Q&A: Winston Duke of Black Panther on PIH, Global Health

PIH's first global ambassador reflects on trip to Rwanda

Posted on Nov 17, 2022

What struck Winston Duke the most while visiting Partners In Health in Rwanda was not the hospitals, or the medicine, or even the stories from patients and staff—it was the sense of community.

Duke, an actor and philanthropist known globally for his role in Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, joined PIH for a two-week trip to the East African nation in late May. PIH, known locally as Inshuti Mu Buzima, has worked in Rwanda since 2005, strengthening the health system and providing medical care and social support in partnership with the Ministry of Health.

During the trip, Duke met with patients and staff in Rwinkwavu, PIH’s first site in the country; accompanied community health workers on a house call; stayed overnight at the home of PIH Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer, and visited PIH-supported Butaro District Hospital, currently under expansion, and the University of Global Health Equity.

It was an experience that left him feeling inspired and changed “fundamentally, forever.”

Below, Duke, who is PIH's first global ambassador, shares some key reflections from the trip and what draws him to PIH.

The conversation below has been edited and condensed.

Was there a moment that made you realize on a personal level that health care should be a human right?

During one of our first visits in Rwinkwavu, we met a woman whose life was changed—you know, a complete 180—where she was brought to PIH on the brink of death, after being found on the side of the road.

PIH helped her to combat HIV and live with the disease. They provided her a home. They then helped her to acquire land. She had children that she was separated from. She was from Tanzania, a country just right across the border, and they were able to help her get her kids from there and rebuild her entire life to the point where now she is a landowner and entrepreneur and her kids are in the best schools in Rwanda. It feels like a mountain of a story, but that is her human right. Her human right is to live. Her human right is to have access to health care—that is, not only pills and medication, but the holistic ability to live a fulfilled life.

And everyone is entitled to that—every single human being. That moment really showed me the impact of the work that PIH is doing and can do and will do in the future and that every person—no matter where they're from, no matter where they live, no matter what they were born into, no matter what circumstances have happened to them—deserves health care. That moment redefined health care for me, as something much larger.

You stayed at Paul Farmer's home for part of your stay in Rwanda. Tell us about that experience.

Yes, we stayed in Paul Farmer's home, the Friendship House. We walked in his footsteps, and that was an incredible experience to see how barebones the home was and to see that he really was just about the work. There was nothing glamorous.

The Friendship House is a space of deep intention, meaning, and impact, and it was really great to sleep in that home and see how he even had his family there and how he was part of the community—understanding how he walked the yard and picked out every tree that was planted there and why there was a meaning behind each and everything. It really conveyed to me that this man was very intentional while also being a great visionary.

Winston Duke visits Butaro District Hospital and the University of Global Health Equity during his time with Inshuti Mu Buzima.
Winston Duke visits the University of Global Health Equity during his time with Inshuti Mu Buzima. To the left are Dr. Daniel Seifu, associate professor & head of biochemistry at UGHE, and Dr. Natnael Shimelash, a lecturer. To the right is Dr. Ornella Masimbi, a lecturer & coordinator of UGHE's simulation and skills center. Photo by Pacifique Mugemana / PIH.

We were thrilled when you expressed interest in our work in Rwanda and even more excited to welcome you here in person. What has it been like talking to doctors and patients and seeing the work up close?

It was really great to actually see the work firsthand—to see not only the patients but also the human beings dedicating their life to this kind of work, to changing the health systems and making them way more equitable and accessible for people all over the world.

And in a place like Rwanda—which is both a place of incredible beauty, personality, very individualistic heritage and nuanced history and also a place of great need—seeing these doctors show up every single day and give their lives, give their blood and sweat, was just something that was incredibly enriching to my life. I'm really going to take that message with me as I move forward, seeing the kids that they're working with and how they're changing the health care systems to combat all the -isms of the world, white supremacy, racism, implicit biases.

It was really incredible to see that. And it's changed me, fundamentally, forever.

Trips like this can bring about a lot of feelings and thoughts. If you were to try to condense how you're feeling now at the end of this trip into a word, what word would you choose and why?

Inspired. I'm inspired to carry forward the mission of Partners In Health. I'm inspired to change how we see health care and redefine a lot of the words that we use in our everyday life that have lost meaning and become a bit mundane. Health care is one of those words where we take it for granted, and we think that it just means a trip to the hospital, being able to see a doctor, having access to medication. But it's so much more. It's community. It's fulfillment of dreams. It's people being able to feel like they are recognized and empowered. It is so much more. It's family—it's creating family, it's redefining family, it's creating a global family. And I think that's what Partners In Health has inspired me to do—to really just reframe and redefine a lot of the words, and contexts that we use those words in, day to day.

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