Dr. Jean Bosco: Making Sense of Suffering

“We come here to learn but the problem with us is whatever circumstances we do experience, we judge it, we take it as bad or as good but we don’t take it as an opportunity to learn and discover who we really are. We are peace. We are light. We are love.”
                          ~Dr. Jean Bosco 
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Fourteen hours outside of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, Dr. Jean Bosco Niyonzima works tirelessly to build health systems and provide health care to some of the poorest people on the planet. Originally from a rural village in Rwanda,   Dr. Bosco was twenty years old when the genocide in his country in 1994 took the lives of almost one million people in just 90 days.

Being witness to this unimaginable suffering and violence ignited in him an existential crisis.  What was his real purpose in this life? How could he help alleviate the suffering of others?In the Global Awakin Call led by Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, we listened intently to Dr. Bosco’s quiet introspection and wisdom on the meaning of suffering in our lives.

Although he grew up in a Christian family of unconditional love, service, and compassion, when the genocide took place, all of Dr. Bosco’s foundations were shaken.

“At that time, I was in seminary and I was trying to make sense of the suffering around me and within me, I was trying to understand why it happened and what would be my role to help my fellow citizens move out of this hell. I wondered what was my path to make life more meaningful for myself and for others.”

In his search for answers, Dr. Bosco came across Mahatma Gandhi’s book, “All Men Are Brothers”. Gandhi became his role model and helped him to understand that what Rwanda needed more than anything else was spiritual healing.  Instead of becoming a priest after finishing seminary, Dr. Bosco chose another path.

With the advice of his teacher, he realized that the best way that he could contribute to the spiritual healing of Rwanda was through social justice, by working in solidarity with people to help them regain their power and change the social structure that was at the root of violence and suffering.

Bringing social justice through the field of medicine made the most sense.

While studying and practicing medicine, I learned that the poorer you are, the sicker you become and of course, the sicker you are, the poorer you become. That’s why addressing poverty and disease is very crucial for addressing human suffering.

 

Coming to this realization was not easy. There was even a time during Dr. Bosco’s fourth year of medicine that he thought about quitting all together. During his practice in pediatrics, he observed how doctors were addressing the symptoms of poverty instead of the roots causes, which made him wonder if medical training was what he needed after all.

Fortunately, a mentor helped Dr. Bosco to discover that as a doctor, there is a way to go beyond the symptoms and focus on the healing and development of the whole person. He discovered holistic medicine, an approach that integrates biological, cultural, spiritual, and psychological dimensions of human beings.

Soon after medical school, Dr. Bosco had the opportunity to join Partners in Health and work with Dr. Paul Farmer. Partners in Health is an organization that is oriented toward social justice by breaking the cycle of poverty. Dr. Paul Farmer was in the country and asking people, “Where can I find a Rwandan social justice doctor?” Of course, everyone pointed him to Dr. Bosco.With Partners in Health, Dr. Bosco headed the infectious disease clinic and was exposed to many patients living with HIV and AIDS. One of his patients told him, “I like coming here when you’re here because my CD4 count increases just by meeting you.” (CD4 count indicates the number of your immune cells, and is a marker of where a patient’s HIV status is.)

“HIV was a death sentence but over time, I realized that holistic medicine is very important and treating patients wasn’t enough. They need food, they need shelter, but beyond that, they need to find the meaning of their life.Patients suffer and people suffer not only because they have a disease and they’re poor but also because they don’t have a purpose in their life. Once someone understands the purpose of their life, any event that makes them suffer, they are able to transcend it.”

But the question that continued to haunt Dr. Bosco after he realized that poverty and disease and inequality are interconnected was how to address poverty? These persistent questions led him to study sustainable development in the United States.
Studying sustainable development helped me to mature in my understanding of my mission on this Earth. I was born to help people heal and transcend but I needed tools to do it. You can’t help someone heal unless you understand his problem. In medicine, we call this diagnosis. But we also need social diagnosis to help in the healing process.”

Fourteen hours outside of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, Dr. Jean Bosco Niyonzima works tirelessly to build health systems and provide health care to some of the poorest people on the planet. Originally from a rural village in Rwanda, Dr. Bosco was twenty years old when the genocide in his country in 1994 took the lives of almost one million people in just 90 days.Being witness to this unimaginable suffering and violence ignited in him an existential crisis.  What was his real purpose in this life? How could he help alleviate the suffering of others?

In the Global Awakin Call led by Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, we listened intently to Dr. Bosco’s quiet introspection and wisdom on the meaning of suffering in our lives.

Although he grew up in a Christian family of unconditional love, service, and compassion, when the genocide took place, all of Dr. Bosco’s foundations were shaken.

“At that time, I was in seminary and I was trying to make sense of the suffering around me and within me, I was trying to understand why it happened and what would be my role to help my fellow citizens move out of this hell. I wondered what was my path to make life more meaningful for myself and for others.”

In his search for answers, Dr. Bosco came across Mahatma Gandhi’s book, “All Men Are Brothers”. Gandhi became his role model and helped him to understand that what Rwanda needed more than anything else was spiritual healing.  Instead of becoming a priest after finishing seminary, Dr. Bosco chose another path.

With the advice of his teacher, he realized that the best way that he could contribute to the spiritual healing of Rwanda was through social justice, by working in solidarity with people to help them regain their power and change the social structure that was at the root of violence and suffering.

Bringing social justice through the field of medicine made the most sense. – See more at: http://www.awakin.org/forest/index.php?pg=profile&cid=121&sid=13867#sthash.asQFfhih.dpuf

While many doctors with advanced degrees from the Unites States choose to climb the career ladder, Dr. Bosco chose to return to Africa and begin working in Liberia.

My passion for social justice took me to Liberia. We are working in the hardest to reach areas there and I would say that we are making the impossible possible. The people we are working with have been forgotten for a long time and the Liberians themselves are afraid to go to these communities. That passion pushed me to say, “Well, I have to go.”

While Dr. Bosco remains devoted to the forgotten communities of Liberia, he also has a dream to establish a healing and transformation center. He described the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth in Rwanda and believes that we need to break the cycle of dehumanization and victimization and address structural violence.

We live in a world that many people think is peaceful but peace is deeper than what many people think. Peace is beyond physical security. Direct violence is understood (for example, war) but there is another violence which is unseen by many people. There are unjust social structures and an unjust distribution of wealth and income. People die from injustices. The genocide was secondary violence; it was a result of the structural violence occurring at the primary level. So unless you’re addressing that primary level of violence, you’re not going to be able to transform the outward manifestation of that violence.

Is it difficult for Dr. Bosco to continue doing what he does? How does he heal himself and not let all the suffering around him affect his own well-being?

As a doctor, sometimes I cry. I know we should avoid closeness to our patients but I don’t care. I feel like the suffering of my patients is my suffering. However, I learned, while I can feel compassion, I also have to let it go. But this has been a long journey for me to understand that the suffering someone is going through, it’s important for that person’s own journey. I have to help that person learn and transcend. My role is to awaken.

This Awakin Call has been made possible by the following organizations. Click to learn more:

http://www.awakin.org/

http://www.servicespace.org/

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