Dr Bernard Uzabakiriho is one of eight African male gynaecologist oncologists in South Africa. According to the Health Professions Council of South Africa there are only thirty-three gynaecologist oncologists in the country.
Uzabakiriho, who recently qualified from the University of Pretoria, says this is a culmination of adream that began in 1994.
“After escaping the Rwandan genocide, I lived in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I witnessed gross human suffering especially of women and children. That’s when I made a decision to pursue a career in medicine in order to help ease their pain.”
However, as a refugee the odds were stacked against him. “I was only 23-years-old and survived on handouts from refugee organisations. It was an impossible dream.”
From the onset the refugee camp was hit by a cholera outbreak and many people died. Uzabakiriho got a job in the Département de l’Hygiene et Assainissement. “It was a section of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that offered environmental hygiene services. It was not any kind of environmental cleaning; we were clearing dead bodies off the streets. Since my first morning in Congo, not a single day went by without a Rwandan refugee dying - and they were dying in numbers.”
With the salary he received, he went looking for greener pastures.
“I spent four months in the refugee camp and migrated to Zambia. It is here that I was fortunate to enrol at Chainama College of Health Sciences.”
He paid for his tuition from money that he made as a hawker as well as sponsorship from an organisation that advocated for refugees.
In 1998, he completed a three-year diploma as a Clinical Officer General and got a job at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka. However, his appetite for education was insatiable. After a few months of working, he decided to take a leap of faith and travelled to South Africa in 1999.
“Initially I regretted the decision to abandon my job in Zambia because when I arrived in South Africa, at first I didn’t find the greener pastures. I hit rock bottom. I was homeless and lived on the streets. I also worked as a car guard, depending on tips to survive.”
However, the car guarding job was a blessing in disguise. With the money he earned, he was able to register at Wits Medical School. However, it was not enough for tuition fees and after he failed to pay, the university threatened to deregister him.
But in the nick of time, he met a Good Samaritan who acted as surety for his study loan until he completed a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) degree.
He later specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology. In 2022 he qualified as agynaecology oncologist and is currently working at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Johannesburg.
“I subspecialise in cancer of the female reproductive system. Cancer is one of the causes of death in women. My speciality is a culmination of the promise I made in 1994 to help in making the pain that women go through more bearable.”
He is grateful to all the destiny helpers who wholeheartedly and unconditionally helped him fulfil his purpose.
“I have lived in South Africa slightly longer than I have lived in Rwanda. Rwanda is my native land, but in South Africa I have found a new home, a wealth of opportunities and I have met people who have restored my faith in humanity.”
Uzabakiriho will soon be publishing a memoir tracing his footsteps in his quest to rebuild his life after escaping the Rwandan genocide.
Main Photo: Dr Bernard Uzabakiriho receiving the name plaque for his gynaecological oncology qualification from Prof. Leon Snyman from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Pretoria.
About author: Zinhle Dlamini Mugabe is a journalist with many years of experience in print media as well as TV production. She is also the author of Before Her Innocence Was Removed: Life After The Rwandan Genocide.