Dr. Leon Kintaudi is a child of the Congo, who left his country, became a doctor, and came back under some of the worst possible circumstances. Growing up, his father was the chief of station for his local area, and his family was relatively well off. But his father died when he was very young of acute appendicitis. Kintaudi was left with the dream of becoming a doctor so he could help prevent other children from losing their parents. An uncle made it possible for him to come to the US, and he became a doctor, married another doctor, and started a comfortable life in the US.
But tragedy brought him back to the Congo. Five siblings died – three of AIDS, one in an accident, one of cancer. He felt compelled to come home and try to make an impact in his country. He moved back three times and “ran away” each time, before finally returning a fourth time and settling in the Congo just as Mobutu’s regime collapsed.
To give us a sense for the scale of Congo, he overlays a map of the Congo over the US – the nation stretches from Arkansas and Florida up to Vermont. There are four tiny lines on that vast map – they are the only paved roads in the country. The nation has faced 16 major wars since 1960, and 4 million died in the most recent war. The nation includes 400 different tribes and ethnic groups.
Kintaudi is focused not on HIV/AIDS, TB or malaria – he’s focused on maternal health. Women in the DRC average seven children each. The contraception rate is 4.4% and female literacy is under 40%. Mothers are workers, producers and financial managers as well as caregivers. The maternal death rate – 1,289 per 100,000 live births – is frighteningly high, as is the child mortality rate – 213 of 1000 children don’t survive to age 5. Women die in childbirth from haemorrhage; malaria during pregnancy leads to anemia, which can be fatal; sick women have underweight, malnourished children who have reduced survival rates.
Kintaudi oversees a USAID program, the SANRU III program. The program includes:
– curative care
– preventative care, including bednets given to all women who came for critical care
– blood safety
– drug distribution throughout the country
– training health teams who have been able to bring vaccination over 90% of the population.
Listing the obstacles to progress in his region, he shows a picture of a witch doctor: “These are the people who kill our villagers” – the attitudes generated by these “miracle men” make modern healthcare more difficult. Other obstacles include the difficulty of accessing these villages, the problems with communications, the fact that most Congolese doctors are leaving for the US, South Africa or the EU, which means that nurses have to do the work of physicians.
How do we overcome these problems? He urges us to “treat our women with dignity,” telling the audience that we can’t come home at 2am, drunk and demand sex, treating women like objects. We have to promote laws to protect women and
educate our children, especially our daughters. We must train health professionals, build infrastructure and equipment. None of this can happen without responsible leaders and governments.
There’s more hope for responsible government every day. We meet one inspiring politician: Joseph Lekuton, a new Kenyan MP. He tells us a remarkable story: he grew up in a Masaai village, which moved throughout northern Kenya. He discovered school when a government soldier came to his village and asked the villagers to identify the children to be taken to school. When he showed up at that missionary school and received his first pen, he tells us, he knew this was where he wanted to be.
Going to school required finding his nomadic family every time he came back at the year’s end, which sometimes involved a 40-50 mile walk. But he got a great education, passed the exam for high school entry, and eventually received a scholarship to go to the US and study at St. Lawrence University and later at Harvard.
He tells us a traditional Kenyan proverb about a blind man and a man with no legs, both rejected by their community. The man with no legs climbs on the shoulders of the blind man and guides him to walk. One of his kinsman asked him what he would do to help his people, invoking this story, saying “If you lead us, we’ll carry you.” So he moved from the US in June, ran for election in July and is now working on a five year plan to put clean water stations throughout northern Kenya, so that there’s clean drinking water for every nomad in five years.