‘Doing God’s Work’ In Rural Africa


After a serious car accident a few months ago, a high school student in eastern Africa can walk because of a philanthropic Jewish couple from the Upper West Side.

Upendo, a 14-year-old girl in Tanzania, broke her femur late last year on the way to school. The injury was potentially crippling. With no advanced medical facilities in her homeland, she was taken across the border to Burundi, where surgeons at Kibuye Hospital treated her fracture by inserting a steel rod in her leg, the first step on her return to health.

The operation was made possible by a grant last year from entrepreneur Mark Gerson and his wife, Rabbi Erika Gerson, who established the Gerson L’Chaim Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service. The initial $500,000 annual award, for Christian medical missionaries working in Africa — modern Albert Schweitzers — went to Dr. Jason Fader, a missionary doctor who has served in rural Burundi for five years.

The prize, the first to aid Christian missionaries doing long-time service in Africa, paid for construction of a new surgical ward building at Kibuye Hope Hospital, where Fader works, renovation of the affiliated medical school’s teaching laboratory, purchase of orthopedic implant supplies, the country’s first medical internship, supplemental housing for the hospital’s staff members — and an increase in the number of life-altering surgeries on patients like Upendo.

The funds “reaffirmed the work that we are involved in” at the hospital, the only medical center in Burundi outside of the capital, Bujumbura, said Fader. A native of the United States, he is Burundi’s only surgeon in the rural part of the country, and says Burundi has one of the lowest surgeon-to-population ratios in the world.

Gerson, chairman of the of the Gerson Lehrman Group, a peer-to-peer business learning company, called his type of philanthropy his way of fulfilling the biblical commandment to “love the stranger.”

“The Torah tells us 36 times to love the stranger, and who is more of a stranger than people suffering from TB or AIDS or any number of disabilities in a rural African village?

“The Torah tells us 36 times to love the stranger, and who is more of a stranger than people suffering from TB or AIDS or any number of disabilities in a rural African village?” he said. “Western-trained Christian doctors and nurses and other health-care professionals working in Africa today are doing God’s work.”

The growing number of independent churches in the U.S. in recent decades has reduced the amount of money traditionally available for such Christian missions abroad, Gerson said.

His foundation recently announced that the recipient of the second Gerson L’Chaim Prize is Dr. Russell White, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Tenwek Hospital in western Kenya.

White, among two dozen applicants “all over the continent,” was chosen by a medical advisory board, Gerson said.

The prize money will fund training of cardiac surgeons, ultrasound screenings in schools, and for antibiotics for young people whose strep infections have not yet damaged their hearts.

The prize money represents about a quarter of his hospital’s annual budget — which comes from the government and modest patient fees — said White, the son of medical missionaries, who has worked in Africa for two decades.

Gerson, who also serves as international chairman of United Hatzalah, a prominent first-response organization in Israel, said he developed his interest in supporting medical organizations because of his friendship with Dr. Jon Fielder, a roommate at Williams College in the early 1990s. Fielder, who has served as a medical missionary in Kenya and Malawi since 2002, is a co-founder, with Gerson, of the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (amhf.us), launched seven years ago to provide aid to medical missionaries in several African countries. The foundation coordinates the prize’s selection process.

“In one of the world’s poorest countries, a prize of this magnitude, for one hospital, is far-reaching.”

Fader is also the son of medical missionaries.

“Because of the L’Chaim Prize, hundreds of people will walk, thousands will receive care, and tens of thousands will be helped by the doctors we train,” Fader said in a statement. “It’s hard to overstate the value” of the funds. “In one of the world’s poorest countries, a prize of this magnitude, for one hospital, is far-reaching.”

The annual L’Chaim Prize goes to the medical institution where the recipient is based, paying for such expenses as training, medical equipment, drugs and housing.

“To give a sense of scale: Kibuye Hope Hospital had a total operating budget in 2015 of $526,000,” Fielder said. “The hospital took care of 25,000 outpatients, 10,000 inpatients, 1,200 surgeries and 800 cataract cases. It gives you a sense of how far a dollar can be stretched.”

Gerson said he chose an obviously Jewish name for his prize to “make a statement” about his Jewish incentive for supporting the Christian missionaries.

“This is their calling,” he said.

Fielder, in a telephone interview from Kenya, called the Gerson L’Chaim Prize lifesaving. “It’s been a huge help,” he said. Patients come to Fader’s clinic from hundreds of miles around.

Patients like Upendo.

Had she remained in Tanzania for treatment, Fielder said, she may have remained in bed, in traction, for six weeks, delaying her recovery and ability to again walk normally.

With the steel rod she received at the Kibuye Hospital, he said, she was walking with crutches within a few days. And, Fielder said, she’s back in school.