Monday, March 19, 2012

Loss of a Heroine

I first met Lyn Lusi when I was teaching at TASOK in Kinshasa, Congo. During a brief time when the local airlines made that region accessible, a friend arranged for me and Lauren to stay with Lyn at her home in Goma while we had an adventure tour to eastern Congo. Lyn was a most accommodating and gracious host, feeding us, housing us, arranging expeditions, and driving us around the region, and I did some repairs on her satellite dish and household internet network in exchange. She introduced us to the region (as well as to fried locusts and how to pay bribes to police) and gave us our first glimpse into how the Rwandan Genocide and its aftermath affected the people of eastern Congo, especially the women.

At the time, I was not really aware of how terrible the magnitude of the crimes committed in that area were, but I was impressed that this somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman had dug in her roots in a place called "the most dangerous city in the world", and was spearheading the building of a local hospital that ran entirely on donations; a facility known as HEAL Africa. She told us fascinating tales of how, only a few months earlier, a volcanic eruption had engulfed the town, destroyed their new building and forced them to relocate into tents as they began rebuilding on the still-warm lava.  

A few years later, when Lauren and I had relocated to Hong Kong, I adopted a service club at the school that supported Médecins Sans Frontières, but after a year we realized that our funds would be better utilized for a more grass-roots effort, so I remembered Lyn and her hospital, and the students and I formed the HEAL Africa Club.

To help generate local support for the hospital, we invited Lyn and her husband Jo to come to Hong Kong, all expenses paid. The HKIS Alumni Association (under the leadership of Ken Koo) pitched in and paid for their airfare, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel comped us their deluxe suite. Unfortunately, as is too common in the DRC, Jo Lusi's high profile status as an ex-Representative in the government, and other political frictions between DRC and HK led to the perpetual postponement of his HK visa. Lyn was immune, holding a British passport, so she came alone. During the week she spent at HKIS, she spoke to classes, student leadership groups, parents and teachers about the issues facing women and the efforts of her hospital in Goma. She even introduced the first Asian showing of LUMO, a documentary about a patient at her hospital. The HEAL Africa club raised about $30,000 for the hospital that year, and was a highly visible club among students and the community, mostly because of Lyn's charisma. Lyn also nurtured a genuine relationship with Elvira, the student leader of the HEAL Africa club.

The following year, Tash, one of our PE teachers, decided to take a year off and do some travelling. High on her bucket list was a trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. I convinced her to make a side trip to Goma to see Lyn and the hospital, and the result of that was the birth of another genuine relationship and friendship between Lyn and someone from HKIS. And during that summer, two seniors who were members of the HEAL Africa club decided to make the journey to DRC as a graduation gift to themselves, and worked at the hospital for a week. Lyn's effect on our student body was generating long-lasting effects.

About this time, Lyn's efforts at bringing the work of HEAL Africa and the plight of the Congolese women to the public eye resulted in her winning The Opus Prize, a $1M cash award that she used to establish a trust fund to generate monies for the hospital. Her acceptance speech is fascinating and worth watching.

I have stayed in loose contact with Lyn over the past two years, reporting on the efforts of the HEAL Africa club, and hearing about her work with the hospital. My students and ex-colleague have also stayed in loose contact, and we were all surprised to slowly discover how high-profile she really was (with inteviews on BBC, PBS, connections with global celebrities and many other accolades); she had that ability to make you feel like you were important and that you and her were peers and at the same level. 

This was obviously not so: Lyn was one of the most amazing and giving people in the world, and in a class of people far above ordinary people like me. Her work at HEAL Africa created an institution that benefits thousands and thousands of people who otherwise would be abandoned, she motivated and enlisted the support of people worldwide, she rubbed shoulders with Heads of State, CEOs of multinational corporations, well-known actors, teachers, students, rape victims and orphans. And throughout it all, she was still that 'somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman' I first met in Goma, who never lost her humility or single-minded dedication to helping the victims of the marauding militants in eastern Congo.

She will be missed, but the work she has started will go on.

Her passing and her life was commemorated in several high-profile places, such as The EconomistPBS Newshour and on the Floor of the US Senate.

1 comment:

  1. This is very sad. A bit of additional information. She died from cancer.