Something amazing is happening in the tiny east African nation of Burundi. In a country ranked 178 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index, still dealing with the after-effects of a brutal civil war, and with half of the population living below the poverty line, local community members and their returning sons are working together to build and maintain a comprehensive community health care facility in a rural village.
The program is called Village Health Works, and it was started in 2007 when Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, who fled the civil war in 1993, returned to his native country to realize his dream of bringing accessible medical care to a part of the world that desperately needed it. Niyizonkiza came home to his country after earning a degree at Columbia University and working with Dr. Paul Farmer’s group Partners in Health. The dream of a comprehensive community health care clinic was born of his own experience of losing friends and classmates to treatable illnesses. The process of realizing that dream began in earnest in 2005 when a group of 11 men and four women from the village of Kigutu assembled with Niyizonkiza to discuss health issues facing the village, and to plan a site for the for what eventually became the Sharon McKenna Community Health Center.
A key aspect of the project is its community focus. VHW is not just an outside organization coming in to rescue needy people. Rather, the group demonstrates that local people can and should be involved in the process of improving health care and other aspects of their own lives. That ethos has been part of the VHW project from the beginning: Land for the building was donated by the community, and villagers did much of the manual labor themselves: making bricks and carrying stones for construction, raising $150 to buy a truck, and digging a highway to the facility. The current facility has a number of impressive features, including solar energy panels, a VSAT internet system for communications and Electronic Medical Records, and a 14,000 gallon water collection cistern that was the first source of drinkable water in the village.
Other notable features include a teaching farm for agricultural training (part of VHW’s strategy for addressing malnutrition), a staff and volunteer residence, a children’s malnutrition ward, and an in-patient facility with a waiting area, lab and IT room. In January 2010 they completed a community center they call “Light House.” Currently, VHW is building a Women’s Health Pavilion to increase the number of in-patient beds available, and to provide more operating theaters. To date, the clinic has since served more than 50,000 individual patients.
All of these advances in community health care in Burundi have been achieved through collaboration between local people, international donors and workers. Village Health Works describes itself as delivering “world-class, community-driven medical care and local development initiatives from what has rapidly become the premiere health facility in all of Burundi.” The group also emphasizes that it “couple[s]clinical programs with community development initiatives in response to needs defined by community members.” This approach to community health care allows VHW to address all of the areas of need, including “food security, education, livelihood skills, gender-based violence and environmental protection.”
– Délice Williams