THE BLOG
05/22/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Idjwi: The Un-Forgotten Island

A dear friend asked me to attend a fundraiser for Amani Global Works. I go to many fundraisers so I was expecting to find another meaningful cause that would prompt me to write a dutiful check, but would not particularly resonate with me. I was wrong. Once I spoke with founders Dr. Jacques Sebisaho and Mimy Mudekereza, R.N. I was hooked.

Amani's mission is to provide a sustainable health care system to Idjwi, a forgotten island in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the rest of the DRC has suffered from years of rebel warfare and conflict, Idjwi's remote location in Lake Kivu has allowed it to remain peaceful. This remoteness has also kept Idjwi from modernizing during the 20th and 21st centuries.

When the abstract discussion of traveling to Idjwi to view the progress of Amani's Medical Center became a reality, I was mentally ready, but unaware of how emotionally unprepared I was.

On February 2 our group of eight departed NYC. After two days of travel we made our approach to Idjwi in the late afternoon. This mountainous island surrounded by the serenity of Lake Kivu is one of the most beautiful places I have traveled to. The lush greenery and the view of the vast and calm lake is a photographers dream.

Disembarking the boat that ferried us from the mainland of Bukavu, my focus turned to the sights and sounds of the people. I was intimidated and humbled by the crowd awaiting us. Adults and children greeted us with singing and dancing. Although it could have been perceived that the commotion was intended for Idjwi's King and Mayor -- who traveled the last two hours with us -- there was no mistaking that it was directed at the volunteers. How was I going to deliver on what seemed a high level of expectation? Idjwi is 7,000 miles from my home in New York and its culture is centuries away from what I'm accustomed to. I decided to go with the flow. The people's warmth and sincerity put me at ease. I walked along, exchanged smiles, and soon all apprehension was erased.

While exploring the island, we saw the Ban'Idjwi (the people of Idjwi) going about their lives; women were planting crops, washing clothes, children were running freely in groups and playing with makeshift toys, many under the age of six carrying smaller siblings on their backs. With Amani's guidance, women have adopted leadership roles, campaigning and embracing new ways to combat malnutrition and illness. Proud of their newfound skills, they were eager to demonstrate their farming techniques to us. Attempting to assimilate, I greeted all who passed with "Jambo" (hello), which was met with shy giggles and returned greetings.

Meeting and playing with the children was a gift. The joy they received from our attention was contagious. We took photos and showed them the images as they excitedly laughed and pointed. One 4-year-old child stood out, named Freddy. His charm, intelligence, the way he approached me and took my hand greatly affected me. I exchanged looks and smiles with his mother who was watching us play from several feet away. She gestured in an unmistakable way -- please take him with you -- as she smiled. From the outside, what appeared to me to be an acceptable life, inside another narrative exists. Her willingness to sacrifice and give him away so he might have a better life revealed deeper struggles. As a mother, I was moved by this selfless act.

Seeing these beautiful people, I was saddened to learn that the average life expectancy on the island is 25 years of age. Malnutrition, infant mortality and childbirth are major causes of death that can be avoided through preventive health care and education. As I spent time with the women and children, I began to see the negative effects that our modern world's absence has had. This put into clear focus the importance of Amani's mission.

When departing the island we saw something that could have been scripted, but it was real. Before our eyes a life-threatening accident occurred involving a young child. Fortunately for the boy and his family, the Medical Center exists and professional treatment was administered rapidly. Without this, another preventable and sad loss could have occurred. This sobering yet inspiring moment was a true testament to Amani's work and Idjwi's progress.

My visit to Idjwi helped validate why organizations like Amani exist. Absent of human compassion, the people of Idjwi would have been forgotten.