April 6, 2021
Jean Lambert Chalachala, MPH, has a calling: to improve the human condition. As a clinician and public health expert, he has found ample opportunities to do just that – working in surgery, hospital administration, epidemic and crisis management, lactation support, family planning and more. But the most striking thing about his line of work may be that he didn’t choose it.
“My dream was to be a writer and a lawyer,” he said. His mother, Seraphine Wenda Chalachala, pushed him to pursue a medical degree instead. It was, he explained, “a dream first for her.” He is the oldest of five siblings, whom his mother raised alone.
This dream began a journey that involved service during a civil war, becoming a hospital administrator, conducting emergency response and providing medical care to children experiencing homelessness. Chalachala’s journey led him steadily toward public health, and he earned a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 2016.
When he was finishing high school and starting university, refugees of the Rwandan civil war flooded his hometown of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Soon after, the First Congo War – a civil war within the DRC that quickly engrossed several neighboring nations – commenced, ultimately unseating dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko. An end to hostilities under subsequent President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was short-lived, and the Second Congo War began in 1998, ending in 2003.
In the midst of these crises, Chalachala completed his medical degree at the University of Kisangani in 2002 at his mother’s insistence, despite closures and interruptions.
“Life was very, very difficult,” he explained, but he and his siblings agreed that it was a good way to learn about the world. “It was difficult for our mother to take care of all of us. Her dream was that all of us succeeded in our life.” And they did. His siblings include an information technology professional, a lawyer, an engineer and a nurse.
A PATH TO PUBLIC HEALTH
Chalachala’s general surgery skills proved vital as he assisted casualties of the ongoing conflict. Those skills earned him a place in a government program to staff and rebuild rural hospitals. He was sent to serve as the director of one, Hôpital Général de Yakusu, located in the northeast of the DRC, which had been destroyed during the war. After demonstrating his skill and potential, Chalachala was sent to Institut Médical Evangélique de Kimpese, in the province of Kongo Central, near the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, for a three-year medical residency.
After his residency, he wanted to broaden his experience. He worked first with Doctors Without Borders, addressing outbreaks and other public health emergencies. “It gave me a good understanding of public health and humanitarian programs,” he said.
In 2008, Chalachala joined Doctors of the World to provide medical services to children experiencing homelessness in Kinshasa. It was through Doctors of the World that he first connected with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was a major provider of HIV services in the DRC at the time.
CONNECTING WITH THE DUKE-UNC ROTARY CENTER
He worked with UNC-Chapel Hill programs for five years before deciding to pursue a degree in public health abroad. Frieda Behets, now professor emeritus in the Gillings School, recommended that he apply to the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center.
Through the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program, the Rotary Center recruits and funds talented people from across the globe, who earn a master’s degree in global studies, international development policy, public health, education, social work or other fields. Rotary Peace Fellows can also earn the UNC Graduate Certificate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.
“When I joined the [Gillings] School, I already had 10 years of public health field experience,” said Chalachala. “My goal was to organize my public health work, [learn] how to do protocols, evaluations [and so on].”
The Rotary Center proved to be more than a path to an MPH. “It gave me a family,” he said. “It helped me integrate [into] the community.” In addition to helping him adapt to the U.S. and a new education system, Rotary provided training in peace and conflict resolution, training he says ultimately made the fellows better in their primary fields and current work.
EXPANDING THE WORK OF THE CAROLINA POPULATION CENTER
After graduating with a specialization in maternal and child health, Chalachala joined the Carolina Population Center’s Family Planning Country Action Process Evaluation (FP CAPE) program as the DRC country representative. FP CAPE evaluates investments by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors in family planning initiatives.
“Family planning is one of the biggest needs for the development of the DRC,” he said. “Even though the country is wealthy, the population is very poor.” The average number of children per woman in the DRC is among the highest in Africa. Delaying starting a family and having access to modern birth control methods can alleviate some of the underlying or root causes of intergenerational poverty, particularly for women and children, thereby improving other health and quality-of-life outcomes.
FP CAPE will conclude its work in 2021, and although Chalachala isn’t sure if his next position will continue to focus on family planning, or even maternal and child health, the flexibility of public health is part of the appeal for him. Although his remarkable and varied career path is in one regard a mark of how he himself is exceptional, it is also an indication of how thinly stretched public health professionals in the DRC are.
Would he rather be a writer or a lawyer now? “No,” he answers unequivocally; he would take the same path. Meeting the challenge of the moment is something he has always excelled at.
Rotary International, a global service organization, established the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program in 2002 in memory of its founder, Paul P. Harris. There are seven peace centers around the world. The Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center is the only center in North America and the only center to be co-hosted by two universities.
The annual Duke-UNC Rotary Center conference is approaching on April 10, 2021. More information about the conference can be found on the Duke-UNC Rotary Center conference website. The Rotary Peace Fellowship Program is accepting applications through May 15, 2021, for graduate studies commencing Fall 2022.
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at email@example.com.