“I’m not someone who sits about twiddling their thumbs”
Peter Hellmold has been working as a doctor in Africa for a total of over 28 years, the last 13 of which at the rural Lugala Hospital in Tanzania on behalf of SolidarMed. The 68-year-old talked to us about what drives his tireless work and what has pushed him to his limits.
Peter, you completed your medical studies in Göttingen in 1985. What sparked your interest in public health development cooperation?
As a child, I used to look at the pictures in the magazine of Missio, a Catholic aid organisation. That was where I first learned about diseases such as malaria, river blindness and leprosy, and I found it all fascinating. But after I finished my Abitur, I didn’t know initially what I wanted to do. In the end, I travelled the world for four-and-a-half years on a very tight budget, and did various work including helping out at a health centre in Colombia. That was when I knew that I wanted to become a doctor in tropical medicine.
How did you end up working for SolidarMed in Tanzania?
I had already worked as a doctor in Tanzania for various organisations between 1989 and 1995 and then again from 2003. After that, I actually would have liked to work somewhere else for personal reasons. I therefore applied to work at the German research station in the Antarctic but had to wait a few months to hear back from them. During that time, I was approached by Elisabeth Rotzetter, the former SolidarMed Country Director in Tanzania. Instead of waiting even longer to hear back about the Antarctic, I became senior doctor at Lugala Hospital in Tanzania.
Lugala is very remote – it’s 300 kilometres from the nearest tarmac road. Why did you want to work there, of all places?
I like remote places (laughs). When I was a boy, I used to go to the forest with my grandfather three or four times a week; I later spent several years in the Arctic, and during my studies, I worked at a remote leprosy clinic in Sierra Leone. What’s more, the demand for medical support is particularly high in rural areas. SolidarMed as an organisation also really impressed me.
Since 2009 you have been working in Lugala pretty much day and night. What drives you?
Primarily it’s my interest in medicine. My work brings me immense pleasure. Also, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use my knowledge to help disadvantaged people. I find it really unfair, for example, when children are denied the chance of a bright future just because their families are poor. In actual fact, my work here has never just been that of a doctor or later that of a project manager in maternal and newborn health, but rather that of a social worker. Every day people come here who are living in extreme poverty and are unable to cope. So I have a lot more to do than just the medical work.
How do you mean?
I find the widespread poverty very depressing. In theory there is a welfare system but in practice it doesn’t work. And anyway the poorest people slip through the cracks. Because even if schools are free, uniforms and school equipment aren’t. But I am encouraged by the great contribution we have made to enabling these people to access better healthcare. Because health is everything.
What are you particularly proud of?
I’m proud of how much Lugala Hospital has changed since 2009: thanks to all the investment, we have much better infrastructure, we can offer more and better treatments, we have enough medicines and we have well-trained staff. This has been helped by the Lugala school of nursing, which was also set up by SolidarMed, at which 120 students are currently enrolled.
Officially you are now retiring and leaving your position as a project manager at SolidarMed. What’s next for you?
Well I’m not someone who sits around twiddling his thumbs (laughs). Actually I’m staying at Lugala Hospital for at least another three years. The Lutheran church that runs the hospital asked me to. I’m delighted as I’ll have even more time to pass on my knowledge to the next generation.
Newborns in Tanzania
SolidarMed cares for the health of newborns, adolescents and new mothers. We also train urgently needed health workers and support hospitals in management.