Dr Denis Mukwege: not a Great African Martyr

After an assassination attempt, the heroic humanitarian work of this gynaecologist must be internationally recognised and protected

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Dr Denis Mukwege, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a truly great human being.  From all accounts that I have so far read and heard of him, he is tireless, inspirational and selfless.  And that is what is so worryingly familiar about his narrative. The very real danger, unless entirely clear steps are taken, is that he will end up as yet another Great African Martyr.

Two days ago, Dr. Mukwege survived an attempt on his life.  A group of armed men burst into his home, held his two young daughters and their friend at gunpoint, and killed a man who worked for him.  It is fair to conclude that he was targeted because of his extraordinary work.

For the last decade and a half Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues have treated around 30,000 women for violent sexual injuries sustained during his country’s brutal internal conflict. The founder of the world-renowned but poorly-funded Panzi hospital has also travelled the globe as an advocate for women’s rights, and it is due to his outspoken nature that someone now seeks his life.  To take but one example, please read his short and powerful address to the United Nations on September 25 this year, where he eschewed easy platitudes and instead spoke of the unacceptable state of affairs in the modern DRC:

“This has been going on for 16 years!  16 years of errancy; 16 years of torture; 16 years or mutilation; 16 years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resources; 16 years of destruction of an entire society.” (My italics.)

The rest of the piece can be seen at this link. Yet, as can be seen above, whilst many salivate over the material wealth deep within the DRC’s soil, Dr. Mukwege correctly recognises that a country’s true wealth will always be its people.  Such a vision is compelling and rare, and must be nurtured as far as possible.

The fact that Dr. Mukwege narrowly escaped with life should throw all of his exceptional efforts into into the sharpest focus.  Few people are renowned for their medical skills, their campaigning and their compassion.  Dr. Mukwege is renowned for all three.  There are two simple steps that the international community, whom he criticised elsewhere in his UN speech for their “fear and lack of courage”, must now take to protect him and his unique gifts.  First, they can provide him and his family with appropriate security for as many years as he needs it.  Secondly, they can provide him and colleagues with unrestricted funding, or “core support”, for their hospital in Bukavu for the next few years.  It is only with this certainty of both safety and financial resources that his essential work can continue unabated.

The Great African Martyr is a shadow that hangs over much of the continent’s recent history.  So many of its most-loved sons and daughters were brutally murdered before they had a chance to complete their humanitarian deeds, for which Africa today is undoubtedly far poorer.  The most resonant memory to my mind is that of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was bludgeoned to death by Idi Amin and his henchmen in the Seventies.  But there are so many others.  People who struggled on against the odds whilst the world looked on anxiously, but ultimately from a comfortable distance: and whom, when they each met a demise of unutterable cruelty, the world then mourned and for the most part gently forgot.

This cannot happen to Dr. Mukwege.  He cannot be someone whom we wistfully remember at dinner parties and conferences for years to come.  His rightful place is not as some premature photo on a dusty mantelpiece.  No.  We have had too many Great African Martyrs, and he will not be another. 

The women who he has helped and will carry on helping need him far too much for that: Africa needs him far too much for that.  So I propose that the legacy of this attempted assassination should be that he lives until old age, happy and healthy, with the money and the safety that he needs to fulfil his mission.  All in favour, please say “Aye”.

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