When Dr. Denis Mukwege was still a child, his father, a pastor, would take him on pilgrimages to visit the sick in Bukavu, a city in the eastern Congo. Once, he and his father went to see a child who was in near-fatal condition. They prayed for him, and after, Mukwege’s father stood to leave. Mukwege was horrified. When he was sick, his father didn’t rely only on prayer to heal him. Mukwege insisted: “Give medicine to this child.’”
“My dad said, ‘Denis, I’m not a medical doctor,’” Mukwege remembers. He was eight years old, and it was the first time he’d ever seen his father at a loss. A moment like that, “it leaves an impression,” Mukwege tells me when I meet him at an event in late September to honor his world-renowned efforts to end sexual violence and treat its victims in Congo. And it’s that experience that decided it — he would be a doctor. Mukwege faced his father: “You can pray, but I will give medicines.”
Three decades later, Mukwege, by then trained as an OB-GYN, opened Panzi Hospital, a complex of facilities built to improve health outcomes for pregnant women in Bukavu. But as patients streamed in, Mukwege realized he’d miscalculated the conditions in the area. It wasn’t just the disease and starvation. One by one, women arrived with horrific, gruesome injuries; they’d been so violently raped, their bodies had been torn apart. Amid persistent war and constant abuse, Mukwege has treated over 46,000 women.
At Panzi, he and his staff have implemented a five-pillar method, devised to help women reclaim a sense of self-determination in the aftermath of violence. The process includes medical care, psychological treatment, economic support, and guidance including job training, advice on how to reintegrate into their communities, and aid to pursue justice in court. “We can’t just treat the finger or the ear,” Mukwege explains. “We have to see the person as an entire whole.”
A little while before our interview, a former patient sends Mukwege a 30-second video. She’s young — maybe eighteen or twenty. She talks quickly, her voice loud and clear, like a bell. While we watch, Mukwege translates: “She’s learning to make karate, so she can protect me” — she wants to do for him what he’s done for her. Mukwege tells me he’s operated on this woman ten times; he’s had to repair an obstetric fistula, reconstruct her vagina, and remove her uterus. He’s had to put her back together. But “because we treat her,” he says, “we bring her a life.”
I asked him where he finds the resolve he needs to do his job, knowing that there will be more patients — more women and children and, lately, babies who arrive at Panzi with such terrible wounds. Mukwege looks up from the video. “I have this feeling that even if it’s hard, I have to work,” he says. He points to the woman, her face frozen onscreen in a smile: “Look at her, and see. Does this answer your question?”
Mattie Kahn: You went into medicine to treat children but ended up focusing on their mothers. How did that happen?
Denis Mukwege: When I learned medicine, what I believed I should solve was a problem of children because it was what shocked me [as a child]. But when I started to work in my country for the first time, the first day, two women died in giving birth. I learned that you can focus on children, but there are no children if mothers are dying in giving birth. So, after one year, I decided to become an obstetrician.