, 2023

Over the last 25 years, A. Kayum Ahmed has earned degrees from universities in South Africa, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. in fields spanning anthropology, education, law, and theology. Now an assistant professor in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Ahmed teaches courses in human rights and health advocacy, leads the Columbia Mailman School’s Health and Human Rights Certificate, and works with the Global Health Justice and Governance (GHJG) program. “I’m trying to make sense of the world by looking at the problems and injustices we face from multiple perspectives,” he says.

Ahmed lived through some of those injustices. As a South African who spent the first 18 years of his life living under apartheid, he experienced the impact of white supremacy and racial segregation on society. “The segregation I experienced early in my life, profoundly shaped my worldview and my decision to focus on social justice and human rights.”

Throughout his career, Ahmed has toggled between scholarship and activism. He has led the South African Human Rights Commission, worked as a division director at the Open Society Foundations, and co-founded and directed the South African HIV-AIDS advocacy organization Positive Muslims. He currently serves as a special advisor at the non-governmental Human Rights Watch. “I’m keeping one foot in academia,” he says, “one in the human rights-public health space.”

You describe yourself as an “activist scholar.” What do you mean?

Ahmed: My aim is to utilize research to support social justice and human rights activism, and for social justice struggles to inform my research focus.

How did you hone in on human rights and public health?

Ahmed: When I was a law student in Cape Town in 2000, in my early 20s, I worked with Faghmeda Miller, an incredible activist who is the first Muslim woman in the world to speak publicly about her HIV-positive status. We cofounded Positive Muslims together with Farid Esack, to support HIV-positive women in South Africa. That experience was formative. A decade later, I was appointed the youngest chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission, where I had the mandate to monitor, protect, and promote human rights at the national level. I oversaw more than 45,000 human rights cases, spanning racial justice, social justice, and the right to health. Most recently at the Open Society Foundations, I led its health and human rights advocacy campaign on equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

What appealed to you about joining the Mailman School faculty?

Ahmed: I have a really good, long history with Columbia. I earned my PhD in the School of Education in 2019; from 2017–21 I was a lecturer in the Law School.

You’ve written extensively about “decolonizing human rights.” What does that mean?

Ahmed: These are ideas I started exploring through my work with  Black radical feminists in South Africa. Africans and people in the Global South continue to feel the effects of colonialism  through white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, and understand the pernicious nature of European altruism. As Franz Fanon put it, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder.” My work is centered on disordering and disobedience.

What does decolonization mean for public health in the U.S.? 

Ahmed: I developed and taught a course for the Law School called “Decolonizing Covid: Racial Justice, Necropower, and the Global Health Architecture.” A few weeks ago, I visited the Navajo Nation, where COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on Native American people.  Some people  I spoke to, lost 40 members of their family. In that moment, in the wealthiest country in the world, I was transported to apartheid South Africa. I’ve been thinking about how apartheid and segregation plays itself out among Indigenous communities in the U.S., who tend to be disproportionately impacted by negative public health outcomes.

How does a decolonization paradigm affect the classroom?

Ahmed: I think of the university as a paradoxical space that is deeply rooted in the history of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Yet at the same time, it offers an opportunity for students to liberate themselves from the colonial perspectives that continue to dominate our approaches to thinking about public health.

How do you help your students dig into those paradoxes of academia?

Ahmed: I’ve designed a walking tour of the School of Public Health and the medical school. We’re engaging these questions of human rights and social justice on land originally occupied by Lenape people. I ask my students to examine the names on buildings, names that have been removed from buildings, how the epistemic and physical architecture of our schools can inform and sometimes perpetuate the injustices we are attempting to learn about.