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Letter From Idjwi: Democratic Republic of Congo

We were dropped into chaos at the Port of Goma. Or, more accurately, our driver could not move any farther into the crowded street. So we each began lugging the 40 kilos of clothing and equipment that would support us over the next month on Idjwi Island, a three-hour boat trip away.

Idjwi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photographs by Dan Sullivan.

Click image above to view slideshow.

We are a group of seven graduate students representing four of Harvard’s professional schools: public health, medicine, government, and design. Our goals for Idjwi are to perform a baseline health survey; develop a body of ethnographic and experiential research; and use that information to propose improved healthcare delivery, including designs for new healthcare facilities.

I wonder: How does an American designer responsibly work in this place? How does one respond to genocide; or comprehend the impact of introducing the first Internet connection where most buildings have no electricity; or understand how a visitor’s innocent actions reverberate after departure? How can architecture deliver solutions for violence and poverty?

Hospital planning requires analysis of data such as disease prevalence, distribution of existing facilities and population, and the technical aspects of disease transmission. Yet the data that architects usually collect is of the ethnographic sort: examining how a culture uses buildings and public spaces, and what political, cultural, religious, and personal biases affect that behavior. In the case of this project, our interdisciplinary student team means that scientific and ethnographic approaches can be integrated, creating what we hope will be more effective outcomes.

Immersion in Idjwi’s daily life was our way to collect accurate information. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we hiked 12 km to the market to buy our food. We haggled for vegetables and then carried the goods back, up and over the hills. Only by walking those roads did we begin to understand the challenge for a woman in labor to travel from home to the hospital. Only by visiting the remote villages did we understand the real impact of isolation.

As word spread that we were doing research to construct a hospital, local residents started collecting rocks for the structure’s foundation, even though we weren’t ready to build. Now, one year later, our team is still synthesizing our data; the project is ongoing; our recommendations and designs are forthcoming. I am committed to the people of Idjwi and haunted by the words of King Rubenga: “You’re not the first group to come here wanting to help, but most people then go back and forget about us. Please don’t forget about us. Please come back. Please do something.”

We return this summer.

Image above: Idjwi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photographs by Dan Sullivan.