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SLP Grad Takes His Skills Back to Rwanda

“Since I was a child I’ve always wanted to be the person who people could come to for help. I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field.”

Eli Munyankindi, speech-language pathologist at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Kigali
Kigali, Rwanda

Eli Munyankindi’s father died several months after being beaten in the head during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. More than 20 years later, the now 31-year-old hopes to help people with traumatic brain injuries recover as he begins his new job—as the first speech-language pathologist in Rwanda. It’s a big responsibility for someone less than six months out of graduate school.

Munyankindi received his master’s in speech-language pathology at the University of Utah in May. Recently, he returned to his homeland and began introducing his skills to the whole country through clinical work, teaching, a radio broadcast and helping to start a communication sciences and disorders degree program. “Since I was a child I’ve always wanted to be the person who people could come to for help,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field.”

That dream became reality in part because SLP Michael Blomgren—communication sciences and disorders (CSD) chair at the University of Utah—mixed business with pleasure on a family vacation five years ago, when he met with education faculty at the University of Rwanda.

Through that exchange, Blomgren learned about Rwanda’s lack of CSD professionals and took action. By 2012, he helped create a scholarship in the University of Utah’s College of Health for a student who had a health-related undergraduate degree and wanted to earn a master’s in speech-language pathology. Blomgren asked the University of Rwanda to identify potential candidates and Munyankindi was one of those seven.

After several tests, recommendations, letters of intent and interviews, the field of seven became one. Munyankindi arrived in Utah on Aug. 9, 2012. The young scholar began classes that fall, but neither his undergraduate degree in clinical psychology nor the arduous application process prepared him for the challenges of living and learning in another country.

“I took an ESOL test, but never talked to a person for a long time in English, so going to school and talking completely in English gave me a headache every day,” Munyankindi says. “Also, I hadn’t studied speech as an undergrad, so I was struggling with everything, and I didn’t do well at first.”

The university hopes to sponsor another Rwandan student in the CSD program and Munyankindi plans to share his strategies with the next recipient. He’ll also talk about the rewards. “I did my externship in a hospital and I helped people learn to eat and speak,” Munyankindi says. “I saw how excited they were when they could start speaking. Or maybe they hadn’t eaten for a week and you see the relief in their eyes when you help them swallow food for the first time.”

The Rwandan Ministry of Health agreed to create a position for Munyankindi as part of the scholarship. He’ll split his time between a teaching hospital and the University of Rwanda. Munyankindi spent several months after graduation negotiating his divided responsibilities into 80 percent hospital work and 20 percent teaching.

When first offering him the job, the ministry primarily wanted him to teach. And although Munyankindi definitely plans to spread awareness about what SLPs do and why speech-language treatment is important, he wants to devote most of his time to treating the most critical patients—those who lost their ability to speak or eat, or perhaps even caring for those with brain injuries like the one that took his father’s life. “I might be able to see people with brain injury,” he says, “but not for long because as soon as they are better, they go back home.”

The University of Rwanda hopes to launch a communication sciences and disorders degree program as soon as next year, so Munyankindi’s university duties include assisting with that goal. He knows, however, that most of the expertise must come from outside his homeland. “I’ll help get it set up,” he says, “but they’ll bring in professors from other countries to do the training.”

Munyankindi also wants to do more than his official job requires. “I think I’ll be able to contract with other hospitals to educate nurses about swallowing disorders, stroke and rehab,” he says. “I also hope to get [ministry] approval for 30 minutes a week on the radio to broadcast about language disorders for children. I can tell parents what to expect in receptive and expressive language. I think everyone needs that awareness and education.”

This article was originally published in the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s newsmagazine, The ASHA Leader.

About the article’s author: Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.