Physician, minister, organization director
As a medical doctor in Africa during the 1980s, Peter Okaalet faced one of the most devastating health crises in history. The AIDS epidemic had already claimed millions of lives, including many of Okaalet's patients, friends, and family members, when he began to believe that more than medical knowledge was needed to combat the effects of the deadly virus. Though he had worked for over ten years as a doctor, both in his native Uganda and in Kenya, he returned to school to study to become a Christian minister. By becoming a leader in the African Christian church, he hoped not only to bring spiritual comfort to African people with AIDS, but also to reawaken a spirit of compassion and service in a clergy that had too often given only moral judgments and disapproval to those who had contracted the disease.
Since the 1990s, when he earned his degrees in divinity and theology, Okaalet has worked hard to educate the religious community about the link between poverty, oppression and disease and make connections between religious aid groups, medical programs, and thousands of Africans with AIDS. As the director of the Africa offices of Medical Assistance Program (MAP) International, he has helped design numerous programs for education and AIDS prevention and has developed teaching courses and seminars which have been used by hundreds of students in religious colleges in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Okaalet was born in 1953 in Uganda, a small nation in central Africa, which was under British control until 1961. From 1971 until 1979, the country suffered under the harsh rule of Idi Amin, a dictator who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths of Ugandan citizens. Untrustworthy leaders like Amin caused Okaalet to mistrust both the willingness and the ability of government officials to help their country's most vulnerable citizens.
Okaalet attended college at Makerere University in Uganda's capitol city of Kampala. He earned his medical degree there in 1979, and was licensed to practice both in Uganda and in the neighboring nation of Kenya. After graduation, he took a job as a medical officer at St. Anthony's Hospital in the southeastern town of Tororo, near Uganda's border with Kenya. After two years there, he was promoted to medical supervisor in 1982.
As supervisor, Okaalet not only performed his medical and surgical duties, but was also responsible for managing the hospital's staff and finances. St. Anthony's Hospital was operated by the Tororo district Catholic church, or diocese, and Okaalet had to act as a representative of the diocese in government meetings, as well as coordinate the many clinics and medical programs sponsored by the church. After two years as medical supervisor at St. Anthony's, Okaalet started a private medical practice. He founded his own clinic in Tororo, the Malaba Medical Clinic. He saw patients and managed the clinic for six years, leaving in 1990 to work as a medical officer with the Tororo district AIDS Support Organization (TASO).
By 1990, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were dying of AIDS all over Africa. These deaths led to other problems, such as a dramatic increase in the number of orphans. As frequently happens, most of these deaths were among the poorest Africans, because they were less likely to have access to education and supplies to help prevent the disease and often could not afford adequate medical care. Three of Peter Okaalet's brothers, along with several of his cousins and uncles, died of AIDS.
One of his friends, who was dying from AIDS, suggested that Okaalet study theology in order to learn how to better respond to the disease. Okaalet was a religious man, but he felt that the church had not worked hard enough to become a positive force in the fight against AIDS. In the early 1990s, he took his dying friend's advice and began to study to become a minister at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. NEGST was founded in Kenya's capitol city in the mid-1980s to provide advanced instruction for students of African Christianity. Okaalet earned his Master of Divinity degree there in 1993, and his Master of Theology degree in 1996.
In 1996, Peter Okaalet became senior director of the Medical Assistance Program (MAP) International. MAP International had its beginnings in a small medical scholarship organization in Chicago called the Christian Medical Society. In 1954, the society's director, J. Raymond Knighton, received a donation of $25,000 worth of medical supplies. In the process of distributing those supplies the organization became the Medical Assistance Program. In 1963, MAP launched its first emergency aid program, helping victims of Taiwan's typhoon Gloria, and in 1984, an Africa office was established in Nairobi, Kenya. Later another office in Cote d'Ivoire opened. By 2004, the organization was distributing medical supplies and other assistance in 135 countries.
As director of MAP International's African program, Okaalet was able to create educational programs for clergy people at seminaries and religious colleges throughout the African nations of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These programs focused on AIDS prevention, but also taught the importance of tolerance and service to those who had already contracted the disease. Because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, and many religions have strict rules about sexuality, church leaders had often been judgmental towards people with AIDS. This attitude created an atmosphere of stigma or shame towards those with the virus and often led to discrimination and isolation. Okaalet felt that it was important for church leaders to take an active role in changing attitudes about AIDS because ministers are often in closer touch with the rural African community than medical doctors. As he told Christine Gorman in a November 7, 2005, article in Time, "Where the road for the four-wheel-drive stops, the pastor gets on his bicycle. Where the bike path stops, the pastor lays it aside and goes on foot."
Okaalet has taken a leadership role on the issue of AIDS and reproductive health in many international organizations, including the World Bank, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, the Pan-African Christian AIDS Network, and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health. Along with designing school course programs, he is also a teacher and part-time lecturer at the Africa Leadership Development Institute, the Haggai Leadership Training Institute, and the Africa Medical and Research Foundation Training School.
At a Glance …
Born Peter Okaalet in 1953 in Uganda; married; children: four. Education: Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, BS, medicine and surgery, 1979; Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Kenya, Master of Divinity, 1993; Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Master of Theology, 1996.
Career: St. Anthony's Hospital, Tororo, Uganda, medical officer, 1980–82; St. Anthony's Hospital, medical supervisor, 1982–84; Malaba Medical Clinic, Tororo, Uganda, founder and general medical practitioner, 1984–90; AIDS Support Organization, Tororo district, Uganda, medical officer, 1988–90; Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Nairobi, Kenya, medical coordinator, 1993–96; Medical Assistance Program International, Nairobi, Kenya, senior director, 1996–.
Selected memberships: Daystar University Council; Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Geneva, Switzerland, board member.
Selected awards: Time Magazine, Global Health Hero, 2005.
Addresses: Office—MAP International, No. 209, 3rd Ngong Avenue-Community, Intersection of Bishops & Ngong Roads, P.O. Box 21663, Nairobi, Kenya.
Okaalet has continued to work to encourage church and government leaders to take a holistic approach towards helping African victims of AIDS, considering the factors of poverty and lack of education that have allowed the virus to spread so widely. His goal is the creation of a partnership, where medical doctors and members of the clergy work together to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Okaalet's efforts were honored at a Time magazine Global Health Summit in 2005, when he was named one of ten Global Health Heroes.
Time, November 7, 2005, p. 91.
"A Brief History of NEGST," Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, www.negst.edu/history.htm (July 17, 2006).
"MAP International's Africa Director Brings Holistic Vision to Fight HIV and AIDS," Mustard Seed Associates, www.msainfo.org/clopcont.asp?id=579&subject=151 (July 15, 2006).
"HIV/AIDS Theological Initiative," Christian Connections for International Health, www.ccih.org/compendium/MAP%20HIV-AIDS%20Theological%20Initiative.html (July 15, 2006).
"Dying Man Changed Doctor's Life," Atlanta Journal Constitution, www.ajc.com/search/content/auto/epaper/editions/today/atlanta_world_34e57ca604c791840090.html (July 15, 2006).
Information for this profile was obtained from MAP International.
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