A lifetime of determination and some divine intervention by a nun named Bethrina have created a man of vision and conviction. Bernard Haufiku, Namibia’s former Minister of Health and Social Services, is on a mission to bring health services to isolated communities and to all of Africa.
Bernard was the last born of three sons. His home village was Onheleiwa, which means nice place, but very little was nice about it. Herding a few cattle and goats along the Angolan border at the start of the war of independence made the brothers’ childhood even more austere and difficult.
At the age of 12 Bernard made his way to Okahandja with the hope of learning Afrikaans, the lingua franca, and motivated, in his words, by “the determination to become someone, to do something extraordinary.” But finding food became a daily struggle and threatened to derail his trajectory.
Bernard has been part of the Catholic church all his life. As he sat in a pew in Okahandja, hungry and wondering about his future, Sister Bethrina found him. “Young boy, you look so thin, you are starving here in Okahandja”, she said. “I think I need to take you to the hostel.” And so he was brought to the school of the Catholic mission station in Döbra, where he was able to thrive and matriculate despite difficult relations with other students as the war for independence continued. He went on to study in South Africa, completing a BSc and then becoming a medical doctor.
During his 20 years of public and private clinical practice, Bernard was pondering the public health issue over and over. How can health services be offered to people across the country and the continent? Public health in Africa, specifically in Namibia, is a formidable task. As the Minister of Health, Bernard used to say: “We are eating an elephant, so we have to eat one bite at a time.” He believes in development from the periphery, improvement from the periphery, more clinics, more outreach by community health workers right where people live, and more capacity-building at the community level.
“I wish I could do something and get things done!”, he exclaimed about the slow progress in public health. “There are clinics around Namibia that need electricity and buildings that must be finished. That is what drives me – the fact that these folks still need services.” Bernard believes that each of Namibia’s regions should have a strong regional hospital so that patients don’t need to drive to Windhoek for treatment. Oncology treatments, dialysis, even heart surgery could be done at regional hospitals.
However, he points out that “the state alone cannot do it”. Bernard says that the public and private sectors must collaborate. They must be “in partnership in human resources, facility management, the supply system, financing, in everything.”
Bernard is an example of walking the walk. As a doctor he promotes a healthy lifestyle in order to prevent disease. “Health is how you live your life,” he says, choosing lemon water over cappuccinos during his interview. “It’s what we eat or don’t eat, what we drink or don’t drink. So, we need to prevent ailments instead of waiting for them to develop.” His advice is to eat healthy, exercise, don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, and be careful on the roads. These prevention tactics will stop people from developing lifestyle diseases and keep them out of the healthcare system.
After the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013, Bernard was involved in establishing the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and served as a member of the first board. These types of contagious diseases require maximum financial and medical attention. Bernard was invited to be part of founding the African Public Health Foundation: a fund created with the specific intention of moving necessary funds around the continent to serve the medical needs of Africans. As Covid-19 began to spread, the fund was able to mobilise N$ 450 million for Africa, including N$ 22 million which Namibia received for testing and other equipment.
From a “nice place” to improving the health of all Africans, Bernard S. Haufiku is a treasured Namibian and in our opinion “someone extraordinary”. Let’s see where his determination takes him next.