A Healer Drawn Home to Congo

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It is an instinctive transition for Oscar Kashala . The Congolese-born doctor has had a long, lucrative career healing people through the precision of scientific research, and now through government he hopes to heal his countrymen.

Kashala, 51, who has spent years researching cancer, AIDS and the mystery of cell mechanisms, is leaving his comfortable life in Boston and leaping into the uncertainty of politics with a run for the Congolese presidency. To him, his mission is clear.

"I was given the opportunity to study and have a professional career in the United States. I acquired a lot of skills. I worked at these big pharmaceutical companies. I worked in programs for the U.S. Army and Navy," he said in a recent interview. "I learned how to manage people. I have to do this."

He acknowledged that he will be making certain sacrifices, including moving his wife and nine children, four of them adopted, back to Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. But ever since he arrived in Boston in 1987 to study at Harvard University, Kashala has been unable to leave Congo behind. He has visited six times a year. He has tried to develop the medical infrastructure there by writing grant requests. He has appealed to the private sector for help.

"Every time I went, I saw things go from bad to worse," he said. "And people kept asking me to come back and help. We tried to be useful, but the social situation was dramatic." There is corruption and "such a lack of good governance," he said, "and the population feels neglected. Out of every $100 sent to the Congo, only 1.7 percent goes to public health."

With Harvard's help, Kashala said, he launched an initiative to buy medical equipment for 11 hospitals in Congo's Katanga province to diagnose hepatitis B. The initiative also involves the training of Congolese doctors and technicians in Harvard's labs and at its AIDS Institute. According to conservative estimates, 1.1 million people in Congo are HIV-positive, Kashala said. After studying in Boston, the Congolese doctors head home to help those in need.

"That is just a tiny drop. Patients are prisoners in the hospitals of the Congo. They cannot pay their bills, so they are kept hostage," he said. "When I saw all this, I knew I must get involved," he added, explaining how tough it was to convince his family. Several of his children are in college in the United States. His son Harold , 23, has been in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital for six weeks, recovering from a severe case of pneumonia and four recent operations for a rare lung disease.

"I have just spent 40 days sleeping at Mass. General to be close to my son. I felt blessed -- he is getting the best possible care, the brightest doctors, the best ICU installations," he said. "But I have thousands and thousands of sons in [Congo] who have nothing. I made a conscious decision to go back, to leave behind the 20 years it took me to build a comfortable life and do what has to be done," he said.

Two of his children are pre-med students, and one of his daughters has autism and needs constant care. "You have to go through all this to understand the suffering of others," Kashala said.

While in Washington last week, he met with congressional staff members, State Department officials and nongovernmental organizations.

"We have a vision that is very clear," he said of his newly formed Union for the Rebuilding of Congo, an umbrella organization for a number of independent Congolese who say they are tired of seeing government officials accumulate personal wealth without addressing the country's problems. Kashala said his movement is gathering strength and predicted it would become one of the most popular in Congo.

Prudence , his wife, is a dentist who plans to lead a new foundation for global health. She recently went back with him to Congo to meet with church leaders, victimized women and prostitutes. Rights groups say women and children have been raped on a massive scale in Congo, where a war officially ended in 2003.

"The human price of the war has been of catastrophic proportions. I will be playing a role, and she will be playing a role," Kashala said of his wife.

The presidential election expected in June or July will be the first democratic vote in Congo in decades. A recent constitutional change will allow President Joseph Kabila to run. Kabila took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father. Kashala said several candidates have started to pull out of the race and have asked to join his movement. The challenge they face is significant.

"We must develop a viable Congo and build in it in a sustainable way. Congo is the third-richest country on Earth with all its natural resources, yet there is an unemployment rate of 85 percent," he said. The education system has collapsed, and insecurity is still a problem. All this is a breeding ground for terrorism.

Kashala knows there are obstacles, but he also knows the stakes are high. "We cannot have a stable Africa without a stable Congo," he said. "We cannot have a prosperous Africa without a prosperous Congo."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company