Idjwi Island, the second-largest inland island in Africa and the 10th in the world, sits in the middle of Lake Kivu, a lush and hilly terrain located between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The home of an estimated 250,000 Congolese refugees, it is where Jacques L. Sebisaho, M.D., spends much of his time and energy.
“Although a beautiful and peaceful landscape, geographic and political circumscription has left the people of Idjwi largely ignored and marginalized,” he says. “My wife, a nurse, and I decided to start Amani Global Works first as a way for us to give back to communities where we come from; second, to build on the strength and peace that Idjwi Island provides in a region that has been affected by wars. Idjwi being the only place never affected by wars or any unrest, we believed it could play a key role in bringing peace through development and job creation.” The word “amani” means “peace” in Kiswahili.
Dr. Sebisaho, 39, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he studied philosophy and bioscience as an undergraduate before obtaining a medical degree at the National University of Rwanda. A general practitioner with a focus on internal medicine, he worked for five years at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and one year at the Millennium Villages Project at Columbia University (Earth Institute) before devoting 100 percent of his time to Amani Global Works, which he and his was wife, Mimy Mudekereza, R.N., formally established in 2010 as a not-for-profit organization to build a medical center on Idjwi Island. “Amani’s approach is to use health as an anchor for sustainable community development. I believe that health care infrastructure, if well structured and for the benefit of the community, can be a center around which development can occur, opening more opportunities for the community through jobs, education and commerce,” Sebisaho says.
Idjwi is a large supplier of lumber, bananas, pineapples and cassava for the eastern Congo and Rwanda and has natural resources such as gold, methane gas and coltan, an essential element for mobile phones and laptops. However, it also has several health issues: malaria, respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, malnutrition and goiter (due to a lack of iodine in the diet). “There were almost no doctors on the island and transportation to and from the island was almost nonexistent,” says Sebisaho, who first had thoughts of becoming a lawyer, which he believed could give him knowledge and tools to advocate for the community. “When people got sick, many of them just died. After few weeks in law school, I wasn’t satisfied. And the closest field that I felt would provide the same tools and help me to be close to this community was medicine.”
Funds for Amani are raised solely through Sebisaho’s personal finances, friends’ contributions and grants. Doctors and nurses involved in the project come from the region surrounding Idjwi Island, where they all were educated. Amani has made a commitment to employ locals and now employs two full-time nurses and five full-time nutritionists. The medical center treats approximately 240 patients per day and the nutrition center feeds 150 undernourished children two times per day. In response to a recent cholera outbreak, from September 2011 to December 2011, Amani Global Works offered health care to 122 patients. The community has donated approximately 10 hectares of land for a larger facility. Starting sometime in January 2012, Sebisaho plans to expand services with two full-time physicians and six additional nurses. “A huge step for a community of more than 250,000 with only four physicians! We are using health care as an anchor for community economic development model in the region,” he adds.
Sebisaho says his aim is to see Idjwi Island as a go-to place in Africa where people can come and seek treatment, invest and do business. “I hope to see Idjwi becoming the leader in health care and research in the Great Lake region of more than one hundred million people,” he says.