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Village Health Works

New York, NY, USA

T-Z Partners

Village Health Works (New York, NY, USA)

Village Health Works (VHW) was born out of compassion, remembrance of a personal journey, compassion for the pain of others and an old childhood dream that became a reality in 2007.

 

Village Health Works Founder and CEO, Deogratias Niyizonkiza's compelling story:

Born in rural Burundi where death seemed to be more common than life, I lost several friends of childhood at tragically young ages. None of my friends who died was able to see a health care provider. Most of them died from preventable and treatable illnesses either in the hands of witchcraft doctors or at home.

In primary school, I would start the school year with such a large number of kids that many did not have a place where to sit. By the end of the school year, the classroom would only be half full because so many kids had died, while others had dropped out to take care of their siblings after their parents had died from undiagnosed illnesses.I was one of the few lucky ones who survived such harsh conditions, and my parents were crucial at keeping my hope alive. They managed to convince me that, even when there was nothing to eat at home and the roof was often leaking over my head in the middle of the night, I was not poor because I had them and they loved me. This, however, did not take away my fear of dying young.

So, my life was not a life in which I would ask myself, “what is my future going to be like?” It was a life of constant fear of the preventable death that took life of my neighbors and friends, a life in which my biggest questions were “Am I going to be next? Isn’t there anything available to protect us from dying so prematurely?”

As time passed, I organized a group of students while in secondary school to build a dispensary. The project did not get anywhere after the rain damaged all the bricks that we had made. But the idea never died.

Such precarious health conditions in the community continued to take more lives and became even worse during and after the brutal thirteen years of bloodshed in Burundi. Those years in particular were characterized by something more than just total lack of good health, but also, a total lack of deference to human life, values and dignity.

In 2005, I visited my sick mother in a hospital and spoke with a physician who felt powerless and humiliated in front of patients dying from diseases that could easily be controlled if resources were available, and if dirt-poor patients were not detained for having failed to pay medical fees they couldn’t afford.

I knew the unfortunate health status of this society before my return to Burundi. So, when I arrived in Burundi and saw how sick people were, I was dismayed but not surprised. What I had not fully imagined, though, was the magnitude of the suffering of the patients there. The stories I heard from family members and friends personalized such suffering. In that year, my mother was found unconscious by the side of the road after collapsing on the long trek to a clinic for malaria treatment. A Good Samaritan rescued her from what easily could have been another lonely, undocumented Burundian death. My return to Burundi that year meant that I could attach more faces and stories to the statistics.

Today, diseases eradicated in wealthy nations so long ago, that they are no longer studied in the western medical institutions, thrive in poor communities like the ones Village Health Works serves. They remain a major health and development issue, with implications for future generations as well as for so many today. Ending this kind of structural carnage is crucial to constructing a reasonable standard of human security, which is impossible to achieve without human health.

In the face of such a chronic and heartbreaking situation that has dehumanized our world and made what is abnormal elsewhere commonplace in Burundi, it was inevitable to ask ourselves the same question Hillel the Elder asked, "If not now, then when?"

It was scary when we began. I was afraid of a lot of things. We started from scratch with no money, working with people who had less than nothing while carrying their tragedies like a great weight. The war had just officially ended and wounds were still fresh. Insecurity was still around and there was no place to sleep. It was important for me to put my fears aside and keep my hope and dream alive to be able to continue the work. But spending so many hours feeling sad, powerless and watching the life of an entire community evaporate, was more exhausting than confronting the situation.

On the 25th of December 2005, we gathered in a group of 11 men and four women from Kigutu for the first time to talk about these issues and choose a site for what is now the Sharon McKenna Community Health Center. Together, the community gifted 25 acres of prime land, their most valuable possession, commenting, "As long this is for our own clinic, take as much land as you need."

As we planned the construction, the local community began making bricks for construction; women started carrying stones on their heads and together they raised 150,000 Burundian Francs ($150) to rent a truck to bring equipment to the health center site. More than 150 community members labored for days to carve nearly four miles of new road, (which has just recently been renovated by the government of Burundi).

There were many grueling setbacks and challenges, but giving up was never an option for us. We continued to work harder knowing that nothing worthwhile comes easily and that it would take a lengthy process to accomplish our mission.

As the results of hard work became more and more visible, enthusiasm spread throughout the community as people began to realize that they had a real prospect at health care, and more willing people volunteered their time to support the effort.

Everyone understood that we had to lift together, and pull together, to achieve results that would last. And they did, with such passion and such intensity that the work became a calling, and the site a place of healing, a place for reconciliation, a place for much fun and for hopeful futures.

 

Location

New York, New York, USA

 

Website

Village Healthworks

 


 

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