HEAL Africa


Editor’s Note: Lyn Lusi died of cancer on March 17, 2012.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There are few images of war’s destruction in the eastern Congolese city of Goma. Little was built in the first place. For two decades, regional militias have clashed over the minerals here. U.N. troops have brought some order but their reach—and mandate—are limited. So is the Congolese army’s effort to assert control.

A series of peace agreements and two democratic elections have brought some stability here, although very little development. There’s still virtually no paved road in this whole country. What has continued unabated is an epidemic of sexual violence. The United Nations says the Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place on earth to be a woman.

One place where you get an idea of what that means is a refuge called HEAL Africa.

Women work to shake off unspeakable atrocities they have faced. The trauma has left most of them with injuries that render them incontinent. This woman wears a mask to conceal her maiming at the hands of militiamen who raided her home one night about a year ago.

ANNONCIATA: My older daughter escaped from them. they told me to go get her. And I said she’d escape from you, how could I ever catch her. Since I wouldn’t give them my daughter, they hit me on the head with a machete and after I fell down they used the same machete to cut off my lips.

DE SAM LAZARO: A volunteer health worker brought her to HEAL Africa. It is the only specialty care hospital in all of Eastern Congo.  It was started 12 years ago by British-born Lyn Lusi and her Congolese husband, devout Christians who’d served the region for years before that as medical missionaries.

LYN LUSI(Co-Founder, HEAL Africa): Well, my husband was an orthopedic surgeon. He finished in Belgium in ’84, and to this day he’s still the only one, the only orthopedic surgeon in the east of the country.

DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Jo Lusi has performed thousands of surgical operations—fixing everything from club feet and cleft palates to fistulas, the vaginal, sometimes rectal tearing that comes from rape trauma or obstructed labor. HEAL Africa has trained nearly 30 young Congolese doctors, paying for their education elsewhere in Africa. Its bare bones emergency and intensive care are the only such services in a region of eight million people—supported by various private and international government grants. Seven hundred children with HIV get life-saving antiretroviral drugs here. But Dr. Lusi says all this is just one part of a much larger idea.

Dr. Jo Lusi, co-founder of HEAL AfricaDR. JO LUSI (Co-Founder, HEAL Africa): When you serve human, I don’t see you here like a human. I see you like an image of God, so to do that you have to be holistic. You have to be total, you have to know what about the spirit, about the flesh, about the soul. Here the people are lacking everything. They don’t have food; absolute poverty. They are exploited. They are perishing because of lack of knowledge. They are perishing because of the lack of justice. So me and my wife said OK, how do we do a holistic system?

LYN LUSI: HEAL is an acronym, it stands for health, education, action in the community, and leadership development, and all of those are components of a healthy society.

DE SAM LAZARO: For many patients who come initially for medical care, healing is a years-long process of rebuilding a life. This shelter serves women whose fistulas have not healed—about a quarter of such cases.

BASENYA BANDORA: It is very different here from back in village. People were laughing at me: “She’s smelly, she was raped.” Here people know I am a complete person.

DE SAM LAZARO: Women are taught to sew, make baskets, and raise small animals, and they are allowed to dream.

Basenya BandoraBANDORA:  I want to have a little shop, and I will make bread and I will sit there with my sewing machine and people will bring me things to sew.  I will make baskets.  If I can have a little house, that would be very nice.

DE SAM LAZARO:  For now, for practical purposes, such dreams are pure fantasy, thanks to lingering health problems and also militiamen who continue to raid villages with impunity. Annonciata frequently sees the men who maimed her, but she reacted viscerally to a suggestion she might report them to the police.

ANNONCIATA: Uh uh uh uh! I’m terrified, they would kill me. Only God can punish them for what they did.

DE SAM LAZARO: But HEAL Africa has begun working to bring a more immediate justice to victims of rape. In partnership with the American Bar Association, local lawyers work to apprehend suspects and put them through the legal system here. It is flawed and corrupt but Lyn Lusi says only when Congolese begin to buy into it will it begin to work for them.

LYN LUSI: I would always encourage our legal aid to work ten times more on the issue of bringing the community in line with the law so that they appreciate what the law is trying to do and that they agree with it and that there’s social pressure, there’s a a desire within the community for zero tolerance of sexual violence, of any sort of violence.

DE SAM LAZARO: That’s what brought this 15-year-old girl and her father to the legal clinic to bring charges against a young man who raped her while she went to collect water for the family.

PATRICE KIHUJHO: I want him not only to be put in prison but I also want him to pay for the damages he caused. Last year, I turned 75 years old. When we were growing up, we never saw this kind of behavior. When you liked a girl, we would get married. I am really astonished. I’m not sure what’s going on, how they can take little girls and assault them.

DE SAM LAZARO: Lyn Lusi thinks it’s a consequence of fighting that has raged for two decades in Eastern Congo, destroying any sense of community.

Lyn Lusi, co-founder of HEAL AfricaLYN LUSI: You have seen your village destroyed, you’ve seen your people killed, you’re a young man with no future, I mean you have every reason to fight and every reason to go off and join the militia. There are also those militias that will kidnap children and take them into their armies and just to reinforce their ranks. Children are extremely good soldiers in that they have no fear, and they have no conscience.

