By Hazel Fricska
Do you really know our lab technician?
We’ve all seen him around the school, the go-to guy when more microscope slides are needed. But how much do we really know about this classroom superhero? Who is the man behind that lab coat?
Jean-Paul Kuelo, otherwise known as JP, was born in a small town, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, called Lukula near the capital, Kinshasa. Growing up in the Congo was tough for him, “I don’t come from the rich type of people, I come from the poorest, poorest type of people.”. Nevertheless he enjoyed his childhood and his studies. At 22 he moved to Europe, obtaining a Biology degree in Italy, and continued to live there for the next 18 years. JP then met his now wife (who is Swiss) and together they moved to Geneva to bring up their 4 children.
JP went through both primary and secondary school in his town, an experience hugely different both from where he works now and where his children go to school. “The school was tough. When it’s raining outside, it’s raining inside since the roof is not good. So it was very tough but at the same time we can learn good things, and the teachers were good as well, given the equipment they had.”. At JP’s school there were 70 students per one teacher.
The fact that the size of a class was virtually 3 times bigger than a class at La Chat isn’t the only difference JP mentions. The biggest shock, he says, is the poverty in Lukula compared to Geneva, “Here we have many, many things. I mean, we have the interactive blackboards in each class and in my country they’re still using ordinary chalkboards – and even then some people don’t have them. We had no cafeteria either, and no football, no swimming pool, no basketball, no tennis, no sports at all.”.
During his youth all his free time was filled by helping at home, and this was the same for the majority of students in Lukula, “Some of the students after school would go to help fathers and mothers with their duties, and that’s what I did too. My mother would say, ‘JP, after school follow us to make the garden.’ So, we’d work in the garden”. Due to his schoolwork even once his chores were done he could hardly go out and relax, “We didn’t have a library, no reading rooms, no internet yet, so the older ones would say ‘you stay home and find some time to revise.’ Otherwise you couldn’t do all your revision.”.
JP felt very fortunate that his children are able to grow up in such a different environment, but emphasizes the importance of them knowing how lucky they are, “I think they need to understand where I’m coming from. When we visit Lukula they are a little bit shocked to see how people study. They say, ‘wow Daddy, they don’t have books?’ and I say, ‘no, I didn’t have books either, only photocopies, that’s it.’, ‘And they don’t have break?’ – ‘No, no break. They have break time but they have nothing to do, nothing to eat’. So it’s a different way, surely. I can’t compare it from here.”.
After college, JP spent a long 10 years in Italy without travelling home to see his family, 2001 was the year he began to make trips back to Lukula, “When I was in Italy, it was a very, very difficult time for me, because I was going to work to pay for my study. So, I needed to go to study in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoon, and work in the evening. I worked in a restaurant washing dishes, this was the only job that I could find then. So I didn’t go back home because I needed to split my time between going to study, working and revising.”.
JP and his family in Lukula realised the extent to which the local people were suffering, “We saw the needs of the people. There were no hospitals, it was just 1 hospital for 4000 people. That’s not healthy.”. In a quest to help, JP and his family strove to improve the situation for some people, “The first health post we built was in a small village in the bush, 50km from Lukula.”. They had plans for something larger though, “When we found a big piece of land we said ‘Okay, we are going to put a hospital here, in the main city so that we can attend many, many people.’ But, we needed to buy the land first.”
It wasn’t easy for JP and his family to embark on their project and build the first health post. “When we started doing this, people didn’t care about it. They’d say ‘Oh, what are you doing?’, but when we answered that we were building a health post they’d say ‘Why are you doing a health post? You don’t get nothing.’ Many people there never think about building hospitals, all they think about doing is something that makes money for them.” However, once the locals saw the huge benefits of having a health post they became increasingly eager to help.
Now, when JP and his family begin a new project may people come and lend a hand, “We are really lucky to have the people’s support from the local area, every time we had a job they would come support us.”. The locals were perfectly happy to assist without receiving any wage but JP and his family did not feel that it was right to not give them anything in return for their hard work, “We didn’t want to make people who have nothing work for nothing, and so for us it was an easy decision to give them something in return. They now enjoy when they see us coming back because they know we give them some sort of a small job.”. Local materials are used to build the hospitals and schools.
Although as the initiative grew it became clear that the money required couldn’t keep coming out of JP’s team’s own pocket, “Right now there are some people who have joined the movement, the project, and the help they are giving us is very significant.”. Many friends of the family donate supplies and money to the project. However, while they are lucky to have so much community support, the government has shown utter disinterest, “I’ve never seen the government help us – except when we need some documents, but that means nothing. The government doesn’t help.”
JP and his team have experienced both doubts and challenges during the process, “We had many, many people who came to be healed but who had no money. We couldn’t just kick them out, say ‘you can’t pay, go away!’, so we treated them. People would come back and pay us with sheep, cows, chickens, mango, banana, anything they have, and we would sell those things and use the money to buy more drugs and medicine. There is nothing else to do, because if you refuse those people, deeply inside your heart you say ‘what am I doing?’ But at the same time, you know they don’t have money. And you need to buy medicine. So it was difficult. Very, very difficult. Sometimes I would wonder why – it is not my task to build hospitals. It’s the government’s task, not me. But the government is just happy someone can do it, so they can clean their hands.”.
Of course, JP has no regrets about what he has done. “The one thing I cannot forget about is when the people we have treated come back and say ‘thank you, thank you. If not for you we would not be here.’ For me, helping these people is bigger than having a high-degree diploma. It’s bigger and more important than that.’.
1985 – First health post built : 4 beds, 1 nurse and 1 midwife
1990 – Local health centre expanded : 15 beds and 9 employees
1999 – Hospital finished : 170 beds, 1 doctor, 6 nurses, 2 midwives, 1 laboratory technician, 1 surgery room technician, 4 maintenance employees
2004 – Solar panels installed in hospital
2011 – Maternity building opened : 25 beds, 1 delivery room, 1 surgery room (for emergencies)
2015 – Hospital connected to the national electricity grid (also connecting 80 households in Lukula)
2015 – Primary & secondary school built in N’sioni village : 800 students, 6 teachers. Another building and library still under construction.
December 2017 – Pipeline run from local water source to the hospital offering fresh drinking water
December 20 2017 – Gifts from our school: School books from La Châtaigneraie and Collège Jeanne d’Arc, plus over 1000 CHF in donations from current year 11s
Currently, JP is working on a huge project to build schools in his hometown. “I was there, I studied in the same conditions as the kids are now. For me it’s time to say okay, let’s stand up and build something good.”
What you can do
Donations can be given to Mr. Giddings
A website is currently under construction – once it is finished you’ll be able to read more about the amazing work of JP and his team.
A note from JP – “I really, really appreciate everything you’re doing. You really move my heart and my spirit, I never, never expected so much support. I don’t want to force things, any kind of help will be a huge benefit for those people – not for me, for those children.”