“She has two claims to fame. One, I would argue, she doesn’t have very much to do with, but the second she certainly does.”
That was how the moderator began, standing before the group of undergraduates and other community members who had gathered in the Hastings Common Room of Pforzheimer House to enjoy an evening discussion series event.
And then Ophelia Dahl stepped up to the podium.
The world might have known her first as the daughter of famed author Roald Dahl (famous of course for such classics as James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and actress Patricia Neal, but the woman whom I saw standing before me in the warm evening glow of Pfoho’s Hastings Room was, first and foremost, the great advocate for global health who I had come to know as the co-founder of the now world-renowned nonprofit healthcare organization Partners in Health.
I’ll admit, though, that this incredible health advocate’s first claim to fame–her connection to her father–had me practically giddy with awe. I have always been a voracious reader, but for me my love of books really began when I was very young and going through my grandmother’s book shelves in Sri Lanka. For some reason, almost every book that I could find was written by a man named Roald Dahl. I read every one of them. When I would return to the States at the end of the summer for the start of a new school year, I quickly learned that the rest of the world had also discovered Roald Dahl and, fortunately, this meant that his titles lined the bookshelves in America too. I remember picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and one of my all-time favorites, The BFG, when I was in kindergarten, without knowing at first that these were all part of the legacy and incredible imagination of the same author whose name had lined the spines of all the books on my grandmother’s shelf. I came to love these books and the author who dreamt up such fantastical stories so as to keep my childhood imagination running wild and free. And here was his daughter. I could only imagine what it would have been like to grow up and have Roald Dahl in the house as chief bedtime storyteller. Fortunately, Ophelia gave us a glimpse.
Ophelia Dahl and I
She told us a story about one time when she was in grade school and was complaining to her father about how hard her math class was. He thought for a moment about it, and then told her that there was this big, friendly, giant who had a magic potion and would come through at night to take all of her problems away. “I thought, this is great!” Ophelia said, eliciting a chuckle from the room. “Of course, he didn’t think of it all like that in one line,” she added with a twinkle in her eye (alluding to the plot of The BFG which so many of us know well).
Ophelia went on to describe her father’s talent for imagining solutions to problems around him and how this in turn socialized her to believe that if there was a problem, she need only apply her creativity and insight and she was capable of finding a solution. No doubt it is this mentality that paved the way for her working with Paul Farmer to found Partners in Health as an organization that was dedicated to serving the poorest and neediest communities and delivering better healthcare.
She described how she first got to Haiti at the ripe age of 18–after deciding to take a gap year from school because she truly had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. That’s when she met Paul Farmer (who had a very good idea of what he wanted to do) and they spent a lot of time working amidst devastating health inequities that begged for change.
Throughout it all, she remains humbled by and thankful for her parents. “I had an amazing father, but I don’t want to forget that my mother was equally so,” she said. I loved her for saying that. It truly is amazing how we can be oblivious to how incredible our parents are when we are children–whether those parents happen to be a world-renowned author and oscar-winning actress like Ophelia’s, or not.
Coffee cups soon began clacking together lightly and feet were shuffling as the time for the event began winding down.
Incredible, I thought to myself. Could I have known that 15 years later that child reaching for The BFG on her grandmother’s bookshelf would end up in a Harvard common room listening to Roald Dahl’s daughter talk about her father’s inspiration for that story? Absolutely not.
And yet, while I undeniably felt some connection to Roald Dahl through Ophelia, I also needed to accept the fact that as much as I will always love my childhood story chest, I have also grown up since then. There is no magic potion available to solve my problems, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine my own solutions.
The BFG and my collection of Roald Dahl books will sit on my bookshelf for many years to come, and I hope that my grandchildren will enjoy them one day just as I once did. But, now–in this, my 20th year of life and my third year as a college student–I am far more enraptured by the incredible story that Ophelia Dahl had to share about her second claim to fame. Her’s was a story of compassion, selflessness, and hope in a world where fighting for healthcare as a human right must be the world’s fight if it is to become humanity’s victory. No children’s story can do that kind of work, but they certainly can inspire the hope and imagination that allow us to believe that we can save the world. I saw it in Ophelia Dahl tonight and I hope that I too can share that kind of inspiration with the world one day.
As the discussion wound down, I glanced to my right and noticed the 8-year-old son of one of the Professors in attendance sitting on the floor beside my chair with his head busily burrowed in a book. I smiled to myself. He may not yet be at the age where he is interested in a discussion about systems change in the public health sector, but it was clear that he had grasped the essential message that Ophelia Dahl had shared with us: never stop imagining.
We do that, and Roald Dahl’s legacy lives on.