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Going the Distance

How far would you travel for medical attention or even clean water? Would you go three miles or even ten miles? How about 7045 miles? That’s the approximate distance between New York City and Kigali, Rwanda. After leaving New York in late February, I arrived 16 hours later in the “Milles Collines” or the “Land of a Thousand Hills” as Rwanda is commonly called. Before arriving in Rwanda, I had never considered the distance from my home to the nearest medical center or closest drink of water. Doctor’s offices are numerous in Brooklyn, as a health care representative with Pfizer, I once worked in an area where there were six offices on one block! However, most Rwandese people, especially those who live in the rural villages that comprise 80% of Rwanda, think about these questions daily. As I began to develop story ideas and articles for the Access Project, distance was a common theme that stood out to me as I began visiting Access supported health facilities and conducting interviews. 

The little boy with the cast Elic Niyonsenga (12 years old)

Early on it was important for me to build a bridge between America and Rwanda through my writing so that people who have never even heard of Rwanda, would care about the Rwandese people and their successes and challenges.  I settled upon World Water Day, an international day designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to highlight the lack of access to clean water sources in countries around the world. In the past year, the Access Project’s Peace Corps Volunteers were instrumental in installing sinks with running water in health facilities throughout their supported districts. The Access Project was also beginning a new partnership with G.E. to evaluate the feasibility of using G.E.’s unique membrane filtration system in Access supported health centers to provide clean water to the neighboring communities. When some colleagues decided to evaluate the efficiency of the solar panels that were installed at the Munyaga health center, I went along for the ride. The Munyaga health center in the Rwamagana district is operated exclusively by solar power, since the location is too remote to tap into national electrical grids.  After a brief tour, the elderly nun who has worked at the center since it first opened over twenty years ago, suggested that we go to look at the water supply powering the solar energy. We walked downhill for roughly thirty minutes, and I was tired and out of breath from the high altitudes and steep terrain. As I looked around, I saw children walking up and down the hills that surrounded the well with jerry-cans on their heads and shoulders. Some lived much farther than the thirty minutes it took me to walk downhill, many as far an hour or two distance by foot. Access’ partnership with G.E. will potentially provide the people in the community access to clean water closer to home.  A couple of weeks later, I traveled to the Musanze district in Rwanda’s Northern province, near the Ugandan border, to develop a story about a new health center the Access Project is building there. The distance from Kigali to Musanze is approximately 57 miles or a two-hour drive. Musanze is famous for its volcanic mountains and mountain gorillas, which inspired the 1988 movie “Gorillas in the Mist.” Despite being the top tourist destination in Rwanda, many of the people who live in Musanze like elsewhere in Rwanda, are poor. This time, I spent the day interviewing the head of the sector office in Gataraga as well as the health center directors in the neighboring sectors of Busogo and Muhoza. Gataraga, a sector of over 20,000 people did not have its own health center, while Busogo and Muhoza were facing overcrowding from its own populations and the people who walked from Gataraga. It was only a three to five mile distance between the sectors, yet for the people of Gataraga who are relatively poor and have no means of transportation, this equated to a two hours journey for most. It was a distance that proved too far for pregnant mothers who preferred to deliver at home rather than brave the journey. These interviews highlighted the importance of this new health center in bringing health care access to a community in dire need. The benefit is that the people of Gataraga will not have more than a few minutes walk to the new health center once it is completed in June. 

Yolande interviewing Alice Uwabera and Eric Hitimana at the Gataraga sector office

As I travel around Rwanda visiting health centers and uncovering stories and successes, I have the luxury of being driven to these remote locations. Most Rwandans cannot afford such a luxury, but hopefully in time, with the work that the Access Project is doing in partnership with the Ministry of Health, G.E. and other partners, distance will no longer be an issue for seeking medical attention or getting clean water.

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