Solutions in Action: Community Engagement Provides Healthcare in Burundi

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By Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, founder and executive director of Village Health Works

Just as surely as people can destroy in horrifying ways, they can also rescue and give, purely and selflessly. I was a third-year medical student when I was forced to flee Burundi because of the horror similar to that in Rwanda.  Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Ten and a half million people live in an area the size of Maryland, and 80 percent of them live on less than a dollar a day. Health statistics are grim: the entire country has only 200 trained doctors, one in five children die before the age of 5, and mothers have a 1 in 9 chance of dying in childbirth. The misery, the abandonment, the tragedies, and the suffering in Burundi have become the norm.

After the thirteen-year genocidal war in Burundi, community members who were still able to walk and talk joined me in one family’s compound to take action and stop the needless suffering. The idea of a health center helped us light the spark of our own optimism, which had almost been extinguished by the horrors we’d lived through. Subsistence farmers donated the only commodity they had—land—for the health center. Men and women with babies on their back hand-built the first road linking the village with the route to the capital, so that supplies could be delivered. Our community made bricks for construction; women carried stones on their heads and together the village struggled to chip in $150 to rent a truck to transport equipment. Hundreds of community members continue to volunteer their time to maintain our efforts.

This kind of unparalleled community engagement is mainly what makes Village Health Works sustainable. Our work is aided by the help of supporters across the globe but most importantly, Village Health Works was made possible due to the initiative of our local community. The generous help of foreign donors only became effective when the people of Kigutu, even the ill and impoverished, began seeing themselves as grassroots philanthropists.

Today, Village Health Works brings quality, compassionate health care to the destitute sick, regardless of their ability to pay. Our goal is to bring decency where it has been lost by creating a dignified environment for all. We want to create a model that can be replicated throughout Burundi and far beyond its borders.

I will never forget a woman who came to help build the road leading to our health center, bringing her sick child. She said to me, “Instead of staying at home watching my baby die, I would rather come here, because at least then my contribution can save someone else’s child.”’ Her child was eventually treated successfully for malaria. The woman told me, “The medication you gave my child was the greatest gift a mother could receive. And this work also has a more precious element than you know.” I asked her what it was. She said, “Ending the crisis.” Crisis is the word Burundians use instead of genocide. She said, The crisis can end: People have been talking and working together.” VHW is not just operating a clinic and building a women’s pavilion. We are not just building a health center, we are building peace.

Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the founder and executive director of Village Health Works in Burundi  is one of the keynotes of the Global Challenge conference in Boston in June of 2013. Global Challenges and Opportunities Facing Children, Youth and Families—a conference exploring global issues in education, health and human rights—will take place on the campus of Wheelock College in Boston MA from 19 to 22 June 2013.