It takes a village: Dr. Blaise Dondji provides healthcare to his home in Bawa, Cameroon

Dr.+Blaise+Dondji+outside+St.+Andrew_s+Church

Dr. Blaise Dondji outside St. Andrew_s Church

Katherine Camarata, Senior Reporter

Background

Dr. Blaise Dondji has studied all over the globe and impacted many lives with his wife Francine Dondji and their children, Michel-Adrien, Camille and Dema, by his side. He returns what he learns and earns to the village where he was born and raised: Bawa, Cameroon.

According to the Bawa Health Initiative (BHI) website, “Bawa is a rural village of over 400 people in the West Province of Cameroon, Africa.” Citizens of Bawa belong to the Bamiléké tribe, one out of hundreds of ethnic groups in Cameroon.

Dondji fills many roles in this community: co-founder and president of the BHI, immunology professor at CWU and advisor to the Pre-Med Club. Before working at CWU, Dondji obtained a doctorate from the University of Jos in Nigeria, conducted research at Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and later worked on vaccine development of sunlight-activated insecticides at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, France. 

In 2002, Dondji began working at the Yale School of Medicine in the Public Health Department developing vaccines against infectious diseases, and later at the Section of Infectious Disease. In 2008, Dondji and his family moved to Ellensburg to share his knowledge at CWU. In 2016, Dondji received the Force of Nature award from the College of the Sciences and in 2018 the Mentor of the Year award from CWU.

Bawa Health Initiative

Dondji was inspired to form the BHI while in Connecticut, as a solution for the lack of healthcare in Bawa he experienced as a child. In particular, the death of Dondji’s mother was the driving force behind the creation of the BHI. 

“She passed away in my village after giving birth to my younger sister, because no nurse attended to maladies in my village when I was growing up,” Dondji said. “My mom gave birth, bled and before they could find a car that could take her to town in Dschang where there was a hospital, it was too late. I was just 12, but that told me that something is wrong. There should be healthcare, there should be a clinic, there should be something.”

Dondji’s parents, Tanefouet Tsafack and Awounkeu Sophie, inspired him and taught him to strive to be the best at whatever he did; he carried these lessons with him throughout his life.

“Even though she passed when I was young, [my mom] instilled in us how hard work, commitment, honesty, so many things that can help a child grow,” Dondji said. “My dad was a very wise person. He also instilled in us how to work hard.” 

The BHI is a nongovernmental organization founded in 2005 by Dondji and co-founder Dr. Dennis Richardson. Their mission is to provide healthcare supplies, education, transportation to clinics and physicians to Bawa, according to the BHI website. 

Doctors at the clinic in Bawa

Dondji said he told his friend, Richardson, about life in Bawa one day after dinner while they discussed food waste. Richardson was moved by his story and dedicated his life savings to create the BHI.

“If God gives me the chance, I will never let this happen to another pregnant woman,” Dondji said. 

Dondji committed his life to the mission of helping his home, with his wife Francine providing support to his endeavors.

“I decided I will use any resources I find to help him,” Francine said. “A woman should not die after giving birth.” 

The foundation started by providing bednets to the village, to reduce the spread of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The foundation expanded to provide sand-based water filters and pigs to local farmers, as well as HIV prevention. 

These efforts have proven successful according to the BHI website, as the rate of malaria in Bawa has decreased by over 50% since they started sending bednets in 2006. The foundation helped prevent malnourishment and helped numerous women deliver babies successfully, according to their website.

“Between 2007 and 2010, the prevalence of anemia in Bawa was reduced from 75.8% to 49.1%,” according to the BHI website.

Dondji’s goals became further realized when the clinic was built in Bawa in 2017. The clinic is staffed by nurses and volunteers ranging from neuro pediatricians to OBGYNs, according to Dondji. The facility has become a charging station for electronic devices in the area. Fees and medicine prices at the clinic are reasonable for patients. For those who can’t afford to pay, the BHI provides free services.

Nobody should be sent away because they can’t afford care,” Dondji said. 

The BHI’s future goals include providing satellite internet access and telemedicine and equipping the clinic with dentistry and optometry, according to Dondji. 

Community Involvement

Between 2019 and 2020, with the help of donors from St. Andrew’s Catholic Church and Ellensburg community members, the BHI funded an all-terrain ambulance for Bawa. 

Dr. Dondji with the Ellensburg Rotary Club

The Ellensburg Rotary Club also helped provide solar panels and a shed with a generator to the village, according to former President of the Ellensburg Rotary Club Brian Brennan. The Pre-Med Club at CWU raised funds to acquire bednets and collected gently-used tennis shoes that were shipped to Bawa.

Dondji said his favorite thing about going home to visit Bawa is the delicious food he gets to eat. Back home, his mother, grandmother and sister would cook, and the family gathered to connect while savoring foods like the meal served at the annual fundraiser dinner at St. Andrew’s. 

The dinner features Cameroonian food made by Francine with the help of volunteers; dishes on the menu may include peanut sauce with mushrooms and rice, fried dough beignets, fried plantains, roasted chicken, sautéed spinach, habañero hot sauce and fufu, a dish made of corn masa. 

Last November’s dinner sold hundreds of plates that were delivered to people in their cars, according to volunteer and President of the Pre-Med Club Jane Eichwald. 

“I was really excited to have a part and raise money for Bawa,” Eichwald said. “A lot of people came through. I think there were over 200 orders for meals, and so it was great to see the amount of people that really showed up for Dr. Dondji and his foundation.”

The fundraiser dinner is an annual event occurring every fall, and information about the date, how to donate or how to volunteer can be found on their website, www.bawahealth.org.

Those who volunteer with Dondji find a meaningful connection to his story that inspires them to get involved.

“I was so deeply impressed with what he was doing,” Brennan said. “He grew up in this village where they didn’t have running water, then he goes to school and becomes a biologist and a professor and says … Why don’t I take some of the knowledge I learned here and help my village back home? I think it’s amazing to find people who do that.”

Dondji has inspired his wife and students tremendously, according to Francine and Eichwald.

“I have always been his student,” Francine said. “He always teaches people. He loves people and is always looking for ways to help. He’s always trying to find ways to make people happy and comfortable, and he’s always helping his students.”

According to Eichwald, Dondji means a lot to the CWU community.

“I am in awe of all of the things that he has been able to accomplish during his life. You can tell he really cares about his students,” Eichwald said. “I think what Dr. Dondji has done is amazing, and he’s making a huge impact on the people of the village.”

Meghan Salsbury