Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Bernard Lala pays his dues in kind

Bernard Lala was on eof the lucky few who got an education abroad, and now, after a successful career in the UN, he's returned home to Africa as an unpaid minister for health

By Lydia Polgreen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

A roadside funeral on Nov. 21, 2006, for a woman who died when the fighting in the northwest part of the Central African Republic prevented taking her to a hospital. The rumble of engines, any engines, is the signal for the villagers there to flee, leaving behind smoldering pots of wild roots and leaves, a meager afternoon meal. 

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Like most Africans of his generation lucky enough to get a foreign education, 61-year-old Bernard Lala had his country to thank for it.

In the optimistic early post-colonial years, the Central African Republic sent its brightest sons to France, the stern colonial master turned benevolent uncle, to learn skills that would help build the young nation.

It did not quite work out that way. He spent most of his career outside the country, earning a Western salary and enjoying the peace and security that his home, one of the poorest and most unstable nations in the world, could never have provided.

Not that he abandoned Africa — he was hired as a young microbiologist by the UN World Health Organization, and worked his way across Africa over the past 25 years, as the ravages of AIDS, civil strife and climate change swept across the continent.

But now, unlike so many Africans educated abroad, Lala is back. Instead of the comfortable European retirement Lala and his Swedish wife, Ann Catherine, had planned, Lala took up one last post: minister of health in his homeland.

"I never really worked for my country," he said. "I always felt a little guilty about this, like it was a debt I never paid."

Earlier this year, he became one of only 183 doctors in the Central African Republic, a nation of 4 million people lightly sprinkled across an area the size of France, signing on with the recently elected government to help the country improve its abysmal health statistics. One in five children die before the age of five here, mostly from treatable and preventable diseases. Life expectancy has dropped by a decade in the past 10 years, to 42.

"In our country we have so many health problems that anything you do can bring an improvement," he said in a recent interview at his office in the ramshackle ministry of health here. "We had less than 40 percent of children vaccinated. Only 2 percent of pregnant women and children under five are sleeping under mosquito nets. Our maternal mortality is among the highest in the world. There is so much for me to do here."

A compact man with lively eyes and a half-moon of closely cropped silver hair, Lala long ago traded in his white coat of the research lab. Dressed in an impeccable dark blue suit with pale blue pinstripes, he looked more like a diplomat than a doctor.

But then most of his work is not that technical. The needs of his country, so long ravaged by despotism and civil war, are plain even to the medical neophyte. His job, as he sees it, is to marshal the nation's limited resources to focus on the worst problems, and to convince the world that an obscure, chaotic nation like his deserves the kind of aid that normally goes to better run and better known countries.

"We need to get our country on the map so that people will know that we, too, need help," he said. "We cannot let ourselves be forgotten."

Lala says his interest in medicine began when he was selected as a 14-year-old high school student to appear on a radio quiz show promoting the Pasteur Institute, a top-flight medical research facility that had just opened in the capital, Bangui. He answered all the questions in the science quiz correctly, and won a prize of about US$100. He also got to meet the director of the new institute, who gave him some books on microbiology.

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