Tuesday
July 20
2010

Adeena Schlussel

Dr. Sebisaho: One Man and an Island

If you sign on to the newborn Amani Global Works website, you will be greeted with a Congolese Proverb: “He who has health, has hope. And he who has hope, has everything.” But what is it that is going to transform this proverb from an optimistic nicety into a lower mortality rate and better quality of life for the Island of Idjwi? The answer is Dr. Sebisaho and a handful of Harvard University Students. Having grown up vacillating between the Congo and Rwanda (and having completed his medical training in the latter), Dr. Sebisaho has obtained a pulse on the medical needs of the region as well as an acute understanding of the cultural and economic subtleties critical in treating its ails.

To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of the Island of Idjwi until very recently, but I have not been able to get it out of my mind since. Idjwi is located on Lake Kivu and floats between the Congo and Rwanda. It officially belongs to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, though you wouldn’t know it, since the island receives no services from its parent government. Idjwi is home to over 200,000 people who live without access to critical goods such as electricity, clean water and medical care. These facts of course imply high infant mortality rates and slim chances for education and development. It is a story we have unfortunately heard before, but it is an especially jarring one. There are 3 doctors on the entire island, and meager medical supplies on a good day. (In the few hours during which my family and I sat with Dr. Sebisaho on the front porch of our home in suburbia, we counted 6 doctors among our neighbors passing by and stopping in to say hello. That’s twice the number that Ijdwi boasts in total.)

But Dr. Sebisaho is not overwhelmed by these odds. He and the Amani Global Works team, which he leads, have a lucid mission with manifold potential benefits:

The team’s five-year plan is to bolster the practically non-existent healthcare system on the island by building a hospital, which will be supported by a few clinics and various health posts. The approach to decentralize healthcare carries not only social benefits, but economic ones as well; as healthcare becomes more accessible, people will be able to enter a habitual cycle of preventative care, which is much less expensive that the consultation, testing and lab fees incurred by a patient who waits to feel pain before they seek care. Furthermore, decentralizing its services will allow Amani Global Works to conquer what would otherwise seem like a formidable goal of bringing health services to a population that lacks them completely.

Currently, the group’s main objective is to attract funding and doctors, but by employing the community, these obstacles are not insurmountable. Amani Global Works plans to train community health workers not only to man the dispersed health bases, but to penetrate the community and initiate care. (This method is used by Partners in Health and by others.) These health workers will come from within the community and will be paid- not much, but still will be paid- for visiting households and bringing solutions. This incentivized plan will enumerate the number of qualified care -givers and will further the organization’s preventative treatment dream.

Once the hospital is established, it will become a communal and economic hub on the island. Dr. Sebisaho plans to use utilize solar panels and possibly the surrounding rivers to generate electricity to light the hospital hallways, and hopefully surrounding homes as well. People will essentially be lured to the buildings- a rare source of electricity and clean water- as moths are lured to a flame.

Additionally, Dr. Sebisaho feels that a valued hospital could have the power to stimulate developments in the country’s infrastructure. Even the most talented politician would be unable to promise to lay roads throughout an unpaved island- the task is too great and the funds, absent. However, it is possible to pave one road- and then another, and then another- to link vital health clinics to their treasured hospital. These hypothetical roads will of course benefit business and general transportation on the island, being that pavement is not prejudiced towards health.

Another, more commonplace benefit to increased healthcare are increases in education as well as economic productivity. When women and children are sick from sullied water or postpartum deficiencies, their entire families take a hit and are unable to complete daily life activities such as earning a living, or even collecting food or firewood. Because Dr. Sebisaho sees women and their children as a crucial pillar in a family, their hospital care will be free of charge (although men and children over five years old will face small fees). Seeing a hospital as an “attraction,” would foster business and other forms of development in the area, a consequence that can be quite palpable on an enclosed island. By the same token, health care services for this vulnerable group could grant them a life of lesser worry and greater learning and productivity.

Knowing that the government will not seed its ventures, the organization is currently working to procure funds necessary to jump-start its plan. However, Amani Global Works will not rely solely on munificence. Some nascent ideas include facilitating cooperatives among the pineapple and banana farmers surrounding the future clinics, and imposing a small health insurance fee that will guarantee services for the entire coop. Another idea for revenue is that in a few years, Dr. Sebisaho hopes that his hospital will have earned a reputation for quality and results that will draw some of the 6+ million people surrounding the island who currently travel much further for care.

But Dr. Sebisaho is not curbing his dreams while waiting for the finances to work themselves out. He and the Harvard students continue to craft their mission. Once they get the ball rolling, the group is looking forward to a whole bunch of ensuing benefits.

This week the groups is traveling to Idjwi to survey the future hosptial’s plot, as well as to further poll its future patients about their wants and needs. With high hopes and manageable first steps, Amani Global Works surely embodies the hope that the Congolese speak of.

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