February 2013 Bujumbura, Burundi
According to Levi Kandeke, Burundi’s first ophthalmologist trained to perform surgery, Burundi is the poorest country in Africa. I wonder if every African says that about their country because certainly, I have heard it before. Burundi is most certainly poor but it is also spectacularly beautiful – lush, mountainous and no garbage - anywhere.
It has been a privilege to get to know Levi a little better. He is only 39 years old but has already proven himself as a leader and a visionary. Levi did his ophthalmology training in Europe and was living and working in France when two things happened that changed both his life and the lives of countless Burundians. First, he met an ophthalmologist from Cameroon who was working in a very senior position at the World Health Organization. This ophthalmologist told Levi that the best and most important years of his life were those spent providing eye care to the people of Cameroon. He encouraged Levi to return home and use his training where it was needed most. Levi’s mother also began a full-scale campaign to bring her son back to Burundi and their combined efforts succeeded. Levi returned to a country still recovering from the civil war with a government that could not afford adequate healthcare for most of its citizens. While there were a number of trained ophthalmologists, none were trained to perform even the simplest of surgical procedures. Only the wealthy could access services in Tanzania or Rwanda.
Levi Kandeke & pediatric patient
Levi introduced radical changes to Burundi’s eye health program. He opened a private clinic in the capital Bujumbura to subsidize surgeries for those too poor to pay. He understood that community outreach was the key to a viable and sustainable eye health care system and so built Africa’s first two vision centres at either end of the country with his own savings. Both are now turning a profit and are providing superb eye care to the surrounding communities. With Seva’s funding, he held Burundi’s first two pediatric eye camps and restored sight to hundreds of children. There has been significant resistance to Levi’s ideas but he has persevered with the support of the government and the belief that what he is doing will help his fellow Burundians.
Penny Lyons Executive Director Seva Canada