DE SAM LAZARO: Where does one begin to repair this? The Lusis say they have worked to tap the enduring faith of most Congolese.

LYN LUSI: Here is a mandate to care that’s in the Muslim community, that’s in the Christian community, and it’s present in every single locality in Congo. You could say that probably 95 precent of Congolese will go to a place of worship once a month at least. So this is an amazing power within the community, and if we knew how to mobilize people correctly, around their mandate to care, then you can make a big impact on a social problem.

DE SAM LAZARO: HEAL Africa has gathered religious leaders and other community elders into so-called Nehemiah Committees. These gatherings address sources of violence early on, mediating local business disputes or competing land claims before they escalate. Lyn Lusi says it’s a start.

LYN LUSI: I have no illusions that we’re dealing with major issues that are pulling Congo apart. I don’t think HEAL Africa is going to empty the ocean, but we can take out a bucketful here and a bucketful there. There is so much evil and so much cruelty, so much selfishness and it is like darkness. But if we can bring in some light, the darkness will not overcome the light, and that’s where faith is. We believe that.

DE SAM LAZARO: For her work, Lusi was awarded the 2011 Opus Prize, a one million dollar award given by the Minnesota-based Opus Foundation to a faith-driven social entrepreneur.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Aleda Midgarden

    Our biracial grandson is from the Congo. We got him when he was 14, he has two older brothers and two younger.. He will graduate college this Spring. My son was in the Peace Corps and went back for his child with the agreement that he would continue to help the mother and her other children.

    My grandson wants to work in international business. He speaks two African languages, also, French, Spanish and English.

  • Lynn Severance

    I have been aware of the work of HEAL Africa .

    It meant a lot to see ,via this video, a more tangilbe reality of where the work takes place and to hear Dr. Jon and Lyn Lusi speaking of the group’s goals.

    Thank you for bringing their work to a wider audience.

  • Lynda Moore

    I first met Lyn and Jo Lusi in 2006, and over several visits since then, I have witnessed the reach and impact of their programs first hand. The test of any social innovation approach is whether it is replicated, and this is being seen with the Nehemiah Committees. Good ideas are contagious. Working with Lyn on the grants portfolio, I can attest that this is a top-notch Congolese medical and community health organization – run by and for the Congolese, not an international organization. Although they receive financial support from many government and non-government sources from around the world, including terrific organizations like HEAL Africa-USA (a US-based charity that helps to fund the work of HEAL Africa-DRCongo), what is often not funded sufficiently are the little things that matter the most to restoring dignity to HEAL Africa’s patients, clients and family members: the burial cost for a patient who dies in hospital; bus fare for family members to return home afterwards; hospital emergency services that are never denied the most impoverished even if they are non-residents needing urgent care as in the case of a plane crash; teaching basic literacy and numeracy to unschooled children during their post-orthopedic surgery rehabilitation; sending a mosquito net home with a child treated for severe malaria; providing clothing, food and shelter in transit houses where victims of sexual and gender-based violence receive post-rape clinical care and psycho-social support to prepare for the surgical and recovery process that lies ahead; adoption – by a staff nurse – of the little girl no one claims from the hospital after her mother dies. These unplanned expenses are absorbed by compassionate Congolese staff and friends who reach deep into their own pockets, and through donations from people and organizations from around the world who wish to contribute to the humanitarian work of HEAL Africa through a Mercy Fund that was set up for this purpose. Yes, another good idea!

  • Channah

    The work is great, the deeds at the top of the goodness list. But, I only hope they are not trying to teach these people Christianity with the medical assistance. Too often, missionaries have gone in and taken a culture and beliefs from a native people and destroyed all that they were and left them in a limbo.

  • Henry the 9th.

    Yes, it is a GREAT! work that these people do in the face of GREAT ODDS… unbelievably reighning insanity in our world. I too hope they don’t teach nominal christianity but rather bring everyone Hope through the superhuman efforts expended by Jesus Christ on the Cross for a perishing world. Only the message of Christ as Saviour and Redeemer of “Whosoever will” come to a compassionate and loving God for a new Life experience … I say, only the embracing of that Gospel “The Good News of sins forgiven and unconditional acceptance by Almighty God, Father of All Humanity,” ..only that will bring peace and prosperity to any nation, including the Congolese. No, it’s not institutional christianity…It’s a vibrant, living relational interaction with the Lord Christ, and His Father, the Invitational God.
    Thank God for people Lucy, Dr. Lazaro and others who introduce lost and helpless people to the Only One who can Help in time of need.

  • Judy Anderson

    It is an amazing work that I’ve watched grow since 2000. While the Christian faith of many of the staff is not in doubt, it’s the only organisation I’ve seen which has worked with all faith communities: Catholic, Protestant, Kimbanguist and Muslim—in helping communities face the issues that devastate their own ideals of caring for the most vulnerable–whether it’s HIV, gender-based violence, malaria or poverty. Thanks for telling the story so well!

  • Gordon Janzen

    I had the privilege of spending a few days as a guest of Lyn and Dr. Jo in late 2009. The world-class health facility they have created on the lava bed (…literally) of Goma is the most inspiring thing I have ever seen. As Jo said in the video, HEAL is all about treating the whole person in their context, and I think that has a lot to do with their success.

    Thanks for making this film.