THE REAL GOOD DOCTOR
Denis Mukwege was born in 1955 in a modest-sized town, Bukavu, in east ‘Congo. Little could anyone have imagined that this son of a Pentecostal pastor would grow up to be considered the most influential African of the 20th century, and one of the most influential 100 people in human history. His list of achievements, honours, and international awards, literally fills a two sheets of paper. His life is characterised by constant goodness. He is the epitome of a good man. It all began when as a young boy he accompanied his father as they visited the sick, ill, and injured people of their town where his father would pray for their healing. Young Denis was struck by the dire lack of physical resources to help these poor people, especially at the Lemera Hospital. It was then that he committed his life to God to be a doctor of goodness.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
Denis developed a love for biochemistry in high school which he graduated from in 1974. Despite his desire to go to university to study medicine, the State only gave him the choice of studying engineering at the University of Kinshasa. He endured two years there until 1976, before the Swedish Pentecostal Mission funded him to attend medical school in Burundi. Six years later, 1982, he graduated and returned to Bukava to work in the Lemera Hospital as a paediatrician. But it was the plight of the mothers of the children that touched his heart. Many of them died during childbirth. More died after childbirth. Many were permanently damaged from childbirth. He wanted to help and sought to be trained as a gynaecologist (and obstetrics). He was awarded a post-graduate scholarship to study and train at University of Angers in France. During his studies in France he co-founded a charity – Association Esther Solidarité France/Kivu to help his hometown. Despite tempting offers of employment in France, he returned in 1989 to continue work at Lemera Hospital, in South Kivu, where he started a brand new gynaecological wing and later became the hospital’s director.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Everything changed though in 1996 when the Congo war erupted engulfing neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The Lemera Hospital was attacked by rebels who murdered all of its patients – including pregnant women and other patients too ill to flee – and most of the medical staff. Medical supplies were looted, the buildings – medical wings and housing – burned down. Dr Denis Mukwege, who was amongst the few who miraculously survived the attack. He and his family fled the country and for refuge in Kenya.
The now 41 year old doctor with a strong commitment to Christ, now safe in Kenya, could not abandon his country, or his people. He sought support to go back to his country to care for the hundreds of victims of this war which would require building a new hospital. His national church movement and the Swedish Pentecostal Mission once again helped and a hospital was built in Bukavu, instead of Lemera, and called the Panzi Hospital (after the name of the district) in 1999. The Congolese war would continue for another 22 years!
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Not longer after the opening of the hospital, Dr Mukwege was called upon to treat a woman who had been gang raped! This type of case was something Dr Mukwege had never seen before – especially on a girl so young. After that operation to save her life in September 1999, the hospital started receiving an increasing number of female victims of war crimes. He estimated that he and his team operated on 45 women just in the first three months.
“I had the impression that this was an enormous number, because I’d been in the region for a few years, and I’d never seen this before. It wasn’t until 2000 that I understood that this was normal, and I began to call on the international community.”
-Dr. Denis Mukwege
Over the next 20 years, the Panzi Hospital would treat more than 85 000 patients, most of whom were victims of sexual crimes.
He decided to specialise in the care of women victims of sexual violence. The hospital expanded its mission to provide legal and psycho-social services to their patients. While many consider rampant evil to be an argument against the existence of God, people like Dr. Mukwege demonstrate God’s heart for the victims of such evil by being His representatives in the thick of it.
¶ Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
In 2011, the UN estimated that roughly 48 women are victim of sexual assault every hour in the Congo.
Dr Mukwege began speaking out on behalf of the abused women he met daily – trying to bring to the international community the hideous evils being committed as a result of this war against women and children.
He became known as ‘the man who repairs women’. He was soon invited to speak before the UN General Assembly first in 2006 and the second time six years later in 2012. He paid tribute to the courage of the half a million women who had been raped in Congo over the past 16 years and went on to denounce the international community, including his own government, for not putting an end to this evil.
“I would have liked to also say, ‘I have the honour of being part of the international community that you represent here,’ but I cannot say that. How can I say this to you – representatives of the international community – when the international community has shown fear and a lack of courage during these 16 years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?”
-Dr. Denis Mukwege
In October 2012, Denis and his wife and children survived an assassination attempt at their home in Bukavu. He took his family to safety in Europe and returned to his hospital a few months later in January 2013 – more determined than ever. Traditionally, Christians have run into the fray – not away from it!
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
The Congo war is said to be the longest humanitarian crisis in history and the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II with more than 6 million deaths and countless victims of sexual crimes, including children. In his autobiography, ‘Plea for Life’ (‘Plaidoyer pour la vie’), released in 2016, he explained how distressing it is for him to have the war continue on so long as he was now operating the daughters of some of his earlier patients!
In 2008, he received the United Nations Human Rights Prize, the Daily Trust African of the Year Award, and the Olof Palme Prize of Sweden. In 2011, he received the Clinton Global Citizen Award for Leadership in Civil Society, an award created by the former US President Bill Clinton to recognize extraordinary individuals who have demonstrated visionary leadership in solving pressing global challenges. In 2013, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award and in 2014, the prestigious European Union Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which honours individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought. His honorary degrees include, an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Winnipeg in 2014, in recognition of his role as an international voice for victims of sexual violence and his dedication to improving the lives and status of women; an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Harvard University in 2015; and an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2017. In 2016, he won the Seoul Peace Prize; his name was included on the list of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the world; and in 2018 was the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He really is the real-life good doctor! But more importantly, he continues a very long Christian tradition of running into the evil not hiding from it.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
While we see evil growing all around us, it is my prayer that God will raise up young men and women who will enter in politics, academia, the arts, journalism, and business, to make a difference for Christ. Rather than seeking to have a life ease and bliss, I pray that these young people will fearlessly, courageously, wisely, and winsomely, learn how to live like Daniel in Babylon – and sometimes even in the occasional lions’ den!