"The chance of my life is to be born and raised in one of the poorest countries in the world and go to graduate school in one of the richest... It creates for me a shortcut to understand the concepts of wealth and sharing that are often inaccessible to most of us."
At just 40 years old, Dr Levi Kandeke has traversed an extraordinary path.
Born and raised in Burundi, Levi had the rare chance to study in the USA and train as an ophthalmologist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
After spending some time in France, he felt a pull for his homeland after a story from an African colleague hit a nerve.
"He told me he had the best time of his life during this period working at home and feeling useful to his community."
Levi realised he wasn’t feeling the same fulfilment in France and decided to return home in 2006 to a country suffering the aftershock of civil war. Burundi has abundant natural beauty, but behind the lush greenery and jagged mountain peaks is severely damaged infrastructure and a collapsed healthcare system. At the point Levi returned, all eye surgery was done by visiting ophthalmologists.
For every kid with a cataract, it’s an emergency
Eyesight makes a huge difference to health outcomes, and is especially vital for those who are poverty-stricken. What many people don’t realise is that cataract
in adults is different to cataract in children
The brain develops visual pathways in our early years, and if a child cannot see before the age of 10, these pathways don’t develop, leading to permanent blindness.
Another complicating factor is that treatment for children is more complicated and expensive than for adults.
Levi notes that in countries like Burundi, “Very few blind [children] go above five years… the parents tend to abandon these kids and most of them they’re going to die [of] malnutrition”.
The kids… they’re abandoned [by their parents] because we really need a lot of money to help them
- Dr Levi Kandeke
Making a change to health outcomes in Burundi
Determined to do something to make a change, Levi opened the first private clinic in Bujumbura with subsidised eye surgeries. But he knew that community outreach is the foundation of a sustainable eye health care system, so with his own savings he built Africa’s first two vision centres in rural parts of the country.
As the only paediatric eye surgeon in Burundi, he also opened the country’s first two paediatric eye camps.
There are striking similarities between Levi and Fred Hollows: both men were talented surgeons who had a strong sense of social justice, and both men were wholeheartedly dedicated to a cause they believed in.
Levi has worked with The Fred Hollows Foundation for many years. The financial support he receives has helped him save the sight of children like Leonides
Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggest that for every child like Leonides
there are thousands who will suffer permanent blindness in Burundi and who will never get help.
We did 100 cataract surgeries in kids in one week and some of them went back because our (medical equipment) finished. So we have to focus on the younger ones, those who have more chance to see.
– Dr Levi Kandeke
The pain of refusing help to those who desperately need it can only be lessened if more support is provided from organisations like The Fred Hollows Foundation – and this is something Levi is passionate about.
"This is my country, I can tell you it cannot afford it and it won’t afford it even for the 10 years coming, so we will have to try to find a donor to help us to do this."
As someone who has seen the world’s most exemplary healthcare as well as the worst, Levi has a painful insight in to what is missing in his own country.
He knows that blind children in Burundi will not experience the kind of healthcare he saw in Geneva and in France. But their place of birth doesn’t mean they deserve it any less, and that’s why Levi will continue to save as many of their eyes – and futures – as possible.
You try to do your best surgery… because these kids, they will be grateful all their life.
- Dr Levi Kandeke