Retrospective on Rwanda

I’ve been home from Rwanda and Kenya only a few days and I’m already on another flight, heading back to Aspen, this time for the Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight: Health, co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It’s on flights that I have time to reflect on a few takeaways, drawn from the myriad impressions and experiences I gathered in Rwanda. I tell everyone that journeys to Africa are life-changing and indeed this one was for me, and hopefully those who joined me.

  • Partners in Health—that unique Boston-based nonprofit global health organization—is uniquely positioned in Rwanda to develop research-based health service models that can be applied around the world. In fact, we in the States have much to learn from these. It’s well on its way to doing innovative, PROVEN programs of science-based health delivery; creating disciplined training programs; and even taking aggressive cancer therapy to the rural poor in a way that is economical and effective.
  • Paul Farmer should get the Nobel Prize. He has demonstrated in Haiti and Rwanda and around the world that health care can be brought to the people who need it. He has shown the world that therapy once regarded as too expensive to buy and deliver—like HIV treatment—can be effectively and inexpensively administered to the poor and rural. And now he is addressing cancer treatment in rural Rwanda.
  • Gorilla health is like human health. My work with the gorilla health began at the National Zoo in Washington. Some mornings I would scrub in at 6 am over in Rock Creek Park to take care of a sick gorilla before opening the Senate as Majority Leader. My interest in gorilla health continues, and that is why I introduced our group at the base of the Virunga Mountains to the vets with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, on whose board I served for years. The upland gorilla, whose march toward extinction was reversed by Dian Fossey, has grown in number from 750 to 880 just over the years I have been involved. Animal conservation working hand in hand with animal health makes a difference. As an aside, I want to raise a red flag to the rapidly growing problem throughout Africa of elephants being massacred for ivory.
  • ONE health is a concept and a movement I hope others come to understand. It gives name to my conviction of focusing time and energies on human health, animal health, and environmental health. Health and healing applies to all—in Rwanda to the land around us, the farmers, the cows and buffalo, all interacting integrally with each other, as so clearly manifested at the base of the Virunga Mountains. Living side by side with mutual respect for each is the only answer. Gorillas are extremely susceptible to human-borne illness. Crowding brings buffalo in close contact with the gorillas, contaminating waterholes and leading to disease and death. Too many people still rely on bush meat for food, killing gorilla and monkeys. Gorillas are also threatened by hunters trying to trap antelopes for holidays and celebrations, unintentionally ensnaring baby gorillas. Health for one is health for all.
  • The HRH program in Kigali blew me away. It will work and I predict become the model of the future where governments are not corrupt. It is built around partnerships. Twenty-six US universities partner with USAID, the source of $33 million, to deliver and improve health services in Rwanda. The process through which the money flows goes like this: the American taxpayer gives his money to USAID who channels the money to government of Rwanda led by Paul Kagame who channels the money through the highly respected Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho. Dr. Binagwaho distributes the money to the sites; 86 health professionals on the ground lead large programs to improve health service delivery. An orthopedic surgeon from the Brigham in Boston or a hospital administrator from Yale may then come to introduce systems to the Rwandan hospitals and district pharmaceutical distribution center. Over an eight year period, the goal is to train Rwandan workers with the skills and knowledge to build and sustain their own programs over years to come. It is working and it is a wise and smart use of the taxpayers’ dollars.
  • Paul Kagame is the man for the times. He has courageously taken a country that in 1994 was deeply divided by genocide, which claimed the lives of 20% of the population, and deeply divided by artificial colonial convictions, and though strong leadership has reconciled the people, formally achieving forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of neighbor-killing-neighbor, and establishing and maintaining remarkable peace. At the same time his belief in markets and investment has led to 20 years of annualized growth of 8% and is greatly expanding the middle class. His leadership is dramatic. He leads from above but implementation begins at the village level. When the president says thatched grass roofs lead to poor health and suggests replacement, it is each neighborhood that comes together every Friday over a two year period to assist in replacing the grass roofs with metal ones. When it is identified that wearing no shoes, the African custom, allows parasites to enter the body leading to disability and death, a proclamation from above to wear shoes was implemented at the community level almost immediately. The New York Times and New Yorker don’t like him, but I think he is an amazing man who has saved his country of 11 million people.
  • Journeys to Africa by Americans are a good thing. Our group of 10, half of whom had not been to Africa, bonded and shared our own perspectives in a close, personal, and intimate way. Africa touches one’s heart. It inspires. It cause one to dream. It changes your life.
  • Health care is improving fast in Rwanda. Vaccinations far surpass those in the US. Childhood mortality has been cut by 2/3. The basic district health clinics are accessible to all and they place a heavy emphasis on family planning, healthy pregnancies, and early childhood health and nutrition. Maternal, newborn, and child health are the foundations of strong communities. The fledgling national health insurance system is solid and growing fast and has been received well. The system gets by with MRIs and CT scanners. It has only one urologist in the country and five pathologists. Heart surgery is rarely done. But all that will change as the economy improves. The new cancer center at Butero, established at the district hospital as a brainchild of Paul Farmer and the Ministry of Health, will greatly expand cancer therapy the county, heretofore lost in all of the attention on infectious or communicable diseases like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis.
  • On my return journey, I stopped in Nairobi, Kenya. Crime in Nairobi is high—street crime and home invasions with burglary and carjacking. Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group, is increasingly threatening the city. Tourists are not coming and hotel census is down. Corruption rules the government and police, it seems. But commerce continues and I spent a day in a wonderful market and had top notch service at the Tribe Hotel, where Jonathan, my son, introduced me to the wonderful family who has developed it.