Loveth Ochayi is an economist and consultant living in Darwin. She chats to MOONLAND Editor Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn about growing up in Queenstown and what the West Coast region means to her now.
ZDK: What does the West Coast mean to you? What are some of the places and landscapes that have stuck in your memory?
LO: I was born in Nigeria. We moved to Tasmania from Botswana when I was in Year Six, at the age of twelve. My dad was a GP and initially he worked in Rosebery, where we lived for three months before moving to Queenstown because they needed doctors more.
As a child, I found it fascinating how somewhere so sparse could hold so much beauty. I remember the West Coast being a very mountainous area with lots of rainforests. We used to go on holidays to Strahan and Zeehan and I always found it fascinating how the drive into Zeehan looked dead, and like nothing, but there were so many beautiful nature spots and beaches tucked away in that same area.
ZDK: When did you decide to pursue a career in health and economics?
LO: Because my dad is a doctor, I always thought as a kid that I wanted to be a doctor too. But as I grew older I knew it wasn’t quite right. At school, I remember I wanted to study economics but they didn’t have it and it didn’t work out for me to study it at a different school. I remember having a crisis about what I was going to do; I knew I didn’t want to go into allied health or medical practice but I was really interested in health.
It was one of my dad’s patients, ironically, who was an Economics Professor at the university and he’d obviously spoken to her about his troubled daughter and what to do. She said economics would be really good, and so I spoke to her about what she did. She introduced me to the possibilities in the health economics field. That really clicked with my skills and interests so I studied economics and science at university. I really enjoyed economics but I chose to do science to give me a broader perspective on things. I did geography and then programming and it also gave me the opportunity to try out different things like psychology, humanities and other things like that.
I hit a crossroads between going into academia, working for the government, or going into the private sector as a consultant, so I ended up doing a few internships to figure things out. I really enjoyed it because I realised then, at the start of my career, that I had different interests in different problems and I didn’t want to narrow myself to the field of health. At university, I worked as a research assistant but it was slow and I didn’t like writing grant applications. With consulting, you get a diversity and breadth of issues and projects. This fit well with me because I get bored easily.
I then moved to Perth and started working with a consulting company with a more positive influence on the world. We’re working as part of some really big reforms at the moment, including a review into the infant/child/adolescent mental health system in Western Australia, designing systems for the future. In the long term, health economics is definitely an area I want to specialise in. I’m still in the phase of learning and absorbing.
ZDK: How did the West Coast of lutruwita / Tasmania shape your outlook on health?
LO: As a ten-year-old, I expected a lot from what I’d heard about the Western world and I didn’t understand that every country has both rich and poor. I was really astonished by how people struggled to get medical assistance on the West Coast; people in Queenstown had to travel for hours to get to Burnie, or even Hobart, to access specialist appointments. When Mum needed a hip replacement, she had to go to Hobart. It didn’t make sense to me that in a country like Australia, you still needed to travel long distances to get procedures like that done.
Growing up in a medical family and hearing my parents talk about their jobs was really fascinating. Part of the reason I didn’t end up going down the path of becoming a GP was that I could see the problem lay in the systemic issues, rather than the medical service delivery itself. That’s what drove me to develop my interests in economics and work on that systems-thinking level. I think just seeing how people lived in Queenstown and how they adapted to limited resourcing was a big part of that; there was a disparity and inequality that meant people had to travel these huge distances to get things done.
ZDK: Queenstown isn’t the easiest place to grow up. When we were at school together, I remember you sticking up for me and encouraging me to talk to teachers about the bullying. It must have been very hard to have to deal with racism, growing up African Australian in a remote mining town. Is there anything you’d say to your younger self or to young people of colour growing up on the West Coast?
LO: Because the West Coast was my first experience of the Western world, when we moved there it was like going back in time. At first, I wanted to move back to Africa. To come to terms with it, I told myself it’s just a small part of a big country and a bigger Western world. From that experience of Queenstown, I was really worried about how people looked at me because I had a different skin colour. The racism caused me to have an existential crisis; I’d never felt so different. Moving to a country where I stood out like a sore thumb meant I really struggled with figuring out my place. I remember always thinking about how I behaved and the clothes I wore and worrying about how I was presenting myself. If I could tell my younger self anything I would say, ‘Be yourself. The problem is not you, it’s your environment’. I’d also encourage my younger self to talk about it. I didn’t really talk about it because I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what I was going through. It was really, really isolating.
ZDK: What does the West Coast mean to you now?
LO: It’s a very fascinating place. It stays with you more than you realise, I think. I’ve seen a lot of great people come out of Queenstown who are doing amazing things, and others who are just chilling, which is fine as well. I think it really made me realise how polarised the world is, even in Australia. I’ve never been to a place that’s quite like Queenstown, even now. It’s unique, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s a place that’s always evolving.
Loveth Ochayi is Nigerian-Australian. She was born in Nigeria and spent a large part of her childhood in lutruwita / Tasmania. Loveth is now an economist working with government, private and not-for-profit organisations across the country to shape public policy and improve the economic, health and education outcomes of all Australians.