By Madisen Ro
In Rwanda, a country still recovering from the genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group in 1994, two Southern Californians aim to help the Rwandan people through dentistry. Dr. Tom Lee and Lita Lee hope to not only provide dental care to Rwandans, but to train dentists that will be able to help the country in the future. The Lees have been visiting Rwanda every year for the past several years and have decided to move to Rwanda long-term sometime in the near future. This decision is primarily based around the establishment of the Christian non-profit organization “His Hands on Africa” (HHOA).
In 2013, Dr. Tom and Lita Lee were planning their 25th anniversary trip. However, things changed after they heard the testimony of Jean-Claude, a genocide survivor. Jean-Claude shared his story on a Sunday at the local church they attend in suburban Los Angeles. He was a teenager during the genocide and witnessed the murders of his father and sister at the hands of his neighbors. He told of his struggles to survive after the genocide and despite the destruction of the life he knew, he spoke of forgiveness towards those who had killed his family. His experiences led him to start an organization called Best Family Rwanda along with his friends who also survived the genocide. He describes his reconciliation with the son of the man who murdered his father and how he accepted him into the organization without hesitation. After hearing Jean Claude’s story, Dr. Tom and Lita Lee were inspired to change their plans and instead go to Rwanda “to serve the orphans, widows and the poor.” Their friendship with Jean Claude has grown over the years and he now refers to Dr. Tom and Lita as “Papa” and “Mama.”
Dr. Tom and Lita Lee made their first trip to Rwanda on a missions team sent by their local church in the summer of 2013. Despite the poverty that they witnessed, the truly memorable aspect of their trip was the warmth of the people they met. Dr. Tom Lee recalls his first experience in Rwanda:
The poverty I saw was beyond anything I have seen. Most roads are unpaved, people are literally surviving from day to day. They have nothing. Yet, they are so happy. You look into the eyes of the children and they are much happier that most of the children I see here in America. The Rwandan people are very kind and warm. They greeted you and welcome you with a gentle and warm smile. The country is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and there is a sense of hope in the people I meet.
The Lees, along with other people on the team, treated as many patients as they could during their short trip to Rwanda. Dr. Tom Lee talks about one of the patients that particularly stood out:
One of the most memorable stories is when I was able to treat a young mom and save her life. We were in a village near the border of Congo, five hours away from the capital city of Kigali. Five hundred people were waiting to be treated by our medical and dental team. I saw a young mom who had a dental infection, unable to eat for three days. She had fever and was shivering, which are signs that the infection was spreading over her body. I was able to remove two infected teeth and give her antibiotics and treat her. As I completed the treatment, I knew that if she was not treated that day, she could have died from the infection. There were no dentists within hours of where she was. Even though it was obvious she was suffering from a dental infection, she had no access to dental care. Knowing that simple things that we take for granted can help these people so much, even save one’s life left an indelible impression which moved my heart to dedicate the remaining years of my life to serve the people of Rwanda.
Oral diseases cause nearly 15% of morbidity cases in Rwanda and most of these diseases are easily preventable. Rwanda has a population of 11 million people, yet there are less than 40 dentists in the whole country. To combat the lack of access to dental care, Rwanda established its very first dental school in 2014. By implementing a higher education system, the Ministry of Health aims to establish more dental providers and improve dental health overall for the country. The dental school aims to implement entrepreneurship and management in their curriculum. U.S. Institutions have also played an important role in participating in the development of the Rwandan health care education, showcasing the benefit of foreign collaboration.
Rwanda has actually seen incredible health care improvements over the years. Nearly all of Rwandans are technically insured for health care and their health care system is often seen as a promising model for other African nations to follow. However, it is still difficult for many of these people to access this care if they live in isolated villages and oral pain remains one of the top reasons for clinical visits.
In the U.S., a dentist appointment may seem like a pebble in our shoe or a small inconvenience that we must get out of the way every six months or so. In Rwanda, hundreds of people line up for the hope of receiving dental care that they might not ever have access to again.
However, the road to being an established non-profit organization has certainly not been easy. Dr. Lee talks about the different roles that needed to be filled besides dental care. He explains that there was “a wide range of needs such as accounting, marketing, photo/video team, fundraising team, social media, prayer… etc,” but he continues to say, “it [has] been an exciting journey of sharing our vision with many people and seeing how God provides for these needs by moving the hearts of the people to volunteer and support our mission efforts.”
The ultimate goal for HHOA is to create a self-sustaining dental ministry. HHOA aims to essentially accomplish three objectives:
- Establish a dental center to train Rwandan dentists who are graduating from the recently established dental school.
- Establish a profit-making dental clinic which can provide the funds to establish several community clinics that will provide free dental care and serve the needs to those who have no access to dental services.
- Send out trained dentists to other African nations.
His Hands on Africa recently held their inaugural fundraising gala in Los Angeles on November 4, 2017. The event featured a silent auction, musical performances and speeches given by the founders. The event effectively consolidated the evolution of their journey and displayed how the fruits of their efforts came together.
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