One curious characteristic of the internet in rural areas of Africa is that spread of connectivity is often very closely related to the growth of hospitals. Medical centres for impoverished areas are high on the priority list for governments and NGOs, but in any attempt to practice modern doctoring these days some kind of internet connection is almost essential.
Take, for example, the island of Idjwi. A 70km long stretch of land in the middle of Lake Kivu, which sits on the border between Rwanda and the DRC (it belongs to DRC), Idjwi has always been a place of extreme poverty and subsistence living. But right now it’s a place of enormous promise and creativity, where “the lesser-known African creative minds are solving African problems” in a way that should be held up as an example of just how resourceful people living in the most extreme conditions on the continent can be.
That’s the opinion of Dr Jacques Sebisaho, who delivered one of the most impressive talks at TEDxSoweto this weekend. The event took place yesterday (Saturday) at the Soweto Theatre in front of an audience of around 200 people. Sebisaho was born and raised on Idjwi, but left to train and study as a doctor. He lived in Rwanda, Belgium and the US, before returning a few years ago to Idjwi.
“When I returned there the situation was the same as I had left it,” he explains, “No roads, no electricity, no phones.”
The only real difference, in fact, was a massive spurt in population which meant a quarter of a million people were now living cheek by jowl on the island with no more access to basic services than when there were tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands, just a few years before.
Sebisaho decided to stay. Using his connections in New York, where he had studied health care policy, he set up an NGO wiht a fundraising base in the US and a mission to build a hospital in Idjwi. Today, Amani Global Works is planning to expand his work beyond Idjwi and has ties with both Harvard and Columbia University Medical Centre.
What’s striking about Sebisaho is just how broad and inclusive his vision is. In building his hospital and outreach program on Idjwi, he hasn’t just been treating disease and helping to reduce frightening infant and maternal mortality rates. He’s introduced satellite broadband to the island and – in the story he tells – transformed the society there itself.
When he returned, Sebisaho says, Idjwi was a highly traditional place. Women were excluded from most decision making and the indigenous Mbuti population, who Sebisaho describes as a Pygmy tribe, was essentially enslaved as agricultural workers who were bought and sold with tracts of land. Their status was so low, Sebisaho says, that they couldn’t even be arrested.
According to Sebisaho, Idjwi has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world – just 25 years. The Mbuti’s is even less.
Even before the hospital project began, Sebisaho decided that levelling Idjwi’s society and empowering the excluded would be essential for the future of the island. When the men of the community came to help build the first of the health centre’s buildings, Sebisaho convinced them that they should allow the women to work on the site as well.
“I told them that in order for the project to continue, women had to be part of it,” Sebisaho says, “I took the advice of the women… and bought gallons of the local beer to share with them first, so they were more likely to agree.”
As a result, the hospital was built faster than planned. Then it was the turn of the Mbuti.
“As the only trained doctor in the area,” Sebisaho explains, “I made it clear that the indigenous people would be treated for free and they would be seen by doctors and nurses. Anyone who refused to treat them wouldn’t be paid.”
Laying down the law wasn’t popular, but the mutual benefits of inclusiveness soon became clear. Soon after it was opened, the hospital was threatened with closure because of the malaria risk to patients from a nearby sugar cane grove. Sebisaho mentioned the problem to one of his Mbutu patients. The next day, the entire crop was cleared thanks to massive effort by the Mbutu.
The first clinic in the Amani Global Works project opened in 2010, and has treated around 100 patients every day. It’s also been a centre for training local healthworkers and managing outreach programs for school nutrition and . Over the last two years, a network of clinics has been developed around the island and the main centre expanded to include new buildings, an electrical supply provided by solar panel and a satellite broadband link – the first on the island. Ultimately, the goal is to treat 50 000 people a year.
Most of all, though, it’s been a focus for a community to rally behind and Sebisaho’s TEDx presentation was a paean to the people who have changed and accelerated his work through their creativity.
“When we think of creativity,” says Sebisaho, “We think of Da Vinci, Picasso, Einstein, Steve Jobs… We Africans are lucky. We have lots of cretive minds focussing efforts here to change the world, to make Africa a great place… Maybe we do need great minds and charities, but we need to empowr our own creative people. When people are empowered there are no limits.”
We’ll be updating with more of our TEDxSoweto coverage over the next couple of days. Stay tuned for more write-ups of some great talks.