Dr. Denis Mukwege, a world-renowned gynecologist and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spoke Thursday at the School of Nursing about his work helping women recover from violent forms of rape in his war-torn home country.
Mukwege, who established the Panzi Hospital and Foundations in 1999, participated in a Q&A session with filmmaker Mike Ramsdell, who screened his recent film about the 20-year civil war in the Congo, titled “When Elephants Fight.” The hospital and foundation work to provide a full range of health services to women in the Congo.
Nursing Prof. Janis Miller, organizer of the event, said she is involved with a University of Michigan organization that is working in partnership with Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. She told the roughly 200-person crowd about the newly established International Center of Advanced Research and Training, which seeks to improve health education for aid workers in the region.
“Tonight we are going to honor Dr. Denis Mukwege, who has both figuratively and literally stitched women who have been victims of violence back together,” Miller said.
Miller also noted that the University has developed a special relationship with Mukwege, in part through his son, Dr. Alain Mukwege, who was a visiting scholar on campus. In 2010, Denis Mukwege received the UM Raoul Wallenberg Medal, which is an annual award for work done by humanitarians around the world.
“When Dr. Mukwege first came to Ann Arbor in 2010 to receive his Raoul Wallenberg Medal, he took up the rallying cry of that famous University of Michigan alum (Wallenberg) — that even one person can make a difference.” Miller said to the crowd.
Following Mukwege’s introduction, Ramsdell spoke about his experiences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his inspiration for creating his documentary.
“I believe that if a film — the most powerful media that I can think of — can elicit an emotional response and inspire a deeper intellectual understanding of a topic, then 99 percent of the time, we can get people to work to help their fellow man,” Ramsdell said.
Ramsdell also told the audience about the personal significance and impact of his time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Once you go to the Congo, you can’t un-Congo yourself — it becomes a part of you,” Ramsdell said. “The Congo is powerful, impactful, painful and beautiful. … But what you see, you cannot un-see. I have daughters, I have a mom, I have a girlfriend, I have sisters. So I made a movie to expose what is happening to this special place.”
Following the screening of the 50-minute documentary, which gave a history of the nation and of the protracted civil war that is, in part, over lucrative mineral rights, Ramsdell and Mukwege participated in the Q&A session.
Mukwege began by reflecting on his early career as a doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told the audience that he arrived there after receiving medical training in France as a pediatrician, but once he saw how many women died giving birth each day, he went back to France to become a gynecologist.
“After my second training in France, I returned home and set up a hospital and a midwifery school,” Mukwege said. “But then in 1996, the war came to my hospital. It was invaded, and they killed my patients. I couldn’t bear to return to the hospital for another two years.”
Mukwege, who has developed an international reputation as a surgeon who specializes in reconstructive surgery for victims of violent rape, said he based his treatment off a four-pillar program that focuses holistically on patients’ overall health.
The four pillars are physical treatment, then mental health counseling, economic reintegration and providing the patient with legal services.
Ramsdell stressed the importance of Mukwege’s work as an advocate for victims of brutal war crimes, and also highlighted how Americans can help.
“It all is tied to business interests,” Ramsdell said. “The minerals that are at the heart of the conflict — these are components that go into all of our electronics that power our lives. If everyone were to boycott firms that engage in shady business deals for mineral rights in the Congo, then these business practices would absolutely change.”
Nursing sophomore Olivia Hamilton said she knew very little about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before Thursday night’s event. She said Mukwege and Ramsdell’s impassioned call to action inspired her to look further into Mukwege’s organization.
“I was really impressed by Mukwege’s dedication to the full treatment of women, physical and mental,” Hamilton said in an interview. “I never really considered it before tonight, but, to many, access to this kind of health care is a first-world luxury that is not available to everyone. … I can’t wait to tell more people about this. I was really shocked to learn about this and even more surprised that this isn’t common knowledge here.”