Benjamin Ndayambaje is a Rwandan who grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. A trained veterinarian and former veterinary surgeon, he graduated in the University of Global Health Equity’s inaugural Class of 2017. While earning his master’s of science degree in global health delivery, he focused on one health, which involves the integration of health for people, animals and the planet.
Can you describe where you grew up? What were your aspirations when you were younger?
I was born and grew up in Uganda, in a refugee camp. Life there wasn’t easy for people from foreign countries. There were long distances to school, or to a clinic for medical checkups and treatments. The scarcity of resources created bottlenecks for most refugees. Environmental and hygienic conditions were not good in the camp. As a child, I aspired to be a medical doctor to save lives—especially for those in need.
As I grew up, my aspirations and interests changed, particularly as I spent time with my grandpa during school holidays. I enjoyed looking after my grandpa’s herd of cows. My grandpa taught me how to milk, and how to take care of young calves. He couldn’t treat some of their diseases, though, and we lost quite a number of cows to curable diseases. We couldn’t get enough milk for home consumption and selling. From that experience, I became determined to work hard and save our animals from diseases. My interest in saving animals for the benefit of people’s wellbeing has grown since then. I aspired to be a veterinarian to treat and protect animals from diseases.
Can you give a brief overview of your professional background? What were you doing before you began attending UGHE?
I hold an undergraduate honors bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Rwanda. I am a registered veterinarian, and practiced for one year as a private veterinary surgeon. Early in 2013, I worked as a manager for the Institute of Livestock Research and Development (ILRD). I managed the Innovative Program for Enhancing Milk Production (IPEMP) in the Umutara region, to help address the multitude of challenges for farming communities in northeastern Rwanda, primarily through research and outreach activities.
Later in 2013, I was recruited as a junior faculty member in the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Rwanda. I co-founded a One Health Students Club, which was later named “Students’ One Health Innovative Club,” as a platform for university students from various disciplines to collaborate on the most pressing community challenges. In the same year, I acted as managing director of Hobas Ltd. With support from USAID and the Land O’Lakes dairy and agriculture company, Hobas trained 500 farmers in dairy-related enterprises, to improve milk production for both home consumption and surplus sales in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.
In 2014-15, I won a competitive fellowship with Global Health Corps, and was placed in a senior position with the food security and livelihoods program with Partners In Health, known in Rwanda as Inshuti Mu Buzima. Moreover, I joined an online learning initiative through Harvard University and took a course titled, “Improving Global Health: Focusing on Quality and Safety,” and earned a certificate upon completion.
What inspired you to apply to UGHE?
I strongly believe health is a human right! Since childhood, I’ve wanted to save animals to improve people’s health and wellbeing. Life in the camp in Uganda, as the son of a refugee, and my Global Health Corps experience with Partners In Health inspired me to apply for UGHE. Moreover, the UGHE mission and vision were stepping stones for me to acquire more skills and knowledge to participate in the global health arena.
Can you describe your studies at UGHE? What did you focus on?
Studies at UGHE focused on shaping future global health leaders capable of identifying and defining global health pathologies, and knowing how to address them effectively and strategically. At UGHE I explored strategic problem-solving; experiential and hands-on learning; leadership and management training, focused on defining the role of global health leaders in addressing intertwined health challenges; and one health, which encourages multi- disciplinary collaboration to address health challenges facing humans, animals and the environment.
My focus was on one health. My capstone report focused on the use of pesticides and their effects on human, animal and environmental health in eastern Rwanda. Results of the study revealed the effects of improperly applied pesticides on humans, animals, and ecosystems. Moreover, the study recommended a multidisciplinary approach to address such health challenges, which are always multi-faceted in nature.
What was the most valuable thing you learned at UGHE? What was your favorite class?
The most valuable thing I learned at UGHE is that health is a human right, and global health is a complex web of challenges. Leadership plays a vital role in managing and strengthening health systems.
1. Principles of Global Health (first class by Dr. Paul Farmer, PIH co-founder and chief strategist)
2. One Health (by Dr. Hellen Amuguni, of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University)
3. Leadership and management (by Cloe Liparini, senior advisor for leadership development programs)
How did UGHE prepare you to work in global health? What have you been doing post-graduation?
Global health challenges are multi-faceted, and thus require a holistic approach. UGHE prepared me to think systematically and strategically when approaching global health challenges. Biosocial analysis is paramount when addressing global health. Using human-centered design skills gained at UGHE, my current project is designed to address root causes of health challenges and meet the needs of a targeted group of people.
Because the one health field encourages multi-disciplinary collaboration in addressing global health challenges, my project involves a diverse group of professionals.
Since graduation, I've taught at the University of Rwanda—applying global health tools acquired at UGHE—while working on global health projects. I'm now pursuing my PhD in applied ecology and one health, at the University of Nebraska's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
What inspires you to work in global health?
What inspires me most is giving back to my community, and giving a hand to the most in need. It always feels great. Helping people who need a hand, without expecting a reward or gain of any kind, give me peace of mind.
What are the biggest rewards of working in global health? What are the biggest challenges?
The biggest reward is giving the voiceless a chance to speak up, by listening to them and helping them figure out better ways to move out of poverty and improve the health of themselves and their families.
The biggest challenges include leadership and management, accountability, and humility among others in the global health arena. Also, understanding global health as an intertwined set of problems and learning how to approach them effectively. Collaborative efforts to solve challenges are still minimal at local, national and global scales. Experience with numerous global health threats—outbreaks, pandemics and epidemics—such as HIV, H1N1, Ebola, and others, shows that collaboration, leadership and management all play a vital role in containing, preventing, predicting and fighting against these threats.
Furthermore, as Dr. Paul Farmer said: "The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that's wrong with the world.” I strongly agree with him. We as global health leaders need to fight for global health equity, while promoting humility, advocating for the voiceless and making the world a better place for all human beings.
What do you hope to achieve through your career in global health? Why is this work important?
I hope to play a role in improving the health and well-being of many people, especially those in need. This will be done through advocating for the voiceless and poor families, and designing human-centered research and development projects (likely involving food security and livelihood), especially in the developing world. I envision becoming a global health leader as a researcher and consultant.
I was born in a refugee camp. My personal hardships and experiences have laid the ground for me to strive for progress, and make the world a better place for everyone. It’s not only rewarding, but also a great feeling and accomplishment to help those who can’t help themselves. I always aspire to make a difference in the lives of those in need, and give them hope for future.
What advice would you give to young global health professionals?
The best advice I can give to young global health professionals is to work hard with humility, collaborate among themselves, and bring the best out of themselves by fighting for global health equity.
Today, more than ever, we have the best global health experience and tools—such as technological knowhow, skills and knowledge—to address these challenges. We need global health leaders who are optimistic and not afraid to confront these challenges, with the mission of health for all and health care as a human right.
Watch Ndayambaje explain his capstone project on pesticide safety for Rwandan rice farmers, in a UGHE video here.