Why Kamariza ditched her law degree to take care of vulnerable patients

In 2010, Isabelle Kamariza was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in law in Belgium when she came home for a holiday. A devout Christian, she met a lady by the name ‘Mama Zuzu’ during a prayer gathering. At the time, Mama Zuzu was offering a meal to two patients every day at University Teaching Hospital of Kigali (CHUK).

“She used to move to hospitals giving patients the little food she had while praying for them. When I joined her, the first patient that we met at the hospital cried when she saw us. She told us it was the first time that people she didn’t know were visiting her. It is then that I realised something small can make a difference to somebody,” she says.

Being a passionate cook, she decided to join the cause. She chose to ditch her law course to help feed patients in public hospitals around Kigali. Her heart, she says, belonged to the humanitarian field. She was 25 at the time, and together with Mama Zuzu, they continued to pray and offer a few meals to patients.

“I had always loved cooking and would sometimes cook for the whole neighbourhood. It saddened me that someone can go hungry when there is food, and seeing these patients battling an illness on a hungry stomach made it worse. I spent a year with the patients, identifying their needs and eventually realised that patients had food insecurity,” she says.

A year later, Kamariza founded Solid’Africa—a non-government organisation that helps vulnerable patients in public health facilities. 

With solidarity as its cardinal principle, Solid’Africa strives to bring together and mobilise all members of society, from individuals to companies, to create an organisation that thrives on intersectional help.

“We came up with the name because the organisation is a way of funding our own solutions as Rwandans and Africans. Solid stands for the solidarity of Africans and a strong Africa,” she says.

They started out as five people feeding 20 patients, a number which would grow to 200 patients by 2015 and, currently, 400.

The patients get a heavy breakfast consisting of porridge, eggs, bread, fruits and milk and sometimes, freshly squeezed juice from Tuesday to Sunday and a balanced diet for lunch every Monday. Kamariza’s dream, however, is to provide three meals a day that are appropriate for their illness.

Providing health care

Rwanda’s universal healthcare system known as “Mutuelle de santé” is the citizens’ health insurance, and medical bills are subsidised by the Government. As of today, the system works under four social categories.

While this mutual healthcare system may help meet the medical needs of many Rwandan citizens, Kamariza explains that those living close to, or below the poverty line, still face challenges when faced with health issues or admittance into hospital.

“Even with their medical bills and health insurance paid, many Rwandans find themselves in situations where they lack the means to obtain food, sanitary products and transportation fees to and from the hospital—all factors we believe severely inhibit their rightful access to healthcare,” she says.

As such, the charity organisation currently runs five successful programmes providing financial assistance with medical and transport bills; water purification systems for clean drinking water in hospitals; public health initiatives; and daily meals for patients in need, or with special dietary requirements.

The major one of these initiatives is Gemura or Food for All, which guarantees a meal per day for 400 needy patients from Kigali-based University Teaching Hospital (CHUK).

“We work mostly with volunteers who prepare the meals from their respective homes because we do not have a kitchen, and then we carry the food to the hospital. Our main focus is patients in the first and second categories of Ubudehe (social stratification)  —the poorest people in the community,” she says.

Apart from this programme, the organisation also has Kiza, which provides medicine to patients that cannot access it and special tests. Another is Sukura, which provides hygienic items like soap, tooth brushes, toothpaste, among other things. The programme also includes supply of drinking water.

Solid’Africa installed a water treatment facility at CHUK to serve patients, mostly in the paediatric and gynaecologic department. They have five permanent staff members who supply water across the hospital on a daily basis.

Another of their projects, Gombora, assists vulnerable patients to pay medical bills and covers the transport fare back home for patients who are stranded in the hospital. The organisation also recently added Kina, which offers therapy for children at CHUK. 

“We put a room in the paediatric ward to connect the children to the doctors and also have fun. We also have volunteers who come in to teach them art and dance. This helps in their healing process, even for the kids who are not strong enough to play, seeing other children play gives them joy. Our dream is to have one in every hospital because we believe in providing dignity and equity to patients,” Kamariza says.

Kamariza’s Solid’Africa gets the food from their six hectares of land where they grow some vegetables, fruits, bananas and other crops, and from a partner, Minimex,  a food factory in Kigali which offers them maize flour. Also, some of her support comes from a truck she rents out and the Barbara Stiefel Foundation, among others.

Being rewarded

In 2013, Kamariza was awarded Imbuto Foundation’s ‘Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers Awards’ (CYRWA) by the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeanette Kagame, for her outstanding services to the nation.

A few days ago, Kamariza was registered in the books of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as an important person in society. Queen Elizabeth II honoured Kamariza with the Commonwealth Point of Light award. She became the 55th recipient of this award.

The Point of Light award recognises outstanding volunteers every day of the week — people whose service is making a difference in their communities and whose story can inspire others to create innovative solutions to social challenges in their own communities and beyond.

According to the British monarch, Kamariza won this award for her exceptional voluntary service supporting patients in Rwandan hospitals.

“I was ecstatic and humbled but it also shows that we are doing something right and creating a good impact. This gives us encouragement,” Kamariza says about the award.

Bigger plans

Eight years later, Kamariza reveals that her journey, though challenging, has all been worth it. She has seen the impact that Africans can make in improving vulnerable lives and “how people with big hearts come together.”

However, this is just the beginning.  She is currently overseeing the creation of an industrial kitchen to feed 1000 patients three times a day in six hospitals in the city; CHUK, Kinyinya, Muhima, Masaka, Kanombe and Kacyiru.

“We also want to provide appropriate healthy food for the patients in every big hospital because without the right food, one  cannot recover well. The patients need to have the confidence that they can eat healthily to aid their recovery process,” Kamariza says.

The organisation got free land in Rusororo, Gasabo District, while Imbuto Foundation provided over $400, 000 out of $500,000 required for the modern kitchen to be completed next year.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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