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Mission Rwanda
Mission Rwanda
By Richard Carroll
Photography: Dr. Thomas Lee DDS and Lita Lee

n a warm July afternoon in 2013 following a 32-hour flight, Thomas Lee, a prominent Southern California dentist, and his wife Lita, first set foot in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, a landlocked country in central-east Africa with a populace in great need. The couple were beginning a passionate, heartfelt mission along with the Lees' 17-year-old son Nathan, five medical doctors, a nurse, pharmacist, four support staff, and the Lee's pastor and his wife.

The Lee's were greatly aware, as is the world, of Rwanda's appalling past. In 1994 a government-sponsored genocide unfolded during which an estimated 800,000-plus ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by dominant Hutu forces, and some 300,000 children were left orphaned.

zebras and Rwanda's stunning landscape
Rwanda's stunning landscape

The Lees' first impressions of Kigali were of having been propelled backward fifty years in time. They observed vast throngs of people moving about on the streets, many clutching yellow plastic water buckets, deftly evading swarms of chaotic motor scooters negotiating for space, while a thick blanket of gray clouds combined with a choking haze of dust and gas fumes covered the landscape.

Working tirelessly on the comeback trail from its horrendous past, the Republic of Rwanda, bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is among the smallest countries on the African mainland, and slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. With few natural resources, the country's economy is overwhelmingly based on subsistence agriculture. Coffee and tea lead the major exports.

Rwanda boasts one of the highest population densities on the continent, and yet the average life expectancy of men there is just 54 years. The country lacks a concrete social and medical infrastructure for the disadvantaged, which unquestionably contributes to the low life expectancy and was one of the factors that drew the Lees to Rwanda.

children with bananas on a Rwandan roadside
The faces of Rwanda's future

The Lees were discussing a much-needed vacation from their busy and demanding "Leading Edge" dental office in Granada Hills, California. The office, designed by personable Dr. Lee, an avid jazz aficionado and University of California Berkeley alumni, is reminiscent of a boutique art gallery with rare photos of jazz musicians and posters decorating the walls, along with some striking images of Rwanda.

Following a long work day and with jazz playing in the background Lee remembers that "it was my 50th birth year, and our 25th wedding anniversary and I was discussing with Lita places to visit--possibly someplace we've never been, do something off the chart, set aside two weeks and climb Kilimanjaro, or go on a safari. Then in January, 2013, on an unforgettable Sunday at church our lives were forever touched when we listened to the testimony of Rwandan, Jean Claude Rwagasore, and his incredible survival of the genocide as a 12-year-old-orphan."

Dr. Lee in prayer with a Rwandan boy
Dr. Lee kneels in prayer with a young Rwandan boy

After a long pause Lee continues, "Jean Claude, now an esteemed Rwandan attorney and Director of Best Family, shared his life story about how he and three young orphan boys the same age came together on the streets to share and survive. Quickly the orphan group became eight and rapidly expanded, eventually becoming the starting point of Best Family Rwanda" A stirring power today, Best Family Rwanda is a ministry dedicated to making Jesus known to the orphaned children in Rwanda through holistic development.

"Incredibly, during this time," Lee explains, "another orphan came to Jean Claude and Best Family pleading for help and was warmly accepted, though during the height of the genocide, while Jean Claude hid in a closet, he watched the orphan's father murder Jean Claude's father and sister; his mother was lost in the chaos on the streets."

"After all this," Dr. Lee said, "I quickly put aside the safari, Kilimanjaro and all the rest, and realized I needed to do something for those in need of help. I was struggling to ask Lita if she would like to go to Africa, and to my surprise she mentioned it first."

Dr. Lee treating a Rwandan boy as others look on
Dr. Lee begins his work as curious Rwandan children look on

Dr. Lee said that he had no clear ideas about Rwanda, but it was like God was speaking to both him and his wife, a strong voice from above calling out, and it was at that moment their hearts were moved to travel half-way around the world to Africa to serve at an orphanage and share the dental expertise Dr. Lee had to offer.

"We prayed, and decided with great fervor that Rwanda would be our personal mission. My 50th birth year and celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary would take place in Rwanda. I felt this is what I was created for: to help the children of Africa.

Another confirmation took place when a church member at the Garden Christian Fellowship in Chatsworth asked us if we would be interested in a mission to Africa treating orphans."

On that memorable first trip to Rwanda, after a prayer breakfast, Dr. Lee, along with his team, set up his portable dental chair, surgical light and equipment, and organized a clinic in Kigali's Nyarugunga sector. They connected with a pastor who is providing education and Christian training at his small school for poor children who were roaming the streets aimlessly, had no money for public school, and were in great need. Moving to the Gasharu sector working with Best Family, Dr. Lee treated widows and victims of the genocide.

Dr. Lee and his dental staff treating a boy
Dr. Lee and his small dental staff

During that first two-week mission the Lees were floored to see hundreds of people, many with throbbing pain in their mouths, patiently waiting for help. In Gisenyi, close to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the team set-up in the Noel Orphanage which houses some 800 children. The staff were so lacking in help that they asked some of the team members to hold small children ages six months to one year for 15-minutes in order for the children to experience meaningful human contact. Regardless of the ongoing difficulties, the Lees found the people to be calm, a smile on their face, quietly waiting in line, exceedingly polite, soft-spoken, and considering their history, cheerful.

"I was seeing about twenty patients a day, and despite the long days, if someone is in bad shape I can't just let them walk away. A young man was in great pain suffering with an infected wisdom tooth that was impacted sideways in the gums. It took almost two-hours to extract, but it was a great feeling to see a smile on his face.

