Last week, Partners In Health Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer addressed an audience at a convention center in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. An architectural rendering projected above him showed the University of Global Health Equity, a collection of flat-roofed stone buildings framed by Rwanda’s mountains. Long glass windows reflected the lush hills surrounding it.
While the buildings aren’t real yet, Farmer’s audience included students who have been taking global health classes since 2015. Using classrooms in Kigali and PIH’s offices in Rwinkwavu, participants are working toward a two-year Master of Science in Global Health Delivery. The university accepted its second class of part-time students this fall, and applications will soon be ready for the third cohort of students starting in September 2017.
Taught by Rwandan and U.S. faculty from institutions including Harvard, Tufts, and Duke, the degree is designed to teach students—with backgrounds ranging from dentistry to nursing—how to deliver health care to people living in poor places.
While global health is an increasingly popular academic field at institutions in the United States and Europe, the university was founded to go a step beyond global health theory and turn knowledge into practice.
“One of the biggest challenges in global health is that we have the tools to prevent and treat disease, but we fail to deliver those tools to the people who need it most,” says the university’s executive director, Dr. Peter Drobac.
“UGHE is all about the ‘how,’” he said. “How to actually deliver effective health care to rural or impoverished settings.”
The university campus is currently 100 hectares of cleared space on a hilltop in Burera, a rural northern district and a three-hour drive from Kigali. A road and electricity poles wind up to the site. Red tape marks the foundations where buildings will rise, and in two years’ time, classrooms, laboratories, administrative offices, student accommodations, and dining halls will be in place for the university’s fourth cohort of master’s students.
Beyond offering degree programs, the university is fast becoming a training hub for people around the world interested in short global health delivery courses. Farmer’s audience included professionals from Switzerland, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Liberia, who completed either a one-week or two-week training for health leaders.
Farmer taught their last class after students had studied a range of topics, from HIV program development to change management.
Participants of the course included on-the-ground experts and senior managers from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a financing institution supporting countries facing epidemics of the three diseases.
Another group took a similar course for managers and executives at ministries of health and nongovernmental organizations.
“I’ve been to different courses and trainings, but this one just brought everything to reality,” said Tampose Mothopeng, director of The People’s Matrix Association, a LGBTI nonprofit in Lesotho focusing on HIV.
Drobac envisions thousands of students passing through the university. “We want UGHE to become a space for the best thinkers and innovators in global health delivery,” he said. “A place where people can come together to solve some of the world’s most complex health care problems and disseminate those lessons around the world.”
From left to right: Executive Director of the University of Global Health Equity Peter Drobac, Deputy Director of Inshuti Mu Buzima Antoinette Habinshuti, Minister of Education Musafiri Papias Malimba, PIH Co-founder Paul Farmer, and Director of Campus Development Emmanuel Kamanzi walk the grounds of the future campus. Photo by Aaron Levenson / Partners In Health
The next day, he and Farmer, along with Dr. Musafiri Papias Malimba, Rwanda’s minister of education, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, a professor of the university and the former minister of health, other public officials, and PIH staff joined 300 Burera residents at the university’s construction site. They came to plant trees to mark the next phase of the university’s growth.
“The planting of trees has long been an important practice at Partners In Health,” said Drobac. “The beautiful tulip trees we plant today represent an investment in future generations.”
“This hill will become a beacon of knowledge, a beacon of equity, and a beacon of humanity,” said Malimba.
Children sang into microphones while community health workers adorned in custom kitenge cloth danced. Stormy clouds made the green hills more vibrant before rain plummeted down. Binagwaho ushered as many people who could fit under a single tent, where leaders mingled with villagers.
Rain in Rwanda, said many, is a sign of good luck, and even more so when among friends.