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ASU helps physician bring medical technology, training to the Congo


November 10, 2009

Growing up in the Tutsi community of Banyamulenge in East Congo, Kigabo Mbazumutima lived a primitive existence that most people have only read about in National Geographic.

"We didn't have a road, we didn't have a car. Still now, we don't have electricity and no running water," he said. "We saw people get sick and wait to recover or just to die. All people were able to do is to take some leaves and give traditional treatments, and there never was the idea of going to a hospital."

What little medical care was available has been destroyed by recurrent civil wars and armed conflicts over the past decade in Mbazumutima's homeland, where the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence has been deemed by the United Nations as the worst in the world. But with his two sisters as his inspiration and a multidisciplinary clinic at Arizona State University as his guide, Mbazumutima, a former physician in the West African Republic of Benin, is working to change healthcare for his people.

"It is a very ambitious dream," he said, beaming with confidence and settling in to tell his amazing story.

In 1999, Rose Mapendo, one of Mbazumutima's sisters, was captured by the military in the Congo as part of a massive genocide and tossed into a filthy concrete cell in a prison camp. Her husband had been killed, and she and her seven children were left to die of starvation or disease. While in prison, Mapendo gave birth to twin boys with no medical assistance, severed the babies' umbilical cords with a stick, tied them off, and placed the infants in discarded supplies boxes. Eight months later, she and her family were resettled to Phoenix; the twin boys are now 10.

The other sister, Anne Natasha Nanzigirwa, wasn't as fortunate. She died in childbirth in 1987 after a four-day journey from her home in the Congo to a Republic of Burundi hospital, where doctors were unable to save her.

"She was not only my hero, I was trying to become like her," said Mbazumutima. "She used to tell me, 'You are smart in school. What if you become a doctor, the first doctor working in this High Plateau area of South Kivu, like I became the first girl in this area to have a high school diploma?' Since she died, [I said] I will become a doctor, because I don't want to see this happen to another."

With the help of his father, a poor coffee bean farmer, and various humanitarians, Mbazumutima went to college and then to medical school at Catholic University of Bukavu in the eastern Congo province of South Kivu. In 1994, he received a full scholarship from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and was sent to the University of Benin School of Medicine for an additional four years of coursework. Mbazumutima worked in Benin as a licensed physician for six years at the request of the University of Leuven, which didn't want him to return to the dangers of the Congo. He stayed in Benin until 2004, when he immigrated to the United States with his wife and three children to help Mapendo, whose daughter had run away, leaving her mother in a pit of depression.

"I didn't speak the language, and I had no education," Mapendo said. "My brother sacrificed his career to come here, but he had a hard new beginning. He couldn't find a job, not even cleaning a hospital, and he decided to put his diploma on the shelf and forget about it."

Mbazumutima "brought my family back together, and he has been like a father to my children," she said.

Though he couldn't practice medicine in Arizona, Mbazumutima didn't forget about his sisters and the dream they had inspired in him. He went back to school, earning a master's degree in health administration from the University of Phoenix. In 2008, he formed Africa Health New Horizons (www.africahealthnewhorizons.org) to bring modern medical equipment, supplies and facilities to the Congo and Rwanda and to grow a network of medical mentors and trainers to train healthcare professionals there.

The foundation for Mbazumutima's nonprofit was built by students at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law who are enrolled in the Technology Ventures Services Group, a four-credit course that provides legal and business consulting services to Arizona entrepreneurs.

The TVSG comprises the Technology Ventures Legal Clinic and Technology Ventures Consulting. Students in the clinic handle business formation, employment issues, licensing and other agreements, limited patent work and other intellectual property issues, while ASU business and engineering students enrolled in the consulting group perform market research and analysis, technology and supply chain assessments, financial model creation, leadership team analysis and other business-planning services.

The students are supervised by TVSG director Eric Menkhus, a clinical professor at the College of Law, and by the program's in-residence professionals – the Hool Law Group of Phoenix (www.hoollawgroup.com), and Tom Fulcher, founder of the Valley-based The Idea Gardener (www.theideagardener.com).

Law students Grant Sahag and Megan Fox were members of student teams that worked under the guidance of Jennifer Lefere, an attorney at Hool Law Group, to file the articles of incorporation, navigate complicated IRS regulations on nonprofits and draft bylaws for Africa Health New Horizons. Mbazumutima likely could have found a local attorney to offer him pro bono assistance, Lefere pointed out, but the clinic could assign students to assist Mbazumutima and start working on his legal needs right away.

"His story, his demeanor and his mission are so compelling that it was something everyone could wrap their arms around as opposed to some technology where the inventor has a vision, and everyone tries to understand the invention and the vision," Lefere said.

Sahag graduated in May, but is committed to Mbazumutima's dream and is hoping to receive a fellowship to continue working on it.

"This was an amazing opportunity," Sahag said. "Kigabo's venture has been the flagship for me as a student to learn a lot about legal issues and about his cause. We're not just an independent contractor having a bit of touch with the client – we're a part of the same team. We believe in what he's doing."

The experience with the African doctor has helped solidify what Fox wants to do with her law degree. "I discovered I really love working with entrepreneurs because they have so much passion for what they are doing, and so many issues come across your desk every day," Fox said. "It's never the same thing."

Fulcher, vice president of the American Marketing Association's Phoenix Board of Directors, has worked extensively with other nonprofits and is sharing his expertise with Mbazumutima. Fulcher is advising Mbazumutima on a number of fronts, from branding and resource referrals to fundraising and event planning.

"There's a need to help promote the story and there's a desire within our own country to help others help themselves. That's a big part of what Kigabo is about," Fulcher said. "Despite all he and his family have been through, Kigabo does not approach this from 'Hey, feel sorry for me' perspective, rather, he looks at it as an opportunity. That makes me want to help him win."

Menkhus admitted this project is different from all others the TVSG has handled. "With most clients, we determine how they should position themselves to have their product invested in," he said. "With Kigabo, it's about investing in his ideas and in him and the mission. Plus, I believe the group will grow quickly and be a great asset for the state of Arizona by eventually employing people here and further demonstrating that great nonprofit organizations are based here."

Mbazumutima said he doesn't feel like a client. "Their ability to take every story I tell and make me comfortable and trust me, and say, 'This is the way you should go' is very special. It feels like a family."

AHNH is working to establish a training facility in Kigali, Rwanda, which is more stable than the Congo and where a number of Congolese refugees have been placed. Mbazumutima has been contacted by Tom Magliocchetti, president and CEO of the American Medical Resources Foundation (www.amrf.com), which has offered to provide donations of medical technology and supplies to AHNH. He is seeking other donations from American medical providers including contributions of time to train African doctors and nurses. Eventually, AHNH plans to establish preventative healthcare programs in maternity and early childhood care, HIV/AIDS, malaria, diabetes and obesity.

Mapendo has no doubt her brother will succeed. "His dream is connected to his heart," said Mapendo, who was honored as the U.N. Refugee Agency's 2009 Humanitarian of the Year for her role in helping resettle thousands of Congolese refugees. "And the people that are supporting him, he doesn't have anything to give them to pay them, but they are showing the compassion they have for Kigabo's cause and with that, he will be successful."

In March, Mbazumutima and Steve Cunningham, an AMRF board member, traveled to Africa to assess the medical needs. Since their return, Mbazumutima said, the foundation's dedication and determination to work with his nonprofit has expanded, primarily because Cunningham saw for himself what needs to be done – and it has stuck with him.

"Upon our return, Steve said, 'We are back, but my heart is left there.'"

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law