Dr. Lee performs a procedure on a Rwandan woman
Dr. Lee performs a procedure on a stricken Rwandan woman

Dr. Lee treating another patient in need of dental care
Dr. Lee treating another patient in need of dental care

"At the tail end of the last day I noticed a lady in her mid-20s, the left side of her face badly swollen, with a high fever, and breast-feeding a two-year old baby. I removed two badly infected teeth and administered antibiotics. If I hadn't been there for her she would have died. She had nothing to eat in three days and was in appalling shape. It was an incredible feeling to know that I saved someone's life. With only 28 dentists in the entire country and with the average wage two dollars a day, and the charge for a filling $40, dental care for most Rwandans is out of the question."

July 2016 will see the Lees' third mission to Rwanda. Together with the medical team, they will be providing medical and dental treatment, holding a soccer camp for the children, teaching Bible-based lessons, and scouting for a location to set up a community dental clinic in a few years, which will be dedicated to providing free dental treatment for the orphans, vulnerable children and widows.

Dr. Lee teaching a young Rwandan how to care for
Dr. Lee teaching a young Rwandan how to care for
his teeth

"Regrettably, sodas and candy are a special treat in Rwanda," Dr. Lee said, "Therefore the country is badly in need of preventive education. My goal is to find bright students and send them to dental school to set up dental clinics and establish a dental center to train dentists," Broadly smiling, "For me, all of this is imprinting in Rwanda the footprints of God. I will be striving to heal and bless the children though gospel-centered health care ministry. This is my calling."

While the Genocide is forever a concern, the other side of Rwanda, seen through the far-reaching eyes of tourism, is a land of steep mountains, deep valleys, and numerous lakes, and is home to elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, leopards, and friendly people. The country is a noted destination for those who covet the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the rare mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in the far northwest of the country. The gorillas somehow survived the war-torn period though other animals were not so lucky.

With Christianity the largest religion, and official languages English, French and Rwanda's melodic Kinyariwanda, Rwanda offers an opportunity for those planning a holiday to make very special memories. Dr. Lee and Lita, who have yet to see the gorillas, have found their calling there and feel enormously blessed.

Dr. and Mrs. Lee with the children of Rwanda
Dr. and Mrs. Lee with the children of Rwanda, each holding a toothbrush kit

His Hands On Africa

The Lee's through the newly established non-profit organization, His Hands on Africa, are working towards providing scholarships to dental schools, build free community dental clinics, establish a superlative dental center to provide dental care and training for young dentists who will be future leaders in Rwanda, and eventually send out these dentists to other African countries in need of help. For more information on how you can help the children of Rwanda please go to, www.hishandsonafrica.org

Related Articles:
Trekking Mountain Gorillas in Uganda; Chimps Ahoy: In Search of a Brother in Arms; Namibia (Part 1): Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea; Namibia Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Uganda Safari; Deutsch-Südwestafrika


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Let Richard know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Paris

In Paris would love a tour of Hemingway’s haunts.

--- Roy Curnow, New Jersey

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A very well written and empathetic article about literary Paris. I am visiting again with my husband in early November and having re-read 'Moveable Feast' in my 60's following reading all Hemingway during my 20's and subsequently again ever since, and – honeymooned for a weekend in Paris in 2004 – cannot wait to retrace Hemingway's steps from the book (as we walk) this time. Also heard great Radio 4 cover of Shakespeareand Company so will be making a visit there without fail.

--- Caroline Timmis, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, UK

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Enjoy getting your Traveling Boy newsletter. Just read the article about Paris. Brought back many fond memories of my year there. I frequented all the haunts mentioned esp. on the Left Bank.

--- P. Sammer, Hawai'i

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We loved your story...we love Woody's new movie and we love all the spots in Paris you outlined. Next time I go there I'm taking your story with us so we can prowl around Hemingway's hot spots. Thanks for letting us know about the story. Merci beaucoup! mon ami...

--- Joseph Rosendo, Topanga, CA

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I just finished reading your piece. Traveling with you must be like enjoying the past, present, and sometimes the future. You bring a place to life. Thanks for sharing. The photos were also excellent.

--- Maxine, Salt Lake City, UT

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A fantastic story, Richard. It's so evocative and seductive that after reading it, one could easily be tempted to buy that one-way ticket to Paris. I read Paris Wife, but after reading your story, Paris and the Paris Walks are definitely in our future.

--- Maris Somerville, Los Angeles, CA

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Richard, thanks for sharing the link to this wonderful article. Helina's pictures are a great complement to your writing. Best regards,

--- Mitchell Lane, Shadow Hills, Los Angeles, CA

Feedback for Las Alamandas

Dear Amigo Richard,

What a beautiful and well written article ...as well your photos and illustrations are amazing!!! Thanks for been such a good friend and promoter of Mexico.

--- Jorge Gamboa, Los Angeles, CA

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Richard's beautifully written and illustrated story brought back many magic memories of my visits to lovely Las Alamandas! I can't wait to return.

--- Marian Gerlich, Los Angeles, CA

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I thank you, it looks like a great place to relax. Maybe... someday who knows?

--- Mel Carroll, Bountiful City, UT

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Nice piece. I missed the rates.

--- Harry Basch, Los Angeles, CA

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This is my favorite of all your pieces I've read. The pictures are lovely. Halina looks like she's in heaven. I would love to visit there.

--- Maxine, Salt Lake City, UT

Feedback for Playa del Carmen

Great photos!! Can't wait to see these sites myself - these pics alone got me even more excited! Any other places you'd recommend in the Yucatan!?

--- Kyle Goes Global

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Man, you draw the tough assignments. You must have been a good boy when you were young (perhaps an earlier incarnation?)!

--- Mel Caroll, Bountiful



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