Alice Uwingabiye: IMB, My University
June 2006... That’s when I heard about Partners In Health for the first time. In 2006, I was working in a local NGO called “AFCF GIRIBANGA” which was supporting people living with HIV/AIDS. We were based in Gikondo-Kigali. At that time, we were supporting more than 100 people but every month we were losing about 3 of them. We started asking ourselves where those people were leaving for. Unexpectedly, in June, I met one of them in Kigali town (Main Taxi Parking) and asked him where he left us for. “I found a better organization called Patanazi in Rwinkwavu, they treat HIV Patients. That’s where I live and if all goes well, I will take my family there” he said. He started giving me names of other patients that we had lost who were also living in Rwinkwavu. I couldn’t tell that “Patanazi” was Partners In Health.
Two months later, on August 1st, I received a phone call from a friend who was working in Kirehe. He told me about a job he got at Partners In Health and encouraged me to go there and see what they do so that if there is any opportunity, I could apply. I asked what was Partners In Health, he explained everything he knew about it. This is when I heard about Partners In Health itself for my first time and couldn’t link it with Patanazi of those patients.
August 2nd, after consulting my sister, I went to Kirehe. I was expecting to find the person who called me there. When I arrived, I called him and he was attending a meeting in Kigali. Suddenly, I saw a “muzungu” (white person) rounding in Kirehe health center. I was not shy. I went straight to him and shook his hand. “My name is Alice Uwingabiye, I’m from Kigali, holding a bachelors’ degree in Arts and Human Sciences from the National University of Rwanda. I came here because I need a job” I said. This man was Dr. Henry Epino. He asked me if I had heard about any job there. I said no. “So, what are you interested in?” he asked me. I replied “Well, I can’t be a doctor, I can’t work in finance and I can’t be a cleaner. If you have any other areas, I can do my best and meet your expectations”. He kept quiet, went to the park lot, got into the car (Isuzu Trooper) and asked me to go with him. We took the direction of Tanzania and after 10 minutes, we turned to our left and made a trip of 1 hour and half. Nobody was speaking. The driver was also quiet, I didn’t even know that he was Rwandan. On my left, I saw the sign below, and we entered the Health Center.
That day at Mulindi HC, I was feeling lost. Dr. Henry asked me to follow him in the inpatient wards and translate for patients he was going to consult. I think, for that very day, I did my best.
After 4 hours, we went back to Kirehe. When we arrived, he told me that he took me to Mulindi for my job interview. “I think you can be a translator. Go back home and be ready to start working with us” he said. That Friday, he went to USA and came back in November. I stayed home until November 5th, when I was called. I went back to Kirehe and started working from there on November 6th, the date I officially joined PIH-IMB.
I couldn’t find anything more difficult than translating clinical terms. I was always scared of doing wrong translation for the medical doctor had to rely on my translation and prescribe medications for patients.
I always try to be honest with myself. After three months only, a sick lady came, carried in a local/traditional stretcher. She was crying a lot. The doctor and my boss called me for translation. The lady said “Mubwire ngo igisyo kiranyishe” – tell him that I’m dying of …. I failed to translate “igisyo”. I picked my phone and called one of the nurses who told me that it was “splenomegaly”. It was my first time to hear a term like this.
The doctor consulted her, I went back in office and thought about my job as a translator. I realized that I was not a good fit. I decided to talk to my boss and share my feelings about the job. When I started talking to him, he didn’t even let me finish and said “don’t worry Alice, translating for patients is difficult for many people. But, I have seen some other potentials in you, I’m going to hire a professional translator and give you something else”.
I was therefore given another job. I was in charge of Kirehe PIH office, supervising our activities in 4 Health Centers especially HC Pharmacies because PIH was supplying pharmacies. Without any clinical background. I couldn’t go back to school to learn about it. I asked him to give me 2 weeks before starting to work with pharmacies. Every day, I had to visit 1 HC and spend the whole day with pharmacy nurses learning and observing daily movements and operations. I got used to their activities and when I was going there for supervision, they were seeing me as a specialist.
