Dr. Richard Letshu works with the Eastern Congo Health Council to help identify public health needs and how the church can help address them.
By Julia Kayser*
Dr. Richard Letshu is a public health expert and lifelong Methodist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He works with the Eastern Congo Health Council to help identify public health needs and strategize about how The United Methodist Church can address them. In this Q&A session, we hear from him about why he’s involved in this work and what he hopes to accomplish. Sharon Trilli, director of Global Health for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), says of Dr. Letshu, "His professionalism, strategic mind, and knowledge are impressive, and his commitment is incredible!"
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become passionate about health care?
A: I became passionate about community health care at a very young age. My father, as a Methodist pastor in the rural parish of Tunda, Maniema province, in DRC, was involved in the health problems of our community. One day, we were present when a pregnant woman, who couldn’t deliver normally, passed away due to the lack of a skilled health professional to do the C-section.
My father—who observed how much I was concerned after this tragic event—gave me the following advice: “The best way for you to prevent this from happening to another person in the future is to go to school, study hard, become a physician, and come back to work in this hospital.” I went to medical school, and graduated as a doctor in 1997. I was appointed as physician in another rural Methodist hospital, in Minga parish. I was very happy as I started to help mothers and their babies through C-sections and with other forms of health care.
I decided to get more training in public health to reduce morbidity and mortality among the most vulnerable population (mothers and children) in rural areas.
Q: Thousands of people are being displaced by war in DRC, and you have described the situation in North Kivu province as a humanitarian crisis. How have the displacements affected public health?
A: Civil war in both North and South Kivu provinces has caused a huge displaced population in the area. Displaced people in camps experience poverty, poor hygiene and sanitation, lack of clean water, poor nutrition, and very limited access to health-care services. These conditions have been responsible for outbreaks of measles, malaria, cholera, diarrhea, and pneumonia. These infections have drastically increased the mortality and morbidity in camps, especially among children and mothers.
Q: In the face of this crisis, what do you think the role of the United Methodist church should be?
A: The Church’s vocation is to provide social support through education, health care, spiritual life, and more. In Eastern Congo, we’ve targeted:
- Advocacy for peace among decision makers at local and international levels
- Responding to the crisis through public health interventions
- Supporting people spiritually.
Q: How did you get involved with the newly forming United Methodist Eastern Congo Health Board?
A: When the new Episcopal Region of Eastern Congo for The United Methodist Church was created, our bishop, Gabriel Unda, asked key professionals to assess and conduct interventions for the church’s social work. I accepted his request, although I already have a full-time contract with the World Health Organization (WHO). I am volunteering my expertise to assist the Church Health Council in the area of public health. In our tradition, this is called tithe of my time given to my Lord, and I’m well encouraged and supported by my wife.
Q: What do you hope that the Health Board will be able to accomplish?
A: Our Health Council has developed a strategic plan which corresponds to our annual conference’s social vision. In the public health area, we want to facilitate access to high-quality health care. Specifically, we are targeting malaria, HIV/AIDS, and sexual violence against women.
We’ve also decided to provide immediate medical support to displaced people in Goma, specifically in the neighborhood of Majengo, where more than 10,000 displaced people don’t have access to basic health-care services. This will be a six-month project. We hope that war will end and the displaced people will return to their homes.
Q: How can UMCOR and the people of The United Methodist Church support your important ministry in North Kivu?
A: At this moment, UMCOR is our main partner. In May 2012 and in July 2013, UMCOR helped us assist 400 households with food and other supplies. We hope to receive additional technical support from our Health Council through training and management. United Methodists around the world can donate to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, or to Global Health, UMCOR Advance #3020622.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.