Congo's Capital Gains New Hospital, Thanks to U.S. Basketball Star

By Beth Duff-Brown
Associated Press
Monday, September 4, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo, Sept. 3 -- Two hospitals, named for two mothers. One is mired in the past; the other represents beaten-down Congo's hopes for a better future.

The 2,000-bed Mama Yemo, named after the mother of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's late autocratic leader, was once the pride of Central Africa. Now the public facility is in such bad shape that patients must bring their own medicine and are not allowed to go home until they pay their bills.

Across town stands the new Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, financed in part by Dikembe Mutombo, a child of Kinshasa who became a National Basketball Association star and is now with the Houston Rockets. It, too, is named for a mother -- Mutombo's. She died in 1997, as rebels were ousting Mobutu and this city, now with 6.5 million people, had erupted in violence that prevented her from getting to a hospital. Biamba Marie Mutombo was 64.

"To do something of this caliber in the name of your beloved mom, it will mean a lot -- not just to me but to the people of Congo," Mutombo recently said.

The inauguration had been set for Saturday, with Mutombo in attendance, a vivid symbol of the hopes engendered by war-torn Congo's first multiparty election in four decades held in July. But the player postponed his visit after violence took 31 lives in the capital, and the ceremony has been delayed indefinitely.

"My mom played a big role, giving us all the tools to make us great human beings," Mutombo, a center with the Houston team, said of himself and his nine brothers and sisters. "She did what moms are supposed to do: raise a child with a good understanding of life."

At Mama Yemo, renamed Kinshasa General after Mobutu was ousted in 1997, the mood is downbeat.

Masosila Honorine, 28, is locked inside the hospital because she owes $40 on her bill for fibroid surgery. Her husband died three months ago, leaving her penniless. She sleeps on a rattan mat with her two daughters, ages 12 and 5. Charities feed them. "I don't know what I'm going to do," said Honorine, her lips chalky from dehydration.

Mbwebwe Kabamba, chief of emergency surgery, earns $70 a month and performs operations in upscale private clinics to feed his six children. "It's hell here; everyone is just looking for a way out," he said as he reviewed an X-ray of a broken limb, which cost the patient $10, payable in advance.

Public Health Minister Emile Bongeli insists Congo is making strides. He would not allow a foreign journalist to take photographs at Mama Yemo. "We don't want to paint a negative picture of our country," he said. "We can't lie. We have serious problems. But we're taking care of our problems."

Bongeli notes the opening of private hospitals, including one built by the Chinese.

Kabamba countered that most Congolese can't afford them. He praised the basketball star but said 300 beds won't be much help.

"It gives a message of peace and social progress, but this is not the solution," Kabamba said.

Mutombo says he put $15 million into the $29 million teaching hospital and hopes his foundation will raise enough to build pediatric and physical therapy wards.

Joyce Hightower, a physician from California, is overseeing the hiring of staff and believes the first 60 beds will be open by October. "This hospital is right in a community where 90 percent of the people are not working," she said. "But if you give people something for free, they don't know the value of it."

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