May 13, 2011

Batwa: US Doctor Works to Preserve Unique Culture

The work of Scott Kellermann and his foundation, established in 2000,  goes well beyond a clinic with HIV and TB prevention, public health, sanitation - it is helping to preserve the culture of the Batwa and the collapse of their traditional legacy.


Below is an article published by

Scott Kellermann was a successful family doctor with a medical practice in Nevada City, Calif. At age 55, he could have easily retired and gone golfing.


But instead, Kellermann, a native of New Orleans and a 1963 graduate of Isidore Newman School, sold his practice and brought modern medicine to one of the most remote places on earth: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.


Among the dense forests and intensely cultivated farmlands, Kellermann, his wife, Carol, and a staff of 150 now serve more than 35,000 people at year at the Bwindi Community Health Center — focusing on members of pygmy tribes called the Batwa, who were forced out of their ancestral lands in 1991 when the Ugandan government declared the area a national park.


Kellermann was in New Orleans recently to accept Newman’s Alumnus Award, given each year to a graduate who has made a significant contribution in his or her field and been a strong civic leader. He spoke to the senior class and also gave a public lecture during his visit.


As a young doctor and a graduate student at Tulane’s School of Public Health, Kellermann told his wife he wanted to go to Africa. “All the best diseases were there!” he recalled.


But the demands of family life kept them closer to home — except in summers, when the Kellermanns took their sons Seth and Joshua for month-long working vacations in Central America.


It wasn’t until 2000 that the couple followed their lifelong desire and traveled to Uganda, where they fell in love with the rugged landscape and especially with the Batwa, a group many anthropologists believe are the oldest group of people on earth.


But the Batwa are also struggling with the collapse of their traditional culture. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they lost their livelihood when they were evicted from the park, and since they didn’t own land, they received no compensation. Living outside the park, they now get by on an average of $25 a year and have an average life expectancy of 28, Kellermann said.


The Bwindi Community Health Center serves a quarter-million people, including 3,500 Batwa. Kellermann and the rest of the 150-member staff keep busy. “We see lots of infectious diseases, which are both preventable and treatable,” Kellermann said.


Maternal problems are also routine. And modern medicine is not completely accepted.


Once a month, 50 traditional healers come to the clinic for a meeting. “It’s not the typical medical staff meeting at Ochsner,” joked Kellermann. But it’s essential. “Eighty percent of our patients see these traditional healers before they see us,” he said. Although the healers often use what he describes as “unusual methods,” Kellermann focuses on what they have in common. “They don’t want kids to die,” he said. “They don’t want mothers to die in pregnancy.”


When the Kellermanns arrived, one or two children perished every week of malaria.


Although mosquito nets are a cheap and effective way to prevent the disease, people wouldn’t use them because local lore held that malaria was caused by a demon. At one of their meetings, Kellermann explained the life cycle of the mosquito and convinced the traditional healers to support the netting. “We distributed 15,000 bed nets, and there have been no deaths in the past year,” he said.


The clinic is supported by donors such as the Rotary Club, via the Kellermann Foundation. “People in New Orleans have been incredibly generous,” Kellermann said. “We have a working relationship with Tulane School of Public Health, and Newman has sent interns over the years.”


In their early years the Kellermanns followed the nomadic Batwa, living in tents, to learn their culture, customs and language. Now the couple has a house. It lacks running water, but there are compensations: a beautiful view and up-close encounters with jungle birds and mountain wildlife.


The work of the foundation goes well beyond the clinic, with HIV and TB prevention, public health, sanitation, and efforts to help preserve the culture of the Batwa. The busy doctor wishes he were able to do more to record the pygmies’ oral traditions.


“The Batwa have incredible stories,” he said. “Those stories are still untold.”