At the same time, we were starting the construction of Kirehe hospital. I had to supervise daily activities, with no construction skills at all. I had to spend good times with skilled people, watching what they were doing and asking questions. How do you mix cement, why do you use different sizes of the sand, etc. I was working as if I was in a competition or a Race to the top!
After a year, Dr. Henry also realized that I had made a very big improvement and decided to give me additional responsibilities. Under him, there was the Program Manager who was in charge of all IMB operations in Kirehe. I was promoted to the Deputy Program Manager. I stepped into a decision making position. I was acting for them when they were absent, they were delegating me in some of district meeting and events. On the political side, my mind was empty. When delegated, I remember that before speaking, I had to go out and call my leaders just to make sure that I was speaking their language. It gave me the opportunity to see areas that PIH had to improve in accompaniment. E.g. Basing our workplans on district – community priorities, sharing our priorities, engage them more in our activities, etc. I was also entrusted to authorize daily expenses, with no background in finance. I had to learn about some new financial concepts especially those ones used by IMB. At that time, IMB, HCs and Hospital staff were on the same payroll of IMB so I also started being involved in new hires, head counts, payrolls, leave management, etc. After 2 months, I was comfortable with my new tasks.
Two years later, in 2009, I spent 5 months in a very tough situation that I would have never expected: Five people left, it was Dr. Henry, Program Manager, IMB accountant, Hospital HR Manager and the translator. Dr. Henry went back to USA and the others got better opportunities outside IMB. I remained with the cashier, the Mutuelle coordinator and drivers. I became the Acting Program Manager and Acting Program Director. I took a day off to think about this situation. I had a thousand questions in my mind and no answers. The workload became heavy, particularly because we were starting a process of separating HCs and hospital staff from IMB staff. Everything was challenging: Running a newly constructed hospital, Supervising HCs and hospital staff, managing referral systems including ambulances, improving partnership between PIH and local government, managing my team and ensure their performance and motivation etc. but I stayed focused and did the best I could.
In May 2009, the leadership confirmed me as the head of Kirehe district program, the 1st Rwandan to represent IMB districtwide. I thought I couldn’t be more proud of myself. I continued the hard work and after ten years I realize how much IMB has flourished in Kirehe. To give just a few examples:
- We moved from ID/TB and EMR focused interventions to all the programs we have today,
- We moved our support from 4 HCs to 16 HCs
- We helped the district to construct the 1st hospital in Kirehe District
- We renovated 13 HCs, increased their staff, connected them to power and water where it was possible
- The local government (district) and IMB priorities are in alignment, we understand each other,
- Finally, I can see that Kirehe staff is engaged (we haven’t received any resignation since 2010)
At a personal level, the best reward was being elected best leader by all staff in 2014.
Recently, PIH leaders appointed me as Deputy Chief Human Resources Officer. This is such an honor! However I am going to be honest and say that at the beginning HR was not my dream, I wasn’t convinced it was the best fit for me. Thanks to the encouragements from the leadership team, and because I started working closely with Robin and Julius, I felt more and more comfortable and decided that my doubts shouldn’t prevent me from doing the work. I could also see the positive reaction of all staff, it is like that transition was totally logical for them and they were convinced that I could do it. And I thought that after all, IMB has continuously challenged me and I have always learned, so why not this time?!
Finally, I would like to address a few words to my colleagues at IMB.
Nothing is impossible when you are determined and committed. 70% of your development will come from yourself and sometimes, you won’t need to go back to school. Experience teaches so please believe in yourself. As Dr. Alex said, IMB is the school of life so take advantage of this. Personally, I have always considered IMB as my university.
To grow, you need to take time to understand your strengths, your talents so you can let them grow. You also need to know your areas of improvement so you can work on them, you need to accept that you don’t know and learn. You can learn from your workmates! If needed, you can also decide to go back to school and IMB has mechanisms to support you in that initiative. Personally I have started an MBA last year and I am thrilled to announce that I will be done in a few months; so it’s possible!
I will end by saying that today we are all with PIH, in our respective department but tomorrow we may find another opportunity inside or outside PIH. Therefore we should all do, love and enjoy our job everyday as if it is our